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Winter is coming

Culture Column by Jonny Jones

The US cable channel HBO has acquired a reputation for developing television shows that are both intelligent and compulsive viewing. The best of these programmes, such as The Wire and The Sopranos, were able to shine a light on contemporary society in innovative ways.

So it might seem a bit unusual that the latest in this run of culturally relevant TV shows is based not in the streets of New Jersey or Baltimore, but in the mythical realm of Westeros in which kings and queens vie for power using sword-bearing armies, dragons and magic. Yet Game of Thrones is notable not simply for its echoes of medieval Europe but also for its parallels with the world we live in today.

Game of Thrones, based upon George RR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire novels, begins as Ned Stark, the honourable Warden of the North, is brought to the court at Kings Landing to serve as King Robert Baratheon's adviser after the mysterious death of Stark's predecessor, and to discover who killed him.

The evidence points to the rich and powerful Lannisters, the family of Queen Cersei. From this starting point, the series weaves a rich tapestry of drama and intrigue in which nobody is safe and no outcome is foreseeable.

The show is bound up with many of the usual tropes of high-fantasy literature. However, unlike that other giant of the genre, JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones gradually moves beyond binaries of good versus evil to display a more complex and layered world in which the ability of its rulers to act is constrained by social structures.

Writing for Foreign Affairs, Charli Carpenter points out that "Lords and kings no less than oath-breakers are punished for violating custom and agreement...kings cannot always 'do as they like'." Stark is "the good guy" who lives by a code of honour.

Yet, unlike in typical tales of derring-do, this ends up being his undoing. As one character remarks in a later season, "If you think this has a happy ending, you haven't been paying attention."

In Westeros, seasons last for decades or even centuries. Nobody can remember the last winter. And yet, in the words of the Stark family motto, "Winter is coming." In the north, the White Walkers, a zombie-like race, are marching on the kingdoms for the first time in thousands of years.

As John Lanchester wrote in the London Review of Books, this has echoes of both an environmental and an economic crisis: looming threats that have been ignored or that many have convinced themselves do not exist. Magic had been a real force just a few generations ago; now, nobody really believes in it. This reverberates with the collective denial the ruling classes display during periods of capitalist expansion: the good times will never end. "No return to boom and bust", as Gordon Brown was so fond of saying.

However, with mortal threat at their doorstep, the kingdoms of Westeros are plunged into internecine warfare as rival families, and rivals within families, lay claim to the Iron Throne after King Robert's death. In Kings Landing, Robert's young heir Joffrey is crowned king, but the power behind the throne is his grandfather, Tywin Lannister. Joffrey is a sadist for whom being King means that "everyone is mine to torment."

Yet Tywin thinks differently:

The House that puts family first will always defeat the House that puts the whims of its sons and daughters first.

Tywin understands that in order to succeed, a family cannot allow the interests of one individual, no matter how important, to override their collective strength. And yet this danger constantly hangs over many of the characters in the story, and the hubris of some leads to disastrous outcomes.

There are elements of the show which are problematic to say the least. It attempts to explore questions of sexism and racism but does so in a way that too often uncritically reproduces stereotypical images of both.

The Australian comedian Aamer Rahman argues that the Dothraki - a nomadic tribal people from a land east of Westeros - are "a grab bag of every native/savage/other signifier you can think of...a horde of raping, warring animals who have no word for 'thank you' and enjoy public sex games and deaths at a wedding."

There is a glut of gratuitous sex and nudity, and sexual violence is presented in a way that seems both sensationalised and decontextualised: we are presented with the existence of sexual violence but not the fallout or repercussions. Sometimes the show seems to be playing on our natural revulsion towards such acts a way of introducing tension.

However, despite these real problems, Game of Thrones remains a compelling exploration of power and crisis. Ned Stark is given an important piece of advice early on: "When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die." Much like "socialism or barbarism", it is a lesson that everybody involved in the high-stakes game of trying to change this world for the better would do well to remember.


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