(Very mild spoilers; no spoilers from the books)
Not everyone loves Game of Thrones. It’s true! What’s the first argument against it? It’s too violent, it’s too misogynist, it seems to revel in needless cruelty. Andy Greenwald in Grantland, he of the 38000 Twitter followers, said something to this effect a week ago. And he’s hardly the only one.
I don’t think Game of Thrones is perfect by any means, but reading through the comments, I do think there’s something that most of the “it’s too nihilist!” critics have overlooked. The next time they haul out their antipathy for Thrones, there’s one little unthunk thing they could consider.
Did you ever wonder why all those heavy-metal bands seemed to traffic in the same sort of Satanic imagery? Pentagrams, blood, fire, blades, skulls, devils, lightning bolts, certain fonts, chains, tombstones, leather, motorcycles? Did it ever seem odd to you that almost every post-Black Sabbath metal band would produce T-shirts that were almost indistinguishable from each other? (Clearly, this thought crossed the minds of the creators of This is Spinal Tap.) Why couldn’t just one band – Iron Maiden, maybe – make ear-piercing music but accompany it with, say, album covers showing fluffy kittens?
A cynic might guess that record companies demanded such conformism, but a cynic would be wrong. The imagery came and comes from two places: bands and fans. Madonna gets a new image every five years, grunge and gangsta rap came and went, even country artists don’t look the way they did 20 years ago. Even after years, nay, decades of over-gothing it, death-metal imagery has barely changed. Why? You might get a lot of answers that insult the intelligence of metal fans, but here’s a different one: the corporate world was and remains way too cheerful a place. We are constantly sold Disneyfied versions of everything, from shampoo to sports to sex. In 90% of representations, on TV, in movies, and on the radio, the pain of life is minimized in favor of smooth melodies and happy, tidy endings. Metal music at its best still stands in opposition to putting a damn smiley-face on everything. When will Rage Against the Machine make a T-shirt with fuzzy bunnies? Maybe when the rest of America stops telling us to repress our pain? Now, I realize that best-selling metal bands are converting pain into profit. Sure. But that beats the heck out of countries who don’t have other productive, cultural displacements for suffering (we are at war with some of them).
Now, consider Game of Thrones. All the blades plunging into flesh, all the repeated representations of human depravity, all the triumphs of evil over good…Game of Thrones could go on for 70 more seasons, and it still wouldn’t come close to balancing the Disneyfied, smile-oriented content on the other 800 channels, the same way that metal can’t die as long as there’s pop.
So, am I saying that Game of Thrones is the Metallica of TV? Well, not so fast! First, the history: there was zero chance that George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire books could have been adapted into a TV show when the books first came out, in the 1990s. (Perhaps that’s comparable to the impossibility of Led Zeppelin coming out in the late 1950s.) I mean, incest, rape, sodomy, beheadings, flayings: and these are the good guys! Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that no 1990s TV show was ready to dispense with the idea of “good guys”…until The Sopranos brought the Coppola-Scorsese-Tarantino anti-hero gangster vibe to long-form TV. Still, you wouldn’t have expected G.O.T. two years after Tony Soprano’s first appearance; it took Deadwood, The Wire, Dexter, House M.D., Mad Men, Justified, and Breaking Bad for America and the world to be ready for an entire show of anti-heroes.
Hey, don’t take too much comfort in that paragraph, producers of Rome (which ran on HBO from 2005 to 2007)! It’s not just that G.O.T. came from richer source material; David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, gamemasters of Thrones, have done more than just slap of bunch of desperate and hateful people together. You’ve never heard of a show that had twelve active storylines going at the same time before last year. (1. Dany & friends 2. Jon & wildlings 3. Bran & travellers 4. Arya & various 5. Stannis/Davos/Melisandre 6. Jaime/Brienne 7. Sam/Gilly/Wall 8. Robb/Catelyn 9. Theon/Ramsey 10, 11, 12: Tyrion, Shae, Cersei, Tywin, Sansa, Peter, Varys, Margery, Olenna – depending how you count, but it’s at least three.) If viewers aren’t turning away in droves from an entirely unprecedented structure, a show must be doing something right that Rome did wrong. Game of Thrones isn’t quite as nihilist as it sometimes appears (in the same way that metal bands have power ballads). Its sympathy is clearly with the underdogs, the second sons, the disenfranchised women and girls, the bastards (somewhat like most metal and punk). The show doesn’t exactly make things easy for its favored characters, but what’s winning worth without having to earn it? About as much as your child’s “participant” trophy. The world’s not that easy, despite how all those Nickelodeon and Disney sitcoms raised this generation. When you raise them that way, you shouldn’t be surprised when they’re getting tattooed at a death-metal show…or cheering on Game of Thrones.
