For a show whose subject is an entire world, and whose IMDb Full Cast and Crew page is longer than the Federal Register, HBO’s “Game of Thrones” is remarkably parochial.
Its subject is not an entire world — not really. Its subject is power. That preoccupation takes a setting which should provide an endless platform for exploration and shrinks it into a live-action version of the mobile app “Clash of Clans.” Its parochialism is conceptual, not geographical. The show’s interests are too small.
Has “Game of Thrones” profiled a single instance of a Westeros resident, unconnected to the broader jostling for power, going about his or her day? I’m not asking for it to become reality TV, or calling for “Game of Thrones” to refashion itself as a documentary; I’m talking about depicting the life a member of that realm with insight and verve. Without this, there is no portrait of the world; there is only entertainment.
Entertainment Is Fine, But Think About It, Too
The uncomfortable reality about humans is that we’re far too willing to be led by the prospect of rewarding our pleasure centers. As a consequence, our “capacity for nobler feelings,” as John Stuart Mill put it, is “easily killed.”
Don’t mistake this as a call to stare down our natures and, through gritted teeth, heroically grapple with more challenging art. As Mill himself understood, we cannot immediately will ourselves to care about these sorts of things. That’s because first-order desires (“I want ___”) are tragically hard to alter, even when second-order desires (“I want to want ___”) are in place — that is, even when we really, really wish we were more interested in pursuits we acknowledge to be intellectually important.
I don’t blame anyone for using entertainment as a guiding principle. But it can be valuable to review whether the choices we make for our free time are purely entertainment-driven, and to reflect on whether there is something more interesting to pursue.
Even if we don’t ultimately ditch “Game of Thrones” — which I am not calling for — acknowledging shortcomings in works of art can genuinely help us. This is the promise of art criticism, and it is not just for scholars. As Rebecca West once put it: “Indeed, if we want to save our souls, the mind must lead a more athletic life than it has ever done before, and must more passionately than ever practice and rejoice in art. For only through art can we cultivate annoyance with inessentials, powerful and exasperated reactions against ugliness, a ravenous appetite for beauty; and these are the true guardians of the soul.”
Let’s Be Real: It’s a Gory Soap Opera
I like “Game of Thrones.” I consider it superior to most other shows. Its production quality alone glides it past nearly everything else. But when I watch I can’t shake its smallness. Geographically, it covers vast regions. But conceptually, it draws a small circle around power and ambition and rarely veers outside it. This makes “Game of Thrones” narratively entertaining — I wonder who will end up in power next! — but not all that interesting at any deeper level.
I realize the show depicts a broad sweep of events that are perhaps most momentous or consequential , and this makes it hard to focus on the small stuff. It’s not like other epics our culture adores — the “Star Wars” series or the “Lord of the Rings” franchise — go out of their way to explore the mundane.
But, one, they’re films, not shows, which means they’re allotted far less narrative space; two, the massive differences of being they showcase — weird creatures, strange places, unfamiliar spirits — preoccupy their time; and three, they explore highly significant philosophical questions that go beyond the mere pursuit and enjoyment of power. What interesting question is “Game of Thrones” exploring?
Is its grand subject human nature itself? Yet the show rarely focuses on non-power-related aspects of the human condition. It is a prolonged depiction of the singular, relentless pursuit of power. Few are as explicit, or articulate, as Littlefinger: his Ladder monologue in season three captures the motivational profile of nearly everyone the show focuses on. Fascinatingly, it functions as a metaphor for the show’s own artistic preoccupations; a meta-level self-conception, if you will.
Any Gestures to Deeper Motivations Are Limited
Sure, some are inspired by revenge and duty and religious devotion, but even allowing for these motivations we get a cartoonish version of what the Middle Ages were like. Everyone is either motivated by an all-consuming desire for power, or to somehow make things right (under which revenge and duty fall).
Even if you think this pretty much encapsulates what life’s all about, and that our own world is just as affected by concentrations of power as Westeros is, there is far more to life than just what our heads of state and billionaires do. You could not paint an interesting portrait of life by focusing on their struggles for power.
There’s no instance of a regular family sitting around a table having a regular conversation; the regular folk are narrative props — mere extras. This is how we can tell the show isn’t interested in depicting life, or capturing how a world such as theirs functions at a regular level. There is only the ladder.
Even Tyrion, a character with non-standard interests — too bored with life to be ambitious — is placed time and again into the service of power: either helping someone maintain or attain it. Some aspects to his character development are excellently done; at the same time, they’re never divorced from the show’s broader preoccupation with power dynamics. Is that all there is?
Can you imagine the series depicting its own version of Charlemagne’s Carolingian Reforms? Can you imagine an episode exploring a ruler’s grappling with the importance of education, and how it affects the society, not as a narrative ploy to set up a larger plot development on the theme of power, but as a theme worth exploring in its own right? Daenerys’ attempts at reforms were surface-level, roundabout ways for the writers to develop her understanding of power.
That’s why it’s silly to call it “’The Sopranos’ in Middle Earth,” as its showrunner once suggested. The Sopranos was as rich a depiction of modern life as it gets; it was only ever superficially a mob show. “Game of Thrones,” by contrast, is superficially expansive, but conceptually quite small.