Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Mad Men vs. Game of Thrones (Part 1 of) Part II

There was a few weeks when I thought I'd made my peace with Game of Thrones. No matter how much sadism is served to us, no matter how many rapes, how much torture, how many grisly ways to mutilate bodies, how much undeserved death, it is still true to itself, and true to what we as the audience require from it. Here is a TV show, a work of art, of operatic, epic, Shakespearean, near-Biblical ambition; with more characters, more plotting, more set pieces, more sheer scope, than anything ever seen on a screen, either large or small; served to us in brilliantly disturbing bits, but with a surfeit of wit and panache to help us through the grimmest of passages. Last week, the White Walkers appeared, in a battle scene (or a massacre) whose filmmaking stands with the most extraordinary passages in Spielberg.

Then Stannis Baratheon sacrificed his daughter to the Lord of Light by burning her on a pyre, and we the audience are compelled to listen to this sweet little girl, more intelligent than anyone around her and who never got anything but suffering from this show, as she screams in agony while her mother is held back by soldiers after she tries to rescue her. There has never yet been horror quite like this so graphically rendered on a screen. And make no mistake, this is horror rendered as it is. It's the kind that haunts our nightmares for years because we're made to care about these characters in a way that slasher movies throwing fake blood at a camera never could. With slasher movies, taking their cue as they do from Alfred Hitchcock, there is almost always a wink that tells us this is all in good fun - you can disengage from your nightmares being exploited at any moment. But Game of Thrones never gives us that wink. We're carried along, horror after horror, with our critical faculties long since obliterated. The sensory assault continues week after week, battering us into craving ever greater levels of gruesomeness. What horror can possibly be in store after this?

I predicted that this would happen weeks ago, my mother can attest to it. And yet I honestly thought they would spare us the horror, just this once, because it's just too horrible. Perhaps she'd be led into a room with Melisandre, and it would tastefully happen offscreen. But no, it happens in real time, in front of a cast of thousands. Fortunately, we're spared watching the burning girl, but we hear everything, and short of actually seeing something like that, what could possibly be more horrifying?

Game of Thrones is in a terrible bind. In order to keep us watching, they have to create ever more horrifying levels of violence. Yes, war is war, today as much as in the Middle Ages, and people far more real than anybody on Game of Thrones get raped, tortured, mutilated, and murdered; but to show it so often makes violence the entire point of the show. At this point, Game of Thrones belongs to that unholy class of art that's both great art and horrific exploitation. 

Yes, I can hear the protests of the half-dozen of you who've read this far. It's the same protest my mother pointed out to me. There are so many other things in Game of Thrones - complex characters portrayed by great actors, amazing filmmaking of stupefyingly complex plots, and intrigue on a level The Wire can only dream of. But that's ultimately the problem with the fantasy genre. It can literally do anything, and because it can, it must do everything in order to be compelling. Reality may have moved past magic and medieval superstition, but our minds have not. Our psyches still boil with reptile fascination for the ability to destroy, and the more we gaze into the that power to destroy, the more likely society is to embrace destruction.  

Art is a societal seismograph, and when millions of people are reading and watching scenes of horrific violence, with every taboo broken of what society once held sacred, history stands to reason that horrific violence is none too far away. Like the Ring Cycle before it, like The Brothers Karamazov, like even Candide, Game of Thrones exists in the world of the psyche and its archetypes. It speaks to its society because it gives voice to all the unmentionables that are already in the air. 

Westeros is America. The phenomenon of Game of Thrones was created by a country with 270 million privately held guns, with nearly 20 trillion dollars in government debt and nearly another 40 trillion in personal debt, with temperatures and sea levels rising (summer is coming...), 400 nuclear weapons around the world unaccounted for and thousands more barely protected, 1 in 30,000 people controlling half the country's wealth, and a threat from a country known for its dragons just beyond the horizon. Game of Thrones speaks, very loudly, to the unmentionable, almost unconscious, fears of what lies in a future all too close at hand. Some works of art exist to console us, others exist to drive us mad. 

The world has always relied on fantasy to give us the most stupendous bursts of sublimity. Religion is impossible without fantasy literature, so is all the human progress that comes in the wake of epic tales that awoke parts of our imagination we never knew existed. How many worlds of thought were opened by the Bible? By Homer? By Shakespeare? All of them traffic in a mental world where even the most miraculous things are possible. But the sublimity that makes them possible also drives men crazy with the idea that all things are possible so long as we make them happen. 

There is not a shred of verifiable evidence to show that art makes us better people, but it is a mark of civilization that we can recognize our baser selves through art, but great art puts us in touch with the fundamental truths of what lies within our natures, almost like a 'warning and reassurance' system to our psyches as to what we're capable of. We shouldn't necessarily like what we see, and we shouldn't necessarily believe what great art tells us - nowhere moreso these days than on Game of Thrones. 

Game of Thrones was an inevitable show. If it weren't Game of Thrones which shows us the deep darkness of human nature, it might have been a still more violent show. But while we grew incredibly accustomed to violence long before Game of Thrones appeared, it's beyond debate that Game of Thrones has desensitized us to the idea of that those we are close to will be murdered.

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