Ghavri: Returning to Westeros

by Anmol Ghavri | 4/21/16 5:09pm

HBO’s critically acclaimed fantasy drama “Game of Thrones” returns this Sunday with its sixth season. The series has attracted record numbers of viewers on HBO and developed a particularly extensive and active international fan base. Based on the “A Song of Ice and Fire” series of epic fantasy novels written by George R. R. Martin, the television series is set to overtake the books with its sixth season. Without a textual basis for season six, the show’s producer and Dartmouth alumnus David Benioff ’92 and his co-producer D. B. Weiss will have broad leeway in telling Martin’s story. The show’s actors and producers have received widespread praise for their acting, storytelling, production values, scope and complex characters – winning 26 Primetime Emmy awards for their efforts. Why do millions of viewers return to the world of ice and fire year after year to watch their favorite characters get killed off? The popularity of “Game of Thrones” is partially reflective of the broader trend of increasing interest in novel big-budget, high production value television dramas, as well as a more cynical and disillusioned viewing audience.

High production value television dramas have been steadily increasing in popularity, from “The Sopranos,” “The Wire” and “Lost” to “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men.” These series developed such broad and active fan bases that fan discussion, debate and interest continued on after their final episodes. These shows were nominated for and won awards at an outstanding pace and their acting, complex characters and stories have garnered widespread acclaim. The popularity and novelty of “Game of Thrones” partly continues this trend, with fans continuing to discuss the show and books well into the show’s off-season. Moreover, the filming and premieres of new seasons of these drama series, including “Game of Thrones,” are often glamorous Hollywood events. This contributes to the incorporation of these television programs into the Western cultural psyche, both reflecting and informing world views.

The storyline itself contributes to the popularity of “Game of Thrones” beyond its appeal as big-budget, high production value television. The plot of the story revolves around a Machiavellian struggle for power among the various dynastic families of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. A looming winter and invasion of the undead from the north and an exiled scion’s pursuit to reclaim her father’s throne from the east make up the rest of the plot. In George R. R. Martin’s world, honor gets you killed and the line between good and evil is incredibly blurry. The monsters of the series are the humans themselves. The evil is what each of them are capable of doing to each other. The powerful do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must. The most beloved characters lose their lives, and the tone of the series is incredibly dark. It must say something about Western society if millions upon millions of people willingly tune in week after week to watch such a series.

Modern Western society holds an incredibly disillusioned and cynical worldview. In the United States, we face an indefinite war on terror, gridlocked government and a changing climate and economy, with many struggling to make ends meet. Faith in government is at an all time low and the political process is increasingly being seen as rigged and unfair. What does this have to do with “Game of Thrones?” George R. R. Martin, when articulating his writing philosophy, said he thinks “all fiction needs to reflect reality” and that while fiction is untrue “it has to have a truth at the core of it . . . you’re still writing about people; you’re writing about the human condition.” Martin went on to say “the human heart in conflict with itself” is the only thing worth writing about. “Game of Thrones” provokes its audience to ask questions and wrestle internally with such issues as morality, honor and the nature of good and evil. How far are you willing to go for your family? Do we really have a say in the political process? Is there anything we can do to solve the world’s problems?

Mankind has an uncertain future, just like the characters of “Game of Thrones.” Like the self-interested leaders of Westeros ignore the looming winter and invasion of the undead from the north, our world leaders are ignoring challenges which threaten our existence. Despite the dark tone of the series, people still tune in week after week hoping for the best amidst chaos and disorder. Viewers have hope that in the end everything will be okay. The current challenges that humans face are unique, but mankind has faced serious challenges in the past and survived. But for now, Jon Snow is dead and winter is still coming.