Game of Groans

As the fanboys and reply guys will leap to point out, Game of Thrones is set in a fantasy world and thus is not offering us a historically accurate version of the European medieval past. But it is, at another level, just as obviously set in a version of that past, albeit one with giants and dragons and the living dead. And insofar as that temporal orientation is the case, in its final maneuvers the show cheats its viewers of the capacity to respect the very pastness of that past by overlaying a presentist moral logic of political development onto it. In this narcissistic political schema, characters who are untroubled by monarchy are evil, while characters who support electoral systems are good. The effect of this rigged historical framework is to generate a smug sense of quasi-recognition, coating the sedimented layers of a past-that-never-was with a zesty little spritz of incipience.

Green Hitlers, narrative prostheses, and the final episode of the world-pummeling HBO blockbuster

I don’t pay for HBO. So it was that, some thirty-six hours out of sync with Game of Thrones as a worldwide media event, I was granted a password and finally able to watch the finale of its last season on my laptop in a hotel in Shinjuku while my band took a day off from our tour of Japan. I had tried to avert my eyes from the spoilers and memes and hot takes and recaps and pangs of grief and cries of good riddance as the castles fell into ruins. Sensing the dismal universal hiss of online response to its conclusion before actually seeing the episode for myself, I tried to inoculate myself against other people’s opinions while already bracing for disappointment. Jetlagged but determined, cranky but still curious, I wanted to get this thing over with. But I also wanted to feel as if the years of my life that I spent with these actors, watching them grow up and out of their imprisonment in a corny fantasy soap opera—forgive me, a landmark prestige television event—were somehow worth it. Having followed the intricate braiding of rival claims to the throne of Westeros, and the rise of the dragon queen Daenerys, and the threat of human extinction posed by the White Walkers, and the shaky coalition of allies united against the Lannisters, and the last-minute hookups between beloved characters, I knew very well that a certain exhausted and self-conscious decadence had set in, but I kept watching anyway. I wanted those hours that I gave to this show to have somehow cumulatively added up to a valedictory sort of wisdom, or at least the soft landing of a well-earned if sappy or predictable decrescendo.

It was far worse than I had imagined. Instead of mere schmaltz, the arc of the last few episodes served up a hamfisted scramble of bourgeois showrunner Deep Thoughts about “power.” These thoughts—mostly noxious clichés in ways that I will unpack shortly—seemed to stall out in the banality of so-called “horseshoe theory,” a topological intuition, commonly expressed late at night in dorm rooms, that political extremes of left and right must somehow eventually meet.

It’s nonsense. But all the same, in the fallout of the atrocities committed during the sack of King’s Landing—as victorious dragon queen Daenerys celebrates her gruesome victory over Cersei Lannister with her mostly brown troops, while the appalled white people in her coalition look on in impotent horror and then start edging towards a coup—horseshoe theory is put to work by the screenwriter/director pair David Benioff and D. B. Weiss as a kind of visual language of political allegory that works to rationalize her assassination as a necessary precursor to the triumph of electoral politics.

With their strenuously didactic presentation, Benioff and Weiss make it hard not to see this. As tidal surges of untranslated “barbaric” Dothraki ululation wash across the pauses in Daenerys’s ominous proclamations about the wars of liberation to come, the curved blades of the Dothraki evoke revolutionary Communist sickles, while the long shot of the Unsullied in geometric formations of identical black uniforms registers an obvious Nuremberg rally reference. Cued by powerfully compressed narrative images, a sophomoric visual equation suggests that fascism and communism are really, you know, the same thing.

This belabored ideological sleight of hand is followed by a prison visit scene with Tyrion and Jon Snow that baldly asserts, after some sententious hemming and hawing, that Daenerys’s desire to improve the world will lead directly to more massacres of this kind, and that accordingly Jon Snow is going to have to suck it up and kill his girlfriend because “sometimes, duty is the death of love.” With Tyrion’s disenchantment with Daenerys, the showrunners ventriloquize a familiar developmental story about political maturity as an inevitable process of rightwards drift from youthful leftist enthusiasm toward the mellowing complacency of centrist middle age. From this distorted vantage point, Daenerys’s atrocity at King’s Landing retroactively discredits her previous liberatory gestures; she is not fit to rule and must be assassinated so that something quasi-human, impersonal and persistent—in short, a system rather than a person—can triumph in her place.

