Monday, May 23, 2016

Musical Explanation 5/22: The Dangerousness of Game of Thrones

(massive spoiler alert)

One by one, my remaining defenses against Game of Thrones as a great work of art are dropping as quickly as its characters. Game of Thrones is still incredibly melodramatic, its violence is gratuitously barbaric, the two-dimensionality of its characters is unmistakable (though that's better than one-dimensional characters), and the way the characters express themselves alternate between terrifying eloquence and laughable woodenness. But until tonight, my heart has never truly been touched by Game of Thrones, and this was probably the most sublime moment in the whole show thus far. As I watched tonight's episode with my mother (obviously never a good idea with this show, but she has HBO and I don't...), she literally broke down in tears at the end, while I sat perfectly still in my seat without moving for what must have been a whole minute. In the moment when you see Hodor meet his destiny, you are touched at levels both emotional and spiritual. You're heartbroken for a beloved character killed twice, perhaps you're weeping in sympathy for a boy cut down at the beginning of life and unwittingly betrayed by the very person he cares about most, and yet you're also awed by the cosmos ordaining a literally superhuman heroic sacrifice, and awed at how a lifetime can meet its destiny in an instant that takes decades to make sense, yet you're also devastated that you'll never know if this act of destiny will ever make sense to Hodor.

None of this will make sense to you either if you haven't seen the last episode, I think that all of it will make sense if you have.

I have no doubt at this point that if Game of Thrones will not be remembered as the greatest television show of all time, it will at very least be remembered as the greatest TV drama up to this point. This depresses me  As far as art goes, Game of Thrones has to be the most degrading artistic spectacle in the history of this country. I don't think I'll ever be able to resolve for myself if Game of Thrones is great art to contemplate or exploitative trash that exists to drive its viewers mad. We Americans have a pornographic (warnographic?) fascination with the show. Nineteen million Americans watch it legally, and untold millions more pirate it. I doubt they tune in merely for the violence, they tune in for how the violence manages to stay shocking because it inevitably advances a story. The fact that we're still shocked by the omnipresent violence is tribute to GoT's storytelling. Five-and-a-half seasons in, a moniker much higher than entertainment cannot possibly be denied it.

I've spilled enormous amounts of ink (bytes?) in this space about the awesome and troubling achievement that is Game of Thrones. I can't help it. There's just so much to say about it. Any discussion of contemporary America, or the world at large, that doesn't mention Game of Thrones does not understand either America or the World.

Art, among its many other precious qualities, is a societal seismograph. When the world is fundamentally in balance and secure, the world consumes art that reflects its balance - works that are elegant, engaging, seemingly simple. In this Age of Television, the fact that the world attached itself as it did in the 90's to Seinfeld - and the younger generation to The Simpsons - said something good about it. Yes, it probably signaled that our worldview was hopelessly immature, but it also showed that we were a country which could bare looking at the darkness of life with humor and resilience. A large part of Seinfeld's appeal comes from its formal perfection - not a single unnecessary word, not a single wasted moment on the screen. So even when Seinfeld was at its most shockingly misanthropic, it was executed so perfectly that you couldn't help but be shocked by how calmly you accepted it - "don't take anything too seriously" it seemed to tell us. The same went for The Simpsons, which mastered tone in precisely the same way that Seinfeld mastered form. Every foray into seriousness was immediately followed by humor, every foray into cheeriness was followed by darkness, every highbrow nod followed by a fart joke. Just as the relative optimism of the Clinton years curdled into the dark pessimism of the Bush years, the p erfect tonal balance of The Simpsons curdled into South Park's misanthropy. The perfect formal balance of Seinfeld careened into Arrested Development's baroque formal experiments.

It was only a matter of time before serious drama, dark drama that spares us nothing of human nature's full depravity, took its place. The Sopranos and The Wire were dark shows, but they were realism personified, trying in their different ways to portray well-rounded humans as they are, and always leavening their darkness with humor and philosophical distance. They were followed by dramas like Mad Men and Breaking Bad, which took the realism of their predecessors into a kind of cinematic hyper-realism. Breaking Bad was perhaps an obvious predecessor of Game of Thrones, trying to drive audiences into madness with the depravity and gloom of its realism, making us crave new episodes like a narcotic addiction. Mad Men, on the other hand, was a master of both form and tone. To my thinking, it was, and could always be, the zenith of TV Drama - as close to perfection as so many hours of TV film can approach. Every gesture, every movement, every nuance, is freighted with incredible meaning and soul. It was, in its twisted way, a declaration of optimism during the Obama Era. "We needn't be nostalgic for a past that had to end," it seems to tell us, and therefore perhaps that our best days are ahead of us.

