SPOILER ALERT - OF COURSE
Last night, Mad Men premiered its last season and nobody notices, they were too busy recovering from King Joffery’s poisoning at his own wedding. One show prides itself on belaying audience expectations, going at its own pace, and giving the audience what it needs rather than what it wants. The other show plays to our basest, most primal bloodlust. One show presents humanity in all its slow-burning existential messiness, the other is a freak show.
King Joffery’s death wasn’t even the most disturbing moment in the episode, it wasn’t even the second-most. The second-most disturbing was to watch a beautiful girl chased through a forest like a hunted fox by nobles until the nobles ordered her torn apart by their wild dogs. But at least the actual tearing apart was off-screen, even if we had to listen to her choked screams. The most disturbing was to watch King Stannis order the burning of his wife’s brother at the stake, and by this point, Stannis’s wife is such a religious nut that she’s happy about it. She claims she saw the Lord of Light claim his soul after the fire cleansed it. I’ve occasionally had nightmares about medieval torture since I was a child, and that moment shook me so profoundly that I’m actively contemplating giving up the show - it’s not the first time such a moment caused me to.
Nevertheless, I love watching Game of Thrones. I also love watching youtube clips of idiots jumping into cactus patches. We all have a part of ourselves - the Id - that wants to trivialize other human beings, that wants to treat others as our playthings, that makes us feel triumphant in our relative security to the savagery brought upon people in inferior positions to ours. We may superficially mourn the loss of the Starks, but our primary emotion at their demise is excitement and delight - delight at an exhibition that alleviates us of civilization’s veneer and excites us with its barbarism. Game of Thrones conjures a world of medieval inhumanity, and is a spiritual descendent of the Auto-da-fe, during which medieval humans laughed and cheered uproariously as they picniced to the soothing screams of heretics burned and disemboweled - heretics who may well have been their neighbors. We want to think our sensibility more evolved, but we’re a mere few centuries away. The reptile part of the brain is still with us, and for all our civilization, all it takes is to watch Joffery Baratheon turn purple to momentarily turn us into Joffery Baratheon.
In the history of Television, there is not a single show, not Seinfeld, not South Park, not The Sopranos, not Breaking Bad, that has shaken the world to the extent Game of Thrones has. Each of those shows felt utterly shocking in their heyday, but none of them seem to shock people in the manner which Game of Thrones does. Every episode is an event, because people can’t wait to find out to what new inhuman depth the show will bring us.
It has long been the privilege of costume drama, of legend, of fantasy and myth, to act out those situations which would seem completely unbelievable in reality. In dreams, many people may well perpetrate all those acts of violence and lust which we see on a show like Game of Thrones, but thankfully few could ever do in reality until a war happens. What Game of Thrones does, what Psycho and Rosemary’s Baby do, what Titus Andronicus and Richard III do, what Salome and The Ring Cycle do, what Breughel’s Triumph of Death and Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights do, is to bring us closer to those horrible instincts which fester in the unconscious of every human. It is not the thinker or empath within us which loves such work, it is the Id, that Freudian sadist in every one of us which delights in seeing the suffering of others without fear of reprisal; and equally, it’s our anxious superegos, momentarily relieved that it can let down its guard because we no longer have to worry about breaking certain taboos. In reality, murder is rarely if ever funny, but in certain fictions, murder can be hilarious, it can be exciting, it can be delightful.
It was sometimes said about Alfred Hitchcock that he shot scenes of love as though they were scenes of murder, and scenes of murder as though they were scenes of love. This, more than any other reason, is why Alfred Hitchcock is still the most influential movie director of all time - many would even call him the greatest. After Hitch, there was no going back; movies were no longer about anything but voyeurism. The most salient quality of most great movies was to show you disturbing things that dared you to look away. For all its strengths in storyboarding, acting, production design, Game of Thrones is not worthy of Hitchcock. It does not display anything like the wit or character inwardness or philosophical profundity present in Rear Window, or Psycho, or The Birds, but it is a spiritual descendent of Hitch nevertheless because it shares his most influential quality. With Game of Thrones, television has now gone over the cliff to that exact same place. Will it eventually be remembered with all the veneration we now give to Hitchcock? I sure hope not, it would say something terrible about human beings. But it’s certainly possible.
And because Game of Thrones has brought TV to that new place where our every desire is met, TV itself has entered a new age. The years 1967 to 1983 - Bonnie and Clyde to The Right Stuff - were a sixteen-year golden age for movies when Hollywood cared about Art as much as Money. Movie directors were not merely artisans who created products to order, they were artists whose creativity was limited only by their imaginations. But the Star Wars Trilogy killed all that, because studios saw that by putting the focus on special effects rather than human beings, they could take in much more at the box office. Young men interested in technology would see movies over and over again, beleaguered adults interested in escapist fare rather than challenging work would wander in, knowing that they could turn their brains off; and they could bring their children too, secure in the knowledge that the children wouldn’t be exposed to anything too offensive.
In the same way, the end of Mad Men in 2015 may mark the end of a golden era of American Television that began sixteen years before with the launch of The Sopranos. During these sixteen years, the showrunner was king, and the talented among them were free to pursue their art to the fullest extent of their potentials. For my entire adult life thus far, TV has been the most exciting thing in the world - an artform awakening to its fullest infinity. To see Mad Men or Seinfeld or The Simpsons or when they first air is a pleasure not altogether different from being present at the Globe to see Hamlet and King Lear. In every other artform, movies included, the revelations of what’s possible have mostly been revealed. Nearly every movie, novel, play, painting, sculpture, poem, and song is a footnote to work already created. But the history of TV is still being written, or at least it was until Game of Thrones. We know that we’re the first people ever to experience revelations which no audience before us has ever experienced. Is there any greater privilege of being alive in the era we are?
Game of Thrones is a beginning. Good as it is, it is probably the beginning of TV’s decline in an internet age. Netflix, the corporate halfway house between television and the internet, is the most seismic shift in American culture since Ted Turner started distributing Basic Cable in 1976. A year later, Star Wars was released, and a trip to the movie theater became a special event rather than a way of life. The American Way of Life became television. But Game of Thrones has made us so accustomed to adrenaline and immediate gratification that it changed American TV into something like movies. Just as Star Wars was the first movie whose merchandising tie-ins were mass-marketed on television, Game of Thrones was the first show to gain its popularity through viewer feedback on the Internet. Game of Thrones is such a success because it gives its viewers what they want, unconsciously or consciously. The gratification on Game of Thrones is visceral and instant in a manner no show before it ever was. If a show wants to be successful in its wake, it will have to respond to its audience’s demands in more basic ways than even Game of Thrones ever needed to. On-demand viewing allows shows to be watched whenever people want, and however often people want. If a show makes demands on the audience, they can simply watch something less challenging. Every niche will have shows which cater exclusively to them, and television will very quickly become a less interesting place.