HBO’s new series, Game of Thrones, premieres on Sunday. This week, we’re featuring 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 began the conversation, and The American Prospect’s Adam Serwer, Mother Jones’s Nick Baumann, and Amber Taylor continued it. Now, The Atlantic’s Eleanor Barkhorn picks up the thread:
It’s appropriate that Game of Thrones is premiering just before Holy Week, the annual run-up to Easter. HBO's new series, based on George R. R. Martin's novels, is a visceral reminder that we live in a messed-up world that needs redemption.
MORE ON Game of Thrones:
Amber Taylor: 'Game of Thrones': A Brutal Fantasy With Mass Appeal
Nick Bauman: 'Game of Thrones': Will Non-Fanboys Care That 'Winter Is Coming'?
Adam Serwer: 'Game of Thrones': When Fantasy Looks Like Reality
Alyssa Rosenberg: 'Game of Thrones': HBO Shows the Ugly Edge of Fantasy
Game of Thrones is brutal, as Alyssa, Adam, Nick, and Amber have already pointed out in their excellent posts about the show. Some of the brutality is blatant: incest, forced marriage, rape, senseless murder, endless war. Some of it is more subtle: The hedonistic ruler who shirks his responsibilities and orders a man to leave his family, telling him, “I'm trying to get you to run my country while I eat and drink and whore myself to an early grave.” The bastard son who longs for recognition from anyone in society, let alone his father. The little girl who has the courage to stand up to a petty, self-centered prince—and suffers for it.
All the brutality on display in Game of Thrones has one thing in common, however: All of it is present in our world today, even if the show is set in a fantasy land.
I'm not drawn to stories like this. I was drafted to this panel because I'm a Game of Thrones virgin—I haven't read the books, and before last week, I didn't even know the basic premise of the series. I'm also unfamiliar with both genres the show draws from: fantasy stories like Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, and gritty television shows like The Wire and The Sopranos.
The books and TV series I seek out are the exact opposite of Game of Thrones: realistic narratives with happy endings, like Sense and Sensibility and The Age of Innocence, Sex and the City and Entourage. Of course, these stories are really fantasies, even if they star humans who live on earth and have no supernatural powers. They perpetuate the illusion that a rich husband can bring happiness or that good looks and a devoted group of buddies alone can translate into stratospheric career success—ideas that are no less preposterous than the thought that children can fly on broomsticks or that the fate of humankind depends on who possesses a gold ring.
So, in theory, I was prepared to accept the fantasy element of Game of Thrones. If I can suspend disbelief when I read about Elinor Dashwood reuniting with Edward Ferrars or watch Mr. Big rescue Carrie from life with a moody Russian artist, I can do the same while observing mystical direwolves crawl around a TV screen.
The gritty side of the show is another story. Though I've been told countless times that I just have to read War and Peace or watch The Wire, I've resisted. Real life is enough of a struggle—why would I subject myself to desperation in fiction as well?
This same logic caused me to dismiss Game of Thrones at first. Midway through our marathon viewing session, after a seemingly endless parade of rape, death, and heartbreak, I scribbled in my notebook, “Where is the fantasy?” The all-to-real heaviness of the series haunted me in the days that followed—I kept seeing in my mind the look of anguish on Daenerys’s face as she is being raped on her wedding night. When I told another editor who's read the books and seen the first episodes how grim I found the series, he replied, “I don't think I'm spoiling anything if I say there's much worse to come.”
My question, then, shifted from “Where's the fantasy?” to “Why would anyone want to watch a show like this?”
For me, the answer comes from the one text I do read that is both realistic and gritty: The Bible. More specifically, the scariest, grimmest, most desperate part of the Bible: the Book of Revelation, filled with evil beasts, violent killings, and explosions of flame.
As a friend in seminary reminded me recently, the suffering depicted in Revelation serves a purpose: to confirm that life is a struggle and requires endurance. The brutality of Game of Thrones has a similar effect. Regardless of the escapist mindset I use to approach literature, these stories force me to acknowledge that evil does exist, and that life on this earth involves a battle against darkness.
The two stories have a crucial difference, of course. Despite its grim moments, Revelation has a happy ending: The world is redeemed, and suffering is no more. I know Game of Thrones, on the other hand, won't end in a joyous wedding and a new heaven and a new earth. I know that “Winter is coming.” Yet I still think the series is worth watching. Game of Thrones may not offer redemption. But at least it serves as a reminder of humanity's desperate need for it.
Read all of The Atlantic’s Game of Thrones coverage.