In defense of the centrist middle, horseshoe theorists piously claim to abhor violence on both sides, while using their specious equations between rival extremes to rationalize the “removal” (i.e. assassination) of outlying enemies to capitalist consensus. (If your goal is to preserve business as usual, then Allende has to go.) Far from a repudiation of political violence, in Tyrion’s looks of sad concern about the human costs along the way the nostrums of horseshoe theory become instead an immunological rationalization for just a little more violence, of the right kind, in order to take out a few of the bad guys. Or, in this case, the bad girl.

Game of Thrones offers a note-perfect reflection in a gilded fantasy mirror of the banality of mainstream discussions of “violence.” It is a form of constitutive aversion to “extremism” perfectly suited to the people who have to steer a massive multimillion dollar franchise and thus must avoid doing things that are unpopular: these are people called showrunners. It bears pointing out that these showrunners are also millionaires from the 1 percent (Benioff’s father used to run Goldman Sachs).

In order to be popular, their narrative must play with but not unleash the real dragon: popular disenfranchisement under capitalism, and all the surging affects of hatred and despair and longing that roil beneath its mandatory quotidian acts of consumption and compliance. Game of Thrones offers thrilling entertainment not only because of its thickly imagined world, memorable characters, or intricate multi-generational plotlines (all qualities of the original novels alleged to be there by my husband, who has actually read them), but because, as television, it offers controlled but vicious doses of antagonism, spectacular scenes of cruelty producing equally spectacular scenes of retribution and punishment, that you can collectively discuss, as a culture, week after week, blow after blow, death after death, precisely because it is so popular. This is what Bergson termed “the quality of quantity”—the expressive point at which the sheer proliferation of something, its modulations of intensity, change what it fundamentally is. This is where the phenomenon of the massively multi-platform entertainment media juggernaut exceeds and upstages the mere novels which are its basis. Accordingly, this is where the shadow of the showrunners looms largest.

While much of the critical reaction to the show has focused justifiably on the insertion of extended—and narratively and visually gratuitous—rape and sexual assault scenes into George R. R. Martin’s original source text, the show features equally significant acts of violence that turn upon economic disenfranchisement and racial logics of hierarchy, staging bloody scenes of slave revolt and murder in which slave owners are tortured and killed by the people they had formerly subjugated in Astapor and Meereen. This cascade of death by dragon, crucifixion and stabbing brings the fear of insurrection directly to the screen in a visceral manner. However fantastical, these scenes also feel “true” because they draw upon the circulation of widespread social energies of hatred and resentment that undergird our own authoritarian political moment of spiraling inequality and diminished faith in electoral systems and waged labor. It is thrilling to watch the Masters die because we powerless schmucks who sit around watching prestige television either long to kill our own “Masters” or, if we are powerful schmucks, shiver in the fear of being killed ourselves.

Hence the problem Daenerys poses as both locus of fan identification and political lightning rod: she is at once a glaring White Savior, a white supremacist fantasy prop who liberates enslaved people from above and—in the horseshoe theory hall of mirrors—a kind of Che/Mao figure (or, to take up the parlance of deep ecology, a “Green Hitler”), who threatens the ongoing business as usual of the class system that props up both the inequalities of Westeros and the business model of HBO. Because she refuses to sugarcoat her practice of realpolitik (as Aaron Bady suggests in a perceptive analysis for the Los Angeles Review of Books), or because she offers too radical a solution to the present political impasse, or simply because she refuses to offer compensatory crocodile tears of remorse after removing her enemies, Dany has to go. The men say so.

