Isn't it incredible how you think you've outgrown it -- that it was something you read as a 21-year-old when, for whatever reason, it seemed psychologically necessary -- when time was something like pain and very much needed killing, instead of being the most precious and scarce and impossible to secure thing on Earth -- something that you had since then put behind you; how you had convinced yourself that 1) your sensibilities had become far too refined over the past few years to be able to stomach so much grotesquery, when the most raucous form of entertainment you ever willingly exposed yourself to now was the non-threatening ribaldry of Wait... Wait... Don't Tell Me!, when the devastating wit of David Rakoff was the sharpest barb you could stand to see pierce anyone in the flesh; and 2) you had become so politically aware, your consciousness so raised, so charged with knowledge of the world's true terrors and atrocities, that you could not possibly stand to lose yourself in some escapist TV fantasy realm at a time like this (the Brechtian reminder that pricks the conscience of every leftist whenever she or he is caught enjoying themselves: "To talk about trees is almost a crime/ Because it implies silence about so many horrors" as he put it); until all of a sudden your sister sits you down in front of Season Six, Episode One and it all comes roaring back to you like the cheesy motto of House Lannister? Yes, it's all there, all of Westeros, exactly as you left it! Unexpectedly, you remember who all these people are, who are still there. You even remember all the people who aren't there. (Zombie Catelyn, anyone? What happened to her?) And you see that you still care, and recall how desperately you once cared, about knowing what happens next.
That's when you realize all over again two important human truths. 1) None of us is exempt from the laws of pop culture. (Actually, some people are. My dad seems to be -- the Ned Stark of my family. But at any rate, I am not exempt, which is what I mean by that generalization.) No matter how intellectually superior you may be -- and I know you are ("Because really, it's no use pretending, one is superior, isn't one?" (Lawrence)) there is a reason some of these things become so widely beloved and popular. You can perhaps guard yourself from joining the debased masses by shielding your eyes from it, but once it has been glimpsed you can never go back. 2) You never outgrow anything. Your experiences in daily life, the things you are called upon to do, be, and perform each day, summon up different parts of your self, trigger different chains of mental associations. Spend enough time doing adult things and one feels very much like an adult. But expose oneself to other, prior associations and it all vanishes, and one is the same child/teenager/college student one was before. One carries within oneself a helpless child Star Wars fan, one has learned -- smitten easily, regardless of one's defenses, even by a movie that seems less and less great as time passes. And there too is one's post-adolescent George R.R. Martin-reading self again, as soon as the HBO crackles into life over the opening static. He never left! As a poem by Tomas Tranströmer describes something of this effect (and I seem to be especially full of these today -- must be in a good mood), "My name, [...] my job, all/ slipped free and were left behind, [...] I was nobody:/ a boy in a playground[.]" (Robertson trans.)" As in, a boy has no name. A boy is no one. I need help.
I first stopped watching Game of Thrones after the end of the second season. The superiority bug had bitten me, I suppose. I was, moreover, the worst kind of "I've-read-the-book-first-and-this-is-different-and-therefore-worse" snob, i.e., the fraudulent kind. In reality, I had scarcely heard of the books before seeing Season One of the HBO series. To this day I've never read the first book, A Game of Thrones, the one that started it all. Instead I skipped to A Clash of Kings and Storm of Swords in order to keep ahead of the TV show. Yet still I had the temerity to wag my finger at HBO's deviations from orthodoxy. Robb having a romance on the side? What was that? Then there was the fact that, so long as the show was still basically tracking alongside the books, nothing could really surprise me. When the words "Red Wedding" were suddenly on the lips of everyone in America, at every water cooler in every office (apart from those where they talk about Duck Dynasty instead) -- Can you believe... everyone was saying, Did you see....-- I just smirked at them with secret knowledge, like "an anarchist with a bomb in his pocket," to steal an analogy from Nathanael West. I can believe it; and I don't have to see it. I read the book! I would think. It is a prerogative of smugness that was passed down to me from the friend who first loaned me his copy of Storm of Swords and got me hooked -- a superiority under which I chafed in my own case ("Please just tell me what happens...") and which I did not hesitate to lord over everyone else as soon as I could.
