Saturday, August 26, 2017

Game of Thrones

This is a sequel to my prior post:

1. Game of Thrones (hereafter GOT), which has occasioned so much debate, was hovering in the background of my post, but I didn't comment on the series, and my position can't be inferred from my post.

There are lots of articles about "Should Christians watch Game of Thrones"? I've skimmed a number of these articles, which didn't affect my own position. Some social conservatives like David French and Ben Shapiro defend it while critics like John Piper, Kevin DeYoung, and Matt Walsh deride it.

It may not be coincidental that French is a former Marine. 

From what I can tell, religious pundits roughly subdivide into regular viewers who defend it, those who attack it unseen, and those who attack after having sampled it.

2. There is nothing necessarily wrong with prejudging something based on secondhand information. I will never watch The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes, or the Saw series. A synopsis or movie review can be sufficient to form a preliminary judgment about whether that's suitable viewing. 

However, it does put critics like Piper and DeYoung at a certain disadvantage, inasmuch as they can't be very specific about what's wrong with the series. 

For the record, I watched the first two seasons, then bailed. If I had it to do over again, I wouldn't watch it at all. I could say the same thing for some other movies I've seen. Occasionally I start a movie or TV episode, then stop before I see it all, because I just don't like what I've viewing. 

To say I wouldn't do it again isn't an admission of guilt. It's one of those dilemmas where you don't always know in advance what to expect. In the case of GOT, I was curious what all the fuss was about. 

3. So why did I drop out after two seasons? Critics focus on the "pornographic" material, but before we get to that, there are other problems. It's not like I think GOT is a firstrate drama if only we could edit out the sex scenes. Rather, I think fans greatly overrate the dramatic quality of the show. 

It's not that GOT is bad from a dramatic standpoint. To judge by the first two seasons, it's a cut above much TV fare. But in my opinion, fans who defend GOT because they think it's so outstanding unwittingly reveal their lack of sophistication. At a purely artistic level, there are much more intelligent dramas. La Femme Nikita (1997-2001) was much more intelligent. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1979) was much more intelligent. The (underrated) reboot of The Prisoner (2009) was much more intelligent. Fans of GOT would be bored by dramatic excellence. 

I don't say that as a general putdown. I don't judge people by their artistic taste. On the one hand there are saintly believers with kitschy taste. Take devout Christians who buy Thomas Kinkade. By the same token, Michael Brown recently used schmaltzy 50's fare like Lawrence Welk, I Love Lucy, and Lassie Come Home as his standard of comparison. To each his own.

On the other hand, there are degenerates with impeccable taste. Anthony Blunt was an eminent art historian. In addition, he was a raging homosexual, KGB recruiter, and the architect of the Cambridge spy ring. To be a world authority on Poussin doesn't make you virtuous. He was vile. But I am critical of people who flatter themselves by defending GOT on artistic grounds, when their defense betrays them to be far less discriminating than they fancy.

4. From what I saw, GOT basically reflects pagan morality and pagan mythology. It's a fairly accurate depiction of how pagans behave. It reminds me of I, Claudius (1976), which was superior to GOT. GOT depicts the old Roman virtues as well as the old Roman vices. 

One reason I didn't stick with GOT is that it has too few admirable characters. And the prevailing worldview is nihilistic. There is no eschatological justice, so there's no incentive to be virtuous. I don't object to depictions of evil, but I prefer a redemptive context. Not wallowing in evil. Not evil for evil's sake. 

5. It's fatuous to defend GOT on the grounds that Christians need to be in touch with the evils of a fallen world. No doubt. But you don't need to read or watch fiction to know about evil. The daily news provides saturation exposure. Not to mention personal experience. 

That doesn't mean we should avoid dramas that unsparingly depict evil. But there's plenty to choose from. And there are better examples than GOT. 

6. Christian critics generally accentuate the sex and nudity. I'll get to that, but their emphasis lacks balance. As I recall, GOT opens with a graphic decapitation scene. Why don't Christian critics have more to say about "gratuitous violence"? Maybe it's just because most of them haven't actually seen it, so they can't single out specific scenes. 

I don't think we can say anything worthwhile about cinematic violence in general. Whether that's justifiable or unjustifiable is context-dependent. There's a difference between "gratuitous" violence and violence that serves a dramatic function. It depends, moreover, on the vehicle. Take a film with a redemptive theme like To End All Wars (2001).

