The almost-realism of “Game of Thrones”

The internet informs me that, on the most recent episode of Game of Thrones, an outmatched Good Guy fought a Bad Guy. The gallant and nimble Oberyn dueled the massive and seemingly invincible “Mountain,” flurrying spear strokes and shouting accusations of past rape and murder against his heavily-armed opponent. Despite the odds, Oberyn fought his way to unlikely victory, wounding and then stabbing The Mountain through the chest. The exhausted victor turned away, vengeance secured, and then The Mountain lurched from the ground, smashed Oberyn’s face with a punch, then grabbed the smaller man and forced his fists into his head until it exploded.

Game of Thrones is widely praised for its gritty realism.

In fact, that’s among the most consistent and loudest of the critical plaudits for Game of Thrones, which is currently HBO’s second most popular show ever, with around five million weekly viewers. Unlike other shows, we’re told, in which the good guys are always good and the bad guys are always bad and the good guy wins and rides off into the sunset, Game of Thrones paints a more complex picture where nobody’s really good and the bad guy usually wins. The last time the show was in the news, a few months ago, was when a once-unlikable character who had been slowly redeemed and humanized unexpectedly committed an attack sufficiently vile that there’s really no way to describe it without nausea. Because realism, you see. (Also hundreds of pages of free advertising for Game of Thrones, but let’s not be cynical.) In the world of Game of Thrones, the page is black and the whites are chalk outlines waiting to be smudged or brushed away.

Amid the oceans of ink devoted to the show, one occasional criticism is that it paints too dark a picture of human nature. We just aren’t that deeply bad, say people who have apparently never read the news, or the book of Judges. One could ask whether there’s value in offering a stylish tour of the darker corners of human evil as entertainment, but it’s indisputable that the pictures in those dark corners could just as easily have come from history books as from the pen of George R.R. Martin. The question isn’t whether The Mountain (call him Goliath?) is realistic. And it is even quite true that The Mountain often kills the good guy. The stronger one usually wins, even if he’s bad, and the weaker one usually loses, even if he’s good. In real life, having cavalry is more useful than having a cause. It’s the Lone Ranger, not The Mountain, that’s the oddity. But despite all that, the picture painted by Game of Thrones is strikingly unrealistic.

The problem isn’t what is there, but what is missing. Any one of Game of Thrones’ vignettes could have been plucked from history, but a realistic story is more than a series of pictures. A story creates a universe around the scenes it strings together, and a realistic story creates a universe that feels true. It is there that Game of Thrones fails, though the failure isn’t obvious. Thus far in the unfinished series, Westeros is a world without any hope higher than survival. One fights to get to the top of the heap, then one keeps fighting to stay there until someone stronger or smarter or luckier comes along. That is the story in Game of Thrones–who is on top of which heap and who is coming after them. The appeal of such a story is attested by the lasting popularity of dogfighting, and this particular story is by all accounts told quite well. But in the end, the Game of Thrones universe holds nothing but a dogfight.

Some would say that is actually a very realistic picture of the world. I suspect that George R.R. Martin would agree. To some extent, they are right. Turning on the evening news is enough to show we are surrounded by a Game of Thrones world. The question is whether it’s Game of Thrones all the way down.

The Christian’s answer, of course, is that it isn’t. The Christian believes that God looked down on a Game of Thrones world–the world described in Romans 3, where “None is righteous, no, not one… Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery”–and performed a literal deus ex machina. God became man, a carpenter in an unimportant Roman province, and met His own Mountain at the hill called Golgotha. But the story didn’t follow the usual script. Death, careless with the arrogance of irresistible strength, found itself overmatched and swallowed up. The end of the story has changed, and every author knows that changing the ending casts a new light on everything else. 