Anyway, I stopped watching; I became too good for it, for a variety of reasons. Years passed... George R.R. Martin didn't write any more books, and I didn't bother to read two of the ones he had written, so I figured I was done with Westeros. The possibility of my still caring about any of it by the time Martin did finish his series began to seem too remote -- and when would he finish it anyway? When I was fifty? Then this past year -- despite one's best efforts not to get out much -- one still managed to hear that the unthinkable had happened, and had happened much sooner than expected -- the light speed barrier broken. The HBO series had overtaken the book series. That meant that one didn't have to wait for Martin to finish his tomes any more, if he ever did -- one could just pop on the television and learn all the secrets -- to learn what happens next! It was like waiting with desperate longing for the paper copy of an acceptance letter, and then finding out that the admission decisions have been posted online for weeks and all one had to do was look. It certainly was tantalizing, but still I resisted (see above on the subjects of superiority, NPR, political chastity, and other reasons why), until my sister effectively left me no further say in the matter.
Everything about the world of Westeros that made me hesitant to return was, I found, very much still there. There is for one thing, as with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Harry Potter, and a handful of other truly life-consuming pop culture artifacts, the obnoxious effrontery with which it elbows its way into one's brain and takes up so much mental and emotional space. What am I doing with my life?, you start to think. Game of Thrones, you plead with it, I was thinking about so many other things, important things, real things, serious things, before you came back into my life! You stole them from me! I well remember those months of dwindling time as an undergraduate when I secreted myself away in the Regenstein library to read just a few more chapters, and would look at myself reproachfully in the mirror as I did so. In this same library, I would think, I had once read Bertrand Russell and Robert Caro and Joseph Mitchell and Arthur Koestler and Eric Hobsbawm and so many other great and lasting minds and works of art and of thought, and here I am now -- having seemingly regressed, skipping the Marx I was supposed to be finishing for "The Emergence of Capitalism" and reading instead about Jaime Lannister's sword-hand and Theon Greyjoy's member -- but not for long, I told myself, just until I find out what happens next.
That's drawback number one of the series. Number two is the insensate violence in the show that is so ritually condemned and yet so widely savored -- the undeniably skillful way in which the series oscillates between exploiting the viewer's sadism and their disgust with sadism, how it uses the disgust to fuel the sadism, the thirst for vicarious revenge. There is the violence that is played cynically, played to elicit a laugh or a cheer from the audience. The obnoxious boaster who you know was written into being for no other reason than to be smashed into the rock by a displeased Gregor Clegane an instant later; the one whom one realizes was conjured for this purpose before The Mountain even saunters onto the scene. The various slavers and masters and brothel keepers who are alternatively locked into caverns, Ugolino-style, or fried, melted with molten gold, or fed to dragons by one Daenerys Stormborn, and whose unsavory professions presumably make this okay. One of my moral hangups from a young age is a queasiness with this sort of thing -- a feeling that violence, if it needs to be portrayed at all, should be dealt with earnestly. Though, uneasy about it as I am, I find myself progressively -- or regressively -- desensitized to this concern as our media seems to care less and less about respecting it. Like all the rest of us.
