I did no gaming the past week, and very little reading. I stayed indoors and consumed three seasons of The Game of Thrones. Now I know what it's all about.
I had previously known it existed and that it was bloody and sexy, but I had actually seen less of it than of Boardwalk Empire, the show my wife had been following through its lifetime. All told, when walking through the den over the years I had stopped enough times to see three or four scenes, perhaps 15 minutes worth. As I watched the entire series, I still remembered each of those scenes - the murder of the tow-headed kid with Needle on the night road, the freeing of the witch by the Mother of Dragons and the subsequent duel that ended up killing Khal Drogo, and the setting free of the Unsullied who all desired to stay soldiers for Danearis. During E3, people were astonished that the voice of Peter Dinklage would be featured in the new game Destiny. I discovered his character in Game of Thrones was very popular and his voice unmistakable. On the whole however, I dismissed GoT and its audience with the same disdain I do for other oversexed and overviolent television. In particular, I find a number of HBO series particularly offensive as I've spoken before.
I shield myself from HBO as they move their dramatic series from corruption to corruption according to their tried and true formula - the challenged kingpin surrounded by crime and perversion. This time, Atlantic City during Prohibition.
The characters of the HBO dramatic series are all shameless and innocent by our standards. We in the audience are to understand that they live in a distant and dangerous world in which survival depends on doing dirt. There are no options for their dignity. And so we can manage to ingest all of the 'adult' situations for which their TV-MA ratings are well deserved. All the main characters suffer little from the misery of their predicaments except for the protagonist, who must be ruthless and sensitive at once. It is by drawing attention to the existential suffering of the protagonist that these shows manage to keep the attention in the more lurid offerings. For example, there is not only the haughty nude, but there is a brutal interrogation, a gruesome surgical procedure and a scene showing the results of a lynching.
Game of Thrones is different.
Recently, my friend The Ultimate Bohemian assured me that fact and even suggested that I watch the series before I read the book. The occasion was the show before the penultimate show of the third season, not very long ago this year. I was surprised by his recommendation and made a note. I have watched my own curiosity in reading move towards first person narratives and sword and sorcery on the fictional end. Something I never expected, but a video better than a book? This was something I had to see. It couldn't be worse than the girly 'Revolution' and might be as good as the transparently multiculturally edge of 'Defiance'. I did not expect something on par with the brilliant but cancelled 'Last Resort' and certainly nothing worthy of 'Breaking Bad'. Instead I found something that has transcended all of those, which brings me aside on Breaking Bad. This next season Walter has to change a great deal or else. The show is falling into the old formula and I'm getting sick of watching him get in and out of the same criminal shit with the same cast of characters.
Game of Thrones transcends because Winter has been coming for years and it still hasn't arrived. The arc of this story is deep and long, tragic and heroic. It is the best story of our times because of the ways in which it is not of our narrative times at all. There isn't a single character in GoT who isn't imbued with purpose interlinked with the fate of their humanity and tested in a dramatically consistent basis. Each and every one of them is bound not only by their ambition but by their history and their fidelity to be about what they say they are about. They live and die, triumph and suffer, prosper or rot by these classic powers.
Game of Thrones is not merely, as I had supposed, a story moved forward by spectacle and perversity where the extremes of dramatic presentation are ends of themselves. It is actual storytelling. It is the anti-'Lost'. Moreover it is the anti-Lost that still has unexplainable magic. Game of Thrones also manages to avoid the stereotypical strutting monologues of soap operatics. Even though the naked whores all have flawless skin and wonderful boobs, even through the princelings hair shines in the sunlight, there is very little show for naught. There is something excellent in the scene of the great funeral where the archer attempts to light the barge on fire while the royalty stands in full dress on the pier as it floats further down river out of range. He misses thrice and his elder has to snatch the bow from his cockeyed hands and finally make the shot. The story of Game of Thrones is vast and properly spread over multiple territories, multiple families, multiple generations. It is a universe, and I love a good universe.
