Politics and Personality in “Game of Thrones”

There’s a curious discussion going on over at Strange Horizons, in the comments section of a two-headed review of HBO’s Game of Thrones. In his half of an assessment of the show’s first season, m’learned friend Niall Harrison opines that “Game of Thrones has managed to raise my political hackles in a way few Euromedievalesque fantasies do”, as a result of its quite brutal and breath-takingly ossified feudal political system. I had some responses to that, but regular enfant terrible S.M. Stirling got there first with not quite the words I might have used: “21st-century political sensibilities are just -utterly meaningless- in a feudal culture like this. The questions are not whether there will be a monarchy, but what type of monarch; not whether there will be lordship, but whether it will be ‘good lordship’ (a technical term in that context) or bad.” Abigail Nussbaum, the organ’s reviews editor, is spot on when she responds that this is absolutely not what is implied by the season’s depiction of persecution, prejudice and primogeniture.

Stirling’s soft-headed comment reveals more about how many in the modern day imagine ‘merrie olde England’ than it does the ways in which Game of Thrones defends itself against Niall’s entirely admirable knee-jerk reactions. I’ve just finished watching the first season – aided by a bout of manflu in the last few days – and it seems to me that the show’s whole trajectory is determined by the gravity of its leads’ charisma. As Eddard Stark, Sean Bean plays Sean Bean – a bluff, down-to-earth northerner who has sympathy with the lower orders and an innate nobility that manifests itself as a refusal to kow-tow to the smug consensus of the chattering class. He is the moral centre of the piece – even his Thomas More-style refusal to give up honour in favour of his life is cast aside for a more contemporary commitment to his nearest and dearest. (Not for the first time whilst watching this season, I was reminded of The Tudors, which had one of its very few successes in Jeremy Northam’s dignified portrayal of a More who stuck to the morality of his own time.)

In this way, Game of Thrones isn’t at all sited, as Stirling seems to argue, in the (and here you’ll excuse the pun) mores of its own invented period: in the at times overly precocious Arya Stark, we are presented with the sort of independent-minded young woman we’ve come to expect in modern period pieces (I entirely agree with Abigail’s negative assessment of Arya’s portrayal); in the storyline of Jon Snow, we have entitlement deconstructed by proximity to poverty; in one of the best scenes in the series, the ‘wildling’ woman Osha gets to skewer the oddness of Westeros’s political system, cannily utilising her supposed ignorance to cast its hypocrisies in high relief. In this, I’m closer to Nic than Niall, and in particular her analysis of the gender politics of the season is well worth a read: Game of Thrones attempts to make a virtue of the degragations many of its women go through in the course of its ten episodes, using them with variable effect to question and undermine the dominant mode.

Eddard Stark’s wife Catelyn, for instance, is played both fiercely and humanely by Michelle Fairley, in another of the show’s defining turns. Catelyn is not questioner of the Westeros system – indeed, she is deeply embedded within it and all too often wont to make overbearing use of it – but, at the same time, she exhibits love and mercy, characteristics very often in short supply in what is a violent, relentless world. Catelyn – ruddy, subdued, dark – is placed in stark contrast to Cersei Lannister, the Queen of Westeros and one of its vilest schemers. As Cersei, Lena Headey routinely receives direction which asks her to hide the character’s thoughts and feelings behind an inscrutable half-smile, and it is hard not therefore to assume theside the show might take in a contest between Ladies Lannister and Stark. (Though here I again defer to Abigail, who unlike me has read Martin’s novel and perceives some significant attempts on the part of the series to soften and justify Cersei’s Macchiavellian behaviour.)

