Each Friday in The Televangelists, one of our writers examines the met and missed potential of television.
It was no surprise that I really liked Game of Thrones when I first started watching it. In fact, I knew I was going to like it before I had even seen the pilot episode. I was, after all, the kid who had read a certain trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien time upon time — getting into the thick backstory and looking at old maps of a place that never existed. I would later, of course, go on to see the film adaptation of Lord of the Rings on opening night and faithfully purchase the DVDs in their multiple releases. It was no surprise that Game of Thrones won over the Elder Scrolls, Dungeons and Dragons, and nerdy Reddit crowd.
However, like what Battlestar Galactica did for sci-fi, Game of Thrones has also been able to capture the attention of huge masses of people who wouldn’t ordinarily geek-out over swords and kings and Sean Bean. But the pursuit of escapism and grandeur that attracted unlikely watchers to films like Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter are mostly absent in Game of Thrones. You won’t find orcs and trolls and good vs. evil and magic coming out of staffs and wands in Westeros — the sense of awe associated with the fantasy genre is instead derived from seeing unruly child kings who joyously murder for pleasure, relentless betrayals, and the good guys not always winning. Unlike those series, the worldview that Game of Thrones presents us with is one that feels archaic and barbaric on the surface. However, I believe it has a deep, profound connection to the one we inhabit today.
On a scale of Ned Stark to Tyrion Lannister, true virtue in Game of Thrones is given to the strength of the arm and the wit of the mind rather than being in a certain god’s good favor. After all, the age of magic is a thing of Westeros’ past. It no longer exists. It’s no longer relevant. The characters are rational and accomplish things through their own devices. In fact, most of our main characters who are in power don’t seem to actually believe much in the gods they give lip service to. The gods and goddesses of Game of Thrones, if they exist at all, seem to live in a faraway place and having little impact on the inhabitants of Westeros. Sound familiar at all?
In Westeros, the people live in an age of postmagic — yet elements of magic, mystery, and the supernatural seem to hang around every corner. People whisper about the return of it while both our heroes and villains write them off as ‘superstitious’. Our main characters’ concerns are of the plans and schemes of their fellow man. But the audience knows about the White Walkers. We’ve seen the dark deadly shadow birthed from the womb of Melisandre. We’ve seen the dragons. We know there are bigger forces involved and bigger issues at stake.
I can’t help but wonder if Game of Thrones has succeeded because it shares a similar perspective on spirituality and supernatural events with our own culture. After all, in the modernized world of scientific theory and progress, we live in our own age of postspirituality. We have our own devices for understanding the universe. But Game of Thrones is the kind of show that challenges us to believe that our world — no matter how rationalized, logical, and scientifically calculated it may look — isn’t always what it seems.
For more CaPC coverage of Game of Thrones, see Winter Is Coming: An Introduction to “Game of Thrones”.
[Editorial note: Fair warning, Game of Thrones is not a kids' show. It has quite explicit content. Read up on it before watching.]