I simply don’t know how a show can be both as great and as terrible as Game of Thrones. It’s not a TV show, it’s a narcotic. I’ve spent this week thinking about little but Game of Thrones, but then I rewatch even the best old episodes and experience little but frustration. To get to any character development or plot progress you need to sit through ten minutes of stupid sword fights that serve no purpose but time filler. It takes six episodes to get through plot development that can be gotten through in one episode, and one episode to get through plot development that should take six episodes. All the while, gratuitous T&A little different HBO late night softcore that displays about as much erotic chemistry as existed between Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman in Driving Miss Daisy.
Game of Thrones premiered on April 17th, 2011. Three months after Republicans retook the House of Representatives, became the Party of No, and set about destroying any hope of Obama transforming an American society long overdue for transformation. Over the course of these eight years, the world seems to have held itself up to the precipice of chaos, but unless you’re willing to interpret the show through the most far-flung metaphors, Game of Thrones tells us absolutely nothing about our current culture or the historical forces that brought us here. It is almost pure escapism; a bunch of white actors who aren’t even American playing dressup medieval times for an American audience who doesn’t know f-ckall about the Middle Ages or English history and has no desire to learn. Game of Thrones is pure escapism in an era that desperately needs art to give us more insight about who we are.
Sure, we can hear until we’re blue in the face that ‘Winter is Coming’ and the ‘White Walkers’ are a metaphor for Global Warming, but let’s be honest here… putting a metaphor for global warming in the guise of a fantasy series in an alternate universe so defanged a metaphor that you could completely ignore it and it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.
Just think of how other shows showed the mirror up to us. Think of The Wire. As a Baltimorean, I had some problems with how the city was portrayed, but as more and more of America comes to resemble the dysfunction The Wire foretells, the show looks better and better. Mad Men, in my opinion still the greatest drama on American television, is about the evolution of American history, and however much of a jerk Matthew Weiner was while making it, the era of Donald Trump and #metoo only makes Mad Men seem more prescient than ever. Homer Simpson was the Trump voter incarnate twenty-five years before we knew Donald Trump would be President (The Simpsons even predicted Trump would be President in a throwaway joke…) What is the Trump family but Arrested Development’s Bluth family making it to the White House, and who can’t possibly see Tony Soprano in all those low-level goons who masterminded the contacts between the Trumps and Russia?
And yet, how is a show that’s pure escapism so utterly gloomy? During the few moments when the takes its cameras off swords, dragons, and boobies, the characters are dragged through one scene after another of wrenching suffering. Even the comic moments, such as they are, are not very funny. If we laugh, it’s just a way to lighten the tension from the moments when our souls get smeared in blood.
So what is the real source of Game of Thrones’s appeal? Well, for one thing, it’s a magnificent achievement. The plotting is far from perfect, but nothing plotted that intricately could ever come close..If you watch any episode a second time, you realize that the writing on the show is stunning, so stunning that the twenty minutes of action in every episode feels like a rude interruption rather than an inevitability. But so many lines of dialogue foreshadow events which happen years later that they subconsciously plant seeds in our mind of events that should be unthinkable, but when they happen, they seem inevitable rather than ridiculous.
For all I obsess over it, I have trouble telling myself that this is as great a show as Mad Men or The Sopranos or The Simpsons or Seinfeld. Watching shows like those four, I’m constantly sighing in delight. The pleasure is in the mere act of watching them, and except perhaps for the barbaric violence of The Sopranos, you can watch them without ever tiring of them. But Game of Thrones is so upsetting that you might drive yourself crazy if you watched it too often.
When I watch Game of Thrones, I feel much more frustration about the show than I ever do love, and yet I think about it all the time. Like Breaking Bad before it, it’s almost as though the frustration you sometimes feel about the show bonds you to it deeper than you would bond to a greater show. Shows like Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad deal so much in adrenaline that the pace often needs to slow itself down to molasses or else your mind will accustom itself to the excitement. But those more trivial moments are inevitably not nearly as interesting. Like an addict, you find yourself fiending for your next fix, all the more addicted to the show because the gratification of the next fix is delayed.