While we're on the subject, I am going to risk offending some serious partisans by admitting that Daenerys has always seemed like an overrated character to me -- to be honest, I even skipped over some of her chapters while reading the books (just saying it, I tense up and plead preemptively for forgiveness) -- and not just for the casual dispatching of her opponents, which always seems to be aiming for a "Right on!" reaction from the audience, no matter how nastily performed, but also for the fact that she seems to actually do very little. Her successes seem so conditioned by the fact that she has this magical immunity to fire and a few dragon eggs. Have we seen anything in the show to suggest that Lollys wouldn't become queen just as easily with the same advantages? Then there is the relentless "character shilling" (a term courtesy of TV Tropes) where she is concerned. This is when the screenwriters are constantly surrounding a particular character with admirers who must lavish praise upon them, and it is usually a sign that the writers have not managed to make the character self-evidently interesting and talented, on their own, and so have added various bit players to remind us that they possess these qualities. Thus, virtually every scene with Daenerys seems to involve someone or other declaring that they love/admire/"believe in" her, that she has renewed their faith in the possibility of Westeros having a good and just ruler, etc. (if they survive the encounter to tell her anything one way or the other, that is). Granted, I suppose this happens a lot with Jon Snow as well ("I pledge my sword! King in the North! King in the North!"), but it is at least leavened in his case by a fair amount of him being stabbed by his own men and mocked as a bastard and accused of treachery to the Night's Watch. When it comes to the truly interesting characters, meanwhile -- Tyrion, Cersei, Jaime, Yara, Theon, Arya, Brienne of Tarth, Bronn, and the rest -- the audience doesn't have to be told how interesting they are, they just are interesting. And the screenwriters can usually come up with something to do with them in their scenes for this very reason, besides having other characters moon over their many great talents. And now, as Nabokov once put it, "I think I had better back out of this passage."
To leave that thought for now, then, where it can fester and doom me in the eyes of many fans, let us return to the aforementioned sadism/disgust-with-sadism dialectic, because, morally suspect as it may be, it also happens to be the real and primary emotional hook of the series, in both the books and the TV series -- the desire for bloody vengeance, because of the very bloodiness of the previous vengeances -- and it is a key to both the show's appeal as a guilty pleasure and to whatever truth it has to convey to us (if we are willing to speak so piously) about the human condition.
From the opening episodes of the series on, the desire for retribution is the chief reason we keep watching. We want vengeance first for the death of the butcher's boy at the hands of the Hound and of Sansa's dire-wolf at the behest of the Lannisters, and for Bran's legs; later on, for the death of Ned Stark and for Arya's treatment at Harrenhall. Indeed, by the time Clash of Kings rolls around, the reader -- or at least, this reader -- is mostly just turning the pages for the same reason Arya is still breathing, i.e., the desire to see some names crossed off her list: The Tickler, The Hound, The Mountain, Ser Illyn, Ser Meryn, etc. etc. Then comes the need to see all the authors of the Red Wedding get their just deserts. Then one wants Theon Greyjoy to get his comeuppance for taking Winterfell and killing Bran and Rickon-- or persuading everyone that is what he has done by doing something just as awful. Then one keeps going in the hope that Ramsey Bolton in turn will finally get what's coming to him. More sanguinary motives for reading than those that would lead one to pick up Bertrand Russell or Robert Caro on a cold Regenstein night, perhaps, but surprisingly powerful ones, in someone who is theoretically committed to restorative justice and who never particularly thought of himself as having a taste for revenge dramas.
Yet these are books that could seduce even Desmond Tutu into the thirst for retribution. George R.R. Martin is no particularly artful prose stylist, to kindly understate matters, but he can summon the feeling of total powerlessness and helplessness in the face of brutality -- lawless, Medieval brutality, met with recourse-less suffering and victimhood -- in a way more polite and restrained writers never could. And this is the great stoker of the desire for revenge, the desire to see the weak and the abused take the upper hand. As Orwell, Schopenhauer, and others have observed, the desire for vengeance is essentially this, or arises at least from this -- the sense of powerlessness and relative weakness. "By returning the injury," writes Schopenhauer, "we demonstrate our superiority over him who has injured us and thereby annul the proof he gave of his superiority over us." (Hollingdale trans. throughout) After reading what the Tickler does to people, or what they did to Robb Stark's body after they killed him, one craves seeing Arya annul that proof at Needle's point.
