This show has an extraordinarily ugly vision of the world. Cruelty is everywhere and everywhere it bleeds into a sadism enabled and sustained by the production aesthetic. Noble ideals like honour and justice predominate in the dialogue and motivate character action, but in this world they serve rather than counter the cruelty. Despite the noble talk, there is no real notion of “the good” that is not childish or foolish, and so becoming adult means becoming cruel and hard.
It took me awhile to catch on to all of this which made watching the show incredibly painful. I kept being disappointed by characters who I thought were better than they were or caught off guard by violence that unsettled me. Eventually, I reached the point where, I watched for plot rather than people: a gigantic machine is in motion and I want to see how it rumbles along and how it finishes.
In terms of characters, I’m attached to only three.
Tyrion: he has money and a powerful family but he wants the pleasure of love and happiness. Best of all, he doesn’t live as if his world was a zero-sum. He wishes these pleasures for others, offers them when he can, and, in doing so, is the only character who is freely, personally good. That he and Varis—a character I could have added to this list but haven’t because he’s minor—have joined forces makes perfect sense. Given the ironic-mythic mode of the narrative, I continue to hope this fool will end up being king, although I doubt it will happen and just hope he survives to the end.
Arya: she has the misfortune of being a child and a woman in a world that tortures both. Her response is to live in a dream. That dream is a nightmare but it is a nightmare in which having nothing and being no one grants power. Because this story is a fantasy, Arya’s dream is real, and in an admittedly bloodthirsty way, I’m rooting for her.
Cersei: she’s a villain. She destroys too many lives, accepts to easily radically violent means to achieve her goals to be anything else. But with Robert, with Ned, later with her father, she speaks tragically of her situation: she, like Arya, has been born a woman and so has been hobbled from birth despite her obvious and extraordinary talents. Unlike Arya, she has not retreated to a dream. She has chosen the world she was given, set her sights on specific goals (that if she were a man would be admired), and within the possibilities available to her, has set to work making a place for herself and her children. I dislike so much of this world that watching her turn its own cruelty and deceit against its institutions and leaders, watching her beat them at their own game is deeply satisfying (and often funny). Foolish as it sounds, I also yearn for her to redeem herself and to use her talents for good.
Saying all of this, it must sound like I hate the show, but having finally read the first book, I feel confident saying that the show and it’s source are together a major work worth consideration. I dislike this world and its perspective on life. Yet, it’s compelling, powerful and, ultimately, I’m not able to dismiss it as an obviously false vision. Which means that despite everything (and as I said in a previous post), I am all in.