It's not every day that HBO's president of programming calls for submissions, but according to the New York Times, that's exactly what happened at the ATX Television Festival this past June. "I like a show that generates thinkpieces," Casey Bloys said, causing the audience to roar with laughter, because, at least in the US, every form of writing is accorded respect and dignity. Except one. The thinkpiece as we know it certainly predates both prestige television and the internet, but the glut of verbiage that greets viewers of Westworld, The Handmaid’s Tale, and (perhaps especially) Game of Thrones every Monday morning — a field of writing, if I can call it that, which serves less to legitimize TV as worthy of intellectual scrutiny than to extend the consumer experience until the following Sunday — definitely feels symptomatic of the oversaturated present.
Sure, the "triple-decker" novel of the 19th century was manufactured to fill boring soirees with paraliterary chatter, the serialized adventure story to spur anxious speculation from a rapt public. But did readers stranded between installments of The Old Curiosity Shop speculate that Little Nell was really dead the whole time and point to random word clusters in the text to back up their theory? Not that drawing deep sociological thoughts out of commonplace entertainment is anything new. But if French theorist Roland Barthes, one of the originators of the pop-culture feuilleton, could be resurrected, he might wonder what essays like “The World of Wrestling” hath wrought now that keen postgraduate minds are puzzling out the economic perils of Westerosi tradecraft or what Breaking Bad can tell us about privilege. What is the episode recap if not the ultimate signifier of print’s redundancy, its capitulation to the speed of screens?
Then again, television and writing need not be enemies. In fact, one could argue that they can’t afford to be and that a far more devious foe has entered the fray, more dreadful and obliterating than a thousand Night Kings: the howling void of social media, the daily mastication of news into memes, which, if you listen to it, will tell you not to read anything, that there is nothing you have not seen before and that knowledge cannot help you. It is the thing that is all commentary and no text. All three media vie for our attention and we have become accustomed to the way they coil around the same object: Book becomes television and television becomes digested by the internet’s millions of mouths.
The TV thinkpiece is an earnest attempt to complete the cycle, returning commercial storytelling and the conversation around it to the forum of intellectual argument (that is, the page). With thinkpiece as mediator — in the best of situations — these once-opposing forces become more like different stages of development. If we’re a long way from finding any novelty in Barthes’ extraction of portentous meaning from “low” cultural artifacts like wrestling or Greta Garbo’s face, we’re eons from Partisan Review Editor Dwight Macdonald’s notion of “midcult,” the asinine term for the vulgarizing horrors of “Our Town” and faux-Gothic architecture that he popularized in the pages of The New Yorker. Nowadays, literary work that finds its subject in television, and derives its impetus from a socially conscious line of inquiry with roots in the humanities, is the bargain worked out between three generations of media.
To state the obvious, we now know far more about the opinions of a much larger segment of the population than we did pre-internet, which in turn provides much more data for writing that responds to the kinds of questions dear to the heart of academic theory regarding representation of femininity, class, or labor. The fact is, if you read nothing but Game of Thrones–related pieces from its 2011 premiere to the present... well, you would be insane, not to mention missing out on much better work. But you would also be in possession of a coherent cultural history of the last six years, as they unfolded side by side with Game of Thrones’s last six seasons. This predicament is what Jim Broadbent, as Archmaester Ebrose, lamented in the premiere of the seventh season: “The triumph of transitory pleasures. Mankind’s curse.”
The rise of the thinkpiece as the forum for the kinds of intellectual exchanges that used to be exclusive to book reviews also means that prestige television anticipates, and even encapsulates, its own commentary. Gone are the days when the writers room and watercooler conversations operated in a vacuum. Critique has become built-in, packaged along with the product. In this new participatory consumption, the writer-blogger is to some extent completing the work begun by the show; they harness its vernacular and endow it with a worldly relevance that, at least to critics like Macdonald, would once have seemed preposterous. I’m thinking of articles that liken the steady advance of the White Walkers on the squabbling Seven Kingdoms to climate change, or that apply the cutthroat realpolitik practiced by the traitorous Petyr Baelish to neoliberalism. Likening dragons to nuclear arms is second nature to the generation of writers who have opted to take pop culture seriously. And highbrow–lowbrow dalliances no longer come off as cheeky or particularly radical either. In fact, they are normal and a part of everything, often even convincing in their own weird way.
