Why Game of Thrones Has Come to Fascinate Us

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Lord of the Flies is one of the world’s best-loved allegories of civilization and the way it has played out through violence.

A plane-load of schoolboys crashes on a tropical island after some kind of hinted-at apocalypse. No adults are on the plane; stranded, the boys are left to their own devices. Once they have attended to the basics of food and shelter, a power struggle ensues.

Simon and Piggy, the two characters that represent decency and intelligence are quickly slaughtered. Ralph, the formerly elected leader, is pursued by the mob in a final, desperate sprint down the beach. Ralph is suddenly rescued when a naval officer appears. In the final lines, Ralph explains the bizarre drama away as ‘only playing.’

When asked about the climax, author William Golding famously said that he couldn’t kill Ralph at the end of the book, simply because he didn’t have the heart to do it.

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George RR Martin does not seem to be bound by the same scruples. And while Robert Towne was the king of the outriders in seventies Hollywood because he backed mavericks like Polanski and Coppola, you know he would have sent Martin directly out of his office to eat his cheese sandwich sitting at the bus stop because there is no more astringent box-office poison than killing the characters your audience has grown to love.

Game of Thrones has built its success, in large part, by inflicting precisely this kind of hack-and-slash brutality on the sympathies of its audience.

Why?

The first, most obvious and probably least-compelling explanation is that it is historically accurate. John Hobbes, the English philosopher responsible for Leviathan wrote that before the authority of the law, life was ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’. Game of Thrones features all kinds of gruesome brutality, with plenty of it having a distinctly sexual flavour.

One of the most disturbing things I have been witness to in my career as a spectator is the ‘Red Wedding’ at the climax of episode nine of season three. I turned off the television afterwards and sat quietly, trying to breathe as if a bag of cement had been placed on my ribcage, wondering if I would ever watch the show again.

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So spectacular was the violence and cruelty, I felt as if it had inflicted a psychological injury on me. At the time, I wasn’t initially sure if the violence was prurient or designed to take me deeper into the fictional world of the story.

In fact, the only two other things I can call to mind that actually sprained my brain in that way were Salo and Irreversible (the Noe film less so, however, because it was dramatically weaker).

At the time of writing I have come to believe the violence was both prurient and necessary, which is what made it so insidious. And why I find Game of Thrones revolving in my mind day after day, hour after hour.

The episode which affected me most deeply was ‘The Mountain and the Viper’ (season four, episode eight).

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Prince Oberyn Martell – The Viper – chivalrously offers to champion Tyrion Lannister in trial by combat. This is the only recourse for Tyrion, given he has been found guilty of assassinating his nephew/brother King Joffrey, one of the nastier sociopaths to feature in the show.

‘The Mountain’ is so named because he’s the size of a mountain. Played by the actor Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson, a strongman athlete who is 6’9” and weighs close enough to 200 kilograms, he lumbers around the arena of combat in full armor, looking more like a tank than a person (or a geological formation, for that matter). Prince Oberyn, by contrast, cuts a dashing, Errol Flynn-like figure in light leather armor.

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The whole drama is prefigured by Oberyn’s conversation with the eunuch Verys. Verys tells Oberyn that, unfortunately for him, he hadn’t the experience of exploring the world at a whim because he had not been born a prince.

As the trial by combat soon establishes, being a prince and having the trappings of wealth isn’t always a positive thing, because a prince’s ego can become a barrier to imminent reality.

You know, after three seasons of this show, that if some dashing figure comes forward to defend the rights of the weak or injured, something is going to come brutally unstuck.

When the battle begins, Oberyn demonstrates superb technical proficiency. He literally runs rings around the much larger and slower Mountain, employing a weapon with which he is both showy and proficient, the staff. We watch Jaime ‘King Slayer’ Lannister lean forward in his seat, his hopes for his brother Tyrion’s deliverance engaged.

Jaime is the anchor for the audience in this scene, being a vocational killer himself. Having dispatched plenty of characters over three seasons, he is defined as highly skilled, but as relentless and swift as a snake.

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I recently interviewed Tim Larkin, former Navy SEAL and founder of the self-defense system, Target Focus Training. He explained that his system isn’t suitable for most applications; it isn’t for resolving disputes over parking spaces.

It is designed for administering catastrophic, debilitating injuries for the sole purpose of surviving a potentially fatal confrontation, like robbery by someone armed with a knife.

Tim begins his course by screening CCTV footage of actual street confrontations to demonstrate what he described as the true, banal nature of violence.

When we spoke, he made mention of an American serial killer, Dennis Rader, who succeeded in murdering entire families in their homes before the alarm could be raised.

“How could he do that? Because he’s not a fighter; he’s a killer. Fighters do their best to out-compete their foes; killers do their best to avoid competition. They find or manufacture the unfair advantage and exploit it mercilessly.”

It appears that Oberyn’s privilege, as identified by Verys, has certainly made him vain and conceited, but has distanced him from the reality of sudden, violent death and the overwhelming role that luck plays in mortal combat.

He is a dashing figure, and even seduces through his spectacle the experienced, capable killer Jamie Lannister. But when the combat ends, Oberyn has literally been shattered.

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While working as a bouncer, one of my co-workers once said to me that, ‘there was no marquis of Queensbury on the footpath.’ Similarly, the intersection of Larkin’s comments with Oberyn’s demise sent a kind of paradigm-shifting shock through my thinking, which was probably a good deal of what was is so unsettling about Game of Thrones, and why Lord of the Flies seems to peter out right at the moment of climax.

The scene wasn’t just exhilarating, it wasn’t just sickening. It was both. As well as being deeply confronting. I wonder if the runaway success of the show isn’t somehow indicative of a culture which has worn out many of its older myths and needs something harsher to help it to come to grips with the brutal, ambivalent realities of civilization and survival.

Solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.

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