The Game of Thrones universe retains something of the old formula except that it is well distributed. But it also does not encourage the sort of badass posturing of our more contemporary dramas. The men and women of Westeros understand and feel exactly how they must sacrifice themselves for the exigencies of power. They live within a world where honor is real currency and debts are paid in gold or blood. They face the tyrranies of indifference. And all of these ambitions and failures are not concentrated on a few superhumans, it is spread among a cast so vast, in a land so varied that it hardly seems proper to call it an ensemble.
At long last yesterday I watched the wedding episode that had the followers of the show shocked and amazed several weeks ago. It was an exceedingly apt example of the sort of writing that deserves our attention. The deeper greatness of the Game is that men have long memories and short tempers and that for their principles they will try to get away with whatever it is they can afford. Moreover they must because it is a luxury to stand on ceremony and principle. Every day action is demanded, and men live to be old almost entirely based on wise or fortunate action. Luck is real, as is God. But everyone gets an equal amount of that. The rest of survival, at any level in any society depends on cunning.
What I find most appealing about Game of Thrones aside from its own technical excellence is that it exemplifies something of what we humans face in the lack of a perfected civilization. I have, since the economic collapse of '07 and the election of Obama in '08, begun thinking about how to survive the downside. It has lead me from neoconservatism to Stoicism, and it may ultimately lead me back to the Catholic Church. My basic assumption is this. Man's nature is feudal, and we have only recently in our history invented such institutions capable of approximating Lordship. When these institutions fail, demos will fail, and hierarchies demanding fealty will rise. I think many people will be caught in the cold who don't recognize the failure of those institutions through which now they secure the blessings of liberty. Those who take their liberty for granted will lose it most swiftly and what is important today is understanding of who creates and who destroys liberty. Game of Thrones reminds us that freedom is given by both good-hearted and by evil men. It should remind us to look closer.
We pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.
What breaks? Can you feel it breaking? Is Winter coming? Is our courage at the ready, are our skills up to par, is our loyalty properly aligned? Everything breaks. Only the alert will see ahead. Winter always comes.
They say in Westeros that there is power in the King's blood. The world of feudal sword and sorcery has no room for feminism of the modern sort. Sexual liberty does not generate power. Nor does knowledge in and of itself. Power is power and those who possess it can claim any liberty they please whether or not it is an example for the masses. Game of Thrones puts men and women where they are and not where some potentate might attempt to engineer an institution for them. It reminds us that our personal passions have consequences that either align with or dismiss the honors of feudal loyalty. One ignores those honors at ones own peril.
In my Peasant Theory, as I have developed it over these downside years, there are The Rulers, The Slice, and The Peasants, as corresponds to roughly, the highborn, free men and slaves in Westeros. The distinctions between those six classes ought to be paid specific attention, but I won't get into that now. I only wish to illustrate that which is parallel in our worlds. The Bastards of Westeros are those for whom high and low are mixed, whose fates most closely approximate that Jefferson's Aristocracy of Merit.
As we watch the Game, our sympathies are with the victims of cruelty and the valiant who suffer as individuals whilst together with family they might be strong. These Second Sons, these Bastards are the wildcards. They are those who by cunning and art have managed to insinuate themselves into influence - they are those who might do for the good of the Realm. They are those whose future possibilities are not predestined - those who suffer daily for their predicaments and who must choose a course amid the chaos of change. But they fight within the context of a feudal destiny. They fight for the honor of their houses, and when the Throne rules all the only aristocracy of merit is that of merit in war.
But the Mother of Dragons is gathering an army herself, and represents the opportunty for a new order pregnant with possibilities. There is also a nameless brotherhood who carries the banner for none. That is what makes Westeros a universe and not merely a kingdom. There is magic on the horizon - the sort of magic that might herald the death of the institution of the current throne. It's a story well worth watching.