Game of Thrones Was Bad and If You Liked It You Are Wrong

by David Ottlinger

I have always been a person out of step with his own, native culture. Most of the time I think the received wisdom on most subjects — be they political, social or artistic — ranges from misguided to catastrophically wrong. I open the newspaper to find it makes as much sense read backwards or forwards and that I have virtually no comprehension of the people with whom I share a country. Such opposition is perfectly comfortable to me and causes no distress.

But every now and then some conflict seems to me special. I find myself so unable to comprehend why my fellows act and believe as they do that I begin in some measure to doubt my own sanity. I find myself returning to the issue again and again. In moments of exhaustion, I resolve to leave it and live with the mystery. But I always break this promise to myself. Something tells me to be reasonable, that I’ve not yet thought of everything, that there must be something which I am missing, something obvious which would explain how everyone around me has come to such an opposite conclusion. So I resume the struggle, running over old arguments and inventing new ones, trying to understand just how we got so far apart.

This is how it feels in today’s America to hate Game of Thrones. When the show first aired, I remember remarking to a friend that I had reached a point in my life at which I was no longer interested in questing, and I would have been happy to leave it there. But over time I found the series increasingly difficult to ignore. People were not just watching the show; people were taking it seriously. It provided a vocabulary for political arguments. [1] It was ransacked for metaphors that showed up in the most rarefied atmospheres of respectable opinion journals and op-ed pages. Every looming threat became a White Walker. Every deferred conflict a “war to come.” Winter was always coming. Even while writing this piece, David French, Ben Domenech and Sohrab Ahmari could not manage to argue over the future of conservatism without a few choice references to the series. [2] Domenech argued that cultural liberalism was like the dreaded White Walkers, an unstoppable force which cannot be politely argued with but must be forcefully opposed. French countered that “the Valyrian steel that stops the cultural white walker is pluralism buttressed by classical liberalism…” These are grown men.

When I finally broke down and watched the show, I thought there must have been some mistake. The show everyone was talking about must be coming on right after the one I had watched: the one with the ponderous dialogue, dreadful plotting and bad cinematography. This could not be the series all the country’s best – or at least best paid – intellectuals were scribbling about. This could not be the most popular series in America.

Could it?

The sense of perplexity has never left me. But I want to make a promise to the reader. I am not vain enough to believe that my tastes and distastes are interesting to other people, and I would not waste anyone’s time with a mere rant. So I will not merely describe my dislike of Game of Thrones. In today’s world, there are far too many critics who do far too much of that already. Instead I will offer something which may be of some actual use, a definite value judgment supported by arguments. To paraphrase Kant, I do not expect everyman’s assent, but I do demand it. Or in other words, you may have thought Game of Thrones was a good show, but you are wrong.

And where, really, do I begin? There are a thousand things large and small. Take, for instance, the White Walkers. Has there ever been a cinematic monster less satisfying, as profoundly un-intimidating as the ponderous, plodding, fragile White Walkers? When Domenech argued that cultural liberalism was like the White Walkers, he must have that liberalism is over-hyped and easily defeated. We are told these White Walkers are devastatingly powerful — unless they are poked with certain stones or tapped with certain swords in which case they simply shatter like cheap china. You have to really marvel at the writers’ decision, on the first meeting between a White Walker and one of our characters, to have a Walker not only completely destroyed, but inadvertently destroyed by the least physically impressive character in the show. It was as if they were actively trying to remove all tension from their looming threat. Then, as though to solidify this point, in the first real fight between a character and a Walker, Jon Snow once again breaks a Walker into ice chips, totally by accident. (For good measure the same fight also established that all White Walkers move like they have advanced rheumatoid arthritis.) After that White Walkers inspired no feeling in me but boredom. I just can’t manage any dread at a creature that will trudge slowly towards you, only to fly pieces as soon as it pricks its finger. There is a possibility that if you suddenly found yourself ten yards away from a rampaging White Walker, and you stood very still for several consecutive minutes, it might be actually be able to do you harm, but it would probably slip and hurt itself in the process. In the case of an invasion, a small division of well-disciplined cub-scouts, armed with feather dusters, should have been able to drive them all out of Westeros.

