I will now begin/continue a perhaps slightly self-induglent series on Game of Thrones.
I think GOT was not merely “pretty good TV” but the height of this art form. I have long agreed with critics who argue that television is, too often, a vapid, wasted art form which plays to the lowest, basest, meanest impulses and primarily feeds our inclination toward living vicariously rather than living presently. I know, what can TV offer other than escapism and vicarious living? It can teach us about ourselves.
Game of Thrones is spectacular. It is powerfully written, skillfully acted, and well-directed. The cinematography is gorgeous, heart-wrenching, breath-taking. The series is a wonder. It is a feat. And it is great art.
Like all great art, it shines light on the human condition. I believe in art for art’s sake, because beauty matters. Art need not teach a specific lesson. One could argue that beauty matters most, more than anything else, and that we need beauty now more than we ever have before, when baseness and hatred and vulgarity seek to rule the day.* God is beautiful, God is the creator of all that is beautiful, and all beauty reflects God to the world.
Game of Thrones is beautiful, but by this I mean both it is lovely and it has a terrible beauty, the beauty of sharks and deserts and fire. The beauty that destroys. It reveals what people are at their core. People are beautiful; people are dreadful.
Cruelty is a theme in Game of Thrones. It runs as a constant throughout the narrative. A few of the characters nearly personify cruelty, notably Cersei. (I think Joffrey and Ramsay are not simply cruel but sadists, which I consider a separate theme, though they are both extreme versions of the corruption of power). Others feel the draw of cruelty, its whisper and caress, its sinister overture and promise. Game of Thrones is beautiful and also ugly, horrifyingly ugly, but always for a purpose. It depicts the twisting of beauty. Much like Tolkien’s Ring works to twist and corrupt power under the guise of bestowing godlike authority–“All shall love me and despair!” Galadriel exalts, and in that very moment rejects the ring as she catches a glimpse of who, of what it would make her–so too the desire for the Iron Throne, and in fact for all power over others, comes with the potential for warping us into horrors.
Power comes with that potential, mind you. In GOT, power always comes with some high, often unseen cost, but power is not inescapably an evil in itself. I consider this one of the most accurate, and most haunting, depictions within GOT: if you pursue power, power will pursue you. You will not come away unscathed. Even so, in many situations to refuse or run from power will also lead to great harm, because others, whose motives are far darker, will gleefully seize and wield it if you will not.
John Snow, the bastard child of Ned Stark (we all thought, for most of the show) gives us the clearest case of this conflict. John spends most of every episode looking perplexed, dismayed, brooding. In Season Seven, Tyrion even comments on it:
Tyrion Lannister (to Jon): I came down here to brood over my failure to predict the Greyjoy attack. You’re making it difficult. You look a lot better brooding than I do. You make me feel like I’m failing at brooding over failing.
Jon, of all the hundreds of characters, seems best to understand both the cost and the necessity of power. How many times does he utter some version of “I don’t want it”? Because Westeros exists in a continuous state of violent upheaval, most manifestations of power we see are violent, whether the direct ability to kill others–Arya, The Hound, the Mountain, Jaime (until he loses his hand and to a certain degree still after that), Bronn, Brienne, Oberyn Sands, Jorah, Euron, oh, and Drogon–or the influence over a ruler–Tyrion, Varys, Little Finger–or the ruling power itself–Cersei, Daenerys, Jon Snow, Sansa, Olenna Tyrell, and Joffrey. Rulers in GOT invariably wield their power to take as well as to protect life. I can’t think of a single example of a ruler who is not shown thus.
In a powerful exchange between Daenerys and Jon, she states, “We all enjoy what we’re good at.”
“I don’t,” Jon replies. He doesn’t specify, but he may mean leading, fighting, killing, wielding power. As his strength and confidence emerge, people want to follow Jon and Jon is a natural and skillful leader–who wishes he weren’t. Of all the leaders throughout the series, save perhaps Ned Stark (and not counting Bran, because come on), Jon alone does not desire power. He doesn’t aspire either to take over or to climb higher. Those around him see this and it inspires their trust. Jon is as close to a servant leader as Game of Thrones gets…and I would say that is very close, indeed.
If caution or humility in the face of power–resisting the grip of power–is one end of the spectrum, then wanton destruction and cruelty fall at the other end. In one scene, Cersei berates Jaime because he persuaded her to allow Olenna a merciful death…and though Olenna is already dead, Cersei yearns to have caused her greater agony. In another scene, which I will not describe here, Cersei gets to carry out the full brunt of her revenge on the woman who poisoned Cersei’s daughter. This is the horror of power with neither conscience nor restraint. For Cersei, power exists for the purpose of wielding it against her enemies…or anyone who would oppose her…or those unfortunate enough to get in the way. In this sense, Cersei and Jon are opposites: for Cersei there is no hesitation to use power and her only question is “How can I use this most effectively to achieve what I want?”
In a few different scenes, Jaime tries to convince Cersei to reconsider, to take a different course, to back down or show restraint. What we see is a leader consumed. She literally blows up all her enemies, which leads her to lose the only thing she claimed to be fighting for, her son, her last surviving child. When Jaime urges her not to fight a war she cannot win, one he tells her will destroy both King’s Landing and The Red Keep, she sneers at him. This is the man she loves, the only one who, we hear repeatedly, might be able to reason with her. But what we see is that Cersei no longer has the capacity to refrain from using power. In this, she becomes, strangely and hauntingly, like the Night King himself: bent on one objective, giving no thought to any alternatives.
Power exacts a price. It does from Arya, who pursues it not as an end in itself, certainly not for the purpose of leading others, but as a tool. It does from Sansa, who pays horribly for the power she courts and gains. It does from so many leaders throughout the series who pay with their lives for seeking a bit more. We haven’t even considered the Red Woman and the price she pays for her power. No one gains power and maintains clean hands.
And that, for all of us who are not Jesus, is the world we live in, as well.
Next up: forms of redemption in Game of Thrones.
*The current President boasted about the size of his penis during the Republican presidential candidate debate. It’s gone downhill from there. Let me know if you need me to provide examples.