Fintan O’Toole: Game of Thrones is an epic for our times

Game of Thones: Jon Snow (Kit Harington) in the Battle of the Bastards

Sex, violence and money: Game of Thrones has more of them than anything we’ve ever seen on TV before. So on the face of it, it may be pretty stupid to ask why it is so popular. In the age of more, more, more, the sex is more explicit and lurid; the violence is more hideously and inventively sadistic; and the money screams out at us from the screen in everything from the exquisitely detailed designs and the exotic locations to the magical conjuring of fabulous beasts and monsters.

But if this superabundance makes the series sensational, it is not what makes it good enough to hold us for so long. We may have come for the spectacle, but we have stayed because Game of Thrones is, for all its faux-medieval trappings and escapist fantasy, very much an epic for our time. It dramatises many of the great 21st-century anxieties: the breakdown of international order, climate change, globalisation, gender, the body.

Game of Thrones savagely eliminates half its characters to show humanity stripped down to its bleakly Hobbesian basics of greed, lust and cruelty

The world of Game of Thrones is that of Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan, written in the middle of the ultraviolent religious and political upheavals of 17th century Europe: “No arts, no letters, no society, and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Two of Hobbes’s mottos hover over the entire series: “bellum omnium contra omnes”, the war of all against all; and “homo homini lupus est”, man is wolf to man (and, one might add, especially to woman).

The fear of violent death is the most rational emotion in this universe. A study published last December in the journal Injury Epidemiology showed that of the 330 named characters in the first seven seasons, 186 (56.4 per cent) died, all but two of them violently. It also found that one of the main risks of being killed was loyalty: characters who fail to switch allegiance at the right time meet brutal ends. Being good in this treacherous world is very bad for you.

Game of Thones: Jon Snow (Kit Harington) in the Battle of the Bastards
Game of Thones: Jon Snow (Kit Harington) in the Battle of the Bastards

This is why Game of Thrones feels at once utterly stark and incredibly lavish. For the thing it is most lavish with is characters. Narratives invest in characters, building them up over time. Game of Thrones shows its wealth not just in physical objects and virtual creatures but even more in the way it dispenses with the products of its narrative investments. This is the peculiar aesthetic of the series: it flaunts its superfluity of characters by savagely eliminating half of them, but it does so in order to show humanity stripped down to its bleakly Hobbesian basics of greed, lust and cruelty.

Why does this terrible vision appeal to us? For all its elements of fantasy and wonder, it is, as John Lanchester has put it, “not a world any sane person would want to live in”. There are, of course, many insane people who would love to live in it. At the most basic level, Game of Thrones is a far-right fantasia. Its apparent worldview is the one that is taken for granted in far-right thinking: that there is no such thing as society, only a crudely Darwinian struggle for existence and dominance in which one must kill or be killed, enslave or be enslaved. The vision would not be out of place in Mein Kampf and it informs (if that is not too flattering a word) the rantings of every white nationalist psychopath.

So does Game of Thrones capture the zeitgeist because it affirms the dark hallucinations of the rising (and returning) political force of our times? Yes and no. It enters into its fetid worldview, but it does not affirm it. In a sense, it is even bleaker than Hobbes. He had a cure for the war of all against all, and of course so has the far right: the undivided power of an absolute ruler. But the throne in Westeros for which the vicious game is being played hardly looks like a reassuring image of authority – even if you serve it, as Ned Stark discovered in the first season, it does not save you from arbitrary death.

No one would ever mistake Game of Thrones for a treatise on carbon emissions, but we have known from the start that its end will be not so much climactic as climatic

And this subjection to arbitrary violence speaks not to fascist fantasies of a new order emerging from the chaos but to contemporary realities. Hundreds of millions of people right now are living in failed states and narco states, where children, women and men are at the mercy of warlords and drug lords. If you want to imagine what a realistic Game of Thrones, set in our world and stripped of dragons, swords and sorcery, would look like, just watch the nightmarish Mexican series El Chapo on Netflix. The hyperviolent drug cartels struggle for supremacy but the only order any of them can impose, even if they win, is universal terror.

Game of Thrones

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Unlike the usual epic narrative, Game of Thrones does not really suggest that proper order will be restored simply because the rightful monarch gains the throne. Indeed, the sheer proliferation of claimants to that status makes a mockery of all the claims to legitimacy. Authority, if it is to be re-established, will have to have a new and deeper meaning. This is so for us, too – things are falling apart, international order is threatened but we cannot simply go back to old ideas of political authority.

