To see / 29 May 2019

For a Fistful of Administrative Positions

The Conclusion of Game of Thrones

Lying on a bed in my tiny apartment, overlooking the highway in 2012, swallowing its first two seasons in one sitting – sick with a cold, heartbroken, and in the middle of working on a Bachelor’s thesis I no longer believed in – I was not yet aware (or at least unable to articulate it as clearly) of what now seems like one of the clearest facts of my life: My coming of age was going to be predominantly marked by the crisis of liberalism and Game of Thrones.

Perhaps I should put it differently: Without the crisis of liberalism, Game of Thrones could not become a TV show that marked a generation, the sublime TV event one could not help but look back to – albeit in anger. When it entered the screens of our laptops (and the projectors of our friends’ better-furnished living rooms) at the dawn of the decade now weaning in front of our eyes, its major captivating force was its unreliability. When, by the end of Season One (by then habitually sacrificed), Sean Bean’s head rolled out the screen, the Internet could not cease to point out that killing its darlings was not only something Game of Thrones was willing to do, but something it strived for. As soon as somebody began to seem like a main character, we found ourselves forced to change the affective response mode pop culture of the days gone by had prepared us for – if the eye of the camera gazed at a character too lovingly and too often, this no longer meant it would defend him (or her) from her (or his) destiny. Holy cows were not a thing anymore. In the weaning world of post-Cold War liberalism, this was appealing mostly because by then the once-craved-for political predictability had already become synonymous with the pressures of an empty routine nobody found pleasurable anymore, although it was surely still profitable for some.

Game of Thrones– magic and nudity aside – announced itself as political show that will spend most of its time speculating on the question of how, between family, the state, and uncontrollable external factors, power is born, delegated and fought for. This was welcomed with standing ovations, because it opened up a narrative space that gave the impression that it’d had enough of this. I am certain that the hordes of fans signing petitions for re-filming and re-imagining of the show’s final season, are enraged because they were forced to find out that all of this turned out to be but a fraudulent political campaign. They were promised change (Hope), but what was in fact delivered bore a closer resemblance to the political reality they have been living for the last fifteen years, which was one nobody needed anymore. They sacrificed eight seasons of their lives only to receive a centrist government embodied in Bran the Broken - not very desirable to either the show's characters or its public - and seeing some of the show's most resilient old boys receive administrative positions they’d hoped to get all along. So, it goes, as they say.

To freshen our memories: In the midst of a complicated combination of a Stark-Lannister family feud, Daenerys Targaryen's attempts to claim the throne she believed was rightfully hers by blood and to liberate Westeros from political tyranny, and the long march of the Army of the Dead (many interpretations read as an analogy to global warming), the world of Game of Thrones moved from battle to battle, from intrigue to intrigue, from rapes to unfulfilling marriages to justified (?) murders and lengthy physical or psychological tortures to finally land at concluding that: a) we can get rid of ecological concerns the moment they stop being politically handy, b) no woman should ever be trusted with political power because tyranny runs in her blood, c) a man who would prefer not to rule will need to spend all of his life energy to prove he really means it – and succeed only incidentally, d) people will only be able to come together around a leader who will make everybody feel they are not threatened by him (regardless of what he might actually be), and e) trusting the people with their political choices is hilarious.

With this outcome, Megan Garber wrote for The Atlantic that Game of Thrones rejected anger as a legitimate political response: Narratively punishing Daenerys Targaryen – an enraged commander of the only racially-diverse armed forces in the entirety of Westeros and the slave liberator of the continent the show was only interested in when that came in handy, visually highlighting her presumed fascism, Game of Thrones let its public know that organised resistance should be understood as barbaric, something that needs to be ideologically denounced in favour of a more moderate solution, negotiated behind a table and rewarded with a compromise. In his Independent recap, Slavoj Žižek claimed that in doing so, Game of Thrones gave its nod to the age-old (and increasingly popular) assumption that women are best excluded from public life, for the risk of with casting the world into chaos with their hysterical wombs.

Formalists, too, send their complaints, claiming the great disappointment was brought about in the change of the narrative style, rather than caused by any particula outcome. Some said this was an immediate result of the show’s creators already being one foot inside of the next project. Others argued that, in the absence of Martin’s books, they simply couldn’t keep up with his brilliance. Somebody who, by all means, deserves an award in digital humanities produced research that proves the amount of words used in dialogues between characters had literally doubled down through the years (“I don’t want it!”). Some claimed the show’s biggest problem was that it changed the way it produced its characters, shifting from Martin’s presumed sociological matrix that created the characters from the social pressures surrounding them, to a narrower psychological one that refused to see the forest for its trees.

I think all of the above is – in a sense – true. Perhaps even more than over relentless moralising concerning Daenerys Targaryen’s strategic choices (she certainly wasn’t the first in Westeros to sacrifice innocent lives in order to achieve a political goal, but was certainly the only one to receive a shitstorm for it – perhaps even more as a Leftist of sorts than as a woman), my feminist heart bled over Tyrion’s final speech that left us with Bran Stark as the monarch. Tyrion, once universally loved as the Imp, made a clever, witty and alcoholic by humiliation and isolation, brought his career to an end with a heavy (and very poorly written) ideological reasoning that the best rulers were forged by, and made of, the best stories. This, in and of itself, is a claim empty enough that it can be attached to any candidate selected in advance. To realise Tyrion’s candidate was – regardless of what Bran as the Three-eyed Raven might actually be – a young lad whose only qualification was to come out of a good family and not to annoy anyone enough to care, was to be uncomfortably reminded on some of the less fortunate moments of my own career. But the problem with this outcome, that served us with a supposedly harmless king and awarded all we cared for with a job, a castle, or a kingdom, is nevertheless a broader one.

A formalist in me might say that the final act of Game of Thrones– both the last episode en detailand the last two seasons en gros– predominantly suffered from its narrative weaknesses in a sense that it gave up taking its own causality seriously. One of the great qualities of the show that so dearly loved to kill off and humiliate its characters was that, in doing so, it never failed to be narratively binding: When it characterised its characters and led them through the dark hallways of their destinies blindfolded, it made everything that happened to them be felt. Every event left an imprint, when somebody was changed, they seemed changed for real. When Ramsay Bolton toyed with Theon Grayjoy’s sanity and genitals in the darkness of his dungeon, Theon came out on the other end as a broken man. When, in the space of the show’s terminal breath, Jamie Lannister decided that a few seasons of personal growth didn’t matter because of how eternal his love for his sister is, everybody felt slightly confused. Not that real life would always make sense. It’s just that one expects art to follow the rules it set for itself.

The cultural theorist in me wants to finish where she started and claim that the formal fallacies that made for the final stretch of Game of Thrones were but ideological problems in disguise. For somewhere along the way, the show’s creators must have realised that theme of the show is to insist on its own causality. It could not amount to the feel-good liberal conclusion it longed for. Unable to give up its longing, it was forced to start killing off first its stories, like the one about the Army of the Dead, and finally the credibility of its characters, suddenly turning Tyrion, it’s wisest man, into a second-level diplomat. Both the revolution and global warming were cancelled because the time would not allow for them just yet and those couple of fellas wanted those administrative positions in King’s Landing really badly. Deciding on this closure, Game of Thrones gave up the speculative function it could afford as a piece of art, should it have chosen to want it. In spite of its announcement and its promises, it turned out to have absolutely nothing to say about the world as it might have been. Somewhat unwillingly, it did have a lot to say about a world as we already know it.

Most unfortunately, by 2019 that was already old news.