Frankly, it’s become exhausting. It’s enough to make you question why you keep watching something that just looks like a flaming wreck drag itself to the finish line. How can you pull meaning from this? The early promise struck down; the lingering and crippling injuries; the sense that just when things seem to be turning around they get worse: I wouldn’t blame you for just packing it in and waiting for next season, when things might get better.
The Timberwolves? No, I’m talking about Game of Thrones.
The next season of the HBO show premieres on March 31, and to get primed for it, I’ve gone back to rewatch the first season. This is largely because my first time through I was caught up in seeing how they were handling the move from the pages of George R.R. Martin’s book to the small screen. As such, by the end of the season, I counted it largely successful in having hit all the major points, but I had not really perceived the darker undercurrents of meaning. I was too busy tracking the different characters and plotlines for future reference, but now that I have a handle on them and can set my attention to Jon Snow or Daenerys Targaryen on autopilot, I’ve grasped the thread that lies at the heart of the show’s first season, the one that wraps itself around the story of Eddard Stark.
[I’m going to keep this as unspoilery as I can. I will be talking in more general terms about themes in the show and steering clear of specific plot point reveals.]
It would be easy to look at Game of Thrones (hereafter, GoT) and say it fits neatly into the HBO model: a genre show on which they’ve dumped heaps of blood and sex. But that kind of reductive thinking ignores what makes GoT so revolutionary. The thing that sets the show apart is not its willingness to wallow in violence, but its upending of the traditional moral compass of the fantasy setting.
Even moreso than in the western or the cop drama (already explored and revolutionized by Deadwood and The Wire), the fantasy genre relies on the idea that goodness and justice will win out in the end. It’s a bedrock of our sense of the setting and GoT effectively uses that sense to show us something different.
From the very beginning, we can see that Eddard Stark is a Good Man: a just leader of his people in the North, a man who takes responsibility, a loving (if sometimes out-of-touch) father, and a good husband to a wife who was promised to his brother before his death. In essence, he has done all the things we expect a good fantasy hero to do in order to be fit for hero duty.
And yet, when the story takes him to the capital to serve the King, his sense of honor, of justice, of duty ends up betraying him. If that were all there were to it, that wouldn’t be much. Turning the tables and showing evil winning out over good isn’t particularly revolutionary. What GoT does instead is show us that holding fast to ideals of honesty and fairness is not wrong, just … ineffective. Being good or being greedy or being backhanded do not in and of themselves make a person successful in the Seven Kingdoms: the key is seeing the whole field clearly. GoT gives us a fantasy setting that is not moral, but rather indifferent.
And yet we as the audience cannot help but struggle to assign and then align our own morality with that of the characters in the drama. This is where Game of Thrones is not so different from sports. You see it when local announcers refer to their own team as “the good guys.” You feel it when your hatred for another team transcends competition and becomes something more. It gets into you when you feel like your team is cursed or somehow snakebitten.
It’s hard to see the Timberwolves so listless, hard to see them barely eke out 33 points in a half and not even crack 90 in an OT game against a team composed at least partially of cast-offs from the Wolves. It was bad enough to see them down by 18 with under a minute to go in the first half, but as they drew close in the 4th quarter, I was reminded of Ned Stark and Game of Thrones. If they had come back to win the game, it wouldn’t have made them good any more than losing the game makes them bad, not in the moral sense.
We like to ascribe losses to a lack of effort, which translates to a lack of heart, a moral failing. When a team wins, we like to see it as a group effort, a triumph of grit over adversity, a sign of purity and goodness. It’s not wrong to do this, but it’s helpful if we can understand that we’re doing this, if we can know that being good doesn’t lead inevitably to success, just as failure doesn’t ineluctably come from being bad.
Sports is its own kind of fantasy setting, the place where we cling most doggedly to the notion that the way we as observers act or think during a game can somehow influence the outcome. We wear the same socks or hats to game after game, sit in the same spot on the couch, eat the same foods, drink the same drinks. We invest teams with our hearts, assign them our morals, as surely as we do characters in a story. I would just ask you to know that you’re doing it. As Hamlet pointed out to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern when they protested that Denmark was not a prison to them, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”