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White Walkers

But complaints such as these, of which there are many, are not essential to understanding the series’ failure and harping too much on them would be unfair. The real problems of Game of Thrones concern its very structure and influence not just an isolated element of the story, like the White Walkers, but its whole design. Taken together they doomed the show’s chances of achieving any artistic success.

Some of these more pervasive problems concern the show’s style and genre. In particular I always detected a certain tension between the story of Game of Thrones and the conventions of the fantasy genre. Watching the show, I could never shake a certain vague sense of disbelief. The costumes were richly designed and the set design, apart from one notorious coffee cup, was meticulous, but I could never shake a sense that none of it was real. I felt that familiar and unsatisfying feeling of watching actors playing characters rather than watching characters.

Over time I was able to articulate the source of this unease by comparing Westeros to an equally fantastic place that I had accepted as real both on the page and on the screen, namely Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Tolkien’s world, whether in his novels or in Peter Jackson’s highly successful adaptations, felt more convincing, paradoxically, because it was more completely alien. Men like Tolkien and C. S. Lewis were highly trained classicists and medievalists, and they brought a sense of deep historical time to their work. All the societies of Middle Earth are thoroughly pre-modern. Frodo and the other hobbits naturally defer the great lords and ladies that they meet in their travels as their superiors. They accept their station and harbor no ambitions of reaching a higher one. They are totally at home in an aristocratic world, and define themselves, comfortably, in aristocratic terms.

The denizens of Westeros are in this respect completely different. The problem is that all of our characters are really, just below the surface, modern Americans. I would stop short of saying that Game of Thrones was really and fundamentally an American show. That would invalidate the contributions of the largely British cast who were overwhelmingly excellent and generally the best part of the show. For that matter it would invalidate the contributions of the European landscapes, which are so much a part of the show as to become characters in their own right. But the source material is obviously deeply American. And the source material inevitably calls a lot of the shots.

The Americanness of our characters manifests itself in their values, their preoccupations and the way they understand society. Middle Earthers are, as authentic pre-moderns, largely pre-occupied with honor, hierarchical status, reputation and the fate of their clan or nation. The inhabitants of Westeros are concerned with wealth, power, sex, consumption, getting ahead in their careers and other largely individual pursuits. In case anyone failed to notice this, Littlefinger, himself a character who perspicuously embodies these values, bluntly drives the point home in a long speech at the end of the episode “The Climb.” Society, for Littlefinger, is a ladder. “Only the ladder is real,” he intones, making Hortatio Alger blush, “The climb is all there is.” He claims that the worth or admirability of a person consists totally in how far they can climb and dismisses all those who do not attempt it as suckers and dupes to a false morality. Like Edmund, nature, red in tooth and claw, is his goddess and he will not stand in the plague of custom. Most of the show validates this Algerian worldview. Westeros is superficially an aristocracy but more deeply a ruthless meritocracy. Its inhabitants compete for individual worldly success and status. This makes the fantasy element feel painted on and shatters the illusion of Westeros’s exotic otherness far better than any misplaced latte ever could.

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Littlefinger

Then there is the matter of Game of Thrones’ controversial use of explicit sex and violence. In principle I have no objection to such things and many outstanding shows have involved a great deal of both. (Vide The Sopranos.) But critics are right to point to the show’s sex and violence as weaknesses. The problem is not that they exist at all but how they always seem to be trapped between different sensibilities.

The uses of sex and violence in film are many, but we can make a broad distinction between two general kinds. On one side are depictions of sex and violence that are meant to shock and disconcert an audience. Consider the violence in, say, Saving Private Ryan. Graphically depicting the horrors of war, the violence of this film is not meant to amuse or entertain. Rather the violent scenes are meant to make us feel, as the soldiers did, that we would rather be anywhere else. In this category also belong such memorable moments as Cornwall’s blinding of Gloucester, “out, vile jelly!”, and the riot at the end of Peter Brooks’ Marat/Sade. On the other side of the distinction belong the kinds of violence with which we are familiar from action movies and many westerns and which are a large part of the appeal of all the Marvel franchises. Such depictions of violence are meant to be voluptuously enjoyed. Watching Daredevil or Captain America wail on a group of faceless bad guys is just good, visceral fun.