The writers and producers of Game of Thrones appear to be counting on this kind of prestidigitation, as its subplots have expanded to all but cater to public concerns like asymmetrical warfare and statecraft. Take Daenerys Targaryen’s (Emilia Clarke) doomed attempts to modernize Third World capital Meereen, whose entrenched customs include gladiatorial contests, crucifixion, and slavery. When Daenerys’s advisers debate the wisdom of abolishing these barbarities, which is a running motif throughout Season 6, we’re essentially being dared to draw comparisons to the kind of arguments for and against cultural relativism that have informed many an undergraduate writing prompt. And there’s no way in hell that the scene in Season 6’s “Oathbreaker” in which Lord Varys (Conleth Hill) plies his "enhanced negotiation techniques" on a captured spy while mulling the limits of torture wasn’t written with the horrors of Abu Ghraib firmly in mind.
On the other hand, when the show fails spectacularly to anticipate the objections of its audience, as in the infamous fourth-season episode in which a scene intended to depict consensual sex between Cersei and Jaime Lannister (Lena Headey and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, respectively) read blatantly as rape, the online fanbase is quick to repudiate it. (It’s also a cottage industry of provocation that showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are apparently eager to perpetuate — and that’s being generous — as they’ve just announced that their next show for HBO will take place in a world where the Confederacy won the Civil War, which sounds about as predatory a monetization of Trump era disunity as you can get.) Still, there’s something collaborative about the responses to this kind of show, which goes to such lengths to offend, flatter, and implicate in the course of its storyline. As usual, Peter Dinklage’s Tyrion Lannister says it best when he observes, “Schemes and plots are the same thing.” Or witness the smug scene in last Sunday’s episode in which Archmaester Ebrose crowdsources a more poetic title for his forthcoming work A Chronicle of the Wars Following the Death of King Robert I. Wink, wink! We know we’ve been spotted and, more and more, when we watch television, we’re watching ourselves watching.
Perhaps the place where an auxiliary or embedded criticism is most obvious is the modern horror movie. Nobody needs a critic to tell them that Get Out is lampooning white liberal “wokeness” or that It Follows reads as a neat allegory of a teenager’s first encounters with mortality. The socially conscious horror movie is the product of filmmakers who grew up conversant in the genre’s mid-'80s slasher heyday learning to utilize it to address their immediate reality, just as Sam Peckinpah's and Robert Altman’s deconstructed Westerns interrogated the romantic apprehension of manifest destiny in light of the Vietnam War. But the Western and horror were never pure escapism — the worlds in which they took place were still nominally our own.
Not so with fantasy literature. And yet, since roughly the mid-'70s, there has been a renaissance in fantasy that the genre’s originators, like Lewis Carroll and J. M. Barrie, with their infatuation with childhood and horror of adult sexuality, could never have foreseen. Angela Carter is probably the OG of feminist fantasy writers, as her Bloody Chamber revised fairy tales to include sexually liberated female characters while challenging the power dynamics of stories like “Beauty and the Beast,” while the more politically inclined Ursula K. Le Guin stressed ecology and egalitarianism in her Earthsea series (and, with Octavia Butler and Samuel Delany, reverse-engineered science fiction to incorporate the inequalities of the past and prejudices of the present into the speculative future).
Contemporary practitioners of adult-ish (or “dark”) fantasy include Philip Pullman, China Miéville, and Neil Gaiman, as well as one-off genre works by writers best known for their straightforwardly “literary” output like Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o’s Wizard of the Crow. So how did this most frivolous of genres wind up as the 21st century’s most ponderous canvas, the one on which we project all of our most millennial anxieties? And how did Game of Thrones become the most monolithic of Western media’s cultural outcroppings?
