The eerily contemporary morality of HBO’s Game of Thrones
it went anti-Tolkien. Indeed, if you dared to call their creation “Tolkienesque,” the esteemed deceased English author might well rise from the grave in protest.
.. In Tolkien’s tales, magic is of paramount importance, the good is very, very good, and the evil is obvious and horrifying. Tolkien was a veteran of World War I, and he’d seen his own Mordor. The descriptions of the Black Land have eerie echoes in the blasted earth and industrial destruction in the trenches of the Western Front. In Tolkien’s time, great good faced great evil (often against seemingly overwhelming odds), and great good triumphed.
.. His work instead calls back to an earlier time, to the struggles for dynastic succession in old England. Loosely based — very loosely — on the Wars of the Roses, his books pit warring families against each other
.. This game has but one rule, “You win or you die.” The politics are gritty, good men are hard to find, and honor and virtue are often rewarded with swift death.
.. Perhaps fearing that the show would flop without a little extra help, HBO used its full premium-cable powers to lard it up with graphic sex and violence.
.. Martin’s books aren’t for the squeamish, but HBO took the lewd elements to the next level. Comedians and critics even coined a term, “sexposition,” to describe the show’s habit of using extended sex scenes as a mechanism for explaining plot points and developing characters. In family-friendly social-conservative circles, the word went out: HBO once again was using sex to sell, and Christians especially shouldn’t be buying.
.. But by the end of season six, the show was an unstoppable ratings juggernaut, watched by upwards of 25 million Americans each week. It’s arguably the most watched show on television today.
.. Season seven (out of eight) starts on July 16, and its ratings will likely surpass everything but the NFL playoffs. A true cultural moment is at hand.
.. the show’s creators have accomplished what few television or film producers have ever achieved — they have improved upon classic books and have, quite simply, mastered the art of storytelling.
.. they cast the multiple important roles perfectly, and they have shown a knack for delivering during the big moments. The plot twists, betrayals, and epic battles aren’t just watchable, they’re rewatchable. In fact, classic clips garner millions of views on YouTube as fans go relive the highlights in much the same way that Patriots fans no doubt relive the last five minutes of Tom Brady’s epic comeback in Super Bowl LI.
.. The story itself matters too, and in many ways it is the right story at the right time, holding up a mirror to modern American sensibilities and showing the consequences of modern American morality.
.. In Tolkien’s world the stakes are immense, the moral battle lines are clear, and victory actually means victory, the end of a distinct evil force. In this respect, as noted above, Tolkien was a man of his age.
.. Martin’s can feel like a treadmill of conflict where squabbling lords and ladies ignore looming threats and greater dangers for the sake of momentary advantage in a seemingly never-ending battle for control. The stakes can seem small — what’s the real difference for humanity between Lannister or Targaryen rule? — but the conflicts are still intense.
.. Whereas the typical high-fantasy novel might end after a hero defeats her enemies and frees entire cities’ worth of slaves, in Game of Thrones, Martin (and the show’s creators) ask, “What comes next?” And the answer, instead of a glorious celebration of freedom and liberty, is a period of chaos and vengeance.
.. Whereas the typical high-fantasy novel centers on the most honorable of heroes and writes him to victory against insurmountable odds, in Game of Thrones, the honorable hero loses his head unless he’s honorable and shrewd or honorable and violent.
.. Think of it as Calvinism without Christ — natural human depravity unleashed. The realities of human nature mean that evil is very, very evil, and good is also touched with the weight of sin.
.. Certain timely themes emerge, perhaps most salient among them the constant, vivid reminders that the ends do not justify the means.
.. Indeed, Martin has revealed a key truth — that pursuing virtuous ends by vicious means can so transform a person that the ends themselves change. Virtue is redefined, and ultimately virtue is lost.
.. The characters are obsessed with settling scores and vindicating their honor.
.. In fact, even the evilest of characters have their own tales of woe. They can always find a murder or a conflict or an act of defiance that justifies the next vengeful act. Just as in real life, evil has a reason for its rage.
.. While watching, one can’t help but be reminded of Christ’s admonition that even his followers should be “wise as serpents.”
.. A conservative can’t watch the show without understanding that it is, at times, almost shamelessly Burkean: Disrupt the established order at your peril.
.. several of the great houses launched a rebellion (“Robert’s Rebellion”) to depose a mad king. By any measure, it was a just war against a homicidal maniac
.. I suspect we won’t see anything like the collapse of Mount Doom in Return of the King. Maybe we’ll get justice, but it will likely be angry justice, and when the series ends, the last person on the Iron Throne will wear the crown uneasily, knowing that she (or he) left a trail of bodies on the path to power and that those souls not only cry out for vengeance but have living descendants who hear their call.
.. At issue was the question of political tactics. Did the “high road” work anymore? Don’t the nice guys always lose, and when they lose don’t the virtues they believe in ultimately lose as well?
.. an increasingly amoral society, unmoored from its traditions and full of entitled and ambitious men and women who compete for power with unrestrained viciousness. Does that sound at least vaguely familiar? Is it any wonder that Game of Thrones resonates in the modern American heart?
.. It will still have too much sex (though HBO has limited the lewdness as the series has grown more popular)
.. it will give us something else as well — a lesson that entitlement and rage have a price, and that justice gets lost when victory is the only goal. Perhaps the true rule of the game of thrones isn’t “Win or die” but rather “Win and die.” The quest for power, unmoored from virtue, is the doom of us all.
