Helen Sloan / HBO

‘Game of Thrones’: Reality TV for an age of uncertainty

HBO series returns with a new season that is — dragons, zombies and magic aside — a fable of our times

If you want to explore America's most controversial social problems, runs a TV-writing adage, create a cop show.

The HBO series "Games of Thrones," which returned for its fourth season on Sunday night, is more ambitious: How better to explore contemporary questions of power, geopolitics, war, gender, religion and ecological peril than a fantasy medieval tale riddled with gratuitous sex and blood-gushing violence, delicately balancing gritty realism with low doses of magic?

It may look like a rip-roaring costume drama about the fictional kingdom of Westeros in a time of broadswords, where human lives are nasty, brutish and short. But it's also widely interpreted as a multifaceted commentary on our own times. Thus the veritable cottage industry of commentary on everything from the metaphorical relevance of "GoT" to the contemporary situation in Afghanistan to musings in the highbrow New York Review of Books on the show's feminist credentials and its depictions of the horrible prospects that confronted medieval women.

For the uninitiated but curious, John Lanchester's London Review of Books essay offers an erudite primer on the series. Lanchester sees the appeal of "GoT" as based on its defiance of narrative convention and the viewer's genuine uncertainty over what will happen next — which resonates not only with the characters' experience of events but also, perhaps, with the viewers' reality. 

"This sense of instability, of not knowing what’s about to happen, speaks to the moment," writes Lanchester. "We all feel anxious and uncertain about the future, none of us knows quite how firmly our feet are planted. It’s hard to dramatize economic uncertainty, so why not convey this feeling through a made-up version of the Wars of the Roses?"

For others, it's the allegorical power in the "GoT" stories that most appeals. Foreign policy thinkers fall over one another to render profound the guilty pleasure of being obsessed with the show and the George R.R. Martin books on which it's based. Some see it as a metaphor for contemporary global geopolitics or as a kind of pop-Machiavellian guide to statecraft.

This sense of instability, of not knowing what’s about to happen, speaks to the moment. We all feel anxious and uncertain about the future, none of us knows quite how firmly our feet are planted.

John Lanchester

London Review of Books

Here, then, are five themes for the casual viewer to keep in mind as Season 4 unfolds. 

There are no heroes in public life

When the head of Eddard "Ned" Stark, the leading man and hero of the first season, bounced down the steps of the Great Sept of Baelor in King's Landing, it was clear that "GoT" was going to be quite unlike anything we're used to seeing on TV. A northern warlord forced to deal with the vile palace intrigue of the capital, Ned naively followed his moral compass and declined the Machiavellian game in the den of vipers that surrounds the Iron Throne and paid the ultimate price. This is reality TV. What makes you think the good guys win? 

Then again, some of those who started out as bad guys in the first season (all three Lannister children — Jaime, Cersei and Tyrion — or more violently, Sandor Clegane, the Hound) had, by the end of Season 3, become far more complex characters. Jaime and Tyrion are guided by their own moral codes — perhaps spurred by their physical scars — amid the turpitude of a brutal system collapsing chaotically in on itself. Cersei, on the other hand, is revealed as a woman whose malice and manipulations are rooted in her drive to establish and protect her independence in a world where courtly women are little more than chattel traded to seal alliances between rival families. The Hound? He follows orders from a king he despises until he can no longer contain his contempt for the progeny of a system of hereditary rule and its artificial hierarchies.

The good guys, too, are becoming more complex. The adolescent tomboy Arya Stark's impish innocence has given way to a gleeful bloodlust as she drives blades through the flesh of those who have tortured and killed her nearest and dearest. Does Arya still want to kill Clegane to avenge her friend, the butcher boy Mycah? Probably. But keeping Clegane alive may be her best hope of safely navigating the terrors of a land at war.

Jon Snow breaks his vows but keeps his moral center. As Ned Stark's bastard son, he is an outsider, disinherited within the courtly system and therefore able to see it from the outside — like Tyrion and even Jaime. The more disinherited or stripped of courtly power the characters become, the better they're able to empathize with the plight of ordinary people — the small folk, whose blood is shed whenever the rival claimants to the thrones raise armies.

The people of Westeros may not care who wins the war

Robb Stark and his army of Northmen may have looked like the good guys, out to wreak righteous vengeance on the Lannisters and their ilk for Ned's killing, but the thousands of ordinary men who march behind his banners are not volunteers.

