The Briefest Reflections on Game of Thrones

Some irresponsible and half-baked brief thoughts about the Game of Thrones TV series (and universe) in the wake of the end of the show. People have been complaining and complaining. Turns out, one of the Game of Thrones writers was involved in writing the script for X-Men Origins: Wolverine. I didn’t realize this; having seen season eight of GoT, I’m not surprised. For those who are holding out hopes that the missteps of season eight can be revised in the books, think again (and again, and again).

Disenchantment, re-enchantment: Game of Thrones may be fantasy, but it is not re-enchantment (unlike Star Wars, Harry Potter, or Lord of the Rings). Enchantment I’ve dealt with before, but let’s say that it meant that, at least in part, meaning was found in things and in the world, and not just in minds, and held sway (this includes not only moral qualities that are really “out there”, but purposes active in our lives and in history itself, and not just in our subjectivities). It can mean that nature, politics, and metaphysics are all connected in a great chain of being, but I’m not sure it necessarily does; it does require that meaning and purpose and goodness be in some sense real, and not just in our heads, or a way of talking about our heterogeneous (i.e., what it means for me to flourish and what it means for you to flourish may be essentially non-harmonizable) and idiosyncratic self-interests. Game of Thrones is radically skeptical about meaning and purpose and value meaning anything beyond the willing agents who pursue them, and often –or usually– reduces them to power tactics.

Power: in our late modern democratic world, we try to minimize the performance of, and even the acknowledgment of, power differences of any kind, because performing power differences flies against the principles of the fundamental equal worth and dignity of all people (and legitimacy by consent and activity of the people, &c.). Thus, when a mother asks her child, “isn’t it time for your bath?”, she isn’t asking a question, but attempting to downplay the power differences between her and her child –to say “get in the tub right now” goes against democratic principles (equal dignity, autonomy, &c.). There are communities in which such a mother would just tell the kid what to do, but families that have been leavened by the democratic principle want to minimize the display of power differences. In asking a question, rather than issuing a command, the mother is appealing to a rule, a norm, and treating the norm as having its own autonomous power and legitimacy; this is part of democratic tradition, as well. These kinds of things appear in modern workplaces, too: “if you could get me those TPS reports by tomorrow, that would be great“. We minimize the power relations that actually structure our relationships. Game of Thrones exaggerates them, to make them burn white hot and shove your face in them (like the stories of Rat from this book), so that you can’t escape that they are a part of your life; it wants you to feel the sharp edges of power dynamics, so that you cannot take refuge in idealism or democratic sensibilities; it shows power as a kind of mindless (and so non-teleological) bricolage that metabolizes whatever random things are around as it shoots out in random and unexpected directions. It has its own laws, and they are not moral — or immoral, but morally indifferent. Power is mere force, is primary; reason is secondary (except as it is instrumental to force), goodness is secondary, as is everything else. Irrational force is the ground of the real. It reminds me of Nietzsche — Dionysius (chaos, force, power) grounds Apollo (order, rationality) for Nietzsche. It would seem that justice and goodness are not primary; the dynamics of power and self-interest are not a corruption of justice and politics and ethics, but more fundamental, more real.