If that's all the series managed to do, however -- to inflame and provoke a feeling of moral disgust through the depiction of fantasized atrocities -- then it would be a kind of fascist propaganda not worth the paper or celluloid it was printed on. The world has enough causes for moral disgust in it -- and therefore, enough causes already to provoke the dangerous desire for vengeance and scapegoating -- for us not to need to imagine them in fiction. Fortunately, though, neither Martin nor Schopenhauer lets things rest with simply imagining the pleasures to be savored from getting back at an enemy. As Schopenhauer morosely phrases it, "[A]s every fulfilled desire reveals itself more or less as a delusion, so does that for revenge. Usually the pleasure we hoped for from it is made bitter by the pity we afterwards feel; indeed, an exacted revenge will often subsequently break the heart and torment the conscience[.]" Martin/the HBO writers do not overlook this same truth. As much as a significant portion of the interest of the series derives from its stoking the desire for revenge -- and as much as the writers do occasionally scratch this itch with a Ramsey-being-fed-to-his-own-dogs episode closer -- we are seldom permitted to go on hating and thirsting for vengeance against the same characters for long. As a reader of Storm of Swords, for instance, one at first cannot wait to see Theon Greyjoy be dispatched, after what he does at Winterfell, and one is glad to hear it when the castle has fallen into Roose Bolton's hands. As a viewer of the recent seasons of Game of Thrones, however, one cannot imagine ever having felt that way about Theon, after the show lingers so remorselessly over the nature of his retribution at Ramsey Bolton's hands; and he becomes one of the more sympathetic characters of Season Six. The targets of one's revenge fantasies therefore shift accordingly -- now away from Theon, and to Ramsey and to Balon Greyjoy, the loveless father. One is very briefly pleased by seeing the latter get hurled off a rope bridge into the chasms below, in turn, but then one realizes that the man who did the hurling is even more obnoxious than Balon, and the revenge desire downshifts yet again.
Another telling sequence along these lines in the most recent season features Sandor Clegane, The Hound -- one of the characters who for a long time seemed most to deserve his spot on Arya's list -- but reduced now from his former in-glory, and using his massive strength for no more sinister purpose than to wield an axe in the service of building a sept (read: "church," for the non-initiated who've bothered to read this far, if any). We find that he has been befriended by a kindly septon (read: "religious professional"), who shares Clegane's past as a murderer and marauder as well as his trajectory toward repentance, and who in his ethico-theological maunderings enunciates a kind of quasi-Unitarianism, which we as the secular, vaguely humanist-inclined viewers find of course the most sympathetic of the available religious viewpoints in Westeros (subtlety in any form not really being this show's strong suit, after all). He later engages Clegane in a debate over the necessity of violence -- does it beget more violence; or can it protect the innocent? -- before being slain alongside his flock by roving bandits. As the Hound hoists his axe to go find the ones who did this and avenge the fallen septon, the viewer's feelings once again are enlisted in the enactment of a revenge drama, but now on behalf of the Hound, rather than against him.
It is this fickleness of moral perspective above all else that redeems the series from either banality or from being positively toxic in its ideology. Admittedly, "morally ambiguous" or "morally complex" isn't quite the way to describe it. Evil when it appears in the show is after all exceedingly unambiguous -- it is brutal and horrifying -- and as I say, subtlety is just about the last quality one could attribute to the series, while keeping a straight face.
It is better to say that the characters in A Song of Ice and Fire cannot be other than they are and therefore could not have qualities other than the ones they do -- and that even the "good" characters are the prisoners of the vices that are born of their goodness, and even the "bad" characters have their redeeming traits, which they in turn could not possess if they were not also vicious. The Ned Starks and Jon Snows of Westeros cannot be who they are without eventually getting themselves stabbed or beheaded for it, and throwing whole kingdoms into chaos; the slightly more cynical and opportunistic, like Tyrion or Lord Varys or even Littlefinger, are arguably able to advance more concrete good in the world, but only at the cost of dirtying their hands; the warriors-by-tradition, the free folk and the iron islanders -- they do atrocious things, to be sure, but they also have their honor, after a fashion. As for the downright depraved -- well, they too are sometimes likable -- Cersei, Jaime, the Hound -- in a way they somehow wouldn't be if they were to suppress their wickedness wholly.
It is not a relativistic worldview that emerges from all this -- the worst of each of these destinies is portrayed as every bit as bad as it is, the evil that results from each vice, however necessary a consequence of another virtue, is depicted as fully evil -- but it is a pluralistic one. The world of the series is full of people advancing their own values, none of which are utterly without merit in their own right, but which cannot coexist in harmony with other values and which are therefore constantly aiming at a total mastery and annihilation of these others that it cannot ultimately achieve, and should not achieve -- for that would mean the end of much of what is valuable.