It is striking in this regard that, as we enter the final season, we are far less interested in the ostensible subject of the drama – who should or will occupy the Iron Throne – than we are in the general irrelevance of that question to the real existential threat: climate change. No one is ever going to mistake Game of Thrones for a treatise on carbon emissions, but we have known from the beginning that its end will be not so much climactic as climatic. The clock has been ticking from the first episode. Winter is coming. The apocalypse may be of the zombie variety, embodied in the terrifying power of the White Walkers, and it may be global cooling rather than warming that is approaching, but the connection to our own crisis is obvious. If there is to be good authority established from the political and moral chaos, it can be rooted only in the imperative to face the great menace together.

But of course therein lies the problem. Things are falling apart not just in Westeros but in our own world, and Game of Thrones mirrors the state of a contemporary culture shaped by globalisation but unable in its turn to shake off local obsessions. While the existential threat has been moving inexorably closer, the characters have no real sense of the historic moment they occupy. The complex dynastic genealogies that lie behind the action are a parody of real history. And Game of Thrones is itself a pastiche of historical narratives. It draws most obviously on the Wars of the Roses in the 15th century, but the wall harks back to Hadrian over a millennium before, and the Unsullied to the ancient Spartans. The Red Wedding carnage of the Starks echoes the Glencoe massacre of 1692.

We have versions of both the Viking invasions of Britain in the ninth century (the Iron-born seizure of the North) and of the Mongols (Khal Drogo, the leader of the Dothraki is an obvious avatar of Genghis Khan) 400 years later. Braavos is clearly 16th-century Venice (where the sequences set there were filmed) and one of the best plot lines, the rise and fall of the religious zealot the High Sparrow, is the story of Girolamo Savonarola in 15th-century Florence. We are in a very postmodern temporal world, where bits of history float free of chronology and context. The effect is as recognisable as it is disorienting: historic things are happening to us but we struggle to grasp them because we are not sure what narrative connects the present to the past.

Game of Thrones: the High Sparrow (Jonathan Pryce), leader of the religious sect the Sparrows
Game of Thrones: the High Sparrow (Jonathan Pryce), leader of the religious sect the Sparrows

The disorientation is increased by the way these games with history in the series are also games with dramatic form. The series shuffles the deck of genres. There are obvious borrowings from Shakespeare’s history plays, not just in the ferocious attempts of sons, brothers and bastards to claim a hollow crown but in, for example, the way Tyrion’s passage from whoring, wine-guzzling reprobate to sophisticated statesman echoes the development of Price Hal. Or think of the way Cersei, like Macbeth, both embraces and is destroyed by the prophecies of witches. But the series also spins back to Greek tragedy – the sequence in which Stannis Baratheon sacrifices his virginal daughter Shireen is straight out of Agamemnon’s sacrifice of Iphigenia and the Oresteian cycle of revenge. (The backstory of the toppling of the Targaryen dynasty as a result of the abduction of Lyanna Stark is pure Helen of Troy, so that the Trojan Wars echo through Game of Thrones as they do through the Greek cycle.) And, equally, the dramatic form can spin forward to Samuel Beckett, as it does in the brilliant Beckett pastiche in series four in which Barry McGovern (best known as a Beckett actor) plays a philosophically moribund man encountered by Arya Stark: “Maybe nothing is worse than this.” Arya: “Nothing isn’t better or worse than anything. Nothing is just nothing.”

The chief scriptwriters met studying Irish literature at Trinity College Dublin. David Benioff worked on Samuel Beckett while DB Weiss researched Finnegans Wake

We can never quite forget that, as they told Vanity Fair in 2014, the executive producers and chief scriptwriters of the show, David Benioff and DB Weiss, met as postgraduate students studying Irish literature at Trinity College Dublin. Benioff worked on Beckett while Weiss researched James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. (“We were two American Jews in Dublin… with no Irish roots of any kind, obsessed with Irish literature, and trying to find a functional gym in Dublin in 1995.”) They understand both Joyce’s omnivorous mashing-up of different historical periods and styles and Beckett’s absurdist subversion of storytelling conventions.

The same radical uncertainty attaches to the show’s presentation of gender and sexual violence. The line between the realistic presentation of a “rape culture” on the one hand and the voyeuristic exploitation of it on the other is very fine and Game of Thrones undoubtedly crosses it far too often. The bodies of naked women are used gratuitously for spectacle and titillation – the bulk of the sex scenes have women acting as whores and we are the vicarious customers.

