Game of Thrones is bristling with sociopaths. The most successful characters (measured in terms of episodes survived, or the power they achieve within the show) are both amoral and lacking in human emotional connections. As I detailed in my last post, sympathetic characters have a tendency to end up scattered across the scenery. While in the fourth season Prince Oberyn filled that ignoble role, in the first season it was Ned Stark—and the kindly, virtuous bodies hit the dirt of Westeros with grim regularity in the seasons between. If there is one rule to politics in Westeros, it is that Realpolitik is the only politik.
But what is it about this Westerosian political vision that is so appealing to Americans (and others) at the moment? Why does it command so much fascination? I know it fascinates not only from the immense popularity of Game of Thrones, but also the fact that this ethic is spread across television. House of Cards is simply a displacement of the same assumptions about the world into a setting that more closely resembles early 21st century America than early 12th century Britain.
Before investigating the political ramifications of Game of Thrones, we should examine its political conceit more closely. What is the nature of politics in Westeros? In broad terms, it looks familiarly medieval. Monarchs control territory and vassals through both arms and a diplomacy based largely on familial ties. Great houses like the Starks, Lannisters, or Baratheons form the aristocracy at the heart of show. The organization of the imaginary landscape is thus roughly feudal-national; each house controls its home nation and the king ostensibly commands them all. Over the course of the show, this political system falls into disarray. In doing so, it reveals its underlying modernity. Drawing on both the Lockean notion of “the consent of the governed,” and more historical casus belli such as disputed succession, the various houses become locked in wars of rebellion. While large, set piece battles do take place (more or less off screen they are often won by the virtuous, non-sociopathic characters), such battles seem to never determine the course of the war. It is rather assassination, intrigue, and deception aimed at destroying the enemy commander, or hard to control weapons of mass destruction (in the form of fire-breathing dragons) that most often carry the day. Thus Ned Stark, a decidedly non-sociopathic character, is legally and publicly executed by the scheming and manipulative Lannisters. Or Renly Baratheon, a charismatic leader, is murdered in his tent by a sort of witch-born guided missile sent by his ultra-rational and antisocial brother. While certainly weaponry and the death of leaders played a role in medieval history, such technology and (character) assassination are more akin to modern politics and the War on Terror than the high Middle Ages. And while surely heroes have always gone above and beyond, rarely has a popular medium held up such antisocial characters as the rightful victors in the story lines--as those individuals who can face the facts.
Adam Kotsko argues that this fascination with TV sociopaths “clearly points toward a feeling of dissatisfaction with a broken society” (94). In our late capitalist moment, he argues, such television characters are “willing to do what it takes” either as ruthless climbers (such as Little Finger) or stoic enforcers (perhaps the Hound, or John Snow). As such they offer a “folk social analysis” that explains success in an amoral world. Furthermore, by exposing our beliefs about how the world operates, the “reality” of realpolitik in Game of Thrones shows just how bleakly we view politics. In Westeros politics is centrally focused on personal violence. Virtue is irrelevant, and language is mostly used to deceive. Any striver must be willing to sacrifice any and all personal connection. Even the constant portrayals of sex in the show bleed uncomfortably close to “reality,” with the most successful female character primarily using sex to gain power, and one incestual rape scene was filmed “accidentally.” This is the basic Hobbesian premise Game of Thrones shares with our political moment. The bildungsroman subplot of the two Stark daughters focuses on them awakening to this dark reality and learning to “play the game.”
Game of Thrones' version of politics seems to reflect a basic understanding of our world. We likewise expect our politicians use language more for deception than for action. We understand the world to be controlled by a tiny elite who commands the allegiance of followers—though parties replace houses in our American system. And, as I detailed in my earlier post, we expect violence to be a first resort.
But just as interesting is what Game of Thrones fails to show on screen: labor or work. There are really only four activities that make up the show’s airtime: travel, sex, eating, and fighting (including planning to fight—a sort of nonphysical fight). All the dialogue, plot development, politics, and anything else the show covers occurs within one of these four settings. Most planning for fighting takes place at tables laden with food and wine, important plot points are divulged via pillow talk, and some characters spend most of their time getting from one place to another. There are only rare glimpses of what we can only assume are the mass of the imaginary Westerosian’s life: farming, artisanal manufacturing, and serving the elites. The world is portrayed as having a history, but not in having constant maintenance by human labor or renewal through human work. That, of course, would be boring. And just like in the real world, we prefer our encounters with politics to be flashy, violent, and sexy. We would rather see the results of work than the workers; rather have the consumables of labor than encounter any laborers. The few times laborers do make it on screen they are quickly killed and/or robbed. The political economy of Westeros is the most postmodern thing about the show’s politics: an economy that seems to be almost immaterial by pushing workers to the margin or killing them in the name of conspicuous consumption.
In my next post, I will look more closely at one character who defies the sociopath convention, and explore what that might mean for understanding the political economic potentials in Game of Thrones.
Kotsko, Adam. Why We Love Sociopaths: A Guide to Late Capitalist Television. Winchester: Zero Books, 2012. Print.