The dark and light sides of the Force this ain't. Sauron vs. Gandalf it is not.
Is it a true worldview, the true worldview, this Westerosi worldview? Probably not entirely, at least it is not entirely true of our world, whatever it has to say about theirs. But one feels it has a leg up in the truth department at least over the more Manichean fantasy universes, where good is pure good and evil solely evil. It is also a worldview one finds increasingly plausible the more one realizes as an adult that one cannot be all things to all people, that there are valuable things in the world that one will not get to do oneself, because of lack of time or will or because they conflict with other more pressing goods, but that that's exactly why it's a good thing that other -- extremely different -- kinds of people with very different value systems exist, that one in some sense has to choose what one is going to be -- or rather, has to choose to make one's peace with what one already inescapably is.
Which reminds me, in fact, of a conversation about A Song of Ice and Fire I once had with a friend -- the same friend who inflicted all of this upon me in the first place, by handing over that well-thumbed copy of Storm of Swords of his. We were entertaining a discussion on the subject of which of our friends would be which characters, if we lived in Westeros-- as I'm sure many another post-adolescent did that year as well. We assumed, of course, we would be among the main characters -- rest assured that none of us voted to be Podrick Payne or an extra in the Kingsguard -- though my friend did rather humbly cast himself in the role of Samwell Tarly, to his credit. I, though, as my twenty-two-year-old self, rather more brashly said I would be Jon Snow. You know, since I'm moody and dark and brooding and self-sacrificing and altruistic and a firm believer in an absolute and binding code of honor and morality and athletic and -- many other things that I thought vaguely at that age I might still turn out to be, at some point. Give it time!
To some extent, the grandiosity of this was implicit in the premises of the game already. But I was taking an excusable thing a bit far. My friend brought me back down to earth by telling me that this made no sense -- because I was obviously Tyrion Lannister.
But I can't be Tyrion! I thought. That would mean that I was sarcastic, had a conscience and empathy but not a rigid sense of honor, that I saw the irony in everything in spite of myself, that I was a reader of books rather than a bringer of swift justice or a swinger of big swords. In short, that would mean that I was all the things that I knew myself to be already, and that I wasn't about to become a lot of new and different and wonderful and powerful things in my budding adulthood.
Funny how becoming an adult was not at all a process of becoming more like Jon Snow, but reconciling myself to the fact that I wasn't going to be Jon Snow. Indeed, becoming an adult meant for me something like learning to revel in the fact that I was lucky enough to be a Tyrion Lannister, and finding the Jon Snows to be terribly boring by comparison. One is glad that they are out there, to be sure, standing guard at the walls. One admires them from afar, for who they are and what they do. But one would never choose to be one.
This is not an attitude that makes much sense in the world of Tolkien or Star Wars, where, in the final analysis, you are either with us or against us. But it fits ever so snugly in Westeros.
All of which raises the question, by the way, of how the series can ever actually end, without totally sacrificing its own thematic underpinnings. When the whole point is that it just goes on and on, how can you get to the end of Season Eight and have it stop?
We seem at the close of Season 6 to be leading to a final show-down of good vs. evil of some sort, it is true. This is disappointing, but practically inevitable now that so many of the mortal antagonists have been defeated and Arya's list has gotten so much shorter. Daenerys is sailing to the West, Jon Snow is meanwhile trying to shift everyone's attention to those most morally un-interesting things, the "white walkers," and one wonders how we can have come so far for so long in such a pluralist universe and yet pivot now to a dualist one in order to reach something that could satisfactorily be described as a "happy ending," with all the stasis and lack of discord between rival value-systems that implies. One tries to imagine either Jon Snow or Daenerys -- or both together -- sitting upon the Iron Throne, and can't quite see how that solves the eternal and cyclical human plight that the series otherwise lays out so honestly.
Perhaps that's why George R.R. Martin hasn't ever quite been able to bring himself to write those last few books.