Game of Thrones: Princess Shireen Baratheon (Kerry Ingram), who was burnt alive at the stake by her father
Game of Thrones: Princess Shireen Baratheon (Kerry Ingram), who was burnt alive at the stake by her father

But it is also true that Game of Thrones is very contemporary in its disruption of male sexual power. It has, indeed, something like an obsession with the ultimate such disruption: castration. When Tyrion threatens to emasculate Joffrey, we know it would not be a far-fetched plot twist. Conleth Hill’s Varys is a eunuch – in his backstory, his genitals were sacrificed and burned by a sorcerer. The Unsullied, including Grey Worm, have all been castrated in childhood. Theon Greyjoy is sadistically tortured and castrated by Ramsay Bolton and his penis is sent in a box to his father. Has any mainstream entertainment ever had so many missing male appendages? And do they not create a world in which male sexual domination is so obviously in tension with the very real fear of being unmanned? Even more remarkably, Grey Worm, Theon and Varys are much more effective protectors of women precisely because they lack the defining physical features of masculinity.

It is obvious, of course, that Game of Thrones has powerful female characters: Daenerys, Cersei Lannister, Catelyn Stark, Sansa, Arya, Melisandre and Brienne of Tarth all have or acquire real agency and it is striking that in the cases of Daenerys, Cersei and Sansa they do so after rape. Also striking that the one figure in the whole series who could really belong in a medieval Arthurian romance is Brienne, who is the model of an honourably chivalrous questing knight who will do anything to keep the promise she has made. She and Arya are both cross-dressers, almost always seen in male attire, and both challenge the male monopoly on personal violence. They are culturally unwomaned just as so many male characters are more literally unmanned.

Game of Thrones: Lord Varys (Conleth Hill) with Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage)
Game of Thrones: Lord Varys (Conleth Hill) with Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage)

What makes Game of Thrones so representative of our time in this regard is not, then, that it either reinforces or undermines patriarchal attitudes to gender. It’s that it does both. It is at once luridly sexist and radically challenging in the way it presents gender. And that makes it a pretty effective trawling of our own culture, in which gender identities are in such flux. There is at once a sense of violent entrapment in gender roles (the most genuinely tender love scenes are between the gay lovers Renly Baratheon and Loras Tyrell, and they are both doomed) and of escape from them, of ideas of sexuality being simultaneously reinforced and subverted. That’s pretty much the state of play in our culture.

Game of Thrones is not exactly blind to the glamorous looks of actors, but it does have a remarkable variety of bodies that do not conform to the templates of beauty

One convention Game of Thrones does manage to shatter more unequivocally is the iron law of popular entertainment that the good characters are beautiful, the bad ugly and the truly evil deformed or disabled. (Think of Shakespeare’s Richard III, or Ivar the Boneless in another long-running contemporary epic series, Vikings.) Game of Thrones doesn’t turn the connection on its head. It just breaks it. Cersei and Joffrey are evil but beautiful. Jon Snow and Daenerys are good but beautiful.

Game of Thrones is not exactly blind to the glamorous looks of actors, but it does have a remarkable variety of bodies that do not conform to the templates of beauty: Brienne is freakishly big, Samwell Tarly is obese, Tyrion, of course, is dwarfish.

And disability has never been as prominent in mainstream entertainment as it is here. As well as all the men without genitals, Jaime loses an arm, Arya is temporarily blind in Braavos, Hodor is intellectually disabled, Davos loses the fingers of his left hand, Bran has his back broken when Jaime throws him out a window, Jorah has a disfiguring disease that threatens to rob him of his sanity, the Hound’s face is violently disfigured. The body in Game of Thrones is extremely vulnerable to death but what really stands out is that the imperfect, broken, incomplete body survives and even thrives – Jon Snow even survives his own body’s death.

Game of Thrones: Jon Snow (Kit Harington) returns from the dead
Game of Thrones: Jon Snow (Kit Harington) returns from the dead

As the series enters its endgame, it is hard to think of any other successful popular entertainment in which those who might bring us some conclusion that is not extinction are so profoundly wounded. The delightful Boltons have as their symbol a flayed man, but all the surviving characters in Game of Thrones have been, metaphorically at least, flayed alive. It is a commonplace of epics that the hero has had to overcome a flaw and carries a wound or vulnerability of some sort (think of Harry Potter’s scar or Achilles’s heel). In Carl Jung’s formulation, “it is his own hurt that gives a measure of his power to heal”.

This is, of course, also the basic image of Christianity: the tortured and murdered body of the Saviour. But Game of Thrones takes this to new extremes by multiplying it across such a large group of flawed and wounded heroes. Have we ever had such a coalition of the shunned, the raped, the malformed, the mutilated, the broken and even (in Jon Snow) the murdered? For an era like ours that has renamed victims as survivors, here is an epic in which the world’s survival depends on them.