Nobody who isn’t already an adult in 2019 will ever know what it was like to be in the Throne-fever’s death grip for eight whole years. In some ways, the obsessions of the fans are more interesting than the show itself. In that regard it’s little different from forerunners like Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Harry Potter, and Lord of the Rings: all of them were good movie franchises from good source material, and occasionally great. But part of what bonded their audiences to the franchises like a cult was the shared exasperation people felt with plot developments in all four. It was simply a given that parts of the movies or the books would disappoint you, and you commiserated with your fellow worshippers that your G-d turned out to be human after all.
But the obsessive bond between fan and show is another level entirely in Game of Thrones to the bonds people felt to the other four. The sci-fi/fantasy generation is now fully adult, and never again will they have a guarantee of a happy ending. Fantasy is, by definition, a little bit childish. It guarantees respite from the banal tragedies and boredom of our world and promises places of excitement and passion where only the imagination can take you.
So what happens when a generation accustomed to living partially in the world of fantasy wants to bring its fantasies to reality? We are the Generation of Fantasy, not just because we grew up on Indiana Jones and now watch Game of Thrones, but because we live as much of our lives on the internet and social media (if not more) as in reality. All of it, whether it’s the Lord of the Rings or Instagram and Facebook, comes from the same computer-generated imagery. On the one hand, we can curate an image of ourselves to the world on Instagram as though we were the Steven Spielberg of our own lives. On the other hand, we can inflame the rage of others on twitter and fantasize about disturbing the bubble of self-satisfaction we imagine they live in as though each of us were Armond White or John Simon*. What effect does it have on us that we suddenly have such a lack of filter between what we think and the ability to express ourselves to an enormous number of people? Does that make us more mature, or does it make us more childish?
The point of this is not to sh*t on fantasy literature. I will never apologize for thinking that fantasy, like science fiction, is a genre whose writers have to fight to reach artistic quality with as much difficulty as a one-armed swimmer would have tying to win a race; but there are plenty of highly talented writers who choose those genres as their mediums and do write books of genuine quality.
To do great work in science-fiction or fantasy, or any other genre, you have to transcend its boundaries, but realism is not a genre. Realism is the human condition, the basis of how human beings operate, and therefore the point of art itself. Furthermore, it is much easier to branch out from realism to the unreal than it is to make the unreal real. When science fiction and fantasy are great, it arrives at the point where realism has been the whole time.
Still further, every generation has its own version of unrealistic fiction, and the best of it is popular beyond all reckoning, but cultural history is littered with examples of genre fiction writers who burn bright and then vanish from the world’s consciousness. There are exceptions like Lewis Carrol or Hans Christian Anderson or Edgar Allen Poe, but how many people read Walter Scott or ETA Hofmann anymore? How many people read Agatha Christie or Arthur Conan Doyle? Even in France and Germany, how many people still read the original Charles Perrault and Brothers Grimm fairy-tales rather than some Disneyfied bastardization? Even the stars of most ‘classic’ Science Fiction authors of fifty years ago have faded.
Ask the average Star Wars fan what science fiction he’s read. I’ll bet anything he’s read plenty by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. He might boast about how many Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson books he’s read. He’s probably read some stuff by Stephen King, perhaps what an older cousin recommended, and he might have even read something by Bradbury or Vonnegut. If he’s woke, he’s probably read something by Margret Atwood or Ursula LeGuin, though he might not have finished it, and of course he put down Dune two years ago and still means to finish it (we won’t even mention how far he’s gotten in the Ice and Fire series…).
But if you polled everybody at a Star Wars Celebration under a lie detector as to whether they’ve ever read anything by Asimov, Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, J.G. Ballard, I wonder if even a majority would have heard of these names which electrified their parents at the same age (though I’m sure a Star Trek Convention would do a little better…). So long as there has been a modern literary world, the world has always been in thrall to genre fiction, and every generation would rather invent its own version of genre fiction than learn about the fantasies of other generations. To understand the fantasies of other generations, you first have to learn about the realities of other generations, and those realities, often called ‘history’, are realities of which our generation, for our many underrated virtues, is perhaps uniquely incurious. To most of the intellectually curious of 2019, history is an oppressive fantasy selectively framed by white male victors to portray themselves in the most flattering light.
