Saturday, May 23, 2015

Game of Thrones as Never Before

Game of Thrones is an exciting, albeit violent, medieval fantasy novel and TV series. The special effects are incredible, the characters interesting as they are disturbing, and the story writers extremely good at getting you to watch the next episode. But behind the stunning visuals is a story that goes largely unseen by the viewers. Whether you are a die-hard fan, or a casual viewer, hopefully in the next few paragraphs I can open your mind to whole new levels of meaning in the epic fantasy Game of Thrones. I will divide my review into three parts, the magic and its meaning, the politics of Thrones, and finally critiques and inconsistencies.

Part 1: The magic and its meaning.

Magic and the medieval era seem to always go hand in hand, but Game of Thrones is almost void of it except for a few elements, the white walkers in the north, and the dragons of Daenerys Targaryen and a few other minor elements.

Magic in literature can almost always be taken as a symbol of insanity. Probably the best example is the beloved children’s series Harry Potter, which is the imaginative re-telling of the trip of a severely abused and neglected boy (Harry) to a mental institution (Hogwarts).

The “White Walkers” are essentially a zombie army in the frozen land of the north. The only people who have seen the White Walkers are the “Night’s Watch” a group of men who through choice, or through force (mostly force) have given up everything, i.e. the company of the opposite sex, the chance to see or have a family, and more, in order to supposedly “protect the kingdom.” Many are there because of incredibly traumatic reasons, such as being abandoned by family or as part of a plea bargain. Like many military situations, abuse, anger, and fighting are rampant.
After making all these sacrifices and living in this near hell, the realization that no real threat existed would be horrific. The wall is ridiculously large, and no one could ever get in, and it is in the middle of a frozen desert. They have to stay on the wall their entire lives with this supposed important job of protecting the Kingdom, yet no protection is needed. The acceptance of that reality would be ridiculously difficult and painful. The desire to have a real enemy and a purpose for your existence would be enormous. Traumatized people are forced into alternate universes where the trauma and pain can, if nothing else, be meaningful.

“The White Walkers” are easily interpreted as nothing more than the creations of severely traumatized soldiers. The parallels to our own world and soldiers should be apparent, where imaginary white walkers are the least of our problems, but the men having the illusions could be.

The dragons follow a similar pattern. Khaleesi (among my favorite characters) is a girl whose only family member, her brother, is a complete sociopath who is happy to have a whole army rape her if it will be beneficial to him. After being told this absolutely horrific thing by her brother, that same brother essentially sells her to be the wife of a borderline rapist who for entertainment at their wedding watches women being raped and men being killed. If trauma exists, this is it. If this were your lot in life, suddenly being the “mother of dragons” who could birth all-powerful dragons that caused men to do whatever you pleased would sound pretty nice, especially since it is men who ruthlessly and harshly disregarded her life. Being able to control men with her family’s emblem, the dragon, would be almost infinitely appealing.

Magic makes movies fun and interesting because we see shadows of our own life traumas and recognize, either consciously or not, realities about our trauma and coping mechanisms.

Part 2: The politics of Thrones and the politics of now.

Most everybody is appalled by Joffrey, the young boy king in the movie. He is brutal, he is mean, and he is a coward, unlikeable in every possible way.  But the people around him, such as his mother and the other kings vying for the throne, are not much better. Basically the show is about a bunch of sociopaths who go around ordering people around and killing whoever gets in their way or for whatever whim they have.  

It is kind of crazy that these characters are even relatable, because they are nothing like you or me.
A testament to the messed up nature of the show (and the world that cheers it on), is that deep down we are cheering for Ned Stark and his family. Ned Stark and his family seem to be the only good guys.

But remember something about Ned Stark. He opens the show by chopping off a head of a man he has barely met and to whom he had only listened to for about 30 minutes of testimony or defense. Chops off his head! To make things worse, he forces his 10 year old son to watch. In what planet is that man a good guy? The political planet.