The wheel of the coming-and-going of the worldly gods: as with power, so too with irrationality and the gods, or “powers” as they were often called in ancient literature. There are divine powers that move through the world, that come and go, but they are merely arising within the more fundamental limit condition of irrationality and oblivion (which are the ultimate reality). Humanity itself occupies a small and fragile island of light and life within the larger and more fundamental sea of forgetting and death, which wins in the end: life and rationality and humanity and value are something like a firefly blip in a dark night. There are a number of Romantic German (and Romanian) philosophers I’d like to cite here, but in Game of Thrones, magic and gods apparently cycle in with no logic or rationality regarding their whences or their natures. A resurrection, however –a real intervention by, or disclosure of, a horizon beyond death– is not imaginable. For example, the Lord of Light may have some sway over things (making fire, preventing aging, bringing people back from the dead), and may have a certain aim (Arya was saved and Jon was saved by devotees of the Lord of Light – seemingly as agents against the Night King), but these aims are worldly, seemingly for concrete objectives within history and time and space, have no transcendent aim: the Lord of Light still bows to death (as Melisandre does after the battle of Winterfell, and as Beric Dondarrion and Jon Snow report with regard to the nothingness of death — the Lord of Light seems to stake his claim and make his efforts for this side of the oblivion); there seems to be no final salvation. These powers (such as the Lord of Light) are limited, and hemmed in by more fundamental and titanic forces – like death. The characters even make this explicit. Correspondingly, neither Nirvana nor the Plotinian return to the One are envisionable as the horizon of the world, as ultimately real. It is too stubbornly materialistic, with none of the Enlightenment rationalism that could claim that the relations of material things mirror the structure of our human reason (though it is not hostile to their being rationality in terms of cause-and-effect in the world holding true; that the writers may have violated this is one of our chief complaints against season eight). The irrationality of the magical events are allowed, because they do not transgress the inviolable sanctity of the sovereignty of death and the cage of immanence.  The varieties of religion may be somewhat richer in Westeros than in other fantasy worlds, but it is fundamentally anthropological (see also here for how much Martin has pilfered from our religions, but note how he has collapsed them into sociological structures). One must look at the texture of the story to get the real theology, for the real theology of Game of Thrones is implicit in the narrative; perhaps GRR Martin’s professed agnosticism and lapsed Catholicism can explain a great deal of this; perhaps the mood of the story can account for the odd nature of magic apparently happening by the Lord of Light only to come to nothing, or to no clear end — but those ends are worldly, are for purposes within the ambit of time and space (perhaps scriptwriting mistakes can account for the rest, but they cannot account for all of these magical prophesies and resuscitations that come to nothing that is a terribly clear fit). In the end, magic must not mess with the fundamental absurdity of existence, but highlight it. No resurrection, no age to come, no final victory of the God of life and justice over chaos and death — and no transcendent justice, no transcendent goodness that determines the being of beings even if each temporal being must pass away. “There is only one god, and his name is death.”

Horror: when, in I think season four, Oberyn Martell died unexpectedly and so very violently (see here if you want to be spoiled, and to be traumatized; but, if you don’t know the show, you won’t know how much most of us were rooting for this guy), I was so shocked and horrified that I stopped watching for two seasons. I spoke with a literature professor at BU, who kindly told me that one of the genres that Game of Thrones occupies is horror, which made sense out of why I had felt abused as a viewer after this scene. Hubris does lead to downfall, yes: if the show wanted to show this, then it did so. If the point is to drive home the sovereignty of death and irrationality, however (which the show seems to want to do), then this genre is the right one to choose, and to deploy in this way. The genre of horror represents the theology of Game of Thrones well.

Sex and Tragedy: part of why Game of Thrones was chosen by HBO, I’m sure, is because the politicking and the violence and the sex check all the main boxes of their brand, and their audience expectations. The sex is present in the books, before HBO even was on the scene in the mind of GRR Martin, and it does its job trying to serve the interests of the power relations, of showing how power dynamics pervade our relationships. Our modern ideas about consent have little place in the world of Game of Thrones, not because the show celebrates their abolition, but because it is trying to highlight that these power dynamics are (nearly? –totally?) ubiquitous. There is very little sex-as-stabilizing-hearth that is not taken away soon (Ned and Catelyn Stark; Rob Stark and the other girl he marries; &c.), or else too complicated to be a real hearth (Tyrion and Shae — or Shai?), largely ephemeral (Arya and Gendry) and subjective (there for one party, transactional or else manipulative for the other — Theon Greyjoy and the whore from Winterfell, &c.).

Nihilism: without lording it over others, there are only small and simple pleasures to pursue, that seem to be oriented to no final horizon; autonomy is good, but there is nothing beyond death, and it swallows all of our meanings in the end.