But it is precisely the unbelievable example of balance and perfection of shows like Mad Men that makes Game of Thrones so effective. It aims not for perfection, but infinity, and to cast its viewers into as many directions and dimensions as possible. The objective of Game of Thrones is to locate all those rules of storytelling which we've long cherished in the TV age, and burn them all.

When reading history, it's hard to escape the conclusion that the more art a society consumes that shatters the balance, the closer that society moves to its own world shattering. It's as though Jung's collective unconscious perceives threats before they happen, and part of art's function is a warning system to make us aware of those threats. Only a life without balance would crave pleasures that make our senses fray and our nerves electrify, and it's probably much easier to keep the world in balance than to bring a world back to balance. If we're gripped by dark art, we will probably be gripped before long by dark things far realer than Game of Thrones.

Game of Thrones has never reached so far into the artistic sublimity as it did tonight, and I worry it never can again. The world expanded and expanded and expanded for five-and-a-half years, but with Hodor's unconscious act of superhuman bravery, we have reached the zenith of how large the world of Game of Thrones can become. It was always a legendary world that transcended the normal constraints of place, but now it also transcends the normal constraints of time. What we see in Game of Thrones is not the primal mythology of an ancient civilization, what we see is the primal beliefs that guide our own civilization. We have the technology to leave earth behind, and yet we use it to recreate scenes of our origins.

The homing device of the primitive is innate in us all. The further remove we live from the earth, the greater our urge to reunite with it. The greater the comforts life affords us, the louder the moloch calls us back. The more science and technology we accumulate, the greater our taste to use that technology to use that technology like an aphrodisiac, our subconscious fantasizing from blowing up this prison of civilization and culture with every act of the most barbaric depravity we witness on TV, with still more barbaric ones present for us in every dark corner of the internet.

Perhaps what disturbs me most about Game of Thrones, about Fantasy Literature in general, is its nostalgia for the archetypes of former eras, not for their refinement or culture as in Mad Men, but most particularly the nostalgia for the barbarism of old times. The epics upon which works like Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings are based - works like Beowulf and the Edda and the Song of Roland and the Nibelungenlied - were created out of naivete for a world any better and more true to human aspiration than the one in which their creators lived. There is no such excuse for Game of Thrones to hide behind, and while Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter place us squarely on the side of human virtue, Game of Thrones makes us root for the maximum possible destruction. Game of Thrones may now be considered more consequential to American and world culture than either Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter ever were. Lord of the Rings was a cult classic which then became the hit movie of its day. Harry Potter was Game of Thrones on training wheels, conditioning a generation of cultural consumers in the ways of magic and fantasy literature. Game of Thrones, on the other hand, was a cult work that has become the dominant TV show at the moment when TV's control over the world is ironclad. It is the full id of the world psyche unleashed on the idiot box, it's like a work of art created by Lucifer. I'm convinced that no viewer actually gets pleasure by watching Game of Thrones, we are, rather, infatuated by it, inflamed by it, addicted to it like a powerful drug.

On the other hand, what amazes me about Game of Thrones is that it is less a fantasy world than a projection of a former reality - probably the most accurate projection we will ever have of what it felt like to live in the Middle Ages - omnipresent death, just enough technology for an overclass to control the underclass with an iron fist of squalor, and with an endless litany of belief in supernatural forces - often in conflict with one another - which guide everything about our world.

The Middle Ages was the ultimate world without balance. Political scientists talk greatly in our time about the differences between international systems that are uni-polar, bi-polar, and multi-polar - the bi-polar world being the most desireable and stable. But the Middle Ages was an utterly apolar world, ruled only by chaos. Every district had its own system of polarities, which could necessitate violent conflict that could draw in every other district. The result could only be an overwhelming violent chaos.

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