Suppose your favorite film critic started sprinkling his reviews with references to the “Cowboy Test” and made it clear that he was factoring into his appraisal of a work of art whether it contained cowboys. La La Land? Manchester by the Sea? Moonlight? All problematic, as these benighted films contain no cowboys. On the other hand, Cowboys and Aliens, Armageddon, and the Village People movie Can’t Stop the Music, each of which contains cowboy characters, would easily pass the Cowboy Test and receive a hearty blessing.
You would think this approach to movies a bit odd. It is. But no odder than the Bechdel Test, a feminist litmus test that is currently being thrown around by movie critics as an important way to assess the quality or at least the political correctness of a film.
.. In the past few years, the Bechdel Test has begun popping up casually in reviews like a feminist Good Housekeeping Seal of approval.
.. Neither of these two tests gives you any hint as to the worth of a film, and furthermore neither of them tells you anything about a film’s general feminist wokeness. It doesn’t even tell you whether the film is entirely about a woman. Lots of films that have female protagonists fail the Bechdel Test — notably Alien 3; Run, Lola, Run; Breakfast at Tiffany’s (there is actual heated debate on this one, but if it passes it barely does so); and Gravity. The Princess Bride fails the Bechdel Test
.. Lots of blockbusters with beloved female characters fail the Bechdel Test, including the original Star Wars trilogy, Avatar, and all of the Lord of the Rings films.
.. Showgirls, on the other hand, passes the test. Do feminists look at Showgirls and chalk that one up as a big win?
.. To give you some inkling of how little the Bechdel Test matters when it comes to filmmaking, consider that Sofia Coppola had never heard of it when asked about it in a recent interview. Coppola is one of today’s most accomplished and acclaimed female directors, and all of her seven films prominently feature women, usually in the main roles. Yet her latest movie, The Beguiled, passes only incidentally.
.. a strategy for drawing attention to the general way women are sidelined in Hollywood. But movies aren’t intended to be a proper demographic cross-section of America. Movies (at least Hollywood movies) are about people on the extremes of society — cops, criminals, superheroes. These extreme characters tend to be men, and men tend to be the ones who create them.
.. Women enjoy much more prominence in the milieu of low-budget independent movies, where the stories are more focused on ordinary people with real-world problems, but those movies usually attract small audiences.
.. It might be true that there would be more women prominently featured in movies if more women were writing and directing more movies. But it might also be true that the reason there aren’t as many women making films is that women’s movie ideas aren’t commercial enough for Hollywood studios.
.. To be slightly less reductionist than the Bechdel Test, women tend to write movies about relationships, and men tend to write movies about aliens and shootouts.
.. Have a wander through the sci-fi and fantasy section of your local bookstore: How many of these books’ authors are female? Yet these are where the big movie ideas come from. If a woman wants the next Lord of the Rings–style franchise to pass the Bechdel Test, then a woman should come up with a story with as much earning potential as J. R. R. Tolkien’s.
And so I snarked on Twitter that “the porn-y side of Game of Thrones helps keeps liberals deluded about why they like the show,” letting them tell themselves, “Oh, I like it because it’s deconstructing this patriarchal pre-modern world and showing how it’s sex and power all the way down.” But not so, liberals: “You like it because it lets you escape the flat dreariness of liberalism for a little while. Because deep down you want a king or queen.”
.. I think that dystopian exaggeration is in fact key to the show’s appeal to liberals in many ways. It lets you fantasize about the negation of your principles while simultaneously confirming their rightness. GoT presents a vision of a world in which illiberal instincts can be freely indulged, in which the id is constrained only by physical power. All the violent, nasty stuff liberal society (thankfully) won’t let us do, but that’s still seething in our lizard brains, gets acted out. And not just acted out — violence and brutality are the organizing principles on which the world is based.
.. the show chides you for harboring the very fantasies it helps you gratify. It wallows in their destructive consequences — makes that wallowing, in fact, simultaneous with the fulfillment of the fantasies. Will to power leads to suffering and chaos, which lead to more opportunities for the will to power to be acted upon, etc. This is a vastly more complex and interesting emotional appeal than “people secretly want kings.”
.. These shows invite liberal viewers into various illiberal or pre-liberal or just, I suppose, red-state worlds, which are more violent and sexist and id-driven than polite prestige-TV-viewing liberal society, and which offer viewers the kind of escapism that Phillips describes … in which there is a temporary attraction to being a mobster or hanging out with glamorous chainsmoking ’50s admen or leaving your put-upon suburban life behind and becoming Heisenberg the drug lord.
.. But then ultimately because these worlds are clearly wicked, dystopic or just reactionary white-male-bastions you can return in relief to the end of history, making Phillips’ “reconciliation with the existing order” after sojourning for a while in a more inegalitarian or will-to-power world.
.. But what the shows properly understood are doing isn’t a celebration of illiberalism; it’s an exploration of its attractions that ultimately confirms the liberal world and all its norms.
.. fundamentally “The Sopranos” was a story without any heroes, a tragedy in which the only moral compass (uncertain as Dr. Melfi’s arrow sometimes was) was supplied by an outsider
.. fantasy from Tolkien to the present (in both its fictional forms and role-playing varietals) partakes by its nature of romantic and reactionary themes, often scratching the same anti-modern itch as certain forms of far-right and New Age lefty politics — and perhaps the same monarchical itch as certain forms of Macron-esque centrism as well.
.. it’s a world in which the fabric of a feudal society gets rent and you root for a very particular set of noble families to regain their rightful place and help weave it back together
.. whatever their politics in this world, both the show’s bad fans and its good fans are rooting a queen or for a king.