Yes, I know I’m being too hard on fantasy, perhaps much too hard. Some of it is great indeed. My very favorite writer, my dearly beloved Isaac Bashevis Singer, was a kind of Yiddish fantasy writer who seemed almost more comfortable writing about dybbuks and golems than he was about humans. But Singer was writing the very real beliefs of a culture of ghosts. Nearly everyone else who believed in dybbuks and golems died in Auschwitz and Treblinka, and he was perhaps their last best hope for the world to remember them.
The problem with fantasy fiction has never been that it prohibits quality fiction. The problem with fantasy fiction is that it promotes the enactment of fantasies in reality.
The most powerful fantasy in all of art has to be the Ring of the Nibelung by Richard Wagner – it’s almost beyond question. The Ring is a fifteen hour cycle of operas that takes place in the world of gods, giants, dwarves, heroes, and valkyries. To find any parallel to the excitement America feels at Game of Thrones, you have to envision Germany in the mid-to-late 1800’s, freshly under the spell of Richard Wagner. Educated Germans of that era grew up hearing the Ninth Symphony and The Magic Flute, with their mystical ideas of a better world existing just beyond the edge of our realm. They’d been educated with Hegel, who speculated that we are evolving ever closer to perceiving the world as it truly is, and with Goethe’s Faust, with its many many scenes taking place in transcendent spiritual realms. At bedtime, their governesses regaled them with the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm and ETA Hofmann. Germans of that era were taught practically in utero that a mystic, transcendent realm exists beyond this one. All it took to convince them that they could accomplish in reality what they perceived in fantasy was an artist/prophet to show them how a hero, like Siegfried, could overthrow the rule of gods and dwarves and redeem our world. From Wagner, it’s one step to Nietszche, who argued that supermen, superheroes, could overthrow God himself. From Nietzsche, it’s one step to… you know the rest of the story…
The Ring is as towering a work of art as a human imagination has ever conceived. But like Game of Thrones, it is an incredibly frustrating piece for those of us looking more to enjoy what we watch to than be infatuated by it. Like Game of Thrones, The Ring’s relevance to its own era was opaque, but so powerful was the impact of its music-dramas that its most worshipful admirers interpolated all kinds meanings from it. Some took the overthrow of the gods to mean the Age of Democracy, some took it to mean the Age of Science, some took it to mean the end of imperialism, there were even Marxist Wagnerites who saw in the overthrow of the gods the overthrow of capitalism. Like all great art, and for all its many, many loungers, Game of Thrones is surely a great work of popular art, you can interpolate whatever metaphor you like.
But so powerful did previous generations find The Ring that it not only inspired new interpretations of history, it altered the course of history. When people listen to The Ring in 2019, most of us don’t think about heroes liberating us from the fetters of our past, most of us think of how dangerous it is to believe that heroes are capable of such feats. The music lies to us. It spins a fantasy in our ears that if we destroy enough of the old world, we can be free of the past. The political metaphors in Wagner are deliberately far-fetched. Today, on the other hand, the political meaning of Wagner is clear as day. Wagner is by far the best document we have to understand the inner life of a Nazi.
I’d imagine that a narrow majority of the people who watch Game of Thrones are liberal to well left-of-center. They are incredibly anxious about the prospect of Global Warming, and Game of Thrones speaks not only to their desire to see tired fantasy formulas subverted, or for violent entertainment, but also to anxieties within them of which they are barely conscious. In the face of Global Warming and WMD proliferation, I doubt there is a single person in the First World who doesn’t wonder occasionally if we’ll be catapulted back to the Middle Ages, or if we won’t all find ourselves meeting a horrible death. In the face of such threats, we may have to band together with Trumpers and Corbynites whose ideologies we loathe as much as Starks hate Targaryens and Lannisters. But I doubt many of us are watching Game of Thrones as an instruction manual.
Nevertheless, I’d imagine that somewhere in the recesses of the dark web, a brilliant adolescent is out there, capable of being an insane thinker or a charismatic leader, watching Game of Thrones from his tiny laptop. The lesson he will take is not that Winter is Coming, but that Chaos is a Ladder.
*They’re America’s most trollish critics. Don’t read them.