Tragedy: the Catholic Theologian Karl Rahner said that “here in this life all symphonies must remain unfinished”; see John Snow, and the tragedy of the whole world, which mirrors the tragedy of finitude (that is, of a world where everything occupies an island of its own identity, apart from any final whole) that generally reflects a world with no transcendence, no hope for any final resolutions.

Political atomism: in GoT, there is no transcendent good; only worldly and particular goods. Good and the language of the good reduced to power politics in Tyrion’s first prison speech to Jon Snow in S8E6. There is a skepticism about any language of the common good or the greater good; they are taken as ways of hoodwinking any dissenting parties, presumably because all such language reduces to preference and appetite. One wonders about Plato and Aristotle (forget all those medievals who spoke and wrote about the primacy of conscience, despite the fact that GoT is supposed to be set in a medieval era) and even Marsilius of Padua, let alone John Locke; this show seems Hobbesian, so far as I recall Hobbes.

Incoherence in human value: (1) in the world of GoT, people are worth protecting, and have value as in our notion of human rights as this comes to us today via a conglomeration of Christianity with other sources, with high hopes and high ideals and a high notion of human dignity; (2) in the world of GoT, people are junk, and basically selfish and small-souled and concerned with petty things and depraved and cruel and mob-forming and whatnot. Aside from the many mob scenes throughout the show, where people demonstrate very little conscience in the face of group power dynamics, perhaps (2) is highlighted in the fact that (A) the threat of the Night King could not even unify humanity properly, could not even firmly illuminate how petty and small power politicking is in comparison with other concerns, and (B) even after he is defeated, people return to the same petty power politics they were engaged in before this horizon; apparently, all is worldly, and nothing worldly can change how small-souled and cruel and selfish we are. The optimism about a better future that some in the show voice at the end of the final episode, a future of mercy, does not fit well with this general trend of inextractible human wickedness that the rest of the show parades; how is the audience to be persuaded that “the crooked timber of humanity” can become better, on the basis of what the show has shown us, unless the audience is to project our late-modern post-Christian hope into a fantasy fiction world?

Power and virtue; wealth and virtue: power, or the questing for power, is the context for most characters and their decisions in GoT; there are few sages, no saints. Virtues are, thus, largely a form of cunning to which audiences are sympathetic. The palette: mostly grays, not really color. The poor, in GoT, can be savage, but mostly the only characters I can think of who are virtuous are those who keep their heads down and stick to a job virtuously, caring for those around them. In Book I of The Republic, Plato’s Socrates has a conversation with a figure Cephalus who suggests that good character is not enough in old age to secure virtue without some wealth, and that wealth is not enough to deliver virtue without good character; character, in this conversation, requires a good context, a good city, and income. The aristocratic pagan ideals of wealth and virtue are prefigured in The Iliad, and reiterated in other pagan Greek and Latin writings, if I recall. One of the mutations that occurred culturally was in the early Christian optimism about what little was materially required for virtue; people were to be given food and shelter and clothing and honorable work, if they could do it –and even be liberated from slavery, if their masters were so cruel as to prevent the basic conditions of virtue– when they became Christian (there was a material basis for virtue); people were not abandoned to their own inner resources as though Christianity encouraged some promethean bootstrapping of oneself from slavery into excellence of life and character; the Church must provide for the foundations for virtue, as part of the mission of God in the world. Virtue is not impossible for the poor, so long as these basic conditions are met, and they are touched by God’s Spirit. Virtue is, however, difficult for the powerful and wealthy, according to this early Jewish and Christian teaching. I am reminded of Sirach’s (i.e., the book of Sirach or Ecclesiasticus) counsel to keep one’s head low among the powerful, and to remain humble. Those who have wealth within the world of GoT, however, tend to be concerned with not only preserving the power they have but placating those who are more powerful while simultaneously playing power games to acquire more power; they are not freed, by their wealth, to pursue virtue, but to pursue their own self-interest.

