The eerily contemporary morality of Game of Thrones
In 2011, HBO gambled. It launched a massive, sprawling fantasy franchise around a story — George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire book series — that was popularly known mainly in the nerd circles that read epic fantasy. Sure, the books were hits, but they were also difficult to adapt for any screen, big or small. And if HBO wanted to capitalize on the recent, runaway box-office success of the film adaptations of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series, one could think of any number of books better suited for television.
But HBO rolled the dice anyway. Backing then–relatively unknown creators David Benioff and D. B. Weiss, it went anti-Tolkien. Indeed, if you dared to call their creation “Tolkienesque,” the esteemed deceased English author might well rise from the grave in protest.
No, HBO’s show — called “Game of Thrones” after the first book in Martin’s series — bears little resemblance to Tolkien’s fantastic tales. Tolkien launched an entire literary genre of world-building fantasy, and after decades of thinly veiled copycats, fans had grown used to its customs. Plucky heroes in magic-filled worlds would take on the forces of darkness — often with the indispensable aid of powerful artifacts and talismans. The books and stories were fun, and I devoured more than my share of similar novels, but after almost 60 years of the same thing, it all seemed just a little bit tired.
Enter Martin. Like Tolkien, Martin is a master at creating vivid fictional worlds, complete with their own extensive backstories, religions, languages, and customs. But there the similarity ends. In Tolkien’s tales, magic is of paramount importance, the good is very, very good, and the evil is obvious and horrifying. Tolkien was a veteran of World War I, and he’d seen his own Mordor. The descriptions of the Black Land have eerie echoes in the blasted earth and industrial destruction in the trenches of the Western Front. In Tolkien’s time, great good faced great evil (often against seemingly overwhelming odds), and great good triumphed.
Martin, by contrast, was born after the world wars. His work instead calls back to an earlier time, to the struggles for dynastic succession in old England. Loosely based — very loosely — on the Wars of the Roses, his books pit warring families against each other in a vaguely Britain-shaped land called Westeros. Seven great houses rule seven regions, which are united under the rule of a single king who sits on an iron throne in a capital called King’s Landing. The fundamental question is deceptively simple: Who will rule? Early in the first book (and early in the first season), the king dies, setting off the war for succession and dominance that is the “game of thrones.”
This game has but one rule, “You win or you die.” The politics are gritty, good men are hard to find, and honor and virtue are often rewarded with swift death. While magic exists and terrible enemies lurk, the story centers on the politics and personalities of the great houses. In fact, the brilliant first three books of Martin’s series often read more like Renaissance political thrillers than fantasy novels. Alliances are made and broken, palace intrigue trumps battlefield results, and even magical creatures are shockingly vulnerable to the most mundane of defenses. In other words, don’t look for magic artifacts to save the day. In Martin’s world, people rule, people fight, and people make the decisive difference.
I’ll be honest. I didn’t think it would work as a television show. The world was too big and complicated. The politics were too intricate. And for the first few weeks, I didn’t watch — for good reason. Perhaps fearing that the show would flop without a little extra help, HBO used its full premium-cable powers to lard it up with graphic sex and violence. Martin’s books aren’t for the squeamish, but HBO took the lewd elements to the next level. Comedians and critics even coined a term, “sexposition,” to describe the show’s habit of using extended sex scenes as a mechanism for explaining plot points and developing characters. In family-friendly social-conservative circles, the word went out: HBO once again was using sex to sell, and Christians especially shouldn’t be buying.
Yet as the show progressed, people I trust kept saying — no, demanding — that I should watch. Ignore the sex, they said. Focus on the story. So I gave it a chance, and, like tens of millions of my fellow citizens, once I started watching I never stopped.
HBO’s gamble was a success, and then success turned into sensation. The first season’s finale drew a respectable 3 million viewers. But by the end of season six, the show was an unstoppable ratings juggernaut, watched by upwards of 25 million Americans each week. It’s arguably the most watched show on television today. In the blue-state coastal enclaves — where Game of Thrones is most popular — it’s a true water-cooler show in the old style. Everyone is talking about it, everyone is debating it, and entire recapping and podcasting empires have sprung up around it.
