Game of Thrones comes back to television in just a few weeks, and already we're feeling the imperative: All Men (And Women) Must Freak Out. But why is Game of Thrones such a huge cultural phenomenon, among all other fantasy series? It comes down to two huge cultural trends, that are rooted in our widespread anxieties about life in the 21st century.
Top image: A Song of Ice and Fire Calendar 2015, cover by Donato Giancola, via Tor.com
First of all, it should be noted that Game of Thrones is, in fact, awesome. This cannot be discounted: the writing, based on George R.R. Martin's acclaimed novels, is sharp enough to cut yourself on. The cast is almost uniformly fantastic. And the worldbuilding is complex enough to get lost in, but also has enough larger-than-life and insane moments to keep drawing you in. The show's high quality can't be discounted as a reason for its success.
And yet, Game of Thrones also seems to have struck a chord in the popular imagination, as one of a few new pieces of mass media that speaks to people's psyches. What's that about?
It's worth remembering that when A Game of Thrones was first published in 1996, it was hailed as a response to a tradition of sanitized epic fantasy that had become stale. The novel's stark conclusion (pun intended), restrained use of magic and intense brutality seemed more realistic than the legion of Tolkien imitators that were dominating epic fantasy at the time. Nobody thought of A Game of Thrones as an especially relevant text for Clinton-era America, but rather as a renovation of the shopworn Medieval European fantasy tradition. (Read reviews published at the time here, here and here.)
Since the first book came out, though, we've seen a rise of two trends in pop culture, in general, that help to explain why Thrones is more relevant than it was 18 years ago:
Apocalyptic and dystopian books, movies and shows have been around forever — but the past decade has seemed more consumed with them than ever before. From Hunger Games to Walking Dead to 2012, we're obsessed with visions of devastation and societies fallen into hell. Even our superheroic escapist fantasies, like Superman and Star Trek, have to involve cities being trashed and massive destruction.
Game of Thrones takes place in a land that feels somewhat post-apocalyptic — there are occasional glimmers of hints that something really bad might have happened to Westeros long ago, and that's the reason for the irregular and attenuated seasons. But even more than that, we know Westeros is on the brink of a zombie apocalypse from the very first moment of the story. And part of the genius of Martin's slow-as-soil-erosion storytelling is that the zombie threat never quite arrives, but we keep seeing it getting closer and closer on the horizon.
In other words, even more than 2012 or whatever, Game of Thrones captures the real anxiety at the root of our apocalyptic fascination — the sense that disaster is coming closer at an almost imperceptible rate, and we can never really know when it will arrive. We all sense that our unsustainable economic system will collapse, and/or our biosphere will no longer support so many humans, but we don't know if the crunch will come next week or in 50 years.
And the endless wars and scheming show how short-sighted people can overlook a looming disaster, due to political infighting and stupidity. You wonder why they don't look over their shoulder and see the ice zombies creeping closer — until you realize that their denial is nothing compared to our own.
And meanwhile, Game of Thrones is the kind of dystopia that Hunger Games aspires to be — one in which we see in horrible detail how entrenched power and wealth gives certain people the right to walk all over everybody else. And how this injustice forces people to reinvent themselves and become monstrous in their own right. But it's also messy, showing the internal conflicts among the ruling classes, and the conflicting and contradictory ideologies that underpin this inequality. This is a dystopia that's enough removed from our own world that we can see its faults clearly, but it remains recognizeable.
With its focus on the power dynamics of feudalism and the slow but inevitable collapse of everything, Game of Thrones is uniquely suited to tell the story of America in the 20-teens. It allows us to talk about enivronmental disaster and political corruption, without actually facing up to the world we live in.
Call it Schaden-stalgia. When we're not consuming futuristic dystopias and world-breaking disasters, we're obsessing about a somewhat idealized past in which men were men and women were women, and everybody Knew Their Place. Often, these visions of the past include a soupcon of social change, a hint that the Times They Were a-Changin', and the seeds of today's world were already in place.
Masters of Sex, Mad Men, Downton Abbey and countless other historical dramas seem to benefit from our obsession with imagining a past where gender and social roles were less fluid than they seem today. Even something like True Detective, which takes place in the present, draws a lot of its power from exploring the sordidness of the past.
We revel in the nastiness of past eras, without dwelling too much on the lack of indoor plumbing and decent medical care. Probably there's a part of us that longs for a time when things were less confusing and everybody knew where they stood, plus it's hard work being egalitarian. But also, social change has accelerated so rapidly in recent years that people want to retrace their steps and try to figure out how we got here from there.
Game of Thrones is like the perfect idealized-but-awful past. Especially in the television version, everybody looks beautiful and has perfect teeth, but almost everybody takes a turn of being that peasant in Monty Python and the Holy Grail who shouts, "I'm being oppressed!"
You absolutely feel the social stratification and gender oppression of Westeros in your bones, even as you cheer for the occasional outlier like Bronn or Brienne who gets to break out.
It's a kind of a self-immolating wish fulfillment — you know, deep down, that you wouldn't last a minute in the real-life past that Westeros represents. If you weren't instantly maimed or otherwise brutalized, you'd be miserably suffocated. But it's still an alluring escape from our seemingly more complex and fluid era, where women can (possibly) be president and gays can marry and stuff. The genius of A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones is that it takes our pervasive sick nostalgia in the face of social change, and perverts it into something much more twisted.
(Plus see above about dystopia: We also suspect, deep down, that the social stratification reflects something real about our world.)
A Song of Ice and Fire is the work of a man who has an anti-war, anti-establishment agenda — but who also understands perfectly the seductiveness of power and violence. If the books and TV show seem to be reveling in the worst aspects of human nature, that's partly because those aspects are what Westeros helps us to recognize in ourselves. And partly because those terrible parts of ourselves are exactly what yearns for a really nasty bit of entertainment like this one.