Ned Stark only seems like a good guy because next to Joffrey and the like he is a saint. Compared to prostitutes we may all seem like chaste virgins, but that does not make it so. Our virtue is not increased by being surrounded by people that lack any. Ned Stark, despite what virtues he may exude is a man who abandons family for power and who kills men without trial in front of children. 

This is the supposed good guy.

The parallels to today are painfully clear.

Ned Stark (and his family), are the “good politicians” The guys who are finally going to “fix the system.” They are loving, they are caring, they are compassionate. They will get rid of the bad guys and restore order, rule in justice, end the war, etc. etc. That may sound far-fetched and ridiculous, but listen to the rhetoric around any politician running for president this coming year: it will sound the same. If you are in team [enter candidates name] that candidate can do no evil. This is what we think. If only Rob Stark (i.e. Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton) gets into power, then the system will be fixed. That is what we tell ourselves every single year. And just like in Game of Thrones, we keep watching hoping “Joffery” will be killed and the murders will stop, but just like in the show the murders, the killings, the rapes, and the brutality never stop. The Ned Starks of the world keep the system going, by keeping us hoping a violent system can in some way become non-violent.
Game of Thrones is not about medieval war, it is about the wars of the post-industrial western world. 
The Game of Thrones is the modern world. The U.S. government has been at war almost non-stop since World War II. It has propped up dictators around the world, set up governments to support their causes, and torn down governments it found them inconvenient. The government today is the real life Game of Thrones, and it is every bit as bloody as the medieval drama. And as much as we would like to exonerate Ned Stark, no man’s (or woman’s) hands are clean.

We like to think our politicians are beyond the brutality of these medieval barbarians, but look at the drone strikes which kill school children and wedding guests. These are the people who will send down bombs on an innocent family gathering, and hardly feel remorse about it.

These are people who will send thousands of men into Iraq to die, and hardly flinch or worry about the validity/necessity of the war.

These are people who prop up dictators in foreign countries and sell weapons to brutal regimes around the world.

These are people who will take a mother from a child simply because they don’t have the proper piece of paper.

These are people who will throw thousands in prison because they don’t agree with the vegetation they keep.

And it all just keeps going because we keep believing it is somehow necessary, keep believing that somehow “the good guy” will finally come in and kill Joffery and there will be peace! This is the great fallacy of the human race. The belief that somehow we can destroy violence with violence. It never works. The violence will never stop, the wars will never cease. Just like Game of Thrones, as long as people keep watching, the violence continues, but the moment we turn away, is the moment it disappears and the show will cease to be aired.

Part 3: Critiques, irrationalities/inconsistencies, and economics

Game of Thrones has some compelling and well done story telling. There is a reason I got as far as I did. And as stated at the beginning, visually, aesthetically, etc. the movie is great.
The biggest problem is the show’s plot and premise are so completely irrational and inconsistent that the whole thing gets so utterly ridiculous that it requires too much suspension of the rational mind.
A story can contain magic and dragons and it is okay, as long as the movie is internally consistent. That is fire cannot move in one direction one minute, and a different the next, unless the rule is fire constantly moves (which would be interesting).

First and foremost, Game of Thrones deals with human entities, so there are some basic rules that a storyteller must accept when using humans.

1. Humans do not like/want to die and will do most anything to avoid it. 

2. Humans need food to live

Not too complicated, and pretty indisputable. Sure there are some humans who want to die, but those are a very small fraction of society at any given moment. 

Game of Thrones breaks both of these rules unceasingly. Most of the characters are completely given over to the author’s whims to keep the plot going, without any sort sense of desire to survive, or any ability to get food.  Every level of the society is either irrational or ignored. The peasants and lower-classes are ignored and killed on whims by the other classes without any reference to the essential function they carry out in society. Kings, knights, soldiers all depended heavily on peasants and the lower-classes for everything, sure they could kill a few to make a point, but they were a valuable resource which the kings would not have been able to just slaughter at the drop of a hat.

The soldiers are assumed to have no sense of will or morality whatsoever. This is the stereotype and in many ways the reality of soldiers, but many soldiers do maintain some level of morality, and even more than that, the desire to survive. The show assumes that not only do soldiers have zero regard for the lives of other people (which is semi-believable), they also have zero regard for their own lives (which is not believable).

