“Game of Thrones,” HBO’s swords-n-sex adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” novels, is complex, and not just in the typical way fantasy books written by people who incorporate their middle initials into their names tend to be complex.
Yes, George R.R. Martin — that’s George Raymond Richard Martin — has crafted a world every bit as meticulously realized as J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth and J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world, but in the wake of ancillary films that muddled the narrative waters of those two once-unstoppable franchises, it’s “Game of Thrones” that commands the most prestigious cultural cachet in 2017.
People care about this show, and they do so deeply. In anticipation of the show’s season seven premier, there was a listing in the IU Classifieds from someone who was ”just tryna watch game of thrones” and was willing to Venmo anyone $5 to use their HBO NOW login credentials. Call that a sign o’ the times. But that makes me wonder, “Why do we care?” The answer to that question is predicated on the answer to two other questions: “What is ‘Game of Thrones’ actually about?” and “What does that mean to us?”
“Here’s a hot take,” Kelley School of Business lecturer Ben Storey begins. He’s wearing a “Game of Thrones” shirt that reads “I drink and I know things.” For two semesters, Storey taught a one-credit class in the business school called “From Westeros to Wall Street,” where students chose a “Game of Thrones” house and acted out scenarios to learn business lessons and writing skills. The eight-week course derived its rules from the real time strategy video game “Europa Universalis IV.”
Storey assured me earlier in the week that he’d thought deeply about the show, its connection to reality and why we care about it. He also kept Excel spreadsheets tracking each student’s progress through his class, and that alone is enough to convince me of his Greenseer-like “Game of Thrones” omniscience.
“There’s a direct correlation between your age in Westeros and violent, violent unnatural death,” he says, speaking of the show’s infamous violence and generally unpredictable character deaths.
Storey lists Tywin Lannister, the callous monarch of his conniving house whose son shoots him dead with a crossbow on the toilet at the end of the fourth season and Balon Greyjoy, who is cast off a bridge by his brother at the end of season six. Both of these men are old, and both die undeniably unpleasant deaths. So far, so good.
Storey also touches briefly on Ned Stark, whose beheading marks the end of season one, and while there’s no mention of Ned’s wife Catelyn Stark and how she meets her end at the Red Wedding, a massacre in the third season that if Twitter is to be believed is only slightly less heinous than an actual real-life massacre, it’s probably reasonable to include that here as well.
Storey’s point: No matter the specific details of the series’ final two seasons, Westeros will be left in the hands of the young. On the broadest scale possible, “Game of Thrones” is about the chain of succession, and it inevitably favors the young over the old. A mantra recited by the face-changing assassin Jaqen H’ghar comes to mind: “Valar morghulis” — all men must die. What Storey is telling me is, “old men must die,” and I know that the point he’s making is different from H’ghar’s, but it fits here because Storey’s point is a refinement on the show’s general thesis and I don’t know how to say “old men” in High Valyrian.
Storey also draws attention to fan-favorite Daenerys Targaryen, whose arc so far has poised her to ascend the Iron Throne and bring peace to Westeros, for another reading on the show. If winning the Iron Throne really is her destiny, Storey says, then it frames the show as a study on the inevitable victory of the underclass — in the books, Daenerys is 13 years old and from the exiled House Targaryen — against the aging and corrupt political establishment.
Yas kween. Er, yas khaleesi.
And through that lens, lots of other young characters raging against the establishment become heroic. There’s Jon Snow, who takes up the black cloak of the Night’s Watch up north to combat the imminent invasion of the zombie-like White Walkers. There’s Arya Stark, who since losing her vision in season five has trained as an assassin and just recently began committing high-profile murders. And then there’s Lyanna Mormont, a relatively new character and one of the first people to support Jon Snow’s new coalition. Storey assures me that “she’s a super young little girl who is a badass.”
And that same attitude also drives the show’s more sympathetic villains, Storey says. Bronn of the Blackwater is a trumped-up sellsword uninterested in much beyond his next paycheck. Sandor Clegane, a knight disillusioned with chivalry in service of House Lannister, at one point utters the proto-punk credo: “Fuck the Kingsguard. Fuck the city. Fuck the King.” Johnny Rotten would be proud.
How these arcs inform the show’s meaning is a different question that’s largely dependent on how the final two seasons play out, but Storey points to Littlefinger, the self-made lord who’s crept his way up the ladder of succession since the earliest episodes of the series, as the best indicator we have right now for guessing what the show will ultimately end up saying about the quest for power.
There’s two ways that his character arc can go. Being an almost entirely self-made lord lacking traditional connections and relationships, his ties might eventually betray him, and as a result he could die like so many others have across the show’s previous six seasons.
“If that’s the way he dies, then his story arc will be about the backlash of traditional values against the charlatan, the carpetbagger, the upstart,” Storey says.
And then there’s the other option. Littlefinger’s gambles will pay off, and he’ll ascend the Iron Throne as its other two obvious successors — Daenerys and Jon Snow — are off fighting the White Walkers beyond the Wall. That would make Littlefinger, not the White Walkers, the final hurdle that the show’s heroes must face, and if that happens “Game of Thrones” takes on a different meaning; It goes from being about how honor and nobility will triumph over amorality to illustrating the futility of war, Storey says. This ending is depressing, but it’s the most inline with what we know about Martin’s beliefs: In the midst of the Vietnam War, Martin applied for and obtained conscientious objector status.
So why does the struggle of the young against the old and whatever political commentary it might serve make 8.9 million people tune in to watch dragons and olde tyme sex on premium cable? It’s the violence.
“I think that with all of these adult shows where we have morally ambiguous characters solving problems through violence, there’s a part of our psychology as human beings, as a society, that really does believe that violence can solve problems,” Storey says. “I think that’s at the root of the popularity of violence in general. We see violence as a tool. Maybe Martin’s trolling us, maybe everybody who sees violence as a way of solving problems is going to be killed. I don’t know. But so far it seems like violence is the solution.”
That also makes violence at least a partial answer to the question of “Game of Thrones”‘s success, and it makes sense. It feeds the moral ambiguity of the show. Last season saw an 11-year-old girl feed a man a meat pie made out of his three dead sons, and we cheered for it. Moral relativism is all around us. We don’t live in a black and white world, we live in a world where Donald Trump is president, Storey tells me. Moral shades of grey are in our government, the media and now in our sexy cable TV dragon fantasy series. This is what makes “Game of Thrones” complex, this is what makes “Game of Thrones” interesting and this is what makes “Game of Thrones” worthy of Venmo-ing someone $5 to watch.