This weekend sees the return of HBO's epic television series Game of Thrones. Those who are still uninitiated in the wheeling-and-dealings of the Seven Kingdoms must look upon their friends' excited talk of 'the Dothraki' or 'the Night's Watch' with a mix of confusion and condolence, assuming this must be the result of having given up on the hope of anymore sexual relationships. I know that's how I felt when I was first told about the show. Now I am counting down the days until the new season (and I watch about 4 TV shows a year). What is it that has led to the show expanding its audience beyond the typical fantasy fan? It's not just graphic violence and soft-core pornography, though that always helps. It's because with Game of Thrones, all that 'Dungeons and Dragons' stuff is really just decoration. At its heart, this is a story abut power and it's influence on those who wield it, those who fear it and those who chase it.
French Philosopher, Michel Foucault told us that 'Power is everywhere: not that it engulfs everything, but that it comes from everywhere.' This premise is explored consistently through the narrative of Game of Thrones. Inspired by the War of the Roses in Medieval England, it follows the stories of several nobel families as they try and advance their competing claims for the monarchy of Westeros (which really is just a thinly disguised United Kingdom). Rejecting the Good/Bad dichotomy that dominates most of our film and TV, the characters of the show are products of the grey realm of self-interest. For example, perhaps the most popular character on the show is a whoring, hedonistic dwarf called Tyrion, who makes up for his lack of size by manipulating and manoeuvring his way around the court with Machiavellian precision, ensuring the throne stays in his family's illegitimate possession for now. The moral ambiguity of such characters allows those watching at home to empathize with almost all of the players in this expansive and elaborate game. Except Joffrey of course. He is just a bastard.
Yet even Joffrey can find himself an equivalent from the U.S political class as shown below in this hilarious comparison (it sucks to be Newt):
(Source for image unknown)
This could be seen as giving a show with swords and witches too much gravitas but it wouldn't be first time the U.S political class has caught its reflection in the world of the fantastical. The National Review placed the Lord of the Rings trilogy at number 11 in its list of 'The Best Conservative Movies', seeing in its moralistic confrontation between heroes and villains a metaphor 'perfectly pitched for the post-9/11 world.' Of course the National Review, as you'd expect from the bastard brainchild of William F. Buckley, has only got about 3 things right in its 50+ year history but this may be one of them. Author J.R.R Tolkien wrote the novel during and in the aftermath of World War Two, when Great Britain and the U.S.A were unquestionably the good guys, standing up to the Nazi army. Later, the films would capture the public imagination in the early 2000's as politicians on both sides of the Atlantic tried to convince us that the War-on-Terror was a similar ethical crusade. If that was the parable for then, Game of Thrones tells the story of the aftermath in the West. It's fractured political landscape, with it's atmosphere of a nation in decline from its glorious past and constant talk of succession from the union, parallels both Britain and America today.
Where Game of Thrones differs from real politics is that in the show we actually get to see narcissistic calculations of ruling elite. Gone is the rhetoric of 'helping the community' that continues cloak our representative democracy, despite it being an long open secret that our governments no longer represent their citizens but their financial backers. At least the candidates for rule in Game of Thrones do not patronise their citizens by pretending things will be significantly different for them under one king or the other; it is naked gamesmanship and a lust for power that drives these kings, just as it does those in Washington or Westminster, only they are not honest about this.
Also, the viewers know that the show's narrative carries an irony of which the warring kings are unaware: while they squabble over control of the land, the kingdom is facing imminent destruction at the hands of a supernatural force rising north of the wall. Much as our politicians myopically respond to scientific prophecies of climate change or overpopulation, they ignore any warnings given about this impending doom, far too immersed in their attempts to consolidate authority to deal with such a distraction. Films like Independence Day tells us that humanity would bind together to fight an outside enemy if we had to but in reality, much like these characters, our rules would likely be too trapped in the mindset of competition to stop making political triangulations, still trying to protect their future positions of dominance. I haven't read the books so I don't know what comes next but I am secretly hoping for all parties to be surprised by a peasants revolt that beheads of the whole lot of them!
So, far from being the escapism usually associated with fantasy, perhaps we are all watching Game of Thrones because it, with its 'Red Gods' and 'White Walkers', provides more political realism than we see in our news. While it isn't The Wire (nothing ever could be), if you are happy to ignore the mild misogyny and orientalism it tells an interesting tale of the nature of power at a time when people are questioning their system of governance and its ability to actually help the majority of citizens. As we try and imagine new ways to construct the society we could do worse than remember as this show tells us, 'Power resides only where men believe it resides. It's a trick. A shadow on the wall.'