The Moral Ambiguity of Game of Thrones

No television show aggrieves the easily aggrieved more than HBO’s Game of Thrones, a show based on George R. R. Martin’s popular book series. Cultural liberals find in it the most vulgar sexism, hypermasculinity, and white supremacism. Slaughterhouse 90210 author Maris Kreizman called it “a show for Star Wars fans who thought Princess Leia should have been raped.” Emily Naussbaum, Pulitzer Prize-winning television critic for the New Yorker, anguished over “the Trumpish undercurrent to the series,” “the colonial aesthetics of Daernery’s world,” and the show’s sexual politics that “have long been a model of cognitive dissonance, like an anti-misogyny pamphlet published in the form of a Penthouse letter.”

Puritans on the right are outraged by the show’s nudity, moral ambiguity, and also by its sexual violence. Calvinist pastor John Piper likened watching the show to “re-crucifying Christ.” Douglas Wilson—never lacking in moralizing zeal—described it as “rootless entertainment for a rootless people, lost entertainment for a lost people, and vile entertainment for a vile people.” Piper and Wilson are upset because Martin’s story doesn’t offer a set of archetypal myths and characters for what is good and what is evil. The continent of Westeros also lacks a Christian conception of God—or at least the Christian conception of God that Piper and Wilson would prefer.

The online right (a conglomeration of meme-generating image boards like 4chan, neo-Nazi sites like the Daily Stormer and misogyny peddlers like Return of Kings) hated the show for hilarious reasons, such as that it promotes incest, race-mixing and communism. That is, until liberal publications started depicting Game of Thrones as a “right-wing fantasy land” and complaining about its “problematic” scenes concerning race and sex. Now they’re fans or fan-adjacent.

How does Game of Thrones, the seventh season of which starts Sunday, upset so many different political sensibilities? Part of the answer is easy. If you’re going to be eternally outraged when anything outrageous happens in a story, regardless of the outrageous thing’s purpose or regrettable necessity, then even a story that carefully panders to your dogmatic concerns will eventually let you down. Many have scolded the show for its preponderance of female humiliation and powerlessness. For them, every instance of rape, prostitution, or gratuitous nudity—without the chic self-awareness of Girls or Orange is the New Black—is misogynistic. As with the ecclesiastical censure, badness is the same as being.

Unsurprisingly, the online right has almost the exact opposite complaint about the show. They think it deviates too much from the source material in service to contemporary ideological fads.

The other part of the answer to the question of how Game of Thrones manages to upset so many people across the political spectrum isn’t difficult to realize, but it’s more difficult to appreciate. Game of Thrones, perhaps more than any other popular artistic creation, addresses the consequence of choices. It’s a dark penance to the limits of justice and virtue at any given moment. The character Ned Stark, for example, lost his head not because to be good is to be a fool, but because in the situation he found himself in, to be good was to guarantee one’s own death. When the spymaster Varys asked Ned why he would tell the queen his plans, he replied, “The madness of mercy. That she might save her children.” But the only way she could save her children would be to take the throne. So she did.

Those such as Wilson and Piper who favor the fantasy worlds of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien—where there are good guys (noble, honest, innocent but corruptible) and bad guys (tyrannical, deceitful, with an army of evil drones)—don’t like Game of Thrones not because it’s nihilistic (as they claim), but because every action in it is filled with moral meaning. It isn’t that there aren’t noble, honest, innocent but corruptible rulers in Westeros. Robb Stark (Ned’s oldest son) is an example of one. Things don’t necessarily go his way, however, simply because he’s noble, honest, and innocent but corruptible. This is why Game of Thrones is a story that can break your heart, and Chronicles of Narnia and Lord of the Rings aren’t. When the sides are between good and evil, everything but the details are determined in advance. One knows who will prevail. Painting morality in the most unsubtle shades doesn’t add clarity or precision to one’s ethical thoughts. It simply hardens hearts while making a fool of its adherents. It is, more often than not, just arrogance masquerading as dogmatism.

Similarly, Naussbaum’s allegation of the show’s “nihilistic insistence that only dominance matter[s]” not only isn’t true—there are many occasions in the show where either domination fails or it’s correctly avoided—but the domination is never meaningless. In fact, it’s most frightening because we know what motivates it. Cersi is cruel because she and her children are vulnerable. Jon is cruel because he knows that death is coming. Stannis—admittedly, more so in the books than in the television series—is cruel because of his sense of duty to the realm.

Some, however, might argue that while individual characters have a moral anchorage, the story itself doesn’t. This is true. Game of Thrones is more an exploration than an argument. Watching the show or reading the books, you won’t discover what the author’s political opinions are like you would from reading, say, Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia—with its heavy-handed but flimsy strikes against secular education, egalitarianism, and interfaith ecumenicalism. There are, of course, prescriptive maxims within Martin’s story: that authority should be a burden (“The man who passes the sentence should swing the sword”); that we shouldn’t consider ourselves so easily damned or redeemed (“A good act does not wash out the bad, nor a bad act the good”); or that power is the effect not the cause of submission (“Power resides where men believe it resides”). Still, if Game of Thrones has a message, it’s to trust your moral intuitions and also to trust that they may sometimes lead you astray.

Characters throughout the series shift from villains to heroes (or vice versa) and Martin trusts that consumers will notice the transformations. In the city of Braavos, Arya watches a play where the ethical roles of Joffrey’s murder are reversed—Joffrey is depicted as a young, ambitious king, Tyrion a jealous, conniving uncle, and Ned a backwards, buck-toothed northerner. No doubt the commoners of Braavos watching think this representation is more fact than fantasy. This isn’t some pseudo-profound, postmodern cliché about how all perspectives are valid and conflict really only develops from misunderstandings. It’s an expansion of one’s moral imagination—what good art is supposed to do.

To expand one’s moral imagination as the story does isn’t to acquiesce to moral relativism. Nor is including the nasty things of this world an embrace of them either. Griping that Game of Thrones isn’t Lord of the Rings, Herland, or American Psycho is to make a categorical error. These are stories where redemption is inevitable, impossible, or undesirable. In Martin’s fictional universe, redemption is simply something struggled toward.

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