Updated: 21st February 2018

Why conservative critics are getting ‘Game of Thrones’ so very wrong

The High Sparrow would be proud of the latest criticism of 'Game of Thrones'.
Image: HBO

To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven. This little bit of ecclesiastical advice is exactly what Game of Thrones offers after all, the overarching plot is about the approach of a most dangerous season, and the inability of just about anyone in Westeros to prepare for it.

But back in the real world, we appear to be in the season of commentators criticizing Game of Thrones on moral grounds. Indeed, it is easy to criticize the show for slack morals so long as you only watch it on a surface level, and know less about the actual human history on which the show and books are based than Jon Snow knows about, well, anything.

The first raven of foolishness was sent earlier this week by Matthew Walther, a columnist for The Week. In a non-ironic piece titled “Game of Thrones is bad and bad for you,” Walther calls the show “boring ultra-violent wizard porn.” (Never mind that there are no actual wizards in the storyline, unless you count the extremely minor character Thoros of Myr).

Being a fan “would have gotten you shoved into a locker” 20 years ago, he added, as if that’s supposed to make us man up and start hating on Thrones. Only later in the column do you discover just how obsessively Walther used to watch the show himself, and that he hates himself for it.

This was less genuine criticism, and more a level of self-flagellation to make the High Sparrow proud.

And that would have been that except that the conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat decided to leap into the Walther fray.

Seeing the hammering Walther’s column was getting online, Douthat doubled down in a tweetstorm that claimed the show was a way for liberals to live out their fantasies of being ruled by monarchs. Er, what?

In a Thursday column titled “Is Game of Thrones a Dystopia?“, Douthat walked this weird claim back a little with a non-apology hey, it’s Twitter, everyone exaggerates, he said. But then he doubled down again:

I was struck during last season by the way that so many of the shows good liberal viewers were clearly rooting for Cersei Lannister, the embodiment of a ruthless aristocrat, against the rare if, of course, self-interested champion-of-the-common-people High Sparrow because hes a puritan, ostensibly, but I suspect also becauseof the shows own version of bad fandom, in which the glamour of monarchy makes you root even for the wickedaristocratsif they have just a couple of sympathetic qualities …

What we have here are a collection of prejudices larger than a Lannister army: If you watch Game of Thrones you’re almost certainly a liberal, a monarchist, and a Cersei-lover. And for heaven’s sake, why aren’t you rooting for a religious zealot who terrorized a city into submission via a street mob of thugs with seven-pointed stars carved into their foreheads?

Here’s a novel idea: maybe Game of Thrones isn’t about rooting for a particular team or indulging your secret desire to be a member of the medieval aristocracy. Maybe it’s successful because it’s about interesting, well-acted characters in interesting situations that we don’t often encounter in 21st century life.

Maybe we can be somewhat sympathetic to a demonstrably bad person when she is imprisoned and starved and forced to walk naked through the streets, hate the same woman when she commits mass murder, be revulsed by her incest, and feel her pain when she becomes queen upon the suicide of her last child. This is good, complex characterization; it evolves.

Another reason I think Game of Thrones is such a huge cultural smash is simply this: it helps us process the horrors of history through the filter of fiction. George R.R. Martin took a grab-bag of real stories the Red Wedding is based on a couple of horrific Scottish massacres where the victims were noble guests at royal feasts and turned them up to 11. Yes, folks, sh*t really was as bad as this in the past.

Left to our own devices, we have a tendency to view medieval history through Camelot-colored spectacles. Game of Thrones appropriates this tendency by meticulously set-designing, lighting and framing each scene as if it’s a Pre-Raphaelite painting. You may not want to live under the thumb of an absolute monarch, but my goodness, do you ever want to step into the TV sometimes.

And then, just as your heart is skipping with the beauty of it, whack another casual piece of cruelty, another outrageous death. Ned Stark represented the modern viewer’s sense that there should be a rule of law, an essential fairness to this world; he lasted nine episodes.

Both Walther and Douthat genuinely agree that our souls are somehow in peril simply for observing this red-in-tooth-and-claw world. Which is odd, because they both know their way around a Bible. As Steven Pinker puts it in his excellent book on why violence has declined over the centuries, The Better Angels of Our Nature:

The Bible depicts a world that, seen through modern eyes, is staggering in its savagery. People enslave, rape, and murder members of their immediate families. Warlords slaughter civilians indiscriminately, including the children. Women are bought, sold and plundered like sex toys. And Yaweh tortures and massacres people by the hundreds of thousands for trivial disobedience or for no reason at all.

Sound familiar?

The Bible’s horrible histories work for millions of people because they are a prelude to redemption. In Game of Thrones, we root for the same, even if we have a much smaller chance of a satisfactory ending.

We don’t stand by a single house like it’s a soccer team; we stand for sanity, because it’s the only thing that will save Westeros from slaughter and endless night.

We fervently hope that Tyrion, the man whose mind needs books like a sword needs a whetstone, will somehow make it through the story alive. We root for Sansa to know her own mind and stand up against Littlefinger. We root for Samwell Tarly, adoptive father and scholar, to find the secret to defeating the White Walkers in the giant library of Oldtown.

And even if Jon Snow knows nothing except the enormity of that wintry threat, we hope he’ll somehow persuade the warring kingdoms to the south to focus on their common enemy.

Because in the final analysis, surprisingly, Game of Thrones is a morality tale. The moral could not be more ancient or more timely. It is the same one Socrates tried to teach us more than two millennia ago: the only good is knowledge, and the only evil is ignorance.

Should Westeros go down in fire and ice, we would do well to take that lesson and apply it to the real world before it, too, burns in flames lit by idiocy.

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