I recently tore through the first three seasons of the HBO drama Game of Thrones, and I’m beginning to suspect that the experience has left me an emotionally deformed monster. Indeed, I’m so afraid that the lavishly produced epic fantasy series has desensitized me, causing my tolerance for extreme violence and general perversion to spike, that I’ve avoided any kind of self-assessment for days. I do catch myself wondering just what it was that impelled me to guzzle down two or three blood-soaked episodes in one evening like a thirsty frat boy chugging beers when I knew I had other things to do. Perhaps it is pure sadomasochism. But I keep coming back to the Gapers’ Block principle, the one that impels passersby to stop and stare at some anomaly even when it’s grisly and terrible.
Much of what goes on in the show could be described that way. Indeed, aside from the high production values, there isn’t much about Thrones that’s redemptive. It isn’t even particularly original, the swashbuckling setup — noble families warring for control of the Seven Kingdoms — having been lifted from England’s 15th century Wars of the Roses, where the Yorks fought the Lancasters just as the Starks clash with the Lannisters in the fictional land of Westeros. More often than not, the show’s storylines unwind into utter moral depravity, where incest runs rampant, a child-king decorates his ramparts with severed, spiked heads as if they were party balloons, and all anybody seems to want is power, sex, and money.
In fairness to the show, and to the cycle of thick novels by George R. R. Martin on which it’s based, the staggering body counts are not without precedent. Indeed the series participates in a long Anglo-Saxon tradition of heinous literary violence. King Joffrey’s heads-on-spikes are terribly unpleasant, but so too is the sight of a monster’s severed arm dangling from the rafters of the mead-hall (for more on that, see Beowulf). And there are moments in Shakespeare’s tragedies that make the Red Wedding in Season 3 look positively pink and frosted.
Still, it’s hard to find moral affirmation in a world where anybody with a shadow of a value system seems to be on track for execution. At the end of Season 1, Lord Eddard Stark — the show’s token good guy, who spurns power for the sake of principle in all the standard good-guy ways, usually in an effort to keep his children safe — goes off to his beheading with all the composure and commitment to truth of St. Thomas More. Among the more recent casualties are his similarly principled widow Catelyn and oldest son Robb. (When they were murdered at the Red Wedding, the Internet almost couldn’t contain the grief.) Played by fierce Northern Ireland stage actress Michelle Fairley, Cat Stark was the most epic woman on premium cable, and possibly the most epic woman ever. There isn’t an English major among the Thrones fan base who won’t miss her stirring, Shakespearean line deliveries. Now they’re just another addition to a long list of collateral damages.
Game of Thrones is a story about, among other things, lust, needless death, and the absence of justice. The brutal world it depicts is both startling and startlingly familiar, a stylized microcosm of our own cruel universe. On this side of the fantasy-reality divide, innocents still die and vanity too often directs the course of our relationships. There are still tyrants out there, and they’re still going to kill. Everyday atrocities like the war in Syria cause many to maintain that the world is meaningless — or, alternatively, endowed only with the meaning that individuals impose on it. Scientists are fond of pointing out that, on a cosmic level, just about every force in the universe is conspiring to kill us. It sounds a lot like being caught up in the War of the Five Kings in Season 2.
To make matters bleaker, the guys at the forefront of physics — Stephen Hawking and his set —have been maintaining lately that there are no universal truths, even scientific ones (the concept of abstract ones presumably having been dispensed with long ago by anybody with a progressive mindset). These eminent stargazers have determined that the cosmos consists of a number of parallel universes, each with its own wacky laws; and that principles of nature we once thought were e’er so fixed — like evolution, and even gravity itself — are subject to change. So much for the elegant universe. It seems we can no longer take comfort even in the well-attested rhythms of science.
But for some reason, this notion of a soluble, erratic, utterly unpredictable macroverse gives me comfort. The idea that we can find neither meaning nor constancy in the physical world seems to indicate — to me, as a Catholic, and hopefully to other people of faith as well — that perhaps the truths we should be seeking are fundamentally spiritual after all. It’s Plato’s realm of pure ideas all over again. It’s Christ’s “Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away.” It’s the memory of the murdered Starks living on in the hearts of their supporters as the struggle for the Iron Throne continues.
If Game of Thrones has taught me anything, it’s that in a violent and senseless world, plagued with too much selfishness and too little decency, it’s our ideals — the ones that may never be realized in the course of human events, or even in the fictions we create to reflect it, but which exist somewhere else, in some higher, purer, godlier realm — that we have to cling to.
And also dragons, if we’re lucky enough to be in possession of any. They’re going to be important in Season 4.
This essay received honorable mention in this magazine’s 2013 Young Alumni Essay contest. To see the winners, visit magazine.nd.edu/news/45034/.