Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Kill the Masters

Where Is Game of Thrones Going?

Game of Thrones is in its 4th season as a mash-up history of England and Europe, written by a compulsively detailed writer who thinks there are more stories in history than in the imagination.  The War of the Roses, Hadrian’s Wall, the Vikings, the Scots, Venice, the siege of Constantinople, Attila the Hun, Hannibal, Elizabethan pageantry, sexual proclivities and dire wolves are blended with dragons, White Walkers, wargs and black magic, all hovering under the threat of an environmental doom – a dreadful long winter that will last for years.  Lancasters and Yorks become Lannisters and Starks.  The Lannisters are the most powerful because they have the most soldiers and the most money - which should sound familiar.  Hadrian’s Wall grows to 700 feet of ice.  Global warming becomes ‘winter is coming.  These stories are filmed in Morocco, Croatia, Ireland, Iceland and Malta, but all become Westeros or areas surrounding Westeros.  Westeros looks somewhat like England in profile.  The Narrow Sea is really the English Channel, and Europe, Asia and Africa, the outer lands.   

The long-form HBO series has replaced the serialization novels of Dickens and Twain and the tales of Tolkien.  It outlasts normal series TV.  Game of Thrones is now the most-watched serial of them all.  It has been argued that these fiction series are weapons of mass distraction and have rescued corporate television from being a heavily-advertised, trivial wasteland.   Of course, humans need entertainment.  The question is, how much?  It is pretty clear, entertainment is one of the main forms of pacification at present.  Witness the endless delight that the internet takes in every single entertainment issue.

GoT undoubtedly rivets the attention of many because it parallels the political and cultural life we live now.  It embodies the right-wing idea that the ‘family trumps everything’- that one’s bloodline is what matters most – with disastrous consequences.  It shows power to be a bloody goal and war to be an expensive and gruesome game.  Instead of rejecting power, as in Tolkien, it seeks it.  It illustrates the lack of trust in a medieval society where everyone is fair game – a lack of trust which might look very familiar.  There is even an “Iron Bank” that controls the fate of the various kingdoms who rely on it for funding their wars.  In a recent Rolling Stone interview, George RR Martin, the author, reveals he became an opponent of the Vietnam War.  As he put it, he realized Ho Chi Minh was not ‘Sauron” - the villain of the Tolkien series.  Martin, while idolizing Tolkien, thought his view that a ‘good king’ made all the difference was essentially a medieval outlook.  Martin also rejects Tolkien's view that ‘just’ wars could succeed.  For Martin, Vietnam was a prime example, as was World War I & the invasions of Iraq. 

In GoT gender roles are reversed, some women being more cruel than their male counterparts. Cersi Lannister is a reminder of Lady MacBeth.  They lead and rule, not just writhe in bed.  Marriage is mostly a deadly and stale joke.  Gayness and lewdness is naturalized. Yet ordinary peasants and workers are mostly absent from the stories - providing only a background to the celebration of anybody who is cruel, rich or powerful – or a royal.   There is one revolt so far – the townspeople in King’s Landing throw dung at Lord Joffrey - but it is put down brutally.

GoT is not normal ‘escapism.’  In fact, it rubs your nose in beheadings, betrayal, castration, rape, mutilation, bad marriages, imprisonment, slavery, torture and being burnt to a crisp by a dragon’s breathe.  There seems to be no ‘happy ending’ on the horizon.  The “red wedding’ scene is thought to be ‘the most shocking scene in all of TV history,’ as Rolling Stone puts it.  Through all this the humans attempt to survive in a basically amoral universe – unlike the simple duality of Tolkien’s world.  Viewers chose those who they think are the most honest or intelligent – perhaps the bastard Jon Snow, the tiny Arya Stark, the most intelligent Tyrion Lannister, the messianic Daenerys Targaryen or the seemingly lesbian warrior, Brienne of Tarth.  Good people who are na├»ve come to bad ends.  Characters that were ‘good’ become treacherous – characters that were ‘bad’ become more reliable.  Ramsay Bolton burns Winterfell, a place he called home for many years.  The brutal Hound protects the stupid and vicious boy king of King’s Landing, Joffrey, then denounces him and leaves his service.  Jaime Lannister, who threw a boy off a parapet, crippling him for life, begins to help the brother he detested out of a deadly jam. 