But why? Why all the fuss? In the so-called platinum age of television, when dozens of outstanding shows are available at the click of a mouse, why has this one resonated so strongly? Season seven (out of eight) starts on July 16, and its ratings will likely surpass everything but the NFL playoffs. A true cultural moment is at hand.
The short explanation of the success is that the show’s creators have accomplished what few television or film producers have ever achieved — they have improved upon classic books and have, quite simply, mastered the art of storytelling. They tightened the sprawling tale while keeping Martin’s sense of scope and grandeur, they cast the multiple important roles perfectly, and they have shown a knack for delivering during the big moments. The plot twists, betrayals, and epic battles aren’t just watchable, they’re rewatchable. In fact, classic clips garner millions of views on YouTube as fans go relive the highlights in much the same way that Patriots fans no doubt relive the last five minutes of Tom Brady’s epic comeback in Super Bowl LI.
But the storytelling is only part of the appeal. The story itself matters too, and in many ways it is the right story at the right time, holding up a mirror to modern American sensibilities and showing the consequences of modern American morality. To understand how, let’s once again contrast Tolkien and Martin. In Tolkien’s world the stakes are immense, the moral battle lines are clear, and victory actually means victory, the end of a distinct evil force. In this respect, as noted above, Tolkien was a man of his age. He published Fellowship of the Ring in 1954 — after the Allies vanquished the great evil Adolf Hitler. When Tolkien wrote of the triumph of good over evil, it all felt real. Victory didn’t usher in utopia, but victory meant something substantial. Sauron was real, and when Sauron died, the world revived.
Tolkien’s world isn’t Martin’s world. Whereas Tolkien’s work represented a literal journey with a fixed destination, Martin’s can feel like a treadmill of conflict where squabbling lords and ladies ignore looming threats and greater dangers for the sake of momentary advantage in a seemingly never-ending battle for control. The stakes can seem small — what’s the real difference for humanity between Lannister or Targaryen rule? — but the conflicts are still intense.
Whereas the typical high-fantasy novel might end after a hero defeats her enemies and frees entire cities’ worth of slaves, in Game of Thrones, Martin (and the show’s creators) ask, “What comes next?” And the answer, instead of a glorious celebration of freedom and liberty, is a period of chaos and vengeance.
Whereas the typical high-fantasy novel centers on the most honorable of heroes and writes him to victory against insurmountable odds, in Game of Thrones, the honorable hero loses his head unless he’s honorable and shrewd or honorable and violent. And whereas the typical high-fantasy novel casts its heroes and villains in clear and unmistakable terms, in Game of Thrones you sometimes find that your rooting interests evolve in interesting ways. Just as in life, people change — especially in response to shocking events.
What results is a moral universe of surprising complexity and nuance, one that is true to life in a way that conservatives especially should understand. Think of it as Calvinism without Christ — natural human depravity unleashed. The realities of human nature mean that evil is very, very evil, and good is also touched with the weight of sin. You see the reality of the Paul’s Epistle to the Romans unfold on screen. Time and again, characters don’t do the good they want to do. Instead, they achieve the very evil they sought to avoid.
Certain timely themes emerge, perhaps most salient among them the constant, vivid reminders that the ends do not justify the means. When a lord named Theon Greyjoy launches a surprise attack to restore the glory of his house — and in so doing betrays his deepest friendships — he transforms himself first into a murderous fiend and then into a cowardly husk of a man. When one of the great houses ends a vicious war by violating the most sacred rules of honor in the land, it creates undying enmity and sows the seeds of vicious retribution.
Indeed, Martin has revealed a key truth — that pursuing virtuous ends by vicious means can so transform a person that the ends themselves change. Virtue is redefined, and ultimately virtue is lost.