Without detouring too far from my heavy-metal thesis, I think what critics often forget is how the show reflects upon time. Disparaging niceties and illusions, it conjures up the bloody, rapacious world in which our ancestors farted, pissed, swore, and fought their lives away, and I don’t see anyone saying “oh, this has nothing to do with how we live now” (the way my students do when we watch screwball comedies). The show warns us not to forget the past, not just the way that any medieval-set fiction does, but because the characters can’t forget it: dragons once ruled! And the Targaryens long after that! White Walkers! Old gods and new! “What is dead may never die.” “A Lannister always repays his debts.” “Winter is coming.” It’s not enough to say that these people know Faulkner’s truism “The past is never dead. It’s not even past”; better to say that they live in constant fear of posterity’s judgment (Jaime made that more obvious this season). One of Vivian Sobchack’s points about movie epics is that just their length (3 hours plus) makes it seem like much time has passed in the lives of the characters (say, Gone with the Wind, Doctor Zhivago); the audience thus understands that the leads have lived years of joys, sorrows, regrets, in a way that wouldn’t be as clear if the same content were edited down to 90 minutes. Game of Thrones certainly sprawls in the Sobchackian sense, but punctures this with often grisly deaths that are almost always consequences of bad choices (more so than in the books). Life is long, but life is short. Time is measured in centuries (discussions of the Wall, dragons), but your time can end in an eyeblink. This constant play of temporality – and great acting and writing – is how the show avoids the draaaaaaag that often characterized medieval movies (not naming names now). At its best (and least exploitative), Thrones’ violence comes just when characters are seeing years stretch before them (Ned’s death, Khal Drogo’s fall, Jaime’s severing, the Red Wedding, the Purple Wedding, Mountain/Viper). Why have the blood gurgle so vividly? To vividly remind you: your personhood’s winter is coming.
Now, considering all the naked flesh and just-as-naked women-hating, does Game of Thrones merely present misogyny with a critical eye, or endorse it? Not an easy question for this show or Mad Men or Entourage or Californication or Dexter or The Walking Dead or…other shows. I’m not going to weigh in directly on this one today, because I wince as often as many of you (including during the Cersei-Jaime rape that the show says wasn’t a rape.) I bring it up now only to say that if I stay on my heavy metal comparison…yeah, let’s just say that part holds up. So, based on that, do we throw all the metal out of our iTunes collections?
Perhaps you’re still not “buying” the comparison of TV with music. I believe I will illustrate my point with song lyrics from Suicidal Tendencies. (Hey, now you know you’re not reading a column on Slate or Salon, amiright?) Are Suicidal Tendencies metal, punk, or speed-metal? – not the point. The point is this:
Sometimes I try to do things
And it just doesn’t work out the way I want it to
And I get real frustrated, and like I try hard to do it
And I take my time, but it just doesn’t work out the way I want it to
It’s like I concentrate on it real hard
But it just doesn’t work out…
So you’re gonna be institutionalized
You’ll come out brainwashed with bloodshot eyes
You won’t have any say
They’ll brainwash you until you see their way
(Blogger’s note: you really have to imagine this next part screamed like a dentist drill just hit a nerve)
I’m not crazy!-Institutionalized
You’re the one that’s crazy!-Institutionalized
You’re driving me crazy!-Institutionalized
They stuck me in an institution
Said it was the only solution
To give me the needed professional help
To protect from the enemy myself
People enjoy this song. Are they all psychopaths? Technically, no. There’s no known correlation between enjoying this kind of music, or any kind of thrasher music, and causing any emotional or physical violence. Instead, the music may have some sort of compensatory or cathartic function. For us fans, it takes us to the dark side and lets us feel good that someone has considered the pain in our hearts and in the world and, instead of sugar-coating that suffering, transformed it into bone-rattling, heart-shaking art. Is that really so different from what Game of Thrones does?
Is Game of Thrones flawless? Gods, no. Who could produce 40 hours of content without making a few missteps? It’s not like Megadeth never wrote a bad song. Some of the criticisms are accurate; sometimes the show does seem a little adolescent. My bottom line is: many critics who are begging for less despondence or more rooting interests seem to be asking for Metallica to play Bon Jovi songs. That’s not this show. On Sunday at 9, you have 800 other choices. Just because Game of Thrones has a lot more viewers than the others, just because it has a lively online following, doesn’t mean you should be sitting there at the Black Sabbath concert yelling “Play Free Bird!”