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.