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Our Sick National Obsession with Game of Thrones


When I saw a recent article on how HBO spent $8 million to produce a single episode of the fantasy epic “Game of Thrones,” I realized that we are now seeing the full impact of large-screen, high-definition television on the film industry. With the home viewing experience now able to compete with the silver screen, “prestige TV” is replacing the movie theater. Some of the production budgets, acting and directing talent, and artistic seriousness that used to go to the movies is now being devoted to the extended story lines of high-concept television series.

“Game of Thrones” has been leading the way, gaining an audience that spans across high-brow and popular culture and seeps into our conversations in all sorts of strange ways.

Which is disturbing, because the story line and view of life in “Game of Thrones” is unbelievably grim.

The show is now entering its fourth season of unremitting murder, beheadings, rape, torture, and human sacrifice. (And you don’t even want to know what happens to Theon Greyjoy. I wish I didn’t.) There are only a few characters we can really like, and they tend not to last very long before they meet a horrible end. Most of the characters are unlikeable, and much of the pleasure of the show comes from watching them trade verbal barbs before they get around to dispatching each other in gruesome ways.

I am not a fan of the show, though I have spent some mostly unpleasant hours on YouTube figuring out what all the fuss is about. But you don’t need to rely on my impressions. An overview of the new season describes how the show is held together by “a baseline brutality.”

Our standards, like those of everyone in Westeros, have been perverted. We expect a certain level of violence and moral compromise. The characters who retain a hold on our sympathy are those who can marginally control their bloodlust…. The new season gains momentum as it goes forward, horror begetting more horror. Characters who mean well make bad choices or are punished for crimes they didn’t commit. Characters too weak to fight for themselves are used, abused, kidnapped. Characters capable of decency give into revenge, rape, mercilessness. It’s the particular power of “Game of Thrones” that as these characters descend further into the muck and the grime, the besmirching totality of violence, we’re still pulling for so many of them.

And this is from a positive review.

The strangest part of this is that the creator of “Game of Thrones”—George R.R. Martin, who wrote the series of five massive novels (so far) on which the series is based—describes being conscientious objector during the Vietnam War who says he is opposed to war and wrote this story to show how ugly it is.

Izzat so? Then why does he feel compelled to write about war and killing and murder and blood, in hundreds of intricate varieties, for ten thousand pages? This is a bit like E.L. James saying she wrote the 50 Shades books as a warning against unbridled sexuality.

No, I’m afraid that the opposite is true. “Game of Thrones” is torture porn dressed up as pseudo-historical drama.

It reminds me of an anecdote I read a while back about a science-fiction story in which a pilot must face the dilemma of throwing a girl out of an airlock in order to save the lives of six other people. As one writer complains:

“They always point to that story as an example of how science fiction forces people to ask themselves the sort of hard questions that mainstream fiction glosses over,” he said. “That’s what that story is supposed to be about, who would you save, tough moral choices.” He paused, and sighed. “But at a certain point I realized that’s not really what that story is about. It’s really about concocting a scenario where you get a free pass to toss a girl out an airlock.”

The same goes for “Game of Thrones.” It’s no use saying that the plot development or the circumstances of the fictional world require a particular bit of savagery, because the plot and the world were created by the author, and they were created as a means to an end: to allow him to write the kind of characters and scenes he wanted to write. If he had wanted to write about something else—presumably something more pleasant—he would have created a different world and a different plot.

As Ayn Rand said about the goal of her fiction, “My basic test for any story is: Would I want to meet these characters and observe these events in real life? Is this story an experience worth living through for its own sake? Is the pleasure of contemplating these characters an end in itself?”

That’s the disturbing question we have to ask about our current national obsession: why would we want to live through the ordeal of “Game of Thrones”?

And it’s not just “Game of Thrones.” Consider the other big “prestige TV” hits like “Breaking Bad” or “House of Cards,” or the one that touched off the current mania for the brooding anti-hero, “The Sopranos,” all of which largely consist of bad people doing bad things to one another. It even spills over into non-violent entertainment, with one reviewer of “Girls” musing that the “despicableness” of its protagonists is central to the show.

It’s as if our highbrow culture is trying to cultivate in us the esthetic taste of a sociopath. Yes, this can be dressed in a little subtle moralizing (in the case of “Breaking Bad”) to help viewers not feel like complete heels. And to be sure, some of the actual story-telling is quite well done, with sharply drawn characters and good dialogue.

The question isn’t whether there is talent behind these shows, but why that talent is employed on such a brutal, bloodthirsty subject matter. Is there nothing else in the world interesting enough to make a television show about?

That leads us to the most ominous question: why does this grim pantheon of anti-heroes seem to be the particular favorite of the left-leaning intellectual elite?

After all, doesn’t “Game of Thrones” devote itself to portraying everything they are against? They demand gun control and zero-tolerance policies for 8-year-olds with Pop-Tart weaponry, and they impose priggish speech codes to guard against the most imperceptible “microagressions.” Then they tune in on Sunday nights for an orgy of crude sexism and blood-spattered killing.

Is modern liberalism merely seeking release for its repressed inner self? Or perhaps they watch “Game of Thrones” to reinforce their implicit view of humanity.

Maybe this is why Martin was a conscientious objector: not that he had no interest in violence but that he was, judging from his subsequent work, a little too interested in it. This is why the left is in favor of gun control: they assume that if we are allowed to carry arms we’ll all indiscriminately kill each other. And that’s why we need politically correct rules of speech designed to root out offenses like sexism. Left to our own devices, they must imagine that we will all end up talking—well, like the characters in “Game of Thrones.”

But the real giveaway is the absence of heroes, the lack of conspicuous private or public virtue, the way all of the show’s characters are compromised and besmirched. Put it this way: the people who inhabit the fictional world of “Game of Thrones” are not fit for self-government. You could not build a free society out of that rabble. And perhaps that’s why this world holds a special fascination for the left. If the natural state of humanity is a brutal war of all against all, then we need Leviathan to come in and repress our natural wickedness.

It’s true, of course, that a lot of the real world was (and in some places still is) like “Game of Thrones.” That’s part of the reason I can’t get too interested in watching it. If I want to immerse myself in stories about poverty, violence, oppression and vicious people doing awful things to one another as part of intricate political machinations, I can go read the news. Since I already do that for a living, I see no need for someone to invent more such stories for me to inflict on myself in my spare time.

But to focus on the bloodshed and brutality is to miss the real story, which is the fact that it actually is possible to establish and maintain a decent, civilized society. The positive review of “Game of Thrones” that I quoted above poses the following question:

Once peace and order are shattered, how does society, family, basic human decency get restored? The shows’ dozens of protagonists, scattered across fictional lands, have no answers.

Well, aren’t those answers interesting, important, and worth looking at—or does the left and its high-brow culture no longer have anything to offer on the subject?

As for the rest of us, you might notice the popularity of police procedurals, courtroom dramas, and medical mystery shows—all of which show us the forces of civilization beating back violence and vanquishing ignorance. As a general rule, these shows don’t celebrate the murderers; they celebrate the people who put them behind bars. And did I mention Ayn Rand earlier? Her idea of characters worth contemplating for their own sake was to cast as her heroes the businessmen, scientists, and inventors who build the world up and hold civilization on their shoulders.

In the end, the point isn’t why so much talent and effort goes into “Game of Thrones.” The point is to take this as a challenge to do better, to make discovery, invention, production, and the quest for freedom and justice seem even more interesting and compelling—as they in fact are. The point is to win back the throne from George R.R. Martin and his kind.

Follow Robert on Twitter.