Just in time for the new season, I finished re-watching the popular television series, “Game of Thrones”. Though entertaining, this show isn’t easy viewing. I’m not just talking about the many confrontational scenes. It’s complex, with lots of places, themes, aspects, and characters to explore. It has made its mark, not only as interesting viewing, but also for the powerful psychology and ideologies behind it, relevant to the real world. “Game of Thrones” is a show for the modern age, adaptive to the evolving perspectives of humanity.
Good vs Evil
Children’s fairy tales, Hollywood movies, religions, and media often spin the simplistic tale of “Good vs Evil”. One side is portrayed to be clearly good, the other, decidedly evil. No thinking required. Which side is which is self-evident.
In “Lord of the Rings”, for instance, it’s painfully obvious who is good and who is evil. It’s the key ingredient for a good story, and humans live on stories. They couldn’t care less for the truth. It’s much easier to define things when they’re black and white. However, with humans becoming increasingly educated, and with more and more information available to us, these juvenile views don’t satisfy us anymore.
Enter “Game of Thrones”, which takes the time to explore only a handful of overtly—and surely utterly—evil characters. Even then, you can often see their point of view. The writers do not rush things along or neglect delving into the psyche of a character. One of the reasons the show has taken off is that there is a character to relate to almost every type of person and personality type. We can sympathise with some, relate to others.
The viewer is often thrown curve balls whether to like someone or hate them. One episode can turn around an entire opinion of a character. Jaime Lannister is an example. The Hound could be another. You are never quite sure what to think of them.
Thus, this isn’t the simple minded story-telling that one would find in tales like “Lord of the Rings”. This is the dreaded “grey area” of life, where people actually have to think about things in order to make an opinion, rather than be handed one by the status quo.
Which brings us to the “hive mind” of society …
The Emperor’s New Clothes
This famous fairy tale tells us that people will conform and accept an outright lie if everyone else is doing so. Not wanting to stand out or appear foolish, everyone pretended that they could see the “finest clothing ever produced” being worn by their Emperor. Only one little boy was brave enough to speak the truth, and of course, he was told to shut up.
So, when we say “an emperor with no clothes”, we mean something that the majority accepts, but knows deep down is not true.
This concept is rife in the series. In countless instances someone in power (a lord, knight, king, whatever) gives an order that no one thinks is correct, yet they obey anyway. We almost want to scream, “What are you doing?! Just stop!” We curse at their stupidity, but in reality, how are we any different? We do things we’d rather not do all the time. We are controlled by a few (often inept) people, when we could overthrow them in a day if we all so chose. In the series, when Gendry discovers “Arry” is actually Aria Stark, a “highborn”, he immediately begins acting differently towards her and treats her with deference instead of as a friend. What is this, but societal conditioning?
Power is the biggest illusion next to money (and the two are often so interlinked as to be inseparable). The ultimate Wizard of Oz, hiding behind his curtain. The ultimate charlatan.
In the show, Varys says, “Power resides where men believe it resides.” Isn’t that the truth of it?
Merit vs Privilege
Most of the world in “Game of Thrones” is based on family and inheritance. Primogeniture law. The firstborn son inherits lands, titles, etc. Family above all. Family first. Families have their own banners, their own sayings, phrases, and customs. They are extremely tradition-orientated and have customs and decrees which they generally all obey as a singular unit.
Joffrey was king for a time. An inept, cruel, maniacal leader, he is a person no one would ever choose for their ruler. If he hadn’t been born into royalty, he would never have amounted to anything.
Ned Stark opposed his rule, not because of his ineptitude, but because he was born of incest, and thus, not “of the right seed”. He supported Stannis’ claim to the throne, despite knowing it would lead to wars and conflicts, because Stannis was the next in line for inheritance. Even if Joffrey had been a kind and benevolent ruler, Ned would have opposed his rule anyway, due to Joffrey not having the “correct blood” in his veins. We once again see that privilege weighs over all else, and that even otherwise good men like Ned Stark can fall prey to its false claims. There are countless other such examples, where rule by blood is everything. Merit means nothing in such a society; the only thing that does is who your father was.
Such is our world. This show makes it painfully clear what happens when everyone puts “family first”: you get a dog-eat-dog society where only the wealthiest families thrive, far exceed thriving, and are kept in that excess by privilege and inheritance. Behold the entire evil of that world, as well as our real one. We shake our heads and gasp at the atrocities performed in the show, but worse things are happening every day, all around us. We go to sleep each night thanking our lucky stars we don’t live in a world like “Game of Thrones”, but really, we do.
Ironically, the “savages” in the show (the Wildlings, and to a lesser extent, the Dothraki) are enlightened enough to see that blood means very little. The Dothraki are hardcore (might is right), but the Wildlings are a little more refined and can be led by an intelligent leader such as Mance Rayder, if they have a common cause. In truth, though he is called “King beyond the Wall”, Rayder’s authority isn’t royally inherited. He is chosen to lead by the various tribes, essentially as an elected official. The Wildlings are not submissive, and bow to no one. In fact, they call themselves “Free Folk” and refer to everyone south of the Wall as “kneelers”, because they kneel to this king or that lord. When Jon Snow is captured, he kneels to Mance Rayder, who tells him “Stand, boy, we don’t kneel for anyone beyond the Wall.” Later, when he is captured by Stannis, Rayder refuses to kneel, as even the threat of death does not trump the custom of the Wildlings.
Thus we see a defiant people who value dignity, merit, and equality rather than privilege, inheritance, and deference. “We don’t go serving some shit king who is only king because of who his father was,” Ygritte says. “We chose Mance Rayder to lead us.” That goes to the core of the matter. Wildlings don’t care who your father was; they care who you are. They don’t follow orders blindly or bend the knee to anyone. No one is better than anyone else. Their way of life is communal, rather than family-first style, with which we are all familiar.
Wildlings even have female warriors, something the rest of the world does not. In fact, the rest of the world is highly disrespectful of women, treating them as little more than cattle in most cases. But not Wildlings. We see the interactions between Wildling women like Ygritte or Osha, with male Wildlings, and they interact as complete equals. This is something unseen in other societies.
Their ways, properly explored, are the best, giving each person maximum dignity and respect based on their merits, and having nothing to do with gender, privilege or inheritance.
“Game of Thrones” is an immense thought experiment. It uses deep psychology and social paradigms to get at us. Often, it holds nothing back, and we are treated to the raw brutality of human nature, as well as the outright idiocy of many laws—paralleled in our own world. It’s an important show for the times, for everyone except those needing to be spoon fed. It treats the viewer as an intelligent being who should make their own mind up about whom they like, and what causes within the show to support. “Game of Thrones” presents the story; the rest is up to you.
Isn’t that always the case? You are who you choose to be. Merit or privilege. It’s up to you.
by Jonathan Holm