Since I’m about done with the fourth season, I suppose I owe an explanation to someone for having begun to watch Game of Thrones in the first place. I’d sworn it off for years now, only to prove that I’m not the kind of man who should be swearing anything. If it wasn’t for marriage and business, I wouldn’t believe in vows at all. They work out fine for men like David and Jonathan, who pledged each other their mutual devotion, because their souls were knit together. But then there’s Jepthah, who vowed to sacrifice the first thing that left his front door if he won a war, and then ended up sacrificing his daughter. Some people think it’s sexist that Mosaic Law prohibits women from making vows without their husband’s consent, and it may very well be — perhaps toward men. The idea that women can express their ecstasies and sorrows in ridiculous vows and not find themselves bound to something which, being made in the heat of the moment, has every ability to ruin their lives later, you would think a greater benefit than an insult (although I can conceive of its being an insult to the intelligence of women). Both sexes, after all, are capable of being rash. But enough on Biblical vows and feminism.
The reason I began watching Game of Thrones, aside from my recent lapse in religiosity, is because Doctor Who and Sherlock were both horrible. Both came with the highest ratings and the warmest recommendations. Doctor Who, from what little I saw, was too weird without being deep, which means it has more the vices and less of the virtues of Star Trek; and Sherlock was about a man who was too intelligent to be understandable. The former show was all action without any wisdom, the latter had so much plastic superhuman “wisdom” it almost lost every trace of excitement — an excitement, which, I believe, results from the possibility that things might go irrecoverably wrong. Sherlock wasn’t only too smart to be human, he was also too smug to be humane. It was like watching an autistic man-child run everyone else over for an hour and a half. There’s a part of you that wants to see an evil mastermind lose, and then another that makes you wish Sherlock wouldn’t win.
And so I got tired of wasting my time. I’d just finished The Walking Dead, which was an excellent show — slightly corny at first, but bolstered by the novelty of a world gone undead. The characters were excellent, in almost every regard. Some were good, others bad — most of them capable of going in either direction. There was a constant tension between the drive to be practical, and the drive to be human — or in other words, between whether or not we survive, and whether or not we’re willing to protect the things that make survival worth it — the same tension that exists every time we discuss welfare and borders and armies. This tension resulted in several different kinds of leadership, and several different kinds of character development. You could see Rick Grimes, a centrist sided slightly toward the ideal, trying to maintain law and order and justice by playing his role as a policeman long after the world had collapsed — and how Shane and Dale were tugging him (respectively) towards practicality and idealism. Neither Shane nor Dale were quite balanced enough to make either of them a great leader. Rick’s tightrope walk is the centerpiece of the show, because difficult decisions, especially when both sides are adequately represented, are the height of drama.
Shane was my favorite character. Of all the characters, aside from Rick Grimes himself, he was the man who protected the weak and innocent; his difficult decisions repeatedly saved everyone; he would have made a great father and husband and a friend — if it hadn’t been for his misplaced affection for Rick’s wife. But then again, this is the story of many great men, the earliest I can think of being David with Bathsheba. To have a truly great man go sour over a particularly nasty but understandable affection is the mark of a great tragedy. But Shane isn’t alone. Every character develops from a pre-apocalypse suburban archetype to a hardened survivor, and none of them, even if they’ve chosen the wrong, is left without a healthy dose of sympathy. In short, the overwhelming majority of the characters are three-dimensional, because you see them change for good reasons before your eyes.
There is no magically-intelligent autistic man-child, and the show isn’t action without consequence, or a portrayal of anything other than the depths of the human soul. The Walking Dead is a great show, because whoever made it understands people. I’ve heard several people say that the show is boring, because it’s like a soap opera: they think it would have been better if Rick Grimes had been hacking zombies the whole way through. But I think they’ve missed the point. The zombies are a convenient backdrop to expose the frailties, desires, and heroics of the human race. It allowed the writers to express, in the most easily digestible form, that many choices can be made, and there are plenty of paths to follow — most of them bad. Socialism gets a serious beating, in the medical highrise of Officer Lerner; a benevolent dictatorship, with all its secrets and propaganda, takes the form of Woodbury. The merits of democracy and monarchy are both toyed with in Rick’s camp. Mistrust eats the souls of the men in Terminus, who become patriotic to the point of extreme barbarism. Nobody who survives is allowed to make easy choices. But there are always choices that are worse than others.
