So after a week in (literally, for once!) sunny Wales, I came home to catch up on the TV show of the moment, ‘Game of Thrones’. I’ve read up to book five, so I knew what I was coming home to, and I couldn’t bear the thought of it. My dread was more than justified; Ellaria Sand’s face captured it all, as the brutal actions leapt from page to screen in the most horrifying manner, seeing the end of yet another favourite character (mental note: as soon as you like a character, you’ve essentially signed their death warrant).
This is a world where our heroes and loved ones are torn apart and what we deem ‘evil’ gets to triumph. King’s Langing saw off the imagined hero of our tale, the Red Wedding saw the noblest family eradicated, the purple wedding nearly brought us justice but then fan-favourite Tyrion become endangered int he process…I could go on.
So why do we keep watching when we know we’ll be frustrated and unable to sleep afterwards?
I think it’s because there’s nothing else like it. No matter which good guys have to bite the dust in the name of justice, our major motion pictures and TV series always revert the world to what we think it should be after the mess of battle. Look at the latest Marvel craze; ‘Thor’, ‘Iron Man’, ‘Captain America’, ‘Spiderman’, ‘X Men’…It doesn’t matter what the cost is, because we know the world will be safe at the end (except for that lurking Loki threat, but that proves my point – they won’t kill off everyone’s favourite anti-hero just yet). No one has ever just let the world live out as it should in these kinds of shows; there’s always been an end point of good triumphing, whereas in Westeros it’s not about good or evil, it’s about people acting upon impulses, their wants and needs and desires, rather than the overall cosmic balance of the universe.
As well, characters mean nothing to G R R Martin. Maybe that’s too sweeping, obviously he’s invested in them, but he doesn’t have heroes and villains, he doesn’t have favourites and intended victors, he has people. He writes about their lives and (more often than not) their deaths, acting more as a biographer than the god of his narrative world. Look at how in ‘Lord of the Rings’ only one of the Fellowship is sacrificed despite hourly mortal peril and insanity-inducing rings and wizards with unlimited powers. Even Gandalf can’t stay down when he’s taken, because his narrative function is to see the Fellowship to their end. Martin, however, openly states that Robb Stark cannot avenge his father just because his cause is noble, and practically punishes us for daring to invest in a character (he hears ‘oh that Red Viper guy, he’s cool’ and translates that to ‘Red Viper seems popular, better slaughter him’). Nobody seems destined to get to the Iron Throne and stay there, because it’s a game and they are, by nature, down to luck and chance and choices.
In this sense, it’s also compelling because we have literally no idea what will happen next. Even the Lannisters don’t seem comfortable on the throne, and for those that know what’s next, they should be watching those spikes a bit more carefully. No one seems a likely king or queen, they all have their own campaigns (the Red Woman’s religious trail, Dorne’s vengeance, Daenerys’ slave fixation…), and not one leads directly to Westeros. Even Stannis has abandoned his quest and will end up further north than planned, despite his attempt on King’s Landing. You have to watch because you can’t guess; this isn’t soap opera land where we’ve seen the rising action and denouement a million times.
Yes, G.R.R. Martin has presented us with something unique and breathtaking in it’s sheer brutality. We’ve embraced the horror and the unknown, and are through the looking glass and even those who have read the books are stunned into submission with the twists and changes presented to us (the Night’s King, anyone?). I reiterate, it’s compelling television, which hasn’t been seen before and can never be copied with the same success.