‘Game of Thrones’ is bloodthirsty and depraved, but its pleasures shouldn’t feel like guilty ones

Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) ()
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If some future civilization judges this one based on our popular entertainment, we will come in for a harsh verdict indeed. Consider the fact that the HBO television series “Game of Thrones,” engorged as it is with war, torture, bloodshed, incest, and sexual violence, is celebrated by critics, its second season awaited with hunger by fans.

I am among those convinced that this is the best show on television. I'm even more assured after watching the first four episodes of the show's second season, which premiered Sunday night on HBO. So, are we all depraved, or can this madness be justified?

“Game of Thrones” has its roots in the work of George R.R. Martin, the American Tolkien whose series of fantasy novels, “A Song of Ice and Fire,” inspired HBO's television adaptation. This kind of bloodshed isn't unheard of in literature, much less fantasy. Yet few TV shows have pursued a story as grim-faced, and with as high a body count, as this one. The second season's tagline is anvil-blunt: War Is Coming. 

Season two's conflict centers around five contenders for the Iron Throne, which rules over the entirety of the main continent of Martin's fantasy world. Each of the five claimants to the crown has a host of relatives, retainers, allies, and enemies for us to track. And beyond those five, there are storylines involving the men of the Night's Watch, a monk-like order that protects the continent from a dimly understood evil power on the other side of a great wall in the north; the fugitive young Arya Stark, whose father was beheaded as a traitor; Theon Greyjoy, whose house was destroyed in an earlier rebellion; and others.

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It is a testament to the show's editing and its economical writing—hardly a line is wasted, even if the dialogue is occasionally portentous—that it all comes together. 

The show also attempts a scale that may be unprecedented in television. It is the closest thing we've seen to a Homeric epic—even more so because this is not a one-off film or mini-series, but a spectacle that may last a half dozen seasons. The show's creators, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, have said they pride themselves on using real sets and locations (there is occasional C.G.I.), and this season's shooting locations included Malta, Croatia, and Iceland. The sense of place, and the attention paid to costumes, set design, and art direction, is remarkable.

Finally, looming over all this is one of the most ingeniously maddening villains ever conceived: Joffrey Baratheon, barely old enough for a Bar Mitzvah but current holder of the Iron Throne. Insecure, vain, ruthless, and psychopathic (he is, after all, a product of incest), Joffrey is the show's only irredeemable major character. It's tough to hate a kid, but I'd shank Joffrey at the first opportunity.

Season one of “Game of Thrones” was largely about the establishing of relationships and conflicts; it was essentially a political drama, focused on the court at King's Landing, with hints of magic and prophecy thrown in for seasoning. And with the stolid, honor-bound Ned Stark as its hero, the show could sometimes be mapped onto our contemporary politics—e.g. Ned is a deficit hawk, worried about the kingdom's finances; Ned is a birther (albeit a well-intentioned one), concerned with finding the proper heir to the throne.

But what many commentators missed is that “Game of Thrones” is not a modern show derived from modern conventions and ethics. It is a feudal drama with feudal ethics (and, in the case of Stark, who is executed on the order of the crazed King Joffrey at the end of season one, it is also a tragedy). Its people's principles are honor, duty, loyalty, family, and primogeniture. They do not concern themselves with many of the things a HBO viewer might care about. Rather, this is an 11th century world, produced for our 21st century entertainment. The pleasures of the show's scenarios are sometimes as vicariously subversive as they are dramatic. These people live and do things in ways that we cannot.

“Mad Men”—that other anxiously awaited returning drama—also receives high marks despite comparatively backwards attitudes towards gender and race. But the common justification goes that Matthew Weiner and company are simply representing the time in which the show is set, when brutish behavior towards women, Jews, and blacks was open and tolerated. And yet, it is for that same reason that some critics, like Daniel Mendelsohn, writing in The New York Review of Books, have found the show uncomfortable. There's a sense in which the capability to represent these behaviors is being trumpeted—look what we can do!—and the audience, by way of the passive medium of television, is made complicit.

“Game of Thrones” may unsettle some viewers for similar reasons. While the show's women are often rewarded for fierce displays of principle, most often they are of one kind: maternal love. Occasionally we see women scheming alongside, or against, the men, but they have no way to match the agency and physical power wielded by their male counterparts. When a female character is introduced, there's an even chance that you'll eventually see her nude, if she isn't already. Prostitutes are abundant, and a number of women are victims of sexual violence, sometimes while trying to supplicate themselves before powerful men. 

