Why we love and hate the Game of Thrones

Everyone’s buzzing about the latest Game of Thrones episode.

Ok, not everyone…but I’m seeing a great deal of “OHMYGODHOWDOIFUNCTION” reactions in the aftermath of the Red Wedding.

Well, we were warned from the beginning, right?
Well, we were warned from the beginning, right?

Here’s a confession: I haven’t watched the HBO series, nor have I finished reading the Game of Thrones books. I eagerly began to read the first book a year ago, and after speeding through its pages, I became so dissatisfied with the outcome of the book that I discontinued the series.

Why did I stop reading? Let’s be honest. I prefer escapist fiction. I want to appease my conscience, already battered by the intricate bombardments of reality, with the simple and obvious happy-ever-afters in novels. I want to cheer for the great, almighty hero/heroine who ultimately defeats the big, bad enemy. I like reading books and watching TV that go easy on my heart — there are clear lines between what is right and what is wrong, and who is good and who is bad. I know whom to love and whom to hate. So, one can only imagine how well I responded to the events of the first Game of Thrones book. Not well. Not well at all.

But that doesn’t mean I didn’t appreciate the strength of the writing and the world that George R.R. Martin had created. As much as I hated Martin for killing off characters, giving the Starks a terrible fate, and redeeming the villains, I also loved the book for the very same reason. It was because Martin wasn’t afraid to cross the traditional lines of morality, particularly in fantasy fiction, that I appreciated the value of the story and loved the depth of the writing. By pulling our heartstrings in his treacherous journey to interweave our conventional dichotomies of “good” and “evil,” he draws us into a love and hate relationship with the Game of Thrones.

Alyssa Rosenberg from Foreign Policy published an article in 2011 on the relation between the Game of Thrones and international relations theory. In this article, Rosenberg asserts that Martin’s depiction of a realpolitik world in his series is a mirror image of foreign policy even today. Forget about trade, diplomacy, and institutions. It’s all about power in a crude world.

Rosenberg makes a great argument, and especially for IR nerds (myself included), the connection between a cult TV show and academic theory is fascinating. However, Charli Carpenter’s perspective in Foreign Affairs (2012) appeals to me more. Her assertion that the Game of Thrones does not exclusively fall under the bleak umbrella of realism points to the focus on the marginalized, not merely the elite families, and the three-dimensional portrayal of the villains. My favorite passage from her essay is:

Perhaps the most marginalized viewpoint in war literature, and political narrative more generally, is that of the enemy itself. Yet in Game of Thrones, even the despots, king-slayers, executioners, and slave-traders are humanized and contextualized. As Adam Serwer notes, “Tolkien’s monsters are literally monsters … [but] most of Martin’s monsters are people. Just when you’ve decided to hate them, [Martin] writes a chapter from their perspective, forcing you to consider their point of view.” Martin shows how gender, race, class, age, and disability combine to produce multiple gradients and forms of power in Westerosi society, just as much as differences in material capabilities. By mixing things up, moreover, he reminds the audience that these categories are often constructed rather than fixed: the strong and handsome find themselves crippled; princes become slaves; noblewomen turn into stable hands; bastards grow to be commanders.

The moral ambiguity that Carpenter observes is an incredibly powerful quality of the Game of Thrones world. For me, it is the characterization of the distinct individuals in Game of Thrones that compels me to enter that world — not the endless power struggles between the haves and have-nots. I don’t care about the feuding and scheming so much as the unexpected twists that add a surprising element to my perception of a character. It is this sudden and unanticipated change in how we perceive others, in which a layer of one’s personality is exposed that neither confirms nor denies a firm moral standing, that makes the Game of Thrones so relatable to our world.

And it is exactly this moral ambiguity that reinforces our love-hate relationship with Game of Thrones. Yes, I’ve avoided the addictive elixir of simultaneous joy and pain from watching the show, but I am tempted. Very, very tempted indeed to start watching…

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