This brings us to Game of Thrones. After watching a show as deep and complex as The Walking Dead, it’s easy to imagine a difficult transition into something as campy as Dr Who or Sherlock. So in short, if I can attempt at making this as easy to understand as possible, Game of Thrones is what would happen if Shakespeare and Machiavelli had a baby with Ron Jeremy and (eventually) the Marquis de Sade. Or in other words, it exhibits the wisdom of a philosopher and the tactics of a seasoned politician, while ruining it all with some of the nastiest soft-core pornography on television, and furthering the sexual depravity with unhealthy doses of sadism.
There has never been a time when wisdom and action were teamed so closely with beautiful storytelling and believable characters. The plot is complex, and meaningful beyond anything I’ve ever encountered. The characters will surprise you, but unlike the lazy wizardry of Sherlock and Doctor Who, they surprise only within the boundaries of human expectation, which is the hallmark of good writing. You’ll hate Jaime Lannister before you love him. You’ll laugh with and clap for Tyrion before you want to cry for him. You’ll want to be like Ned Stark, before you realize he’s honest to the point of naivety. You’ll pity Jon Snow before you want him to lead you in battle. There is no character in Game of Thrones comprised of a single aspect, like Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth. You’ll hear wisdom spouted from ruffians and queens alike, and each of them will speak in their own voice, from their own experiences, as if they’re someone who actually exists — a product of their own actual environment, and decisions good or bad. Everyone hates Cersei, but sometimes they agree with her. Nobody likes The Hound, but they can see why he’s such a bastard. Allies become enemies, and enemies become allies; every change in fortune is believable.
There is a tendency amongst those we consider the better Americans to believe that ruling is only about justice. Game of Thrones proves, not only by the consequences of foolishness and naivety, but by an actual speech by one of the chief villains (a speech rivaling John Falstaff’s famous oration in defense of cowardice*), that wisdom and cunning are equally important. Enough maxims are stated to fill Poor Richard’s Almanack and the book of Proverbs, but none of them feel unnatural, or out of place. Evil is given as good an argument as Goodness, which is the way it is in real life. You will not find any of the characters, excepting maybe one or two, who lacks a reason for his bad behavior, like how nobody in The Walking Dead who runs a horrible dictatorship ends up in one without a healthy dose of your sympathy. Sins as well as acts of righteousness have their incentives, many of which appear legitimate. Spurgeon once said that discernment is not knowing the difference between right and wrong, but knowing the difference between what is right and what seems right. I’m inclined to agree with him. But if I was to recommend Game of Thrones to anyone based on its merits alone, I would be falling into the latter category; and so I refuse to give my recommendation — I’ll give only my assessment.
There are people who say that Led Zeppelin sold their souls to the Devil so they could make great music, but I don’t believe them. But if somebody told me George R. R. Martin sold his soul for Game of Thrones, I would have to accept it as fact — not because I even believe in the Devil, but because Game of Thrones is simultaneously too good and too bad to have come from a common man. If the Devil is good at anything, it’s at hiding horrible things inside the things we normally think are excellent. Game of Thrones is the height of artistic perfection, in theater and cinema, marred by an almost inexcusable and inexhaustible moral sickness. George R.R. Martin is our fallen Shakespeare. If Martin’s name doesn’t survive the century, it will only be because the majority of our neighbors are too decent to share it with their children.
Why, thou owest God a death.
Exit PRINCE HENRY
FALSTAFF ‘Tis not due yet; I would be loath to pay him before
his day. What need I be so forward with him that
calls not on me? Well, ’tis no matter; honour pricks
me on. Yea, but how if honour prick me off when I
come on? how then? Can honour set to a leg? no: or
an arm? no: or take away the grief of a wound? no.
Honour hath no skill in surgery, then? no. What is
honour? a word. What is in that word honour? what
is that honour? air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it?
he that died o’ Wednesday. Doth he feel it? no.
Doth he hear it? no. ‘Tis insensible, then. Yea,
to the dead. But will it not live with the living?
- Why? detraction will not suffer it. Therefore
I’ll none of it. Honour is a mere scutcheon: and so
ends my catechism.