The strong consensus of outraged viewers, whether or not they signed a petition begging for a rewrite, is that Daenerys was betrayed. That consensus gathers together many misgivings, but it’s mostly a resoundingly correct intuition about the implicitly gendered message on offer here: the “strong woman” must be killed. However much Arya going Outward Bound in her voyage into the West and Sansa becoming “Queen of the North” in Winterfell offer compensatory visions of female agency, Daenerys’s execution moments after finally touching the Iron Throne conveys the titular “Down Girl” message of Kate Manne’s recent monograph on “the logic of misogyny” all too clearly. The alignment of this powerful woman with the natural extremity of the dragon should warm the hearts of those prone to Jordan Peterson–style gender myths, and the slaying of the dragon-queen and subsequent departure of the last surviving dragon after nuzzling her corpse signals the eclipse of this troubling female authority figure.

What’s so politically scary about Daenerys anyway? Alongside and coextensive with her threat to patriarchy, she represents—however attenuated by the maternal racism of her “white savior” presentation—a mode of utopian internationalist solidarity, especially between the “Third World” and the “developed nations.” In bad faith with the show’s own narrative arc of Daenerys as “Breaker of Chains,” the showrunners of Game of Thrones conclude their plot with a sloppy and intellectually dishonest maneuver that forcibly elides Dany’s utopian energies with war crimes. We are meant to nod vigorously in agreement with Tyrion’s rhetorical question: “She believes her destiny is to build a better world, for everyone. If you believed that . . . wouldn’t you kill whoever stood between you and paradise?” By contrast, in the episode’s concluding counsel scene, electoral monarchy and the nascent state form are bathed in the glow of consent, process and reason. The Khmer Rouge nightmare that Daenerys would have instigated has been decisively replaced by a chummy, sheepish sort of proceduralism more suitable to a Board of Trustees meeting, or a coven of harried professors figuring out who gets to be chair of the department.

As the fanboys and reply guys will leap to point out, Game of Thrones is set in a fantasy world and thus is not offering us a historically accurate version of the European medieval past. But it is, at another level, just as obviously set in a version of that past, albeit one with giants and dragons and the living dead. And insofar as that temporal orientation is the case, in its final maneuvers the show cheats its viewers of the capacity to respect the very pastness of that past by overlaying a presentist moral logic of political development onto it. In this narcissistic political schema, characters who are untroubled by monarchy are evil, while characters who support electoral systems are good. The effect of this rigged historical framework is to generate a smug sense of quasi-recognition, coating the sedimented layers of a past-that-never-was with a zesty little spritz of incipience.

Why is this a problem? Why is it a particularly egregious problem in this final episode? This narrative sequence essentially asserts that if elected rulers are in power, then war crimes won’t happen—a flattering lie that the West loves to tell itself. Daenerys’s war crimes in King’s Landing are supposed to scan as the inevitable outcome of trying to build “something that’s never been before: a good world.” When she casually says of those who don’t share her vision that “they don’t get to choose,” horseshoe theory’s worst fears are confirmed, and we are meant to cosign her death warrant accordingly. Caught within horseshoe theory’s curved topology, Daenerys’s fate offers narrative proof that power-mad absolutism and the radical pursuit of social justice are really the same thing, and that both must be repudiated.

The proposed solution on offer at the end of the show is an electoral monarchy freed from the threat of dynastic succession (which births monstrous and obviously unfit rulers such as King Joffrey) by the magic plot-stabilizing powers of . . . disability. Which brings me to Bran, or, more specifically, to the push-pull between Bran’s brain and Bran’s body. Bran’s body becomes the occasion for what disability studies scholars term a “narrative prosthesis”: his bodily condition must be put to work to signify at the level of his character (for a quick dramatic analogue, think of Shakespeare’s use of Richard III’s hunchback as shorthand for his twisted and immoral core). Bran’s body, which is damaged when he is thrown out the window by Jaime Lannister as punishment for witnessing a scene of incest, is compensated for by the extraordinary capacities of second sight, precognition and quasi-divine omniscience that are magically bestowed upon him in the wake of his fall. This trope of the miraculous disabled person who becomes both monstrous and prodigious as a narrative reward for disabling bodily injury is a commonplace in scenes of disability representation. Perceptual deficits are often uncannily counterbalanced by superhuman perceptual surpluses.

