Saturday, November 30, 2013

Death and Substitution in Game of Thrones

I am probably the world's least likely Game of Thrones viewer. It took me five tries to get through the pilot episode, and I only succeeded the fifth time because my 13-year-old daughter agreed to watch it with me (turns out, she loves it). I imagine its ideal viewers to be the kind of folks who could play Dungeons and Dragons for months at a time, or who got lost in Lord of the Rings (a book I similarly failed to get more than 30 pages into, despite trying multiple times). Although I appreciate the genre's efforts at alternative worldmaking, I'm just not good at consuming what passes for fantasy--for me, it's too disconnected from history, and too exhausting to keep track of all the characters and plotlines.

But now that I've made it to the beginning of season two (and what follows is based only on the series up to this point), what most intrigues me about Game of Thrones is the very thing that annoys most people about it: all the deaths. As these death-flagged copies of the books indicate, dying is a frequent event in this universe. It is also sudden, bloody, and indiscriminate: it can strike anyone, even central and/or beloved characters, whose sudden absence we are expected to summarily move beyond.

This finality of death sharply distinguishes Game of Thrones from the zombie and vampire fare that have overpopulated pop culture for so long now. From The Walking Dead and World War Z to Twilight and Vampire Academy, American popular culture has been beset by representations of the undead masses and the immortal elite. Because they don't die, zombies and vampires make for perfect subjects of the infinitely prolonged book or television series, the dream of a product that never ends, an infinitely consumable resource which is never used up.

By contrast, the Game of Thrones operates by a logic of elimination and substitution, not persistence and prolongation. This isn't easy for viewers to accept, since we are used to investing in a beloved character and expect him or her to survive, to persist or, if not, to be allowed a protracted and sentimental goodbye. Viewers are equally accustomed to investing in detested characters and want to enjoy, with pleasurable expectation, their morally retributive deaths.

Game of Thrones gives us neither. Instead, both likable and hateful characters die quickly and unexpectedly. Family members and allies experience feelings of outrage and grief, but they nonetheless act quickly to place another into the space left empty by death. Failure to do so allows someone from outside the family or tribe to move into it (and of course, this is what the "game" of "thrones" is all about: a competition to see who will finally occupy the vacated seat of kingly power). In this sense, the show observes an astonishingly premodern worldview and temporality. There is something shockingly foreign about the absence of modern individualism--and of the sentimentality and interiority that inevitably accompany it.

There are literary precedents for this, but these too remain difficult for modern readers to understand emotionally. When colonial Americans were taken captive during warfare by Native Americans, they were tested for their bravery and then ritually adopted to take the place of a family/tribal member who had been lost in the war. This logic of substitution is incomprehensible, even outrageous, from the perspective of an individualist culture, in which family members or leaders are defined precisely by their singularity, their irreplaceablilty. Game of Thrones violates this logic at every turn, and compels viewers to accommodate affectively to a universe of substitution. (This also accounts, by the way, for the absence of modern "romance" from the show's depiction of sexuality, which similarly operates by substitution rather than singularity.)

This isn't to say that Game of Thrones doesn't participate, in its own way, in the practice and logic of extension. It doesn't seem any more ready to end--after five books and three seasons--than tales of the persistently resurrected undead or bitterly eternal bloodsuckers. But it prolongs itself through other means than the ones we are used to, which may account for the strange sense of discomfort with which viewers respond to its draw.

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