LOS ANGELES, July 2, 2016 – Why is ‘Game of Thrones’ so engaging? The truth is, as much as the action, sex and violence of this feudalistic fantasy saga ensures it holds some basic viewer appeal, the resonance of ‘Game of Thrones’ comes from a much deeper place.
Like all fantasy, ‘Game of Thrones’ appeals to that part of us which wants to experience things beyond what is ordinary. Yet unlike much of fantasy, it simply does not seem that unfamiliar. In its futility and even its depravity, it feels more than real with the threats out of the Middle East and internally between political divides, than even the mind of author George R.R. Martin could devise.
What unites the world in which we live and the fantasy world of ‘Game of Thrones,’ is how it deals with the questions of right and wrong we face every day. – OK, maybe the stakes are not quite the same and the scenery is completely different. And we don’t have dragons.
But ‘Game of Thrones’ is about power, who has it, who wants it, and what anyone will do to get it.
“This talk of Seven Kingdoms is a folly. Aegon saw that three hundred years ago when he stood where we are standing. They painted this table at his command. Rivers and bays they painted, hills and mountains, castles and cities and market towns, lakes and swamps and forests … but no borders. It is all one. One realm, for one king to rule alone.”- Stannis Baratheon, House Baratheon, to Ser Davos Seaworth, House of Seaworth. a landed knight and Stannis Baratheon’s most honest and loyal supporter
The world of Game of Thrones revolves around King’s Landing, the capital city of Westeros, wherein sits the much coveted Iron Throne. Westeros is seat to the seven kingdoms wherein good and evil are not entirely cut and dry, particularly when it comes to the motivations of the human that live within them.
For non-watchers, the original seven kingdoms are descriptively named:
The Kingdom of the North ruled by the family Stark;
The Kingdom of Vale and Sky, ruled by boy king Robyn Arryn, who is under control of Petyr Baelish, aka Littlefinger;
The Kingdom of the Isles and Rivers, now split into Riverrun, ruled by House Tully; and the Iron Islands, ruled by House Greyjoy;
The Kingdom of the Rock, ruled by House Lannister;
The Kingdom of the Reach, ruled by House Tyrell;
The Kingdom of the Stormlands, ruled by House Baratheon;
The Kingdom of Dorne, ruled by House Martell.
Out of the 150 main characters we have watched over six seasons (not counting the thousands of extra roles), there are several characters who have been with us over the 60-plus hours we have so far devoted to the tale. Handsome, witty, and cold-hearted Jaime Lannister (who commits the show’s first unquestionably evil deed by trying to murder a child), is indicative as one of those nonredeemable characters who, even as we struggle to keep hating him, exhibits qualities that are human, relatable, and even admirable.
Then there are those characters like the hot tempered but initially seemingly loyal Theon Greyjoy, or the slippery and manipulative Petyr Baelish, who are introduced to us as decent people. They go on to commit miserable betrayals against characters we love, then eventually become over the course of events more sympathetic characters.
In all this, the world of ‘Game of Thrones’ does indeed relate to our political and geographical life today. In real life, good and evil is not always all that easy to distinguish, and all people seem to exist to an extent as some kind of uneasy combination of the two.
True, certain individual acts are unquestionably wicked, or undoubtedly good. Yet the people who commit them seldom are. In this we see the dynamics of ourselves and the world we know reflected, in perhaps slightly more dramatic fashion, in this world of castles and blades.
What would seem to draw the world of the Seven Kingdoms into stark contrast with the world that viewers inhabit though is the severity of the stakes attending every action of each of the characters on the show.
In a land constantly at war, in a society where the law is no more than the competing wills of lords and kings, death is an eager visitor to the weak and strong alike. Betrayal doesn’t mean the loss of a job, it means the loss of a head.
Power, in a fantasy world or real life, makes one a target of violence as much as weakness does, and the willingness to trust another might preserve one from tragedy, or not.
There are strong character alliances like Tyrion Lannister, the show’s moral compass, and courtly advisor Varys, whose morality is at question in his quest for power and his many plots to create mayhem and change the seat of the very power he wishes to control.
With far greater clarity in her quest for the Iron Throne is Daenerys Stormborn of House Targaryen, the First of Her Name, Queen of Meereen, Queen of the Andals, the Rhoynar, and the First Men, Lady Regnant of the Seven Kingdoms, Protector of the Realm, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, Breaker of Chains, and the Mother of Dragons; aided by Ser Jorah Mormont, a devoted soldier who seeks no personal power, but who has proclaimed his allegiance to Daenerys’ quest for the throne despite being banished by her.
It is a world where violence, not law or discourse, is generally the go-to means of conflict resolution. All the moral and interpersonal dynamics of the show evolve in response to this.
The sinister sociology of ‘Game of Thrones’ is another subject. Yet as foreign as all this sounds, there is something making it feel like a Hobbesian homecoming to the modern man or woman who watches it.
‘Game of Thrones,’ after all, is conspicuously based on history. One does not have to go back far in time to arrive at places where the violence of ‘Game of Thrones,’ minus perhaps dragons and White Walkers (the impending threat of Season 7), was more than metaphorically real.
In Europe, men and woman were killed and raped in countless numbers over centuries at the whims of lords, kings, and religious rulers whose ultimate claim to authority was not principally rooted in a commitment to rational legal doctrine as it was to force.
Even on the highest levels of society, Henry the VIII, King John of England, and many others spilled the blood of nobles, family, and countless other privileged men and women of authority and stature. Then consider Europe under the Nazis, and the descent into violence of modern societies in the 20th century.
Violence is human history. It is a relatively new to live in a place where on the whole, people aren’t being killed on the streets, where rape invites severe punishment, and where humanity is not driven solely by power and survival.
Sitting back, watching HBO while ordering a pizza and checking out Twitter, we might think with annoyance about the co-worker who bugs us at work, or the guy who cut us off on the freeway. For most of us in the developed world though, our way of life is a fantasy. One in which we eat the way we want, have a comfortable roof over our heads, have countless modes of entertainment, and can speak out minds about our leaders and neighbors without having to suffer more than the horror of a contrary opinion.
That has not been reality for most of the human experience. It is almost a fantasy, the world that we live in. Perhaps we like ‘Game of Thrones’ because, in a sense, it returns us to what was real, reminding us of what it would mean to go back.