The biggest TV show in the world is a geeky swords-and-sorcery fantasia. It’s time we stopped looking for contemporary echoes and appreciated the escapism of Game of Thrones
“Cosmopolis” column published in the Hindu Business Line, 8 September, 2017
I am one of the nearly 30 million people living in the US (a full 10th of the population) who dutifully watched the recently concluded seventh season of Game of Thrones. The hit fantasy TV series has acquired an unimaginably large following not only in the US, but all over the world. The show was shown on Star World and has a truly global audience, its weekly intrigues, marvels, and bloodbaths broadcast in languages as disparate as Estonian and Malay.
Based on an incomplete series of books first published in 1996, Game of Thrones debuted on TV in 2011. The TV series is now approaching its long-awaited denouement, outpacing the books from which it has substantially departed. Six episodes remain to be filmed and will be broadcast in 2019. It’s quite amazing how much of an impact the show has had on American popular culture, which is saturated with Game of Thrones references and memes. On the subway, running in the park, or in restaurants, I overhear strangers talking about Game of Thrones all the time.
It has bred its own genre of internet criticism, each episode unleashing waves of eloquent essays fussing over the significance of the show and how it reflects the real world around us (for example, the otherworldly undead “white walkers” have been compared to the threat of climate change, a reality too mind-boggling and terrifying to address).
I confess that I watch Game of Thrones now not because I’m committed to a belief in its quality, but rather because I simply have to know what happens next. The show is part soap opera, part mystery, and part high political drama. A not insignificant portion of my life has now been spent worrying about the fate of the scions of the Stark family, about which power-hungry queen will rule the land of Westeros, and about how the living will repulse the implacable advance of the dead. Together with millions of people around the world (as well as my nearest and dearest), I’ve been following these threads for years.
At its core, however, Game of Thrones is still fantasy with dragons and wizards, knights and queens. As somebody who grew up imbibing these sorts of magic-and-monster narratives, I find the show’s success and ubiquity quite surreal. Historical fantasy epics such as Game of Thrones tend to dwell in the shadows of popular culture, the realm of pallid and scruffy nerds.
There is an undeniable geekiness to the series’s obsessive detail. Game of Thrones encourages a kind of specialist following, with fans outdoing each other in their knowledge of its geography and lore. Its creator, George RR Martin, revelled in building the vast universe of his story. He mined remote corners of medieval European history for inspiration. The back-stabbings, atrocities and bloody alliances of the War of the Roses in 14th-century England: “hedge-knights”, “crannogmen”, “holdfasts”. Peasants in Game of Thrones are, in every sense of the word, “smallfolk”.
When I was small, my brother and I memorised the capitals of the world and were quizzed every morning at breakfast by my father. We enjoyed possessing and marshalling that information, even if it had little functional use for us.
One of the arcane pleasures of Game of Thrones is how many things it allows you to know and remember. There is, for instance, the matter of heraldry. Much of the action of the series follows the competition of a mess of noble houses, each with their own coat-of-arms (or “sigil”) and motto (or “words”, as the series intones in its aspiringly gruff Anglo-Saxon brogue). Some of these mottoes sound like they’ve been plucked straight from the smug imagination of a teenage nerd; notoriously bloodthirsty House Bolton promise that “Our Blades Are Sharp.” More famously, House Stark’s motto “Winter Is Coming” has penetrated every level of American culture, invoked by politicians and comedians alike.
Remembering this minutiae isn’t necessary to follow the plot of the show, but it does add an engrossing quasi-historical sheen to the world. It also fleshes out moral dimensions that are quite different from our own. The show is obsessed with lineage and genealogy; in fact, you could argue that the drama of Game of Thrones is really just a pageant of bloodlines. We are constantly asked to imagine the importance of genealogical descent, of how blood defines virtue and attracts loyalty. I find it striking, if not surprising, that people living in ostensibly meritocratic, egalitarian societies are so taken with tales of noblesse oblige.
Many of the show’s fans claim not to be interested in the historical or fantasy elements of the story. They point, instead, to its interpersonal drama, its often ruthless unpredictability, and its hazy line between good and evil. They enjoy the show for its grittier and more “relatable” modernity.
I find that claim implausible and a bit tedious. I don’t really see how one could “relate” to Game of Thrones, could identify with spymaster eunuchs, dragon-riding queens, or prophetic princelings. We shouldn’t expect every fictive universe to be accessible to us to be worthy of our attention. The power of Game of Thrones and all fantasy is in its strangeness, in how it plunges the viewer and reader into an alternative moral universe with alternate values. Through that estranging distance, Game of Thrones makes us reflect on our own world in all its wonder and barbarity.