There are other key turns which don’t fit so easily into a theory of the show’s moral centre, however. The always reliable Aiden Gillen offers real value as the amoral Master of Coin, Petyr Baelish, and of course Peter Dinklage’s Emmy-winning scene-chewing as the ambiguous Tyrion Lannister is a centrepiece of the season. This suggests a less than Manichean world-view on the part of the show’s writers, in which they neither wish us to accept Westeros as we find it, nor really to presume there is any quick fix or measure of objective good: one might remember King Robert’s complaint that he cannot rule as he wishes since he owes half his kingdom’s worth to the Lannister family’s coffers, and wonder how far removed from this our own system, warped and pervaded by big finance, might really said to be. Furthermore, the show is guilty itself of some unforgiveable slips – its presentation of the Dothraki as uncivilised savages, for instance, or its wasting of Esme Bianco’s steely Ros in scene of sexposition after scene of sexposition.

Which leads us back to Niall: “Perhaps the kindest thing that can be said about the portrayal of the Dothraki horselords, as the only darker-skinned characters in the series, is that it’s deeply unfortunate.”  Ultimately, Game of Thrones is in this incarnation a souped-up I, Claudius: an at times stilted and “unfortunate” TV family saga set in a degraded world populated by repellent people, which gains its momentum from its cast. It is at times ponderous, and at others thoughtless. It works to cultivate a moral ambiguity, even relavitism, which might free its viewers from Niall’s political objections (though at times the viewer still cannot work up enthusiasm for any of these squabbling, selfish families). At the same time, it is far easier to gulp down than a lot of HBO fare because, despite its lovingly crafted fantasy worlds, it is somehow less dense, the dialogue always explaining, the action always reiterated. What keeps this lumpy, unwieldy thing rumbling on is that gravity of charisma . The show has visual flair, a sense of humour and a fine cast, and if fairly obviously the first season’s purpose was to spend the show’s initial moral compass spinning, that other centredness will be what keeps the show on course: it eases a forgiveness of all those sins.

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9 thoughts on “Politics and Personality in “Game of Thrones”

  1. Most of the discussion I’ve read about the book series takes it as a given that the tension you identify between the Manichean worldview and the morally ambivalent one is deliberate, and that the latter is a deliberate attack on the former and on the conventions of epic fantasy with its stark division between good and evil and uncomplicated and romanticized approach towards pre-modern social structures (as exemplified by Stirling’s comment). Like you in response to the series, I’m dubious about this endeavor in both media. It seems to me that there are pitfalls to it that neither version of the story is equipped to avoid – of prioritizing, as you say, the charisma of individuals to make up for the corruption of their systems, of wallowing in cynicism and depravity, and finally of undermining and even losing sight of one’s message (see, for example, Sady Doyle’s overstated but persuasive indictment of the books’ depiction of rape, which argues that rather than commenting on the awfulness of women’s precarious status in their setting, the books get off on it – unless, that is, you’re keeping yourself spoiler-free for the next books).

    Maybe because I’ve been spoiled for what happens to many of the characters – and particularly those you identify as being especially charismatic – but I hadn’t considered how much Game of Thrones the show uses those characters and its cast as a crutch. It does make one wonder how willing the series will prove to follow the books’ course – I’ve already seen some fans make the argument that killing Ned might have made sense in the book, but that a television series needs the grounding presence of such a character, and his is far from the most implausible, from a dramatic standpoint, death in the series.

    (By the way, my observation about Arya is in the comments to Niall and Nic’s review, not the AtWQ post you link to when you mention it.)

    • I remember giving up on The Sopranos when I realised it was far more interested in revolting than enlightening me; I confess to beginning to feel similarly by the close of Game of Thrones season one. I read Sady’s piece – and most of the spoilers I’d already encountered in some wiki-surfing last night – and it doesn’t make me feel any more hopeful for the series. As you say, there is something very broken about the way the show proposes to interrogate what it assumes to be the core assumptions of cod-medieval fantasy literature.

      Which leaves us again with charisma seeing us past Niall’s knee-jerks (and he has very long legs). I felt similarly to those fans questioning the wisdom of killing off Ned Stark – it seems a foolish thing to protest about given the source material, and I feel under-qualified to wonder aloud about the future trajectory of the show, but it did and does strike me that the chosen HBO approach, cast-reliant and based on star turns, may be ill-suited to sustain itself across what I assumed (and now know) to be the continued brutality and slaughter to come.

