To understand the sweeping phenomena that is Game Of Thrones, one must acknowledge that Society and Entertainment mirror each other extensively. We all live in a modern Westeros, whether we like it or not.
You often hear of movies and shows being ‘ahead of their times’ later becoming cult classics whispered with reverence. Scarface was one, Blade Runner another. Step over to Indian Cinema for example. During the 60’s and early 70’s, Rajesh Khanna ruled the roost in Indian Entertainment. Every movie he made was a blockbuster, screaming fans thronged at his residence, hysterical women fainted when they saw him. It was the good times in the 60’s, with faith in the country, the government and, most importantly, the system.
Cue the late 1970’s and we, as a country, went through an extraordinarily bleak period. Emergency was imposed, censorship was in force and any dissenting opinions silenced. Khanna continued, unabated, with his string of feel-good, romantic comedies. Only a decade on, they failed miserably. No one could even remotely believe that this was life anymore, with oppression and misery in surplus.
In stepped the vengeful, renegade hero, he who disregarded rules, defied the system and confounded the authorities. With a series of movies with essentially the same plot-line, Amitabh Bachchan represented the ‘angry young man’ of India. He took on the cops, the corrupt system and exacted rough justice, rather than bureaucratic inequity.
Further parallels can be made to the SRK/Karan Johar movies of the 1990’s with NRI’s, making them feel connected to their home country while extolling the value of the life they left behind. In a period of aggressive liberalisation, globalisation and emigration, cinema provided the crux of connection.
So why has Game of Thrones – a fantasy fiction book series previously amassing only nerds amongst it’s patrons, evoke such a deep, relatable response amongst millions globally today? The Season 6 Finale drew over 25 Million Americans alone, let alone the rest of the world. In context, that’s the whole of Bombay sitting down for an hour to gorge on warring families and dragons. Arguably the most-watched Television show of today, it’s adherents are fanatical, divided in opinion and as fiercely devoted to their allegiances as any cult could wish for. Chuck Breaking Bad, Suits, The Crown or any other show you can think off. The frenzy GOT has produced has led to predicted spin-offs, prequels and a dozen other probabilities, including a feature film.
The only previous fantasy fiction series evoking such universal adoration was ‘Lord Of The Rings’. However, GOT differs from LOTR in primarily two ways, regardless of the diversity of their worlds.
First, Tolkien’s world is black and white. The good guys are the humans, and their allies, the noble elves and doughty dwarves. Opposing them are the hordes of Mordor and Isengard, complete with Orcs, Trolls, Mercenaries and ghostly wraiths. In George R.R. Martin’s world, every character is grey, as they are when they’re only human. The moral paradigm of Westeros is rife with complexity and subtlety, with no clear path towards the ideal country.
Would the majority of the population actually care about who’s rule they are under, be it Lannister or Targaryen? Wouldn’t they prefer to rule themselves as independent regions, rather than be subject to one ruling House? Is there actually more strength in unity, as they have been led to believe, that they need to be subject to a single King and his heirs? Be it Aerys Targaryen, Joffrey Baratheon or Cersei Lannister, mad men and psychotic descendants are endemic in any family, class or clan blessed with unconditional power.
The characters are nowhere easier to decipher or categorise. While many saw Ned Stark as THE man of honour, others saw him blissfully decide that a war was better than him tarnishing his spotless reputation. If some saw Catelyn Stark as a devoted, sympathetic widow, others perceived a woman who tormented a bastard boy for no fault of his own.
What about the King in The North, Robb Stark? Heroic, bold and determined to avenge his father’s wrongful murder, King Robb drew many fans and admirers for his rightful belligerence. Yet here was a ‘King’ who decided not to honour his word to a vassal when it suited him. Which King would set such a reprehensible standard for others to follow? Well, that didn’t come to pass as the outraged vassal butchered him at dinner, leading Lord Tywin to utter the memorable line ‘Tell me why it is more honourable to kill ten thousand men in battle than a dozen at dinner.’
The moral distortion of Game of Thrones increases the audience’s love for their character, rather than turn them away. Idealism is all well and good, but because these characters are so real, they’re us. Barring Ramsay Bolton, Joffrey and The Night King, even the worst characters have devoted adherents. (The author of this article himself is anxiously preparing for the worst to happen to Cersei, with increasing trepidation)
Second, Tolkien’s world is entirely magical, with it’s environment, details and circumstances shaped by an item of imagination. Picture the Balrog that threw down Gandalf, the Uruk-Hai who killed Boromir (poor Sean Bean!) or the destruction of Mordor along with the one true Ring.