7. Then there's profanity. GOT uses a certain amount of profanity. That's realistic, but I don't care for the profanity. It's not that I consider profanity to be inherently objectionable. It's just that if I don't like the story in which violence or profanity is embedded, then there's nothing to mitigate the violence or profanity. 

To take a comparison, Ordinary People (1980) tells the story of a family falling apart after one son died in a boating accident. It depicts the different coping strategies of the survivors: mother, father, brother. There's a certain amount of profanity between the brother and his classmates. I don't have a problems with that because it's fitting in context, and the story is a good story. But GOT lacks those compensatory virtues, so I don't have the same indulgence. 

8. What about the sex and nudity? I don't think artistic nudity is intrinsically objectionable. Take Rodin's The Kiss. That's erotic art, but it's very tasteful. A common grace celebration of God's gift of sexuality. There can be ennobling as well as ignoble representations of sex and nudity. Although pornography and erotica overlap, they are sometimes distinguishable, and they ought to be distinguishable. Botticelli's Birth of Venus is another case in point. 

By contrast, Rodin's Eve is not erotic, but tragic. Ghiberti's Adam and Eve panel is a reverent and dignified representation of the first couple in Gen 2-3.  

In one of the early episodes, possibly the pilot episode (I forget), there's a scene of Daenerys Targaryen emerging from her bath. It's like female nudes in Western art. 

There's a difference between nudity and a sex scene. There's no simulated sexual intercourse. It's just the image of a beautiful female nude. Unless you think the human body is an inherently unsuitable subject for artists to admiringly portray, I don't think that, in itself, is objectionable. Sex appeal isn't intrinsically degrading. Heterosexual appreciation for the body isn't intrinsically degrading. So I wouldn't classify that particular scene as pornographic.

Mind you, the nudity in GOT is intentionally pornographic, in the sense that the director and producers are using that as a come-on. But depending on the context, their intentions are separable from what is shown in its own right.

However, I think this scene is exceptional in that regard. I'd say most-all of the other nude scenes are pornographic.

9. Let's take another example: in one of the episodes, Bran is crippled after he's thrown out a window, when he was caught spying on Cersei and Jaime having incestuous intercourse. 

In theory, the sex scene could be justified on the grounds that one thing leads to another. Bran likes climbing. He was climbing the tower when he saw Cersei and Jaime in flagrante delicto. To dispose of the witness, he's hurled from the tower. He survives, but is crippled by the fall. But as compensation, he develops second sight. So there's a certain dramatic logic to it. 

However, that's a weak justification. To begin with, he needn't be pushed to fall. He could accidentally fall when climbing. It's naturally hazardous to climb up the tower. 

And what, really, is the point of seeing Cersei and Jaime have sex, much less incestuous sex? Even if Bran's a tattletale, yet given the prevailing social mores of GOT, is there anything scandalous about Cersei and Jaime? Do they have a reputation to preserve? The social world of GOT is awash is decadence.


  1. I tried watching season 1 of GoT because I was spending time with a friend who wanted to see it and it was a way to visit the friend. Other than Peter Dinklage's turn as Tyrion there was nothing that really kept me interested in the show to the point where I'd keep watching it. Attempts to come up with "realistic" counters to Tolkien are pretty easy to spot early on and I just wasn't convinced that taking all the lowlights of conduct from the Book of Judges and amplifying them by a factor of 20,000 was worth my time. I actually was starting to dig into a commentary on Judges around that time.

    Which gets me to something about secular viewers of Game of Thrones who have time for all the nuance they perceive in GoT and it's grand parade of piece-of-work characters who somehow can't believe that it's possible for biblical authors to have a similarly jaded or detached way of observing the atrocities perpetrated by people during the era of the Judges.

    I wonder if there's a kind of pleasure derived in watching other bad people behave badly as a reassurance that "we" aren't that bad. GoT could be a prestige TV variant of what in the 1990s could be attained by watching the Jerry Springer show. There was a piece in the Atlantic a few years back about how GoT was too ashamed of its pulpy exploitive roots to admit what it was. In that sense superhero films just admit they're based on pulp fiction and run with it.

    1. Weren't you reading Dostoyevsky as a teenager? So your standard of comparison is far higher than many GOT fans. Another reason GOT thrones overrate the series may be the developing phenomenon of book virgins: freshmen college students who've never read a book from cover to cover.

  2. Well, I was reading Melville (I made a point of reading the unabridged Moby Dick), T. S. Eliot and Kafka as a teenager but I think I didn't get to Dostoevsky until my very early 20s. That said I might have read Crime & Punishment when I was 19 and just forgot that I did.