Nasty, Brutish, but Definitely Not Short: Game of Thrones and the History of Power

It might seem counter-intuitive to talk about a fantasy television series as having anything meaningful to say about history. But Game of Thrones‘ self-conscious evocation of the medieval world, as well as the fact that so many of its storylines are drawn from historical events in our own world, suggests that it does indeed have something it wants to tell about history—about the ways in which individuals engage with the social and cultural forces that seem to move times, societies, and cultures forward. In the clip shown here, Petyr Baelish, the corrupt and ruthless Master of Coin, explains to Varys his vision of the world and the rules that govern the way it works.

In essence, chaos provides cunning and ruthless people the ability to rise to the top; not for him the illusions and grand visions of a just society. Power, and the ability to seize it, are the things that matter most to Petyr, and indeed to many of the characters of the series. Baelish’s words could also just as easily describe the vision of history that the whole series articulates (and to an even greater extent A Song of Ice and Fire, the epic fantasy novel series upon which it is based). In this framework, the sense and order that we attempt to impose on the past are necessary fictions designed to paper over the bloody, visceral, and terrifying truths that remind us as viewers and readers of our fleshly mortality.

The St. Sesbastian-like body of the prostitute Ros, pierced by the arrows wielded by the supremely sadistic Joffrey, in many ways stands as the ultimate expression of Game of Thrones’ theory of history. The actions of the great and powerful, the Lannisters, the Tyrells, the Targaryens, the Starks, become the ones recorded in the great books of learning. The lives of those affected, their bodies left broken and bloody, even the very narratives of their deaths utilized for those who seek their own aggrandizement, are a potent reminder of the price of history. They are the grisly detritus of the actions of these lords and ladies and kings who wield the power. The spectacle of Ros’s death is an unpleasant and viscerally shocking reminder of just how violent and unsettling history can be. For women and the poor, who have little agency or voice of their own, their bodies become the only way they can communicate their historical presence.

The series constantly begs the question: who is to blame for this horrific and chaotic state of affairs? Eddard Stark, for not doing the pragmatic thing and joining his force with Renly’s, thereby possibly averting the civil war, his death, and the ruin of his family? Robert Baratheon, for so many things: his bitterness at being forced to wed a woman he didn’t love, all for political expedience, his mistreatment of her (which leads to her successful plot to kill him and plunges the kingdom into chaos?), his unwillingness to take an actual hand in governing? Varys the Spider, the eunuch who has secretly plotted to bring back the exiled Targaryens, all the while claiming that he only wants what is best for the kingdom? All of the above? None of the above?

In this world, everyone is guilty and yet all are, paradoxically, somewhat innocent. At least, their actions can in part be explained by the forces, social, cultural, personal, that undergird and seethe beneath the surface of Westeros, that always threaten to burst free and plunge everything into chaos. The actions of the past are not contained there, discrete and easily deciphered, but instead continue to mold the present. Characters frequently find their actions circumscribed by the legacies left them by their parents, or by ancestors who have been long dead. The political chaos that erupts from the second season onward is just as much a result of the wars of centuries past as it is of the actions taken by the characters in the present.

Game of Thrones attempts to do away with the neatly defined explanations for what causes significant political and social change. The many competing plot-lines that nearly constantly intertwine and intersect with one another create an incredibly complicated skein of cause-and-effect that make it nearly impossible to impose some sort of large, explanatory meta-narrative on the events that unfold. All that can be said with any certainty is that the world that emerges from the convulsions of the end of the previous era is one characterized by even more political and social violence than the admittedly bloody ones that preceded it.

The historian Robert Rosenstone has compellingly suggested that the filming of history is “about loss of control; loss of sense; loss” (236). Game of Thrones, whatever its flaws and however troubling its representational politics, nevertheless challenges its viewers to come to grips with this powerful, almost sublime, sense of history. In a world that seems to live in a perpetual present (to riff off of Jameson’s claim), Game of Thrones stands as a potent reminder of the unsettling nature of history and that, I can’t help but think, is a good thing.


T.J. is a Ph.D. Candidate in Film and TV Studies in the Department of English. His dissertation examines theories of history as articulated in epic films and TV series set in antiquity. He teaches courses on film, popular culture, race, and gender, and in his free time enjoys watching The Golden Girls and nerding out over the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and their various adaptations. He frequently blogs at Queerly Different. You can follow him on Twitter @tjwest3.

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2 comments

  1. Interesting post, TJ. I’ve only seen season 1 of GoT, so my comments here are more general questions, not necessarily relating to the specifics of the series. What you seem to be describing above (but without naming it as such) is excess– excessive chaos, excessive plotting, excessive bodies, excessive spectacle and, from what I know of the series, excessive violence, blood, and nudity. You seem to be saying that this excess IS GoT’s theory of history that is asking viewers to confront the excessive (and ofter horrific) nature of history. At what point, though, does excess just remain excess? At what point is all the excess SO spectacular (especially as it relates to excess narrative and excess violence/nudity) that it effaces any of the historical nuances informing the series? At what points does excess, and the representation of excess, seem to be simply that? What exactly invites viewers to consider history?

    I might argue that (at least for me), that type of excess specifically invites one to marvel at the spectacle and forget the specificities that inform it. (For example, the way one might zone out and just enjoy the excessive visual spectacle of a 20 minute fight scene in an action film.) How does this sort of excessive representation work as a body genre? How exactly does that sort of excess involve a viewer’s body?

    Like

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