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April 06, 2014 4:32 PM Why Game of Thrones is the TV show of our time; or, how narrative unpredictability reflects economic insecurity

By Kathleen Geier

Game of Thrones returns to the air tonight, and not a moment too soon. I’ve written before about the greatness of the series, and now that I’ve caught up with the books and know what’s in store this year, I can safely say that this season is likely to be every bit as compelling and exciting as the previous three.

One thing that’s always fascinated me about this show is how much love it’s gotten from the politico class. President Obama is a fan, and so are many of my political junkie friends. The show, like the novels, is primarily about power in all its guises, so that’s not surprising. But GoT’s themes also resonate politically in powerful ways.

In Salon last year, George Schmidt compared GoT to another great series of fantasy novels, the Lord of the Rings trilogy. He noted that LOTR takes place in a world that is far simpler than GoT. Fundamentally, LOTR is a good-vs.-evil morality tale, and Tolkien’s dichotomous worldview is very much of product of the World War II and Cold War era in which the trilogy was written. I fundamentally agree with his analysis, though I do enjoy Tolkien.

GoT, on the other hand, is something altogether different. There aren’t any warm-and-fuzzy hobbits; the world it reflects is far colder and harsher than anything in Tolkien. Frodo was clearly the hero of the LOTR, but in GoT, there is no one central character; the novels are told from the points of view of many different people. These people are complicated. Some of the characters are heinous (Joffrey), but few of them are unambiguously good. Women are important players in this world, which has the effect of bringing not just sex into the mix, but far more realism. Tolkien reads like — in many ways, is — a high-class adventure series for 12-year old boys. George R.R. Martin is a fantasy-meets-realpolitik hybrid for grown-ups of both sexes.

The instability of Martin’s world — where politics are uncertain and chaotic, where there a number of different religious traditions, where there is no dominant, secure power or political leader — reflects the post-Cold War uncertainties of our own. The Cold War has been over for some time now, but no new world order that’s anywhere near as powerful has replaced it. It seems like the world, or the West, anyway, is drifting, in a transition phase — though transitioning towards what, it’s impossible to say.

There’s another feature of George R.R. Martin’s world that feels analogous to our own. John Lanchester nailed it in a brilliant essay he wrote about the TV series and the books for the London Review of Books. One of the things GoT is most famous for is its unpredictability. The most well-known form this unpredictability takes is Martin’s penchant for killing off beloved characters in ways that are genuinely shocking. Even in a series that is this bloody, with a body count that is this high, death retains its sting.

But GoT’s unpredictability also takes the form of character development. Some of the characters you pegged as bad guys at the beginning become much more complex and at times, surprisingly sympathetic as the series progresses and you understand more about their pasts and their motivations. Other characters that you liked gradually stray over to the dark side. There’s very little that is as simple as it seems at first. This makes for great drama. As Lanchester puts it:

What this all boils down to is that in the world of these stories, you are given something that is extremely rare in a mass-market form: you genuinely don’t know what’s going to happen next.

Lanchester’s great insight in this essay is that the narrative unpredictability of GoT is so powerful to readers and viewers today because it speaks to another type of uncertainty we are experiencing: economic uncertainty:

This sense of instability, of not knowing what’s about to happen, speaks to the moment. We all feel anxious and uncertain about the future, none of us knows quite how firmly our feet are planted. It’s hard to dramatise economic uncertainty, so why not convey this feeling through a made-up version of the Wars of the Roses?

The economic uncertainty theme also resonates in one of the major plot points of GoT. In the world of GoT, the seasons don’t work the way they do in the real world. Seasons there can last for years and their length is unpredictable. And so, writes Lanchester:

Nobody knows when - to borrow the minatory motto of the Starks - ‘winter is coming.’ At the start of Game of Thrones, summer has been going on for years, and the younger generation has no memory of anything else; the blithe young aristocrats who’ve grown up in this environment are, in Catelyn’s mordant judgment, ‘the knights of summer’. The first signs of autumn are at hand, however, and the maesters - they’re the caste of priest/doctor/scientists - have made an official announcement that winter is indeed on its way. A winter that is always notoriously hard, and can last not just years but a decade or more. It’s a huge all-encompassing environmental force, determining the lives of everyone, open-endedly. The climate change aspect of this is obvious to the contemporary audience, but there’s something more subtle and subtextual at work here too: another economic metaphor, another kind of difficult climate. Westeros is like our own world, in which hard times have arrived, and no one feels immune from their consequences, and no one knows how long the freeze will last. Our freeze is economic, but still.

Indeed. The “summer” of the American, and world, economy — the series of bubbles we rode throughout the 80s, 90s, and 00s — are long gone. Winter has come. Even though the American economy officially began its recovery 57 months ago, 57 percent of Americans believe that we’re still in a recession. Our economic winter seems to be continuing for the majority of Americans, no matter what the official forecasters say.

Finally, I’d like to make one more political observation about the show. I suspect it is hardly an accident that Martin grew up in Bayonne, New Jersey, the next town over from Jersey City, one of the most notoriously politically corrupt cities in America. I suspect he might have learned a thing or two about the brutal realities of bareknuckle politics by observing the antics of the JC machine in action. You can take the Jersey out of the boy, but …

Speaking of Martin, here he is in an interesting HBO-produced video about the bastards of Westeros. It contains no spoilers, but there are some short clips from season four. I can hardly wait!

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee

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