Just as Daenerys transcended the human through her alliance with dragons and her capacity to survive fire, Bran simultaneously falls short of and exceeds implicit human norms. Dany’s fiery allegiance with dragons ultimately pushed her beyond the pale of human community. Looking down upon the world like a dragon, she saw humans as expendable and insignificant. Her magic ability became the index of her political non-viability. As Tyrion puts it: “our queen’s nature is fire and blood.” By contrast, Bran’s compromised viability as noble heir who cannot reproduce becomes the very signature of his political plausibility as Daenerys’s replacement. Bran’s disability offers a fig leaf of physical vulnerability that barely covers over the underlying threat of his gifts, which partake of a techno-theological sublime that promises a future horizon of benign panoptic surveillance through the animals into which he can project his consciousness and the dream visions that show him glimpses of futurity. His sovereignty won’t be tyrannical because of his benevolent subjection to the checks and balances of the king’s council, a meeting place for the high-minded Brienne and the brothel-crawling Bronn. But we already suspect his sovereignty won’t be tyrannical because it will be limited by the sexual consequences of his disability: as someone who will not create an heir, Bran has a term limit in place that pre-empts dynastic struggle.

Tyrion’s speech about Bran having a “story” is the moment of disability as “narrative prosthesis” within Game of Thrones. It’s meant to be both a plot-advancing maneuver and a showstopping grace note that casts a sunset glamour upon the waning of a franchise:

What unites people? Armies? Gold? Flags? Stories. There’s nothing in the world more powerful than a good story. Nothing can stop it. No enemy can defeat it. And who has a better story . . . than Bran the Broken: the boy who fell from a high tower and lived. He knew he’d never walk again, so he learned to fly.

Our showrunners use Tyrion as a proxy to tell us that stories are modes of politico-moral education that consolidate human community around the admiration of virtuous ruler-heroes and the extirpation of vicious tyrant-monsters. Inexcusably, they leverage Peter Dinklage as the guarantor of a claim about disability as a magical state of “broken-ness” that is politically advantageous because it is non-threatening and therefore a sustainable sort of soft power.  Musing that “there’s nothing more powerful than a good story” just before a pivot to a deeply anticlimactic outcome, was, for me, the show’s Jeb Bush-esque “please clap” moment of desperation. One senses here above all the showrunners’ own need for self-validation about their professional status as mediators of someone else’s story, as people who monetize and disarm and defang and polish George R. R. Martin’s work to a mirror brightness in exchange for mountains of cash.

I don’t want to just sound like a snob or a jerk. I am trying to imagine the submarine-crumpling barometric force of economic and creative pressures bearing down upon the showrunners of Game of Thrones. I am trying to imagine the stench of flopsweat in the writer’s room as they attempted to craft a mostly kind of satisfactory conclusion to a nearly decade-spanning enterprise that had already decisively outpaced its original creator’s control, an enterprise just as heavily overdetermined by the warring desires of rival fandoms from without as it is magnetized by the warring claims of the rival dynastic houses from within Westeros. Honestly, I’m drawing a blank. I have no idea what that kind of pressure feels like and will not bother pretending that I do.

What I do know is that that ending was deeply frustrating, and not in the salutary way that great art—or, for that matter, even merely good entertainment—can surprise and overturn expectations and transvalue its own systems of values, wrongfooting us while delivering us into the magic space of the unexpected. No, this was frustrating in its deflationary squandering of narrative possibilities, in its shoddy thinking and writing, in its sententious pomposity, in its galling little missteps no less than in its occasional moments of breathtaking arrogance. If the best story on offer here is the one about the benevolent electoral system whose endless campaign of surveillance is for our own protection, then all I can say is: dracarys.

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