      (And d’oh! Still, it’s a great post, so I trust you won’t protest if I retain the link? :P)

      • there is something very broken about the way the show proposes to interrogate what it assumes to be the core assumptions of cod-medieval fantasy literature

        To be fair, I’m not sure that there is a good way to interrogate those assumptions from within the genre, and written fantasy has been trying to do so for at least 15 years. China Mieville came close with Perdido Street Station, but that’s a setting distinct from epic fantasy in many respects (most of all in the period it recalls). The work that’s come closest, for me, is J.M. McDermott’s Last Dragon, which by tossing out most recognizable structures of plot manages to take apart the conventions of epic fantasy without assaulting its readers for the crime of anticipating them. Even that, however, is not an entirely successful book, and rather falls apart towards its end.

        (No problem, and I’m glad you liked the post.)

        • Fair enough on the bound-by-genre point (it’s a case made in comment number one-hundred-and-freaking-forty-eight in the TBD post, which is critically sympathetic to Martin) – though would you not allow for Steph Swainston’s attempts (particularly The Year of Our War), which aren’t quite so divorced from sword and sorcery as the Bas-Lag novels?

          My comment, though, was more aimed at your argument re: Martin undermining his original argument. As I say, I can only comment on the series, but I can’t come up with a way in which it can keep going in this fashion for – what? – seven seasons and remain watchable. (This besides the fact that the showrunners will be very lucky if the final two books make it out on their timetable.) Whether or not this is wholly to do with its genre, or also to do with its storytelling choices, is up for grabs.

          • I was rather unimpressed by The Year of Our War, which may be why I didn’t think about it. My reservations about it as a novel aside, you’re right that it represents another successful instance of dismantling epic fantasy from within – I just wish I gave a damn about either the characters or the world.

            I also agree that the series’s longevity seems doubtful – the more I learn about what’s forthcoming in the books the less plausible it seems that the series can make it work while remaining dramatically satisfying. In that sense the likelihood that the show will overtake the books might work in its favor – it gives the writers the excuse to make more changes to the story as they steer it towards their own ending. That said, I doubt the show can continue with its one-book-per-season structure for long. From what I’ve heard, the later books only get denser with characters and events, and then there’s the infamous splitting of book 4 into two volumes, each longer than any of the previous three.

            • The other thing about TYooW, of course, is that it also has a Wall …

              On longevity: have you seen this interview with GRRM? Some fascinating – and potentially terrifying – tidbits:

              “the ending and the main characters, yeah. And [Game of Thrones producers] David Benioff and Dan Weiss know some of that too, which the fans are very worried about in case I get hit by a truck.”

              “But there’s no way they can get Storm into 10 or even 12. My hope is they’ll split that into two seasons. There’s nothing in the law that says each season must cover one book. The only danger of catching up is if we have to do all of Storm, and then Feast and Dance have to be re-combined. Then there’s a danger they would catch up with me. I think I’ll have Winds out by then, but they could catch up with me before [Book 7] A Dream of Spring.”

    • Sady Doyle is a troll. And a person whose writing makes Tyrion “willing and excited” for his own sexual abuse/trauma. That blame the victim tone is inappropriate from someone who purports to be a feminist, and deserves to be called out as a rape-apologist.

      • I read the discussion about Tyrion in the TBD comments, and Sady is certainly not behaving like a troll; but at the same time her characterisation of his experience didn’t sit quite with how I’d received his self-pitying version of it in the course of the series (specifically in his conversation with Shae and Bronn). Nevertheless, I still can’t really side with the ‘poor Tyrion, he such a victim’ crowd, since they do seem to airbrush the raped woman out of proceedings. That scene is not just about the Imp.

        Not that I particularly want to have a conversation that could easily and quickly spiral away from my limited knowledge of the source text.

  2. Pingback: ‘Valar Dohaeris’ – The Return of “Game of Thrones” | @Number 71

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