As the great Marxist literary theorist Fredric Jameson has pointed out in Archaeologies of the Future, traditional swords-and-sandals fantasy is by and large a conservative movement with theological affinities rooted in revivalist Christianity, the reactionary fallout from science fiction’s utopian designs:
“Medieval culture-material then offers a mixture of these aesthetic voices and practices: the omnipresence of the binary opposition between good and evil and the sense of radical otherness already informing the first crusades and the hatred of Islam coexisting with the plebian Christianity of the villages and their egalitarianism.”
Jameson goes on to note the ahistorical basis of Tolkien-esque fantasy, which removes it from meaningful consequence. And the fact that magic is typically in the process of vanishing from these worlds — elves in decline as the race of man burgeons, sorcerers and dragons regarded as superstitions before inevitably becoming the salvation of the heroes — squares with the Judeo-Christian tradition of being an itinerant minority guided by an antique spirituality, at home nowhere in the world but only in a supernatural land beyond.
And, indeed, regardless of the personal politics of its readership, the vaguely Arthurian pulp that has been pervasive in America and England following roughly from Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories to its apotheosis in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings exhibit a nostalgia for a simpler past and conversion of complex social dynamics to fundamentally antagonizing extremes: peasant versus noble, knight versus wizard, good versus evil. “Stealing past watchful dragons” was how C.S. Lewis qualified his insidious hijacking of Biblicisms for his Narnia books, whose allegorical roots in the story of Christ (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe), Adam and Eve (The Magician’s Nephew), and the horrifying eschatology of Revelations (The Last Battle) are all but exposed. Lewis pushed this kind of thing as far as it could go without becoming outright sermonizing — even performing a Christian conversion of the pagan novel The Golden Ass in his post-Narnia masterpiece Till We Have Faces. But Lewis, as Tolkien acknowledged in his essay “On Fairy Stories,” only made overt what was nascent in the rest of fantasy writing, whose reactionary tropes remained static by design, especially after it was disseminated to the 1970’s Dungeons & Dragons multiverse (ironically accused of Satanism in the 1980s).
But even before George R.R. Martin published A Game of Thrones in 1996, there were exceptions to fantasy’s regressive tendencies within the otherwise undifferentiated, male-oriented paperback market. Michael Moorcock’s Nietzschean anti-hero Elric of Melniboné was as far from Conan as John le Carré’s placid-natured George Smiley was from James Bond; the once-popular Dragonlance series by Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickman pretended to be on the side of its standard roundtable of heroes, but its true protagonist was the wizard Raistlin, who defects to black magic in the middle of the story. But these rehabilitated only certain aspects of the fantasy novel, whereas A Song of Ice and Fire, the cycle that supplied the show’s first five seasons, reinvented it from the ground up, futzing with the usual binaries. We see from Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner), who suffers torture from one captor after another, that being of noble birth no longer guarantees you'll be spared the world’s cruelest deprivations.
The characters who most exemplify traditional good or nihilist evil are the first to die, while the characters who survive are those who accept the painful reality of things and attempt to navigate its vast uncertainties. This approach to moral ambiguity has been carried over to the television show, where believing in magic doesn’t mean that it cares about you or that you know how it works. In a scene in the Season 7 premiere (“Dragonstone”), the show’s main warrior-skeptic Sandor Clegane (Rory McCann) observes of Beric Dondarrion (Richard Dormer), a man who has died and been inexplicably back to life six times, “I’ve met better men than you, and they’ve been hanged from crossbeams or beheaded or just shat themselves to death in a shed somewhere. None of them came back. So, why you?” This is not magic as faith in God’s justice — it’s magic as cruel accident and therefore indistinguishable from irony.