The ruling class does irrational things right and left because they want to, and because it makes the story last longer. The whole story is the story of the irrational decisions of the ruling class (much like our history books). But what makes this unbelievable (as opposed to the history books) is the rulers often act against their own self-interest in ways that would decrease their wealth or chance of survival.  Sure rulers do a lot of crazy and irrational things, like invading Iraq, but we can look back on that event and realize there was a lot of self-interest driving those decisions (and bloody ruthlessness). What wouldn’t make sense if George Bush had instead decided to invade Uruguay, kill everyone in the country, burn all the resources in the country, have half the army kill themselves, take what was remaining of the army and send them into Indiana where they did the same thing. That would make no sense, but that is about the level of rationality that goes on among the Thrones rulers.

Like so many modern stories, the people who make them have no sense of technology or economics, or just the basic reality that people need food to survive.

People look at the medieval ages as a brutal time, but life expectancy actually took a small bump from Roman times, mostly because there weren’t so many wars. Yes you read that right, less fighting. Sure there were really long wars, but our conception of warfare is nothing like medieval warfare.
In modern (as in post-US Civil War) warfare, wars generally last 2-10 years with frequent fighting and battles. World War I lasted 4 years, with men constantly in the trenches and having battles every few months. By the Korean and Vietnam wars soldiers faced near constant fighting. Compare this to medieval war. In the 100 years’ war, which was at the pinnacle of the medieval times (1337-1453) there was on average less than one battle every two years! A king would call for all the Lords, they would bring the men and they would go fight, for one day, and that would be it for the whole year. If the battle was particularly bloody there would be no battles for multiple years as the kingdoms recouped.

When people write these ridiculous stories they have no idea the crazy amount of resources it takes to go to war. In medieval times these resources were simply not available for large constant warfare. You could not have year-long wars because your soldiers would starve to death. There just was not enough food. This is the same reason that peasants did not go to war, and why you simply did not kill peasants like they were potatoes in a Idaho. Each peasant dead meant less food and resources for you and your army. 

Another thing to note is the size of the battles. From the shows it is difficult to get clear statistics about the demographics of the “seven kingdoms.” To be fair, in Roman times, larger armies and battles were able to be created simply because there was a larger government with a large kingdom. However, in the typical battle in the 100 years’ war there would be 5-10 thousand men on each side going into the battle. The winner would lose a few hundred men; the loser would lose a few thousand men. In other words all of France or England would be able to field one army of approximately 8000 men for one battle for a whole year. That was it. In all of England only 8000 men would be in battle for the whole year. Of those 200-2000 would likely be killed in any given year to war. And that is it. Why? Because they could not afford to go to war more, there was not enough food. One can only steal so much food from a farmer, before the farmer is on the verge of starvation himself; when it gets to this point, threats of violence become meaningless. As the ruler the option is to steal what is left of the food (and the farmer dies of starvation) or kill the farmer, either way this means less food the coming year because there is one less farmer.

It is these fundamental realities about life and economics to which the writers of Thrones are completely oblivious.

A king makes a calculation just like anyone else. Put yourself in their shoes. You are the Lord/King of the north. You control a large area where people pay tribute to you and you get food. What should you do? Take your huge army, lose thousands of men, and go attack the capital? Or a neighboring lordship? Maybe, if you could steal more resources than you would lose through the war, but the reality is that going to war takes a LOT of resources, so one has to be pretty dang confident it is going to work, because it is a huge risk. This is why in medieval times the operations were generally small and calculated. Sure kings made mistakes and were even irrational and lost thousands of men at times on bad decisions, but their decisions were reined in by economic realities. Just this one rational thought makes much of Game of Thrones nonsensical. But unfortunately it does not stop there.

