games of thrones’ not-so-hidden realism

I’ve already said most of what I want to say about Game of Thrones, but an article on slate.com posted late last week has drawn me out of Game-of-Thrones-commentary retirement. I found this essay displeasing almost in every paragraph; it was delightfully complex and subtle in the ways it managed to annoy me, and as such deserves some in-depth treatment.

Ostensibly pro-GoT, Jack Hamilton’s piece celebrates the show for its great escapism. Toward the beginning, he describes Game of Thrones in a manner objectionable on several fronts:

It is about swords and sigils and dragons and frozen baby-crazed zombies and it is decidedly uninterested in transcending these trappings or ironically critiquing them. … Game of Thrones is a terrifically fun and immensely popular show, but can a work so flagrantly inauthentic actually be important television?

Hamilton starts from the premise that anything with a dragon is “inauthentic,” a word he seems to take as a synonym for “unreal,” even though it’s nothing of the sort. We can all agree that GoT is unreal, but the slanderous “inauthentic” implies that the show is deeply suspect just for sporting some fantasy elements.

That seems premature, surely, but let’s just read “unreal” for “inauthentic” there and concede that GoT‘s lack of realism might give it a handicap in ranking as art that tells us anything important about ourselves. Even so, consider how its “unreality” is not so unreal as Hamilton might suppose. First, there isn’t *that* much magic in Game of Thrones; it’s essentially a Medieval world with a few limited supernatural elements, mostly accounted for by Daenerys’ dragons, some funny business from that rascal Melisandre, and Beric Dondarrion’s Wolverine-like ability to bounce back from mortal wounds (even if he can’t look as handsome as Hugh Jackman doing it). Magic is by no means widespread in Westeros or its fictional foreign lands. In a way, its rarity fits nicely with its era, when (one imagines) the average bloke would never have personally seen magic but might have believed in witches’ hexes or flying reptiles.

(Edit: When I first wrote this, I forgot about the White Walkers and other beyond-the-Wall funkiness like the giants. While this indeed dilutes my point — there’s a fair amount of magic in GoT — I still don’t think GoT is really about the magic; a lot of the magic could be taken out with little substantive change to the feel of the show.)

Moreover, Hamilton singles out a single cable show because it’s fantasy when a solid majority of TV shows present us with purportedly plausible worlds that are, in fact, barely believable. The events of Scandal or Dexter – which have no spaceships, mutants, or wizards – could in theory take place, but it’s not clear they have more to say about society than Game of Thrones. The suspension of disbelief we allow them can’t be extended to GoT, but that doesn’t mean they don’t take great license; ultimately, it is a convention that we don’t pick out every moment of those shows and ask how closely they resemble reality. I can only watch Dexter, for example, if I take it for granted that his serial murders are somehow justified because he is able to defy the laws of probability on a regular basis and determine unequivocal guilt when the police cannot. Why is it only dragons that make something unreal, and not, say, complete unlikelihood?

These are the reasons we ought to look beyond the magic for a minute to ask what the significance of GoT is before we slap the “inauthentic” label on it and consume it in a spirit of distraction. “Terrifically fun”? Really? I mean, dude, look at the very clip from “Rains of Castamere” that was attached to your essay (NSF W or the faint of heart):

I think Hamilton’s mistake is in assuming that the present cultural conditions are the only ones that ought to matter in art. He loves The Wire because it’s realistic but doesn’t seem to make the connection between the heartless Baltimore that David Simon depicts and the everyday inhumanity at work in King’s Landing. In both places, power is entrenched and often implacable, and people are only occasionally motivated by any principle greater than self-interest. Watching Game of Thrones can be an act of moral hygiene, getting us to think about how awful humans can be to one another, and, through its quasi-historic setting, how common awfulness used to be. Whether people are fundamentally good or bad, I don’t know, but stories about humankind’s capacity for cruelty, whether set in an abstracted Medieval Europe or the actual Medieval Europe, are always relevant.

This is the germ of my argument, but let’s look at a few more choice lines from Hamilton that betray, I think, an odd disdain for the value of the show when he talks it up as great entertainment.

“It is aggressively false, a work of far-fetched imagination so intricate and finely realized it becomes compelling on its own terms … this is a show in which a character’s desire to release people from slavery is convincingly rendered as a conundrum.”

Italics his. That is Hamilton explaining how he sees Game of Thrones positing an outlandish world with issues we’d never confront in our actual lives. In the show, Daenerys must make a choice to use her powerful armies to free slaves – many of whom will then need to be fed and who might ultimately prove a liability – or to prepare to reclaim the crown of Westeros.

(Admittedly, you have to take at face value Daenerys’ assumption that her rise to power in Westeros is inherently desirable and even supported by the common Westerosi, but the show doesn’t have her ponder the general unfairness of monarchy as a system or her right to rule, so let’s take it as the altruistic endeavor she believes it to be. Nobody in Game of Thrones is progressive enough to think that Westeros should be a democracy or that anyone else could run it as well as they could.)

Thus, from her perspective, Daenerys must weigh the immediate moral outrage of slavery against the more abstract good she could do for the fate of Westeros, which lies across the sea and in the indefinite future. In other words, she’s facing a dilemma nearly universal to leaders, where they must balance exigency against long-term, less tangible goals; even well-intentioned governments make peace with regimes they find repugnant and avoid justifiable wars (if there is such a thing) because their cost in lives and dollars would be too high. It’s the job of any political leader to make decisions that could kill or save many, and watching Daenerys wrestle with one earnestly doesn’t feel like escapism.

“When nothing is safe, anything is possible.”

This is Hamilton’s reaction to the beheading of Ned Stark, the show’s moral light in the premier season. His abrupt, unexpected execution announced that the show was not afraid to kill off characters the audience liked, even liked more than anyone else.

Yes, point taken that killing the most honorable character early on in the series is an excellent long-game narrative device, as Hamilton says, since it makes everything a credible threat, since, if the writers can allow Ned Stark to die, they have demonstrated the will to off anyone in service of story and plot.

Yet Ned’s brutal death wasn’t only a neat way to make gripping television. It’s the realization of a fatalist worldview. By allowing Ned Stark to die such an ignoble, unredeemed death, the story acknowledges a reality it’s easier to shy away from: The universe doesn’t always – or even often – make things right.

“Tony Soprano and Walter White have more in common with Tywin Lannister than they do with anyone’s actual father or husband or boss, and that’s why we love them, even when we should probably hate them.”

Maybe they just aren’t similar to anyone’s actual father or husband or boss in Jack Hamilton’s world. I don’t know anybody like those guys, either, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think they exist. Empirically, I know they have to, so claiming that all three are utterly unlikely seems like wishful thinking. Tywin Lannister would be alive and well if we as a society didn’t make it impossible for him to be, and the price of restraining his modern avatars is our vigilance.

“Game of Thrones creates a suspension of disbelief so immersive it feels almost childlike, some great cultural bedtime story for people who thought they were too old for such things.”

No, no, and no, or at least not for me. I don’t watch Game of Thrones and feel release from the horror that human existence can be. Why would I? For that, I’ll watch a light comedy or a sweet little romance. GoT is for when I’m willing to face an account of our existence on earth that says, implicitly, “This is what you are like when you don’t have sedans and McMansions, and it’s what you were like for millennia, and it’s what you could still be like if it weren’t for the strictures of modern mores.” If that’s not authentic, I don’t know what is.

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