King’s Landing, before Daenerys Targaryen and her dragon torched the city, buildings and people alike.
As the final episode of Game of Thrones approaches, preparing to kill off most of its main characters and HBO subscriptions, we go from considering the popularity of the show to contemplating its cultural impact.
Will the fantasy series have any generational effect on the audience who made it a phenomenon, or will it go down in entertainment history as just another cornfield to the locusts? Did it thrill to the end, like Breaking Bad, or did it squander its audience’s expectations, like Lost?
One thing is for sure. Whatever one’s opinions about its subject matter, Game of Thrones has helped to mainstream taboo like no other television series before it. What Fifty Shades of Grey has done for S&M, Game of Thrones has done for gore, sexuality, and violence (including sexual violence), all of which reached extremes never before seen in such openly celebrated entertainment.
Ask fans to name the show’s five or ten most shocking moments, and half of the viewers will probably balk at describing them out loud. The series has gone even further than the novels in several cases—George R.R. Martin never wrote about the rape of Sansa Stark, or Stannis Baratheon’s burning of his daughter.
And the incest Cersei and Jaime Lannister indulged in next to the body of their murdered son Joffrey? Well, it was consensual in the books (unlike what the show gave us). Some of this stuff seems straight from the works of the Marquis de Sade. If it is appalling to read, imagine writing, directing, or performing it! HBO of course helped to pioneer shock-and-hardcore drama, but neither Oz nor Six Feet Under ever drew 17 million viewers per episode.
Whether Game of Thrones can be called the symptom or the virus of its extremes is a conversation worth having. But it would be short-sighted to attribute the series’ global success solely to its sex and violence. As a show set in an alternate fantasy world, it offers sublime moments of generic tradition, including the giants’ storming of the Wall, the dragons, and epic medieval warfare, among others.
Despite the cloying pervasiveness of fantasy in pop culture, we’ve not seen these things done well very often, and it takes a lot of money and sophistication to do them credibly. When it comes to some things the show has brought to the screen, fantasy fans should be genuinely impressed.
At the same time, to say that the show’s less wholesome elements aren’t responsible for its popularity is just as dishonest as to say they are.
There isn’t a ton of fantasy material in the series. Whole episodes have gone by without any—it’s mostly House of Cards in LARPing costumes. The violence, erotica, crude language, and other mature material has done a lot to recommend the genre to audiences who otherwise might have avoided it.
There is a scene in the episode “Hardhome” which exemplifies the formula well. In a camp in the north, a man suddenly spies a giant, a legendary creature of which only a tiny handful remain. The encounter is performed perfectly; the man is as awestruck as we would be. Then the giant turns to him and rumbles a few words. The caption translates: “The f*** you looking at?” It’s vintage Game of Thrones.
Few things are less fashionable nowadays than moralizing and people are less likely than ever to apologize for what they admit are guilty pleasures. No one who watches Game of Thrones, or any programming like it, would allege it to be wholesome. Yet they watch it anyway, usually emphasizing the cleverness of its writing, the credibility of its characters, and the grandeur of its setting.
Its vices are contexualized and extenuated by these virtues, at least by fans with enough social graces to defend themselves. Such viewers seem to endure the show’s dramatized atrocities as a reaction to their own relative comfort and privilege—as a kind of penance for living so far removed from Game of Thrones’s tyrannical and conceivably historical circumstances.
Other fans make no excuses at all, but congratulate their cast-iron stomachs and insensitivities, enjoying the misery as only misanthropes can, and savouring the many crucibles in which the characters all scurry and burn. Whatever the case, the popularity of Game of Thrones seems damningly out of step with the ideals and agenda of the progressivist age—an exhaust valve, perhaps, for its excesses, and an indictment of its compassionate humanism.
We’re well past the point here of simply recommending Narnia over Westeros, and Éowyn of Rohan over Daenerys Targaryen. Millions are hooked on Game of Thrones, waiting to be weaned off through the meaningful closure that seems less and less likely as the final season concludes. Rather than harp on the show’s shortcomings—including its foredoomed attempt to adapt an unfinished book series, its unfulfilled prophecies, and the day-to-day anarchy that makes its world’s historical richness utterly implausible—we might do better to recognize its effect on our own minds. In an age obsessed over which molecules we are putting into our air, food, and vaccines, it seems ludicrous that we should be so unaware of what we’re putting into our brains. Fiction is not harmless simply because it’s make-believe.
Game of Thrones is traumatic to watch, and laced with just enough arsenic for audiences to develop both a resistance and an addiction. Several episodes left me with the same sick feeling I had after watching an ISIS execution video on a news site. Unlike the context of our own world’s conflicts, however, Game of Thrones provides no touchstone for justice, and requires us to keep watching, week after week, year after year, hoping for all the carnage and suffering to eventually fall into some kind of moral or ethical framework.
If fans seem upset with the direction of the eighth season, I would suggest it is not simply because the writers have dropped the ball, but because a wound that has been irritated for seven years deserves a silver lancet. With the formerly sympathetic Mother of Dragons turning full butcher, for example, what they’re getting is a rusty nail.
Harley J. Sims is a writer and independent scholar currently living on a mountainside near Vancouver, British Columbia. He can be reached on his website at http://www.harleyjsims.webs.com