This past Sunday night millions of viewers of “Game of Thrones,” including those at a Sci 101 screening, regaled in the death of — well, I’ll try to make this column spoiler-free. The death of a certain antagonist who had it coming for a while. And as relieved as I was, those feelings of satisfaction were mixed with horror. Because trust me, it was a slow and grisly death that I am not sure I would wish on anyone. What is even more interesting is that I don’t remember the last time I felt mixed about the death of a clearly villainous character in a show or a movie, which prompted me to lay out my thoughts about the unique way “Game of Thrones” handles humanity and violence.
One of the things I appreciate the most about “Game of Thrones” is its root in very real historical events. George R. R. Martin, the author of the “Song of Ice and Fire” books that gave rise to the show, models many of the characters on key players in the vast and intricate English Wars of the Roses circa late 1400’s. During this time, two rival families, house Lancaster and house York, vied for the throne of England over a span of three decades leading up to ascent of Henry Tudor (Henry VII). As in “Game of Thrones,” alliances between different factions were made and broken all the time, depending on which side looked like it was winning. And if you watch any dramatizations of the Wars of the Roses, it is incredibly fun for any history nerd to match up different “Game of Thrones” characters to their historical counterparts — for instance, Daenerys Targaryen is very likely the unifying figure of Henry Tudor (I hope). Cersei Lannister embodies elements of Margaret of Anjou, the notoriously ruthless wife of the “mad king” Henry VI. King Edward IV, like the womanizing King Robert Baratheon, was better at conquering than ruling. These historical roots give “Game of Thrones” a uniquely nuanced richness in its environment, as well as a complicated cast of characters.
And that’s the thing — “Game of Thrones” encompasses nearly the entire spectrum between good and evil. There are frustratingly stupid good people and insanely smart evil people. Supposedly moral characters make questionable and immoral decisions, and characters we thought were despicable turn out to have very sound moral codes. For instance, who would have thought we would end up sympathizing with Jaime Lannister, who sleeps with his sister and threw a child out a window? A lot of fantasy stories like “Lord of the Rings” and “Harry Potter” hint at but never deeply explore the potential for each and every human to do both evil and good. Engaging those human complexities is, I think, a refreshing change from the black and white boundaries that are common to many action/fantasy stories. The world is not black and white, and sometimes keeping to a black and white code of values has tragic consequences.
Another aspect of the show that I really love is its de-glorification of violence and warfare. Rampantly violent shows are often in danger of desensitizing their audiences to the many acts of brutality that occur. But “Game of Thrones” has a way of shoving it in our face in such an unsettling way that we never forget that death is death. Watching the Hound stab a man in the face from up close is a different experience from watching CGI masses of tiny soldiers collide from a distance. Even watching acts of vengeance that we feel are justified make us shift in our seats just a little (see: the scene with Arya and Polliver in the Season Four premiere). And in this day and age of drone warfare, which allows us to distance ourselves from the process of death and mass murder, it is crucial to have stories like these that remind us of what it means to take a human life.
Ultimately, “Game of Thrones” has a way of allowing us to escape to another world while anchoring us in the reality of our own world. A large part of its appeal is that its universe is an alternative arena to watch humankind at work as it always has been. In my mind, the great accomplishment of the series is its ability to give us a reflection of ourselves and make us see that, even through the veil of fantasy, mankind is still mankind.