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.