Thursday, May 24, 2012

A Game of Thrones - Brief Reflection

Confession: I have a weakness for well-written television shows that I can binge watch for hours and hours and hours. Subscribing to a premium cable TV network (which will remain nameless until I earn a check for dropping its name, but soon become self-evident) has not helped my addiction. Not only can I access the shows I crave on my actual television, but I can log on to an "on-demand" website and watch old episodes of dozens of great series. If a twelve step program for people who fiend these serial television shows does not exist it soon will. Given the amount of TV I've watched lately I am not sure how I've been able to work my job and pay attention to my kids. I need a sponsor and a meeting to get right. 

Game of Thrones has become my latest high of choice. Like every fiend, a friend got me hooked. "Yo, you gotta watch Game of Thrones," another couple told my wife and I. "It is straight up sex and violence." Suspend speculating why we'd be so attracted to an hour-long visual orgy of quasi-soft porn and swordsmen hacking limbs and heads. While the description of Thrones was accurate, the show's characters, scenery, and story line rise above its trite licentiousness. The sex scenes are so common and ludicrous that I treat them as commercial breaks. The gore sometimes gets in the way of the story line. (The New Yorker published a good review of the series and an even better long article on the author, George R. R. Martin, whose 800-page books were the first drafts of the show's screenplays.) My wife and I became hooked. We took a week-long vacation to Westros, the show's medieval fantasy world setting, and watched the first season practically in one sitting. Family members visited for a long weekend and, like the good pushers we were, we made them sit in our living room and inject the first season - all 10 episodes. Now, on Sunday nights, after we put down our children, my wife and I get our fix of Game of Thrones and Mad Men. When our four-and-a-half year old daughter asked if she could stay up late and watch TV with us we told her that mommy and daddy watched grown-up shows on Sunday night. "Oh, you mean Game of Thrones," she said. It was like she found our works and white powder hidden in the sock drawer.

Martin certainly created an amazing fantasy universe filled with warring kingdoms, overgrown cerebral killer wolves, eunuchs, three baby dragons, one smart mouthed scene stealing little person, a seemingly endless amount of brothels and bastards, a giant bad-ass sword wielding woman, a teen-age girl who is impervious to fire, and the occasional pinch of sadistic torture and incest. I started reading the first book in Martin's series A Song of Ice and Fire (the television series takes its title from this book) and am half way through it. The television show is on its second season, which corresponds to Martin's second title in the series. The book is entertaining, but I doubt I will read the others. They are very long page turners and like the show, more akin to candy than literature. Some, of Martin's characters are captivating and complicated. Ned Stark, Lord of the North, around whom the first book's narrative revolves, is honor-bound and dutiful, which endears him to readers while at the same time enraging other characters. He also stepped out on his wife and sired a bastard son, Jon Snow, which adds a dab of dirt to his otherwise spotless character. Tyrion Lannister, the dwarf son of the book's version of the Bush family-meets the Saudi aristocracy, is by far the most entertaining and engrossing character in the television series and the book. He is an outcast who so clearly dominates every dialogue and scene. Similar to when I watched The Wire for the first, second, and fifth time, and I moved to the edge of the couch when I saw Omar coming, I can't help but smile when Peter Dinklage appears on screen. I also find Aria Stark, Ned Stark's youngest tomboy daughter, and his bastard, Jon Snow, to be captivating and complicated. As the review in The New Yorker observed, the show captures in a compelling way the pains of outsider status and the slippery ways pariah figures - dwarfs, bastards, women - seek and wield power.

I've had my fun. When I finish the book I will go back to reading Richard Price novels and monographs for work. I will continue to watch the series because, if indeed we are living through a new golden age of television, the network that gives us Game of Thrones is certainly at the forefront of this historic era. Game of Thrones is not The Wire (really, is anything?); nor does it illicit the grotesque sympathies that drew people into The Sopranos and Mad Men. But thanks to George R. R. Martin's ability to weave together an entire fantasy continent - several actually - and the network's ability to shoot on location in some pretty amazing places, the television series does exactly what good television should do: it entertains and enlightens. Beyond the brothels and the blood here are a few reasons to get hooked on Game of Thrones:

1) The show depicts how bad politics and society can become when sons inherit power and fortune from fathers. In fact, the entire sub-theme of outsiders like the bastard Jon Snow, the dwarf Tyrion Lannister, and nearly every woman in the show, who are trying to establish themselves as individuals and to attain some stature beyond their station is a subtle argument against hereditary and class-based domination of social and political power. The show has two words for why the practice of giving the same positions of power and privilege to the same people (and the practice of incest) is just plain bad: Joffrey Baratheon. In the real world, when we promote policies that create diversity - all kinds of diversity and especially racial and gender and class - we diminish the ability of someone like that to constantly rise to power (and sadistically torture people).

2) The show has powerful women characters, some of whom are stereotypically despicable (Cersei Lannister seems a bit like a photo copy of every wicked step mother witch) but others (Aria Stark, Catelyn Stark, and Daenerys Targaryen) who, while not without flaws, possess depth and humor and tremendous courage. Clearly, given the show's predilection for gratuitous female nudity, it does not have feminist leanings. But the women characters give a dynamic and varied depiction of women who want and possess power and use it, or seek to use it, in multiple, complicated, contradictory ways. Anyone who thinks the world would instantly be better if women ran politics should consider some ideas presented in this show.

3) The fantasy world of Westros issues a strong critique of possessing political power for power's sake. Unfortunately, the politics that drive conflict in Game of Thrones is wrapped up on familial bloodletting and feuding and disconnected from the engine that historically drives wars for possession of power: economics, trade, and land possession. Clearly, some form of labor and taxation fills the coffers of the Seven Kingdoms, but viewers don't see that side of the politics. Instead, the game of thrones is a game of personalities and entitlement and honor. Common people either serve dutifully or don't appear, and on one occasion rioted uncontrollably in a very disorganized, depoliticized way. None the less, politics, even if it is a watered-down-made-for-TV version of politics is at the center of this show. And Game of Thrones does show how, except for those who operate the levers of power, greed, corruption, and manipulation turn everything to shit. Eventually, those kings and queens who posses power, or those people who don't understand it, also wind up with their heads on spikes. The show invites viewers to ask, what of the masses of people whose daily lives are constantly effected by the missteps of the few? That is always an important question to consider.               

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