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How Game of Thrones' nihilistic universe is redefining Hollywood conventions

Mischa Snaije By Mischa Snaije Published on May 23, 2016
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By Mischa Snaije

The Game of Thrones phenomenon is puzzling in more than one way. At first, its appeal seems rather obvious: it features knights, castles, and dragons, orgies, epic duels, and betrayals. It is the perfect storm, straight out of a fantasy geek’s wet dream, the lovechild of Lord of the Rings and high budget soft-core porn.

But such highlights only form a tiny fraction of the overall show. Before witnessing a full-scale battle or a steamy sex scene, the audience must first plow through convoluted political machinations between the powerful families fighting for control of Westeros. The ‘Red Wedding’, often cited as one of the most gruesome scenes in television history, only takes place in episode 9 (out of 10) of the third season, the culmination of an almost painfully slow buildup.

This represents a major shift for viewers, who, accustomed to fast-paced Hollywood blockbusters, must learn to trade immediate gratification for more distant but delicious rewards. The Game of Thrones books are also notorious for their staggering size and complexity, and for this reason have a distinct and dedicated audience that doesn’t mind consulting a family tree every few pages. Although the HBO adaptation is somewhat simplified, it still makes frequent references to obscure backstories, requiring the viewer to either be on point with their lore, or miss out on crucial dialogue.

This represents a major shift for viewers, who, accustomed to fast-paced Hollywood blockbusters, must learn to trade immediate gratification for more distant but delicious rewards.

So what is it that makes people of all ages, genders and cultures faithfully follow this niche fantasy series, which teases a lot but never seems to get anywhere (winter has been arriving for 6 seasons now…?) I believe that the Game of Thrones phenomenon is rooted in something deeper than dragons and tits, the quality of its production, or the completeness of the universe it presents. The show consistently and surprisingly defies entrenched Hollywood expectations and that is what keeps people watching.

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The unpredictability of Game of Thrones derives from the nihilistic morality of its universe. As its title suggests, the whole series is a game, in which a few powerful families fight for brute power. The stakes are the survival of their lineage, and the bets placed are on the lives of the inhabitants of Westeros. This is a radical departure from other popular fantasy series such as Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings, in which characters can generally be divided into the ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’, with the former righteously fighting to thwart the latter’s plans of world domination.

In Game of Thrones, there is no loftier goal than the control over as much land as possible. Even when characters try to abide by moral standards, they find their idealism rapidly crushed. As the character Jon Snow recently said upon being brought back from the dead, “I tried to do the right thing, and I got murdered” . Ultimately, all the characters with noble intentions find themselves faced with a choice: either act against their self-interest and risk being killed like Jon Snow, or compromise their moral integrity for the ‘greater good’, a view espoused by Tyrion Lannister.

In fact, violence is routinely rewarded in Game of Thrones. Those most willing to use blackmail, violence, and dishonesty stay ahead of the pack, as exemplified by the two greatest schemers of the show: Lord Varys and Littlefinger. They embody Machiavelli’s idea of politics as a battlefield where every action is legitimate, where the ends always justify the means. Most people bond with these Machiavellian characters that somehow never lose sight of the big picture. Deep down, perhaps, we admire cold, calculated rationalism more than naïve virtue.

So the greatest innovation of Game of Thrones is that its viewers (and readers) come to identify with characters through something other than the moral divide that traditionally defines fantasy blockbusters. Even mostly repugnant characters have moments of pure vulnerability that oblige you to nuance your views. Cersei Lannister’s ‘walk of shame’ at the end of Season 5 was particularly effective at shifting viewer’s perception of her: You knew she had it coming, and yet couldn’t help but feel sorry for her. It’s this ambiguity that makes the characters of Game of Thrones feel so alive and complex.

George R. R. Martin, the author of the books, helps to maintain this tense uncertainty by routinely killing off the show’s central characters. He recently said in an interview that “a writer, even a fantasy writer, has an obligation to tell the truth and the truth is, as we say in Game of Thrones, all men must die”. Ironically, his merciless fantasy universe, where the best men get killed and the most cunning survive, feels far closer to reality than the simplified vision of the world presented in most Hollywood productions. And it redefines the traditional viewer’s relationship to the hero, but denying him/her the certainty that the hero will survive.

Ultimately, the morally nihilistic universe of Game of Thrones is a welcome addition to mainstream television. Most of the societal problems we face today, from religious extremism to racism, stem from a Manichean vision of the world, where a line is drawn between Good/Evil, and ‘Us’ vs Them’. We are indoctrinated to make moral judgements from a tender age, through the media we consume and political/religious ideology. If Game of Thrones can help us see that our judgments often have no basis in the real world, that is undeniably a ‘good’ thing.

I'm a French student in an Erasmus masters program in European cultural studies, currently working in Prague. My background is philosophy and history, which represent my interest in big ideas, ... Show More