What is the motivation of the soldiers to fight? They are paid, so that keeps them going for the routine task, but when going to war, no amount of money is worth a person’s life (i.e. almost no one would say, “I’ll kill myself if you give me X dollars”) This is what people often don’t understand about war. Soldiers do not fight for love of country, or whatever B.S. propaganda says. Soldiers fight because they take a calculated risk about money and their chance of survival or (as is more often the case)  there are men standing behind them who will kill them if they do not fight.

The common soldier is stuck between two enemies: The enemy on the other side that is coming to destroy them, and their commanding officers who will kill them if they desert. Once again people, even most soldiers, care about their lives and will not risk it without some pretty compelling reasons, like getting killed.

This makes lots of the scenes with soldiers completely nonsensical, because the soldiers are treated as people without morals and the will to live.

I have illustrated in generalities why much of the plot line of Game of Thrones is nonsensical, but let's look at some specific examples, starting with the scene where King Joffery has all the bastard sons of the previous King killed.

First problem is that there is no way they could track down those sons. The previous king had sex with prostitutes regularly. These prostitutes had sex with tons of men regularly (they are prostitutes after all). It would be impossible to track down whose sons were whose, so that whole thing is ridiculous. Then to add on some ridiculous crème, a group of three soldiers go and search out this one bastard son, who has joined “the night’s watch.” The leader of “the night’s watch” group threatens them with violence. There are two or three soldiers. What would they do? They would leave and just say they couldn’t find the boy (or even that they found him and killed him, because honestly who is going to know?), that is the way that involves the least violence and risk to their own lives. The fact that they come back and try to fight for some random boy is just absurd. Also in this episode, soldiers literally pull babies from mother’s arms and kill them. I find it extremely difficult to believe that this would not lead to full-scale, all out revolution. People are not easily pushed to revolution, but seeing babies murdered by the king would probably do it if anything did.

The list could go on and on with irrationalities and inconsistencies and plot holes. The general problem is that people consistently act contrary to their own self-interest, which in real life rarely (if ever) happens. People make miscalculations and mistakes, but to consistently do opposite what any rational human being would do makes things real difficult to take seriously.

Ned Stark's wife, at risk of treason, lets Jayme Lannister go, the man who tried to kill her son, because meh, no reason. Then some random guy kills some kids for no good reason, then Rob Stark kills the guy despite knowing he is going to lose half his army. Basically the author decided bad things needed to happen to Rob Stark’s army to keep things interesting, so let’s have everyone in his army go completely insane and irrationally start killing each other.

No family is saved from the irrationality. I do not except people to be moral, in fact all the opposite, people in power rarely are moral, which is one thing the show actually does represent well. But what it does a horrible job of showing is the economic cost of violence. The high cost of violence is what keeps society safe controls how kings and countries act in wars, how long the wars last, and how many men fight etc. To just ignore the economic drivers behind war and assume everything (or even anything) is about sitting on some stupid throne, allegiances, loyalties, and other inconsequential matters is to completely misunderstand the very thing the show is supposed to be about.  

1 comment:


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    Peter preached Jesus as a miracle worker. (Acts 2:22)
    Peter preached Jesus crucified and put to death. (Acts 2:23)
    Peter preached Jesus resurrected from the grave. (Acts 2:24)
    Peter preached Jesus ascended into heaven. (Acts 2:33-34)

    Peter told the three thousand that they had crucified Jesus. (Acts 2:36) Is that when the three thousand understood how much Peter cared and started to believe his preaching?

    What was their reaction? (Acts 2:37 Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles. "Men and brethren, what shall we Do?)(NKJV) Were they cut to the heart because they realized how much Peter cared or were they cut to the heart because the apostle Peter was preaching the gospel truth?

    What was Peter's answer? (Acts 2:38 Then Peter said to them, "Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus for there mission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.) (NKJV)

    Peter preached the complete gospel on the Day of Pentecost. FAITH John 3:16 CONFESSION Romans 10:9 REPENTANCE AND WATER BAPTISM Acts 2:38.

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    Men who preach men are saved if they sincerely believe a lie are showing they care, but they are not preaching a gospel that saves.

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    Men who preach salvation apart from believing in Jesus, care, but that preaching cannot save anyone.

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