Is there, as Zizek would ask, a force for ‘emancipation’ amongst this bloody mess of warring kings and queens to be?  Martin says he’s not interested in history as ‘sociology’ but only as a source of stories, so this angle mitigates against any kind of progressive resolution.  Some of the Wildlings, who live north of the Wall in the vast reaches of snow and mountain, laugh when Snow bows to them.  “We have no kings,” they tell him.  Bandits who hang around the woods (perhaps like Robin Hood) insist they are trying to stay away from all the kings.  The Khaleesi / Daenerys Targaryen, who has 3 nuclear weapons – ah, dragons – frees the slaves in 3 cities.  Her slogan is “Kill the Masters.”  She tells them that they must do it themselves, and provides weapons, but then they become an undifferentiated mass.  When counter-revolutions break out in those towns, returning the slavers to power (much like the violent return of white rule in the South after the Civil War) she pledges not to abandon the re-enslaved.  So there are forces of emancipation, but they are outnumbered by the kingly Houses fighting for power.  Daenerys Targaryen has the best chance of winning the wars.   Yet we know that Martin does not really believe in ‘good wars.’  Daenerys may not be the savior she is made out to be.

The White Walkers do not fit into an historical comparison however. The White Walkers are some kind of dead zombies, reared from humans, who cannot be killed except by a glass weapon discovered by the corpulent, scared but literate “Samwell”, who bears an eerie similarity to Piggie in ‘Lord of the Flies.’   (Samwise was the name of Frodo’s helpmate in the Tolkien books.)   What do they represent?  Nearly everything else in this series has a parallel to the present – except the White Walkers.  Do they represent a psychological principle?  The fellow travelers of the long winter?  Something to unite humanity, as ‘aliens’ do in most reactionary science fiction?  Do they represent our fear of the unknown or the Other?  The mix of the ‘real’ and the ‘imaginary’ here loses its force because it loses contact with the real.  It might become apparent, but now it is just a zombie trope – vampires that seem to live off the living. And not by production.

Martin has not finished these books and it is doubtful he will be able to before the series finishes – which might mean they part in trajectory.  The HBO producers may take the series in another direction.  It is also possible, because Martin loves ‘stories,’ that he cannot finish them.  Yet, they will end.  The question is, how can you end something like this?  After all, history does not end. Yet a series must end, like a life.  Most bourgeois fiction does not know how to conclude – it dodges the inevitable, so to speak.  It has no pattern but the past - the future and even the present do not exist.  Martin’s fondness for telling stories and hostility to ‘sociological’ explanations might indicate that Westeros will only continue on as it is – if he has his way.  A post-modern experiment in history, fantasy and politics, where nothing changes at all. 

Related reviews – “Four Arguments Against Television,” and “Bad Boys, Bad Boys” below.  (Use blog search box, upper left.)

P.S. - Some people object to looking at culture, as if culture was outside the purview of socialists.  This is a bit sectarian, much like the view of those who will not participate in the electoral system or who ignore sexism because it is not always about 'class' - etc.  Marxism has a long history of involvement with culture, as no society can live without it.  

P.P.S. - Recently JRR Martin, while looking at the Middle East, compared the fantastical dragons of the world he created to nuclear weapons. 

Red Frog
May 7, 2014


AA said...

"Lannisters." "Samwell Tarly," whose father Randyll Tarly is one of Mace Tyrell's bannermen. Brienne isn't lesbian (she had a secret crush on Renly). Malta is for the Essos scenes (the sister continent to Westeros, and larger in size).

Red Frog said...

Thanks for the fact checking.

AA said...

By not reading the book, you're missing out on the web of geopolitics, trade and finance that provides much of the glue for the yarn. You're missing out on the historical context that GRRM provides -- e.g., off the top of my head, the Blackfyre Rebellion and the war of the Ninepenny Kings. Or the fall of Valyria and hence of the Valyrian Empire. On television what you get instead is tits bouncing in Littlefinger's brothels. As McLuhan pointed out, the medium is the message