Once he chooses to start a war, Robb calls his bannermen — local potentates under his regional authority — and if they don't heed his call to arms, he can strip them of their titles and lands and the power that accrues from those. And those bannermen recruit their foot soldiers through the traditional feudal method: Send your sons to war or lose your land and livelihood.

A Stark victory in the war would no sooner end those feudal obligations than would a Lannister victory. Sure, Daenerys Targaryen is freeing slaves wherever she goes in the distant cities of Slaver's Bay. But can she recover the Iron Throne without making common cause with some of its feudal warlords?

Until now, the foot soldiers in the great armies fighting for the throne have had more in common with one another than they have with the noblemen who march at their head. 

The wildlings have a point

A key story line in Season 4 is the imminent arrival of the wildlings, as the Free Folk are called, to breach the Wall, the great, warded ice structure that keeps at bay the zombie perils of winter. They loathe the system that lies to the south of the Wall, but they can survive the forces being awakened by the season's change only by returning to the Westeros side of the Wall. The elites of Westeros paint the wildlings as amoral savages, and so did Jon Snow. But that was before he lived and loved among them on his undercover mission to infiltrate the army being mustered by their king, Mance Rayder, to breach the wall. 

The Free Folk have rattled Snow's confidence in the values and violently enforced inequalities of the society he has pledged to defend. Their contempt for the "knee-benders" — those who bow to monarchic rule — resonates with the bastard son. The Free Folk don't have hereditary leaders; they choose their ruler, and he or she governs only with the consent of the governed. 

The women of the Free Folk are fighters, like their men, and they seem far more in control of their sexuality and rights than the women living in the Seven Kingdoms — albeit via their ability to use violence rather than some utopian set of rules: A wildling woman may be kidnapped as a bride, but she is within her rights to slit the throat of an abusive husband and rejoin her clan.

By contrast, the courtly women of Westeros are forced to rely on wily manipulation simply to survive — and life for the ordinary women all around them is terrifying.

Martin has used the wildlings as a vehicle to express a radical critique of Westerosi society on everything from property rights to gender. Snow's wildling lover, Ygritte, in the book on which the series is based, at one point lays bare the violent roots of Westerosi property rights: "The gods made the Earth for all men to share," she says. "Only when the kings come with their crowns and steel swords, they claimed it was theirs."

The wildlings chose to live outside the strictures of the Seven Kingdoms, and in the process developed a way of life — often brutal in its own ways — that represents a radical challenge. Now, because of the onset of winter, they're trying to move south to knee-bender country — a key theme of Season 4 that will no doubt spark some interesting clashes and conversations. 

Prophesy is an inexact art

Religions based on prophetic traditions abound in Westeros and beyond — the seven gods, or representations of god, represent the state religion of the Seven Kingdoms, although Ned Stark and many of his fellow northerners preferred the Old Gods, the unnamed spirits of nature. Stannis Baratheon is in the thrall of a Red Priestess, Melisandre, who worships the fire god R'hlorr and is capable of wielding some of his associated magic. She also believes that the Red God's prophesy requires that Stannis sit on the Iron Throne. But let's just say that Martin seems to believe that humans have a hard time accurately divining the intentions of any gods they believe may be determining their fate. So while there's magic, possibly divine, at work in the story, none of the characters have a monopoly on truth in interpreting it.

Winter is coming

The motto of House Stark is a warning of what is on the march beyond the Wall. This is a world where seasons last years, and winter's terrors are legion — most notably, the rise of the White Walkers, who stir only in its freezing darkness but who threaten to destroy humanity.

"A winter that is always notoriously hard, and can last not just years but a decade or more," Lanchester explains. "It’s a huge, all-encompassing environmental force, determining the lives of everyone, open-endedly. The climate change aspect of this is obvious to the contemporary audience, but there’s something more subtle and subtextual at work here too: another economic metaphor, another kind of difficult climate. Westeros is like our own world, in which hard times have arrived and no one feels immune from their consequences and no one knows how long the freeze will last."

Martin, writes Lanchester, has created "a universe in which nobody is secure and the climate is getting steadily harder and no one knows when the good weather will return." And that's as true for Westeros as it is for the world that so avidly watches "Game of Thrones."

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