It may seem petty to dispute the realism of a fictional TV show for not including a supernatural aspect the creators don’t even believe in, but bear with me for a moment. It was striking that nearly every review of the most recent episode mentioned how gut-wrenching it was to watch Oberyn die a horrid death beneath The Mountain’s fists. The feeling passed quickly–Game of Thrones has trained its audience well–but for a moment it felt horribly and impossibly wrong, just like the story of the 200 school girls recently kidnapped by the Boko Haram terrorist group isn’t only sad, but wrong. Which is strange, if you think about it. If the good guy always loses in the end, why are we cut so deeply by the stories of William Wallace or Joan of Arc? If we’re born to the dogfight, why do find ourselves in tears as the little dog bleeds out?

Watch the faces of the crowd gathered around as Oberyn duels The Mountain and you’ll know who should win that hopeless battle. Not every onlooker wants the good guy to win, but every onlooker knows who the good guy is and every onlooker knows the good guy ought to win. When a tremor passes through the television audience as Oberyn’s skull collapses–when a mother weeps over someone else’s stolen daugher an ocean away–the Christian story can explain why. We are seeing what should not be (and, the Christian adds, what will not always be).

Game of Thrones, on the other hand, for all its much-lauded transgressive willingness to destroy the good guy, is lacking one key explanatory note: it cannot tell us why it is transgressive to destroy the good guy. In a world that was Game of Thrones all the way down, nobody would notice Game of Thrones.

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3 thoughts on “The almost-realism of “Game of Thrones””

  1. Freak twists are incredibly cheap plot devices. They provide momentary amusement at the expense of saying anything meaningful. Yes, the unexpected death of a character can be used in a way that will advance some sort of purpose or meaning, but in Game of Thrones this is not the case. By analogy, Haydn in his symphonies will defy the built up expectation of the listener and thereby heighten the drama of the piece. This might be compared to Gogol’s ousting in The Man who was Thursday (or any twist in decent literature). However, the twists introduces into a Game of Thrones are more like if Haydn simply stopped the symphony in the middle, played a rude ditty on the electric guitar, and then resumed the piece in a completely different attitude. The only purpose the freak deaths (both of heroes and villians) serve is to insert passages of complete meaninglessness into the narrative. Regardless of the philosophy of literature espoused by the author (with the exception of blatant postmodernism), this type of twisting the plot can be seen as nothing but a cheap thrill to keep readers and viewers onboard (as well as generating publicity, as you mentioned).

    As you say, one of the main problems with this type of realism is that it claims fate is blind to right and wrong. Ultimately, this is only a microcosm of realism. This is a blind realism. The reality is, “fate” is ultimately just, and the philosophy espoused by A Game of Thrones does not see that.

    A great tragedy is, while this is necessarily a result of a pagan worldview, it need not accompany such a worldview. The pagan romantics were perhaps also some of the most optimistic that right would win in the end. It might be said that a denial of the transcendent sacrifices the possibility of justice but early and high modernists too believed these contradictory ideas. As long as there was some kind of hope for the story ending the right way, there was a striving to find a path that could lead to that happy ending. This view of life led many modernists and romantics to Christianity. The realism that calls hope foolishness is a revolt against that longing for justice that God planted in our natures and yet another endeavor to make the conversion to Christianity harder. The most redemptive qualities of modernism, or any pagan philosophy, are the contradictions inherent in it. Logically speaking, nihilism is the most realistic worldview, but also the worst.

    • As for freak deaths and such, I don’t know enough to comment on how much that occurs in Game of Thrones, but I certainly agree with your general critique of postmodern entertainment. A common theme in Coen Brothers movies (like No Country for Old Men), for example, is scenes where the whole point is that there is no point–that fate is entirely blind. It does make sense in a naturalistic world, which brings us back to your observation that “The most redemptive qualities of modernism, or any pagan philosophy, are the contradictions inherent in it. Logically speaking, nihilism is the most realistic worldview, but also the worst.”

      • Thanks for clarifying the Coen Brothers’ movies for me! I wondered if I was missing something. (The main topic of your blog post is helpful, too, for interaction with others about something our family will not be bothering to watch.)


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