PS: There are several bits worth reading, and some that are just on my to-do list.

Ross Douthat here (I’d like to note that I mentioned disenchantment a full day before he published ;-p).

Douthat links to a Scientific American on the shift from sociological to psychological storytelling here, and that (somewhat longer) article was excellent.

The Verge has a collection of its articles here that I have yet to touch.

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Header image found here.

23 thoughts on “The Briefest Reflections on Game of Thrones

  1. I’ll have to read this again, more carefully, at a later time, but viz. the reality of (transcendental) goodness: is that question not primarily a question about the definition of ‘real’ and ‘transcendent’? As obviously, intuitively, good does exist, both in our world as in Westeros.
    Also: what did you think of the show? What strikes me is how high production values seem to be able to convince so many people into watching a cartoonesk, plot hole riddled story with cheese and trite dialogue – including myself. Probably because the show started out good and it transitioned into something else slowly, and we were all hooked by the time we realized we were watching something that didn’t care anymore about story but only about money.

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      • It’s hard to tell exactly, let alone back up by examples/specifics, as it’s been so long ago and I only saw everything once, but I remember being a bit underwhelmed/seeing problems starting as early as season 2. By season 5 that got even worse, actively thinking the show being, well, not good anymore, and the final 2 seasons outright bad.

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        • Same: I’ve only seen everything once, except for season one, which I’ve seen now three times, and season two, which I’ve seen twice. I’m not likely to commit more time to this show. The Vagina Shadow Monster in season two made me think they’d jumped the shark, and then it was in season four that I started feeling abused by a shtick about how cruel the world was; then, in season eight, the magic started to feel like a gimmick that expressed a theology that perhaps the writers didn’t mean to, but did anyway, even though that clashed with the defeat of the White Walkers, who should have won (if we’re to be consistent about the show’s theology of oblivion). It is hard to root for the living when there is nothing permanent in their world other than cruelty and power, and no good other than the multiple irreconcilable idiosyncratic goods of individual beings in a radical pluralism of goods that is ultimately hemmed in by oblivion, with no permanence even to their principles of goodness or justice.

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          • They (power relations) are idiosyncratic, but they are ubiquitous and seem to be ineradicable from all organized social life; the only relief seems to be either the life of Wildlings, where one can roam free of the restrictions of others (Locke’s pre-political state), or else that of the North men, where some order is purchased with an honor ethic and peace – but with obligations for revenge and whatnot, because violence defines the state of nature, and people cannot really adopt a way of life that allows them to live in peace. I would say that the idiosyncratic nature of cruelty and power plays is largely secondary to, if not irrelevant for, my larger claim regarding the nature of the Got universe. No? What do you think?

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          • I’m not sure how to answer. The things is, we don’t know much about ordinary people in Westeros. I don’t see a significant difference with our real world, where we our also bound by power. My goverment currently sells weapons to SA killing people in Yemen, we were engaged in lethal violence in Syria, etc. There is no way for me to chance this – voting tomorrow will not help, as it wasn’t an issue in the campaign, and the truly pacifist parties will never get a majority; and neither would organizing protests etc, as it would not gain enough public support of my fellow citizens: the climate march yesterday drew only 7500 people to Brussels. So while I agree there is a difference of degree to me personally being able to live a fairly free life

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          • All of our social media and mass organizing campaigns go in the wrong direction, or rather, ignore more pressing things like the one you mention. People don’t want to see or confront what makes them uncomfortable.

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          • (sorry, hit send by mistake before I finished/proofread)

            So, yes, lots of people live fairly free lives in Europe and the USA, but still our governments are involved in powerplays and cruelty elsewhere. But I imagine normal peasants and citizens in Westeros generally also live more of less free lives. Also, if you ask more marginalized voices in our Western society, you will get very different answers about how they perceive freedom from power and cruelty.

            So if we look at the question from a global perspective and across the social strata viz. Earth, I’m not sure they GoT universe is all that different.

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