Sean Bean plays Lord Eddard “Ned” Stark in the HBO series Game of Thrones. (AP Photo/HBO, Nick Briggs)
Game of Thrones is a pageant of a show, all velvet-curtain costumes and dye jobs that somehow never extend to the eyebrows. The accents are weird and randomly assigned, particularly the ones that are English by way of Denmark and New Jersey. And the CGI’s not all that different from the psychedelic drawings in 1970s cartoons. But somehow, every year, it rolls around just in time for people to feel like the real world’s a little much to handle, and we forgive its pieties and excesses for a few hours of entertainment.
In fact, it rarely feels like the ten hours we get each season are enough, and that feeling arises in spite of the amount of violence, exploitation, rape and suffering on the thing, which makes the daily headlines of life in America look like they were written by Captain Kangaroo. This season, whose prose analogue is the third book of the trilogy, A Storm of Swords, starts dark—the rotund and lovable Samwell Tarly running from one of the blue-eyed northern zombies they call the Others, or White Walkers—and will end darker. I won’t say a lot more, except to say that the first big twist comes three episodes in and things devolve from there.
In a way it’s all going according to plan. We are now mid-cycle in a fantasy epic, and that means despair. By the end of The Empire Strikes Back, Skywalker loses a hand and Han is encased in concrete. The Two Towers ends with Frodo injured and captured by orcs. In Westeros, each of the pretenders to the throne—and sundry other leaders—are scattered. Jon Snow’s among the Wildings, separated from his brothers in the Watch. Arya’s wandering alone, Daenerys is about to buy slaves on a grand scale to form her army. Catelyn’s being treated like a prisoner by her own son. Tyrion Lannister, the closest thing to a central protagonist the show has, has been scarred and deposed from any real power. “Now,” as an old green philosopher with big ears once said, “matters are worse.”
Tenth grade history classes are often taught that in bad times—specifically, the Great Depression—Americans prefer escapist entertainment. And you don’t need this blog post to tell you that we are indeed in bad times, with this ever-lagging economic “recovery” where stock indexes rise as people are coming up on four and five years of unemployment. But typically the escapism we once preferred was, as in the Great Depression, social-comment-free: musicals like 42nd Street and Anything Goes, superhero comic books or cutesy Shirley Temple pictures. Sprawling quasi-Hobbesian magical-realist epics about the nature of power and sex in society: not so much. Until now, when we wanted to escape, we reached for utopias.
Which, whatever else it might be, Westeros is not. Because George R.R. Martin has not finished his books—and as someone who greatly prefers the books to the show, I pray that he one day does—it’s hard to know if he’s going to give us a big, cathartic finale, destroy his Ring or his Death Star, so to speak. But it is hard to imagine how exactly that could come about. The difference between Game of Thrones and the other epics that Americans cling to is that in Star Wars and Lord of the Rings there is an identifiable enemy. The Empire, the Red Eye of Sauron: however much their evil has contaminated our heroes, the quest is clear. They must be defeated, and if at the very last moment something like Gollum has to intervene and bite your finger off to achieve that, no harm no foul. The mountain erupts and the Ewoks are ready to party. Even in the relatively even-handed Star Trek universe, the less well-defined “go where no one has gone before” quest held out the promise of new frontiers. The scales still come out for good over evil.
In Game of Thrones, by contrast, there are a lot more people in play on the board. When I say Tyrion is the clearest thing the series and the book have to a protagonist, I am speaking of a character who appears in only a fraction of scenes. I am also speaking of one whose great sorrow is that he is being denied what he thinks of as his right to power (and its consequent yield of ladies) in a society organized along archaic patrilineal lines, not to mention a feudal class politics. Arya Stark, another of the candidates for heroine, is a better pick, but her path is swiftly leading her off the road to power, the gaining of which is the closest thing to a triumph the show makes available to its characters. But even our rooting for her comes because she is very young—the actress who plays her is just 13 now—and not necessarily because we feel she knows how to restore calm and order to a fractured society. Of course, there are other candidates for both hero and foe, but in a way that’s just it: power is so diffuse in Westeros that it’s hard to know how any one blow will be the one that decisively ends all the conflict. Daenerys might rule, Jon Snow might defeat the White Walkers. But the idea that any of this will lead to a better world feels naive and remote to the entire project of the show.
I’m not so much concerned, as some are, with what any of this reveals about Martin’s politics, or about those of the showrunners David Benioff or D.B. Weiss. Nor do I think, particularly, that the public’s love of Game of Thrones comes from a flat embrace of the political values of Westeros. (The joy many people take in Daenerys, I think, comes from her potential to subvert all those rules, in particular the one about being ruled by a man.) It’s more that the core of the show, with its—dare I say it—postmodern approach to power, represents a shift in how we are imagining alternate worlds.
And that strikes me as politically interesting. The German philosopher (and Marxist) Ernst Bloch argued, in his Principle of Hope, that the phenomenon of escapism was actually a good thing, in terms of encouraging social change. His thought, to put it in an oversimplified but nonetheless accurate way, was that no one ever started a revolution without a bit of hope. And as such, many utopian dreams and escapist fantasias were really about the articulation of the hope of a better world in a really bad one. But Game of Thrones, for better or for worse, isn’t about that. It is about choosing the lesser of evils, and the insistence on hope seems to have very little to do with it. Some people will applaud that, saying it gives people a more realistic view of how power works and change is achieved. But call me a dreamer, then: I’d rather have my prime directive and utopian Shire with its second breakfast, somehow.
When one part of the safety net rips, there’s recourse in another—sometimes. Read Bryce Covert’s analysis.