[Preface: Yes, spoilers for Season 1 and 2. But: I have not read the George RR Martin novels, so nothing about what might be coming up.]
Game of Thrones, my favorite TV show, was in the news last week, not for wrapping its second season on HBO, but rather because former President George W Bush’s head—or at least a likeness of it—was used as a prop in the background of a season 1 scene. Which is what the title of this blog refers to. Shame on you.
The usual outrage followed, or at least the usual feigned outrage, as I’m not sure who was actually offended; an apolitical budgetary explanation on the DVD from the show’s creators emerged: “George Bush’s head appears in a couple of beheading scenes. It’s not a choice, it’s not a political statement. We just had to use whatever head we had around”; the usual corporate apologies ensued: “We were deeply dismayed to see this and find it unacceptable, disrespectful and in very bad taste. We made this clear to the executive producers of the series, who apologized immediately for this careless mistake. We condemn it in the strongest possible terms”; and the usual consequences resulted: “all future shipments of the DVDs … removed [the image] from our digital platforms and [we] will edit the scene for all future airings on any distribution domestic or international.” Neither George W Bush nor George RR Martin has, as far as I can find, offered comment. And of course, if the producers knew about it, um, ahead, then it was not a careless mistake.
But the Bush brouhaha for me illustrates just what’s so interesting about Game of Thrones. At first glance, or based on the snapshots and trailers, Game of Thrones has all the signifiers of hardcore fantasy: for one thing, thrones! And the concomitant Lord of the Rings/Narnia/Star Wars slavish Anglo loyalty to crowns, monarchies, and bloodlines. You’ve got your medieval motifs and Renaissance Faire fetishes of furs, knee-high leather boots, cloaks, and flowing hair. And then there are the women [rimshot]. Museum-piece weapons and warriors! And magic! And monsters! And little people! And a kingdom called Westeros, which is not, as it turns out, a hotel chain. Oh yeah, and there’s tons of nudity. Which is not what the title of this blog refers to. Shame on you again.
Yet such a description seems all wrong, and totally missing the point. Unlike much of the JRR Tolkien-inspired fiction upon which it seems modeled (including, it should be fairly stated, some of Tolkien himself), and unlike George W Bush’s most famous additions to Presidential rhetoric, Game of Thrones absolutely refuses to force viewers to be “with us or against us”; we cannot see the characters—most of the characters, anyway—as members of an “axis of evil,” or the heroes as do-gooders who prevent such evil from prevailing. Despite the swords and sorcery, even the actual presence of both dungeons and dragons, GoT resembles HBO’s former flagships The Sopranos and The Tudors more than The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. We’re presented with heroes, but they’re more human than superhuman. But we also get our likable antiheroes; the only little person, Tyrion Lannister, isn’t a member of a mystical, magical race, but a human born with dwarfism, same as in real life, and his moral ambiguities, rather than boring nobility, make him by far the most interesting character.
All the characters, then, behave like people, not symbols, archetypes, or avatars. King Robert of Season 1 is neither good nor bad, exactly; instead, he’s an ostensibly decent man who has let power and boredom go to his head, easily and equally manipulated by his ambitious advisers and his own cravings for wine, women, food, and amusement. The ostensible hero is Ned Stark, Robert’s old friend, brought in as his chief advisor. In a different, more conventional fantasy world, Ned’s attributes of honesty, loyalty to friends and family, and old fashioned diligence, virtue, and common sense, would ensure his victory. But in Game of Thrones, what would victory even look like? What, other than military brutality in a bygone war, really entitles Robert stay on the throne at all? Ned himself has no claim for it—but more importantly, no wish for it. Robert’s son, the angelic-looking, waifish pubescent Joffery—who gets the throne after Robert dies pointlessly and un-heroically in a hunting accident (or was it? Etc)—turns out to be the series’ worst monster: a cruel, capricious ego- and megalomaniac suddenly given all the power in the world. And, of course, as a reward for his integrity, Ned loses his head—and, for him, worse, his good name—at the whim of the awful boy king.
The scene, in the penultimate episode of Season 1, is, well, stark, and shocking, not because it couldn’t or wouldn’t happen—see: “Tudors”—but rather because we’ve become so accustomed to the conventions of the fantasy movies that GoT superficially resembles. We assume that the great male hero—as opposed to minor characters, bad guys, old mentors, or the hero’s family—is unkillable, especially when in GoT he was Sean Bean, the only name brand actor. As Ned is rounded up, as the blade is coming down, I kept thinking that SOMETHING or SOMEONE was going to stop it, like the story of Abraham and Isaac in the Bible, because the good guy, and the main character, can’t die. But Ned wasn’t the good guy. He was just A good guy. The Manichaeism we’ve come to expect as the basic convention of a show that looks like Game of Thrones—that there will be good guys, and bad guys, and that the good guys will be really Good and the bad guys will be really Bad—preferably Pure Evil—does not hold, just as it does not hold in life. George W Bush’s decapitation is symbolic after all.
OK, maybe this isn’t exactly a groundbreaking observation, the “you never know who to root for!” politicking and shifting alliances both within the show and for the audience. So I’ll go one further. Even more than Lord of the Rings on the outside and The Sopranos on the inside, Game of Thrones is indebted to Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, Or, How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, which is indeed what the title of the blog refers to. Best known for its humor and scathing satire of the early Cold War era, the film always sticks out at me for a different reason. Once the premise is established—that a paranoid general (Gen. Jack T Ripper, ha ha) has deployed a B-52 to drop a nuclear weapon on the USSR—the scenes cut back and forth between the War Room of the President and advisors, and the plane itself, filled with the ethnically diverse crew full o’ moxie and gumption that was already a WWII film cliché in 1962. What makes the film remarkable for me is that when we see the War Room, although everyone there is a buffoon, the conventions of movies dictate that we desperately want them to figure out a way to stop the attack, including the possibility that the US will shoot down its own plane. If not, of course, the world will end. But when we cut back to the plane, the conventions of film dictate that we want this aw shucks motley crew to succeed and survive, because that’s what movies have trained us to want. We can’t have both, though, and in the end, the little plane that could succeeds in its mission, despite all the obstacles. It destroys the world. A happy ending.
With Robert and Ned gone, Season 2 has ratcheted up the title’s game of thrones even further, and as such, there is no fundamental morality, no belief system, or entitlement to the throne at all, only skill at playing the game, something that Ned, in his naïve goodness, didn’t realize, unlike the characters now. But like Dr. Strangelove, each time Game of Thrones switches point of view, the audience can’t help but find some reason to root or support whoever we’re looking at, even though it must contradict what we had just felt before. There is no With Us or Against Us, only the constant shifting of allegiances and sympathies. And unlike Dr. Strangelove, there are not just two cuts or sides—like both typical fantasy series and HBO series, GoT is ridiculously complex in its multiple storylines, families, and subplots, and supporting characters. Keeping track becomes an actual intellectual commitment.
We become players in what turns out to be more of a role-playing game than TV show. Maybe it was more like Dungeons and Dragons than I thought
Except for Joffrey. God, I hate that fucking Joffrey.
Time: after a good run, over again, at 90 minutes! Lots of fun finding images, though.