In a recently released 22-minute video wrapping up the first season and teasing the second, Benioff, Weiss, and some of the show's actors remark on the strength of its women. Kit Harrington, the actor who plays John Snow, shyly mentions that some people have called the show feminist. This is an understandable hedge, but difficult to reconcile with the evidence. A few episodes into this new season, a towering knight defeats a smaller foe in a friendly duel; the knights remove their helms, revealing the winner to be a towering woman (she must be at least six feet, six inches) and the loser, an effete gay male, albeit one known for his swordsmanship. The ironic display of egalitarianism is a bit too pat.

An easier way to defend the show's treatment of women is to use the Mad Men defense: it reflects the time period in which it is set. But of course, “Game of Thrones” is a fantasy, a genre whose name denotes sheer possibility. One might say that there's an anthropological realism in this kind of swords-and-sorcery fantasy—i.e. feudal societies are not generally known for their gender equity. But that would give a pass to a show whose writers seem possessed with deep stores of imagination—particularly on the level of dialogue and plot—except when it comes to its women. Arguably Daenerys Targaryen, Cersei Lannister, and Catelyn Stark are all “strong female characters” (a platitude that's become a kind of dull medal placed on the neck of anyone for whom you can check a few boxes), but they largely labor in the shadows of men. Their successes, we're led to believe, lie ahead, assuming they don't find themselves, like Ned Stark, victims of shockingly unexpected deaths.

Things are also thorny when it comes to race. Recently, the fantasy writer Saladin Ahmed argued in Salon that “Game of Thrones” is too white. But he added several caveats, including that George R.R. Martin's novels are more progressive than, say, Tolkien's; and that Martin's work, and the show it inspired, are products of a country in which these issues are still much in need of working out. Indeed, “Game of Thrones” has a long way to go in this regard. There is nothing inherently wrong with making a largely white world, but it is more concerning when characters from beyond the continent are consistently exoticized. The Mongol-horde-like Dothrakis, prostitutes with strange accents, dark-skinned pirates—all exist somewhere on the noble savage continuum. Most extreme is the case when, in episode four of season 2, a black man refers to himself, with mild self-deprecation, as “a savage from the Summer Isles.” It's unclear whether he's pandering to his white acquaintances or our own pop cultural expectations.

In the end, these sorts of disjunctions—and the self-conscious remarks in the promotional video about the show's supposed feminism—owe something to the medium itself. While literature is merely descriptive—anything can be said, but most things already have, and what really offends us anymore?—television is mimetic. It simulates and visualizes. Consequently, it can be particularly unsettling to see prostitutes being beaten or a sadistic torture scene enacted. It's visceral in a way that's perhaps not possible on a page, and we might find ourselves offended upon realizing that these things are being acted out—take after deliberate take—for our entertainment.

In that sense, we can almost see Weiss and Benioff negotiating with one another how to uphold an authentic 11th-century moral code, in all its brutality, while not alienating a relatively enlightened audience. Along with all of the superlative qualities I mentioned earlier, the show escapes drowning in its own decadent bloodlust because it rarely presents anything other than a human face. The acting is frequently superb, even in the case of Conleth Hill's Lord Varys, whose lines are often delivered as if he were parroting some alternate-universe version of Sun Tzu (e.g. “Power resides where men believe it resides”).

Most of all, while “Game of Thrones” shows an impressively thorough commitment to its period, there are enough modern touches to make us feel as if we're not being morally corrupted by rooting for one blood-soaked warrior over another. Richard Madden's Robb Stark mixes his father's sense of honor and familial duty with a guerrilla savvy. For example, when Jaime Lannister, after being captured by Robb's forces, offers to settle their war through a one-on-one duel, Robb refuses; he explains that he knows he'd lose. Few would-be kings would ever make such an admission, and it's the kind of humanizing gesture that the show has a knack for.

But no one can match Tyrion Lannister, a role for which actor Peter Dinklage won a Golden Globe and an Emmy. Dinklage stands four feet, five inches tall, and his character is frequently belittled as an “imp,” “dwarf,” or “half-man.” In a world ruled by force, Tyrion thrives because he belongs to a powerful family and because he is rather brilliant. He drinks too much and womanizes and disappoints his imperious father, but he's the best reader of character among the lot. (He also reads, something we almost never see in “Game of Thrones.”) The show's only thoroughly modern man, he's prone to lines like this one, spoken to his sister: “You love your children. It's your one redeeming quality. That and your cheekbones.” 

Coming from anyone else, the remark would be too contemporary, but Dinklage utters it with a kind of cold-eyed panache for which he's become known. His mind is his sword; it cuts cleanly—bloodlessly, too.