I’m not a big TV person. I watched the first two episodes of Mad Men and was not compelled to continue; I watched the first three episodes of The Sopranos and was not compelled to continue. I have liked but am now bored with Dexter. You see my point. Then there’s Game of Thrones, coming back for its third season on HBO on March 31. The first two seasons closely followed (I’m assured by my friends) the first two of the five books by George R.R. Martin, so after binge-watching the first two seasons last year, I was up to speed enough to plow through the third, fourth and fifth books.
I’m not a big TV person. I watched the first two episodes of Mad Men and was not compelled to continue; I watched the first three episodes of The Sopranos and was not compelled to continue. I have liked but am now bored with Dexter. You see my point.
Then there’s Game of Thrones, coming back for its third season on HBO on March 31. The first two seasons closely followed (I’m assured by my friends) the first two of the five books by George R.R. Martin, so after binge-watching the first two seasons last year, I was up to speed enough to plow through the third, fourth and fifth books.
I don’t read a lot of fantasy, and I don’t watch a lot of HBO shows or cable in general, so I’ve been thinking about what makes GoT so particularly addictive for me. Besides for being fantasy, Game of Thrones is like a lot of other cable dramas, insofar as it doesn’t punish their characters for being immoral or amoral. Put another way, people get away with murder, rape, and all sorts of lesser evils, and fairly noxious characters occupy central roles and might even be seen as sympathetic.
The first Game of Thrones season looked like it had found a kind of moral center in the honorable Ned Stark. But when his head was chopped off in the ninth episode (following the plot of the book), it became clear that this would be another series that did not promise a happy — or even fair — ending. As Todd VanDerWerff put it on The AV Club, “Ned belongs to the kinds of stories we like to tell ourselves, and that means that in the grittier, darker world of Game of Thrones, he has to die.” By killing Stark off, Martin created a credible threat that things may end badly in his universe.
This frees him up to take the story anywhere, since neither Martin nor the show he inspired have a hero whose moral fortitude demands that he prevail, lest the story be a big downer. I think this is why David Chase could end The Sopranos the way he did — I’m not even thinking of the ambiguity of that last scene, but the mere suggestion that Tony Soprano’s whole family might soon be snuffed out. If Tony Soprano had been too nice a guy, we would have cringed at even the possibility that he was about to be gunned down.
In Game of Thrones, the lack of a moral center has a similar effect in that the future seems wide open and we have no idea who’s going to win the Iron Throne. The books (and show) just reinforce this by following multiple characters, many of whom have mutually exclusive goals and just as many of whom have a decent chance at succeeding. This doesn’t seem significant until you stop to realize that most “uncertainty” in movies is trumped up, since we have a very good idea who’s going to win the day, if not exactly how. (I mean, how mind-blowing would it have been if John McClane was killed at the end of the last Die Hard?)
That said, I haven’t really provided an explanation yet for why I like GoT but was lukewarm about The Sopranos. I think I’ve figured out at least part of it. For me, what makes GoT more engrossing than other classy cable dramas are the stakes. The entire continent of Westeros is on the line, and, as it turns out, other large chunks of geography come into play later in the series. Having realized this, I see too that this was one of the many aspects I liked in Battlestar Galactica (which I’ve actually watched all of, yay me!). In a universe where most of humanity has been killed — by vindictive robots, no less — there was always the theoretical possibility that humans would be wiped out completely, even if the show was clearly not going to follow through on the threat.
Even with this parallel, the tone of the two shows is quite different. Like a lot of the beloved cable shows I’m thinking of, BSG was driven in large part by the viewers’ deep involvement, if not quite identification, with the lives of its protagonists. And like a lot of those great shows, even if Battlestar often evoked sociological themes, it wasn’t often about them, even though it had pretty much all of humanity within its purview. I don’t know if I can quite articulate it today (or any other day), but most episodes of BSG felt as though they were about those particular people in that specific situation and the gut-wrenching trauma of what Starbuck et al. were going through. There were exceptions, like that one period when the human government became a sort of Vichy regime with Cylons in the place of Nazis. But much more often, BSG felt like a ride along the spiritual journeys of its main characters.
Game of Thrones, on the other hand, often feels as though it works best when you think of everything tied together like a big machine greater than the sum of its human and dragon parts. This is a view that downplays the personal in favor of the society as a whole, a key that BSG didn’t play in often. In the limited repertoire of quality cable series I know well, I think The Wire is the one that feels the most like Game of Thrones. (Of course I had to bring up The Wire. You thought I was going to write several paragraphs about TV and not even mention it? It’s the Omar Principle: Any conversation about TV, if it goes on long enough, will somehow involve The Wire.) With both shows, power is an explicit theme, and while McNulty, Stringer Bell, and nearly every other Wire character were compelling individually, I always thought the system they were part of came off as the star of the show. Likewise, even if everyone has their favorite Game of Thrones character — I have an affinity for Jaime Lannister — on whole the show isn’t preoccupied with the subjective experience of any one of them.
The shows also seem mutually convinced that power and money are the main pillars upon which society is built. The Wire was a rather damning indictment of Baltimore’s politics and could well have been targeted at America more generally. Game of Thrones, for frying-pan-in-face reasons, has less to say about the American condition, despite what Heather Havrilesky wrote in 2011: “If The Sopranos was a timely parable about the crumbling state of the American family, Game of Thrones is a timely fable of sweeping global destruction and doom.”
The analogy between GoT and current political conditions strikes me as strained to the point of ridiculous. We might live in a bleak time, but it’s hard to sell me the idea that America in 2013 compares to the purely pre-Enlightenment values of GoT‘s political world. Westeros is a place where everyone assumes and is even okay with the idea that might makes right, where democracy is a strange foreign idea. If that is “timely,” what isn’t?
And I think Game of Thrones is even more useful in a way because it isn’t timely or germane to our current politics. It’s good enough if it reminds us how heartless the world used to be and how heartless it still is in many places; it reminds us that humans, unchecked by certain ideals, are capable of being horrible, dragons or no.