Game of Thrones: HBO Shows the Ugly Edge of Fantasy

The first in a five-part series about the new show, which represents the network’s first foray into 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:

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.

It's not that other fantasy series don't create lovable characters or compelling anti-heroes and put them through a lot. But there's an ugly edge to Game of Thrones that's absent in some of the other most popular fantasy series of our times. Harry's encounter with a snake inhabiting the body of a dead woman in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is a genuinely creepy passage, but the horror serves a higher purpose: forging Harry into a hero and cementing his emotional bond with his lost parents. Similarly, there's something pristine about Bella Swan's ordeals in the Twilight books: whether she's being physically attacked, risking death by exposure, or sacrificing herself to save her unborn child in a truly stomach-churning caesarean section, her pain is a sign of her fortitude and purity, proof of her special goodness. Frodo Baggins is, for religious skeptic J. R. R. Tolkien, the closest thing that exists to a martyr in the Lord of the Rings. Those stories tell us about ourselves and our world only by inference: They are better than we are, but that doesn't give us much of a benchmark as to whether we are all saved or fallen.

The cruelty of Game of Thrones, much like that of The Wire, isn't transformative—it's revealing. Just as trying to reduce crime by creating a safe zone for drugs will get a good cop fired, there are grave consequences for Arya Stark, the noble girl who steps outside her sphere to challenge her world's expectations for how girls should spend their time. Conformity is no certain refuge either: In Baltimore, adhering to an agreement earns an informant a beating, while in Westeros, Arya's sister Sansa learns that lying for a prince won't keep her safe. And there are terrible consequences for those who see the truth more clearly than others, whether it's a plot that gets you thrown off the police force in The Wire, or an encounter with an ancient evil that leads others to think you're mad—and to kill you for it—in Game of Thrones.

The Wire's Omar Little might warn us that “It's all in the game.” The Game of Thrones' black sheep nobleman Tyrion Lannister might tell us that “all dwarves are bastards in their fathers' eyes.” But whether in David Simon's reportage-informed fictional America or in George R. R. Martin's fantastical realms, on HBO, there is no guarantee of justice.

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