That irony, which upends expectation and exposes the folly of a coherent code of conduct, should be permitted in a fantasy world is one indication that our world and Westeros share a more porous border than most pulp fiction. We were also promised something else and are surprised to find life’s abiding logic so illegible. Not that we would rather go to Westeros, if we could. We probably wouldn’t do any better there than we would in the actual Middle Ages. And you can’t really call Game of Thrones escapist if most of the people who live in Westeros or Essos would themselves like to get out. Aside from ancestral memories of legendary, lost kingdoms like Valyria, Northern California–looking Highgarden, and perhaps the beautiful library in Oldtown that Samwell Tarly (John Bradley-West) explores in between changing bedpans in “Dragonstone,” there’s not a whole lot to be nostalgic about here, so the fantastic impulse to imagine that you could excel if circumstances were returned to more heroically boiled-down parameters (if your boss was an evil burgomaster, you were a plucky squire, etc.) is frustrated, falters, and becomes something else, something more recognizably futile that plays more like tragedy, but more senseless.
Even the characters with which we identify and would like to imagine ourselves similar to seem to suffer needless pain and countless misfortunes: Tyrion Lannister, for example, is sarcastic, intelligent, and devious — but he was also denied his father’s love, nearly assassinated by his own sister, and remains in the eyes of the public, whom he professes to despise, a regicidal dwarf. Plus, he murdered his lover Shae (Sibel Kekilli) in cold blood, which we would certainly expect to see him punished for at some point, but the show’s ultimate judgment on its characters has remained difficult to predict even before it diverged from the path Martin’s novel had laid down for the show’s writers. Only now, at the beginning of the penultimate season, are things beginning to creep toward eventuality (you know you’re in trouble when characters are receiving their marching orders, as Clegane and Beric do, from mysterious visions in the flame) and maybe a happy ending. Or maybe not.
The surviving characters on the show, and they are perishingly few at this late hour, all are to some extent engaged in trying to understand their world: Cersei to hold it accountable, Daenerys to reform it, Jon Snow (Kit Harington) to preserve it. Writers tend to be engaged in the same venture of understanding, even if they come to different conclusions in the apprehension of our real, consensual world and develop varied stratagems to communicate them. An article in the New Left Review by Pablo Iglesias uses Thrones as an interpretive tool opposite Spain’s regime crisis while simultaneously writing the show off, hilariously, as “a formulaic combination of mildly sadistic soft porn and blood-soaked pseudo-mediaeval warfare, interspersed with occasional moment of ersatz grand strategy.”
But formula can provide a chance to speak candidly about cultural dysfunction, and in many ways Game of Thrones has made critical theory, previously consigned to the classroom, mainstream. No longer couched between the covers of Bourdieu or The London Review of Books, these sorts of thinkpieces, for all their limitations, are accessible to everyone precisely because they derive from a mass-cultural fantasy whose contours are so broadly drawn that they could be “about” almost anything.
In The Uses of Enchantment, the psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim wrote:
“In fairy tales, internal processes are translated into visual images. When the hero is confronted by difficult inner problems which seem to defy solution, his psychological state is not described; the fairy story shows him lost in a dense impenetrable wood, not knowing which way to turn, despairing of finding the way out… as symbols of psychological happenings or problems, these stories are quite true.”
In other words, fantasy can offer us clarity regarding the impenetrable wood in which we are all, gradually, trying to untangle ourselves. Most of the time, at our jobs, among friends, or surfing the internet, we are like the plebeians in Braavos watching The Bloody Hand, the farcical play from Season 6; our version of events is likewise filled with errors and omissions, we accept vulgarity over truth, and our ideas about others are crude caricatures.
The representation doesn’t match up to the reality. Writing is always an attempt to regain control, to get it right for once, and literature is the space between certainties, where new doubts may be entertained. Television writing may not always be literature, it is writing, and Game of Thrones actively courts writing like few franchises before it (and lest we forget, the show itself has been a kind of multimillion-dollar fan fiction since it departed from the published books). As transitory pleasures go, the surfeit of mid-brow theorizing over “blood-soaked pseudo-mediaeval warfare” may be mankind’s curse at the moment. But, as curses go, we should heed Archmaester Ebrose when he tells Samwell that “We are this world’s memories,” and count our blessings.