The Game of Powerlessness
As the final episode of the television series ‘Game of Thrones’ (hereafter GoT) airs this weekend, it is worth reflecting on why it has become such a success. Despite (or perhaps because of) its frequent and graphic depiction of violence and sex – including rape, incest and torture – this series has transcended the normal niche audience of fantasy and horror fans and become a global phenomenon. What are we to make of it? Can Christians even draw lessons from it?
Though there may be some truth in the claim, I think it’s too simple to reduce GoT’s popularity to what is euphemistically called its ‘adult content’. Indeed, while graphic, it has never quite crossed the line into pornography or what are called violent ‘exploitation’ flicks. Its appeal, I would suggest, lies elsewhere.
That appeal is to a sense of powerlessness most people feel in today’s world. Even in democracies most people feel that they have no sense of control over their lives: politicians and big business call the shots, do as they like, getting rich and occasionally passing on the ‘crumbs’ from the table to us. Such powerlessness turns outwardly into protest and, at elections, into being seduced by populist politicians who promise renewed power to ‘the people’.
They don’t really deliver either. People replace one section of the elite with a new elite who carry on their games of acquisition.
GoT gives us an insight into elite games of power, games in which common people are mere pawns to be sacrificed: massacred by soldiers, eaten or burned alive by dragons. Yet despite that we can identify with the central characters, who vary from the deeply flawed heroes with homicidal streaks, through the insightful but indecisive, to utter monsters. Significantly, perhaps, few of the characters are wholly evil, but seemed doomed by their moral flaws.
It is a pessimistic vision for a pessimistic age, and because of that it resonates with millions of us.
From a Christian perspective, GoT offers us a few valuable insights. Because over the eight seasons we have seen characters shift – from good to evil, from evil to good – we should be reminded of the fundamental lessons of virtue ethics: you are what you do, your choices matter because they make you what you become. Self-knowledge is essential, even if we literally learn by our failures. Prayerful reflection on our choices and their consequences, and then acting on them, help us to grow.
If we don’t, we simply wallow in our powerlessness. We become pawns. Or – in GoT terms – we become dragon-fodder.
Christians who watch GoT – and there are many of us – should try to see beyond the sense of powerlessness in our world (and the world of Westeros) and reflect on how we can shift our behaviour in such a way that we regain a sense of moral agency. Our world is not doomed to be the world of Game of Thrones.