“Winter is coming…”
In recently watching through the HBO Game of Thrones series, albeit a decade too late, I could not help but marvel at the sheer majesty and depth of this world constructed by George R.R. Martin. Westeros contains echoes of Anglo-Saxon and Norman England, as well as Nordic and Eastern influences, and even glimpses of ancient Athens, Egypt, and Rome. Geographically, Westeros is fascinating borderland, a confluence of cultures. In the icy north lies a vast wall a la Hadrian’s Wall which divides the kingdoms of Westeros from a frigid arctic tundra populated by primitive wildlings (or “free folk”). To the east across the Narrow Sea lies Essos, a continent populated by many different groups, including a nomadic equestrian warrior tribe known as the Dothraki. In the south sits Dorne, a rugged mountainous terrain with a low-lying desert.
Politically, the plot is based loosely on the Wars of the Roses, the ongoing contest for political power between the English Houses of York and Lancaster. It begins during a time of fragile rule over the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. The prized Iron Throne sits in the eastern part of the country in the coastal capital of King’s Landing which is currently occupied by the drunken hedonist Robert Baratheon. He claimed power after an uprising which assassinated the “Mad King.” However, King Robert’s sudden death due to excessive drinking while on a boar hunt leads to a succession crisis –a confrontation between the rival Houses of Stark and Lannister. Before he dies, the king entrusts regency of the crown to his chosen guard, “The King’s Hand,” Ned Stark (Sean Bean), of the House Stark who rules the north from the kingdom of Winterfell, however Robert’s conniving Queen Cersei (Lena Headey), of the House Lannister, has other plans. She mounts a coup d’etat which places her sadistic and insecure son Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) on the throne and Ned Stark is then shockingly betrayed, imprisoned, and beheaded.
This leads to civil war in Westeros. Secrets are revealed –including Cersei’s incestuous affair with her brother Jaime “Kingslayer” Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) which actually produced Joffrey the King –can the bastard child of incest be the true ruler on the Iron Throne? In rebellion, the House of Stark claims a rival kingdom in the north against the rule of the Iron Throne. Other kingdoms must choose sides, and a twisted network of alliances emerges. The Greyjoys choose their side, but after a provocative invasion of Winterfell, the heir apparent, Theon Greyjoy, is captured by the malicious bastard son of the Boltons (allies of the Starks) and he is then endlessly tortured until assuming a new persona, the enfeebled henchman “Reek.” Meanwhile, the Stark children are all scattered throughout the countryside after Ned’s death. Robb Stark (Richard Madden) leads a partially successful attack on the Lannisters –but he and his pregnant wife, hi.s mother, and guards are all betrayed and slaughtered at a wedding ceremony for breaking his marital promise –the infamous “red wedding.” Sansa Stark bounces between captivity by the petulant King Joffrey and then savagery at the hands of the sadist Lord Bolton, while Arya Stark escapes and proceeds down a path of magic and revenge. The young and paralyzed Bran Stark realizes that he actually possesses the power of a seer and he is carried northward where he learns the ghastly truth of the “White Walkers.” Ned Stark’s bastard son, Jon Snow (Kit Harington), also ventures northward where he rises to become Lord Commander of the brotherhood which pledges itself to guard the north wall. They are known as The Night Watch.
The world is built upon an ancient civilization with age-old gods and long-dead ancestors. There are rumors of magic and supernatural happenings, but many do not believe the old stories anymore, until something stirs in the east as Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), wife of the Dothraki warlord Khal Drogo (Jason Momoa), hatches three dragons. She mounts an extensive military rule conquering cities in Essos en route to the Iron Throne. Dark forms of magic and witchery remain in the shadows, commanded by only the most capable masters. The most sinister of them all concerns a civilizational threat which transcends the petty rivalries in the civil war. A myth stretching back thousands of years tells of a dark menace which once rose up out of the snow and ice in the north –once every few thousand years, an army of the undead known as the “White Walkers” invades and decimates mankind. Will the people of Westeros be able to fend off this threat?
This is a bleak world, where moral men are hard to find. Suffering and death linger around every corner as characters are introduced and then promptly discarded like old pieces of meat. There is little redemption or hope –save for silver-tongued diplomats like Tyrion Lannister who somehow manage to survive. Yet this is also one of the most compelling attributes of the show, that even heroes can die. It leads to an unsettling sense of pure unpredictability. Important characters are brutally and horrifically executed while swelling crowds demand their Girardian scapegoats. Prostitution and binge-drinking take center stage as betrayals and miscalculations quickly turn a life of opulent luxury into a petty base existence. Fortunes smiles on few, and she rarely smiles for long. Kings and their sons are hacked and maimed, ritual castration is common, traitors are publicly burnt alive, men are eaten alive by dogs, civilians are skinned alive, and in this world, beheadings are a merciful form of death. At one moment, a city is stormed and all of its leaders are strung up and crucified. At another, a newborn infant is stripped from his prostitute mother’s arms and then sliced into bits. Blood spatters all over the walls as eyeballs are ripped out, heads are bashed in with rocks, and entrails are spilled onto the floor. Death comes with little warning or ceremony. All of this points to something primal about the show. Lurid scandals and monstrous cruelty fascinate and disturb viewers enough not to look away. Like a Greek tragedy, Game of Thrones serves as a dark reminder of what lies just at the edge of civilization, a vicious Hobbesian war of all against all.
Despite all the rampant bloodshed and nihilism, we can still find heroes in this show among the likes of Jon Snow or Daenerys Targaryen (prior to Season 8). At the same time, we hunger for the downfall of degenerates like King Joffrey or Lord Bolton, as well as bloodthirsty mobs and fanatical religious cults which appear from time to time. There is still room for good and evil as characters risk their lives for noble causes. And yet neither good nor evil are monolithic in the show –our allegiances tend to change, particularly for characters like Cersei and her brother Jaime who nearly fall prey to another unhinged fanatical religious cult. Watching their massacre as vengeance on behalf of Cersei was one of the most gratifying moments in the show, along with Jon Snow’s defense of Castle Black at the wall in season 4 and his reclaiming of Winterfell in season 6. Other moments of gratification include Arya Stark’s revenge for the “red wedding,” Daenerys Targaryen’s imperial conquests, and Tyrion Lannister’s machinations. Of course, the most shocking moment in the show is the bloody betrayal of the Starks at the “red wedding.” Sadly, the show runs astray shortly after Season 6 as anxious HBO executives simply could no longer wait for George R.R. Martin to publish his next book. New plotlines and character arcs are ultimately trashed and the battle with the White Walkers looks pathetic. In addition, the writing suffers from a degraded and vulgar style of dialogue, and few new ideas. It seems as if the creatives barely managed to squeeze out a handful of episodes for the last season or two.
I found myself awestruck by this ancient timocratic world where honor and strength rules the day (not unlike the Achaeans in Homer’s Iliad). On the surface it seems that only the most ruthless warriors survive in Game of Thrones, however the true victors come to light as the strategists. Time and again, only those with a plan are able to outmaneuver their enemies and win the day. In a world governed by bloodlust and vengeance, I found myself wondering if an end will ever come –as in the case of Orestes rescued from the Furies by Pallas Athena in Aeschylus’s Oresteia. What would a new peace look like in Westeros? Is it even desirable?