Set aside the Targaryen Dragons, the White Walkers and the reincarnation of Jon Snow and you pretty much got a period in Human History. Loosely based on 15th century England, the themes connecting the characters are incredibly relevant to the world we see around us today.
They aren’t after a magic ring, but numerous personal scores. Their motives and aspirations are extremely ordinary, if bloodier, than contemporary society. Some of them are motivated by the singularity of vengeance, as Arya Stark is. Others, like Daenerys Targaryen, by the denial of their birthright. From Ned Stark with his honour to Lord Stannis with his duty, every single character on Game of Thrones could exist today with a few subtle changes. What makes this show ring a chord with millions is the challenges and struggles faced by it’s characters are routinely in our minds as well.
One of the show’s highlights has been the wildly divergent attitude with which Game of Thrones have treated women, preferring them neither decorative nor supplementary to the storyline, but rather at the heart of it. Compare it to the current struggle in Women’s Rights, with resistance to gender stereotyping and patriarchal suppression.
The television series has long been accused of sexism, from feminists enraged at the casual manner in which both nude women and rape are treated. Comedians and critics even fabricated the term ‘sexposition’, a term describing the show’s tendency of explaining plot lines and developing characters to the background of an extended sex scene. The multiple rape scenes have caused consternation, a public outcry against the proliferation of topics that feminists believe currently dehumanise women. Yet that view is myopic and symptomatic of a culture of excessive criticism.
For the show is dominated by women, from the chief antagonist, Cersei Lannister, to the liberator of slaves, Daenerys. Not only do women headline this television phenomenon, they direct it’s course. Brienne of Tarth and Arya Stark are two splendid depictions of women refusing to adapt to the roles that the patriarchy has burdened upon them, instead preferring defiance and vengeance through the use of arms rather than sullenly joining the ranks of the defeated. Little Lyanna Mormont, who stole hearts with her brief cameo, speaks up boldly regardless of her sex or age. Ellaria Sand, along with the three Sand Snakes, who murder their rightful leaders with the chilling and determined epitaph ‘Weak Men Will Never Rule Us Again’. Olenna Tyrell, whose acerbic wit and political dexterity result in the murder of a mad king, while furthering her House’s position. Let’s not forget Asha Greyjoy, leader of a race (The Ironborn) that have never known a woman in command, let alone been conscious of treating them with any respect.
Only Sansa Stark was conspicuous in her feminine portrayal, being pigeon-holed into the role of a stereotypically submissive, docile Lady, whose head is filled with songs and idealistic romance. Yet even this ‘little dove’ (as The Hound terms her) reveals an inner resilience of steel, displaying a different kind of strength, letting neither one mad fiancee, a humiliating marriage nor a sadistic husband ever break her spirit. While many in her position would submit listlessly to their fate, as was expected, she instead accrues knowledge, ambition and lessons in the Game of Thrones from her lustful mentor, Littefinger. Knowing the sexual power she wields over him, she uses it to exact bloody justice upon the men who murdered her brothers. Her story arch has become fascinating, with a betrayal or two in the pipeline and her position as Queen In The North still up for grabs.
At the heart of Game of Thrones lies the question of inner morality. Does the “high road” ever work? The nice guys always seem to go down quickly and when they do, the world they envisioned dies with them. Do the ends justify the means, as some of the characters, including Daenerys believe? For in order to rid their world of slavery, she exterminates thousands, innocent and guilty alike. Is she guilty of mass murder? Or simply the expedience that is required when faced with stubborn, uncompromising enemies? Do we do what just has to be done or attempt to win our objectives with honour, integrity and the feeling of fair play?
Expand these themes from the individual to the social. Relate these thoughts to the greater political discourses sweeping our world today, from the imposition of military rule for the ‘safety and security’ of the citizens to the excessive viciousness of political campaigns, with candidates from either extremes of the political spectrum preparing to do anything in order to see their vision of the world come into reality. Morality is merely the prerogative of the generous and/or the foolish and necessity ‘trumps’ all.
Well, according to Westeros, there is only one rule in the Game of Thrones; You Win Or You Die. Let’s hope our world has a happier conclusion.