'Game of Thrones': HBO Shows the Ugly Edge of Fantasy

HBO's new series, Game of Thrones, premieres on Sunday. In the days ahead, we'll feature five different takes on the show, which is the first foray into fantasy for a network that has built its programming on grimly realistic stories like The Sopranos and The Wire. Atlantic correspondent Alyssa Rosenberg begins the conversation:

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Fantasy fiction lets us dwell, however briefly, in days of miracles and wonder. The wonders can be anything from swords in churchyards that inspire the reunification of fractured countries to a British boarding school with a delightfully unorthodox curriculum. But the miracle is the same: magic amplifies good and evil equally, heightening conflicts, but making sure things turn out all right in the end. It's as much an act of wishful thinking to dream that right will always triumph as it is to want a wand or a magic sword. It's for that reason that fantasy sometimes lingers around the edges of high art, a sense that there's something unserious about a form that offers metaphors for real concerns and an unrealistic guarantee that everything will work out fine.

It'll be intriguing to see what skeptics of the genre make of HBO's Game of Thrones. The show, based on George R. R. Martin's epic novels, gets compared repeatedly to The Sopranos—and less frequently though perhaps more accurately to The Wire—for its complicated moral canvas and vast cast of characters. The comparisons are apt: Game of Thrones is deftly and movingly acted, visually lush, and tremendously exciting. But they're also a signal that Game of Thrones means fantasy is not in the land of Harry Potter or Bella Swan anymore. This is an unflinching political and familial drama where the fantastical, which appears only fleetingly in early episodes, may be as much a threat as a promise.

The show treats magic as if it's prosaic. Dragons are an extinct species, victims of war and poor breeding practices. Another ancient threat to man may be rising—or may be the product of minds turned sour by service on remote national borders, far from civilization. There are no marvelous revelations to the audience or to any of the main characters, no world that only we—and they—can access.

Instead, there's the grinding brutality of quasi-medieval life. And it is brutal. There are two beheadings in the show's first 15 minutes. Men choke to death on their own blood when they're wounded in tournaments, and kill their horses after unsuccessful jousts. When a young princess has sex with her Ghengis Khan-like husband for the first time, the camera watches her weep as he undresses her, prying her hands away from her body as she tries to hold up her clothes. It may not be the same as watching Dr. Melfi get raped in a parking lot stairwell on The Sopranos, but the emotions are no less complicated, and the physical and emotional discomfort that play across her face are no less real.

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Alyssa Rosenberg is a culture writer with The Washington Post.

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