Game of Thrones, moreover, is dominated by a very human, overwhelming sense of entitlement. The sense of victimization feels modern, yet it also taps into ancient truth. The characters are obsessed with settling scores and vindicating their honor. If there is a guiding ethic, it is “I have a right to what’s mine.” The sense of entitlement drips from the worst of the characters, and even the best sometimes struggle to see beyond their own rights.
The great heroine of the story — at least so far — is Daenerys Targaryen (wonderfully played by Emilia Clarke), the last surviving child of the deposed Targaryen dynasty, and her seasons-long quest is simple: to take back what the “usurpers” stole from her. She wants to rule justly. She desires a better world. But that’s in many ways secondary to a single animating reality: The Iron Throne is hers. She wants it back. In fact, even the evilest of characters have their own tales of woe. They can always find a murder or a conflict or an act of defiance that justifies the next vengeful act. Just as in real life, evil has a reason for its rage.
As a direct consequence, the show also demonstrates the truth that in a world dominated by evil, virtue is hard. There are good characters in the show. Daenerys, for all her flaws, is the show’s great liberator. Jon Snow has grown into a leader of men, but he had to (literally) die to learn how to lead. Tyrion Lannister, perhaps the fan favorite, is a master of realpolitik who’s made more than his share of compromises to survive. These are flawed people, possessing partial information and confronting perilous enemies. While watching, one can’t help but be reminded of Christ’s admonition that even his followers should be “wise as serpents.” Good and evil alike play the game of thrones, and forsaking the game entirely can mean not just losing your life but also unleashing the hell of evil triumphant.
A conservative can’t watch the show without understanding that it is, at times, almost shamelessly Burkean: Disrupt the established order at your peril. In the backstory to the series, several of the great houses launched a rebellion (“Robert’s Rebellion”) to depose a mad king. By any measure, it was a just war against a homicidal maniac, but one does not cast away a 300-year-old dynasty without consequence, and the consequence here was to throw the entire established order into chaos. The questions are endless. Everything is in doubt. Why must there be but a single king? Can’t different regions govern themselves? Can’t any great house lay equal claim to the Iron Throne?
The thrill of disruption is replaced by a feeling of dread. The old order existed for a reason. The old customs sustained life. And chaos brings with it the search for the political savior, the person who can once and for all set things right.
Perhaps we’ll get that kind of classic fantasy ending, but somehow I doubt it will be that neat, that clean. I could be wrong, but I suspect we won’t see anything like the collapse of Mount Doom in Return of the King. Maybe we’ll get justice, but it will likely be angry justice, and when the series ends, the last person on the Iron Throne will wear the crown uneasily, knowing that she (or he) left a trail of bodies on the path to power and that those souls not only cry out for vengeance but have living descendants who hear their call.
There’s always a temptation to read too much into fiction, to draw too-neat comparisons to our times. Sometimes a good story is just a good story and there are no larger lessons. But Game of Thrones feels different. It has its dragons and its magic, but it also feels real. It feels relevant.
Not long ago I was at dinner when yet one more moral debate broke out about our own political ends and means — including the high moral cost of “winning.” At issue was the question of political tactics. Did the “high road” work anymore? Don’t the nice guys always lose, and when they lose don’t the virtues they believe in ultimately lose as well? In that moment, the nerd in me was transported to Westeros, to an increasingly amoral society, unmoored from its traditions and full of entitled and ambitious men and women who compete for power with unrestrained viciousness. Does that sound at least vaguely familiar? Is it any wonder that Game of Thrones resonates in the modern American heart?
When season seven launches, it will still be violent. It will still have too much sex (though HBO has limited the lewdness as the series has grown more popular). And it will still tell a fantastic and engrossing story. But it will give us something else as well — a lesson that entitlement and rage have a price, and that justice gets lost when victory is the only goal. Perhaps the true rule of the game of thrones isn’t “Win or die” but rather “Win and die.” The quest for power, unmoored from virtue, is the doom of us all.