The two sensibilities can be blended. It is part of the genius of Tarantino, for instance, to invite us to enjoy graphic violence and then confront morally us with the fact that we do enjoy it. But what we have in Game of Thrones is sex and violence that attempt to live on both sides of the line in ways that are far less coherent and foil the audience’s ability to relate emotionally to the events depicted. Never is this ambivalence clearer than when the show focuses on Littlefinger’s prostitutes. Are these exploited women, whose lives reflect the harsh realities of the sex trade? Or are they sexy, fashionable people whose promiscuity and lives of easy luxury we should envy? The show can never quite decide. One might wish to say that they can be both. No one, after all, is entirely a victim or entirely responsible, and no life consists only of harshness or pleasure. But the problem does not dissolve so easily, because the show adopts these different attitudes toward the same aspects of these women’s lives. Sometimes prostitution is depicted as demeaning and an affront to the dignity of those who work in it. At other times it is depicted as a good deal for those that can get it, and one that the women enjoy and possibly even find liberating. This makes it impossible for the audience to adopt a coherent attitude toward these characters. We are asked to toggle back and forth between empathy and jealousy until, ultimately, we can’t really feel anything at all.

Ultimately, a similar dissonance arises between the audience and Westeros as a whole. Is Westeros a bleak world of horrors and bitter injustices or a colorful world full of adventure and opulent pleasures that we look forward to visiting on Sunday nights? Again, the show runners seem loathe to make a decision. Game of Thrones could have been a pulpy adventure story full of nudity and violence, one that maintained a glib tone and had generally low moral stakes. Or it could have been a somber morality play with a serious tone and high moral stakes. But its attempt to be both makes it neither.

One moment particularly stands out to me and makes clear what the show might have been. I found in general that the violence in the show was unsatisfying for the reasons I have been describing. Unsure of the effect it wanted to make it neither shocked not enthralled. But when Jamie Lannister had his sword hand unceremoniously hacked off, I sat straight up. It was off-handedly brutal (no pun intended), gratuitous and completely plausible. You can easily imagine Jamie’s surly captors engaging in such casual violence. Everything changed for that character in the space of a moment, and his shock was our shock.

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Jamie Lannister losing a hand

Then a most remarkable thing happened. The show almost immediately went to credits which were accompanied by a ribald ballad that had been heard earlier in the episode only now, performed in an anachronistically modern rock arrangement, complete with electric guitars. I felt as if I had been poked in the eye. For once the show had actually managed to elicit a clear emotional response and it immediately set about foiling it. This comical and off-puttingly anachronistic song immediately cleared away the impact left by the previous scene. This was more than ordinary artistic failure – it was sabotage; cowardice. The show runners knew they had created something shocking and disturbing and instead of trusting the audience to sit with that emotion, they immediately provided relief from it. Such decisions make the show easier viewing, but they rob it of any lasting impact as well.

But the most serious issues with Game of Thrones concern its structure. I was amused when I realized that if there was one television series to which Game of Thrones could be compared, it would probably have to the old science fiction serial Babylon 5. On the surface they may not seem to have much in common. Game of Thrones is the cool kids table of the lunch cafeteria of television, filled with a lot of sexy people with perfect hair obsessing over their problems and taking themselves very seriously. Babylon 5 is more at home with the nerds in the corner. It was self-consciously intellectual and idealistic, in some ways sentimental and bashful in the way it dealt with sexuality, all of which is in sharp contrast with Game of Thrones. Furthermore all the budgets for all five seasons of Babylon 5 probably couldn’t cover what it takes to animate one CGI flying dragon.

But beneath the surface the two shows have a startling amount in common. Both tell a long story, stretching across multiple seasons which concerns a looming threat and the different political factions which will have to unify to meet that threat. Game of Thrones focuses on different kingdoms which will have to unify to face the threat of the White Walkers and possibly Daenerys Targaryen. The story of Babylon 5 concerns different species with their own empires on different worlds who must unify to defeat the Shadows, an encroaching race of powerful aliens. In both shows the various factions are more concerned with old scores and long-standing rivalries than with their own, collective long-term good. Accordingly the two series tell strikingly similar stories in strikingly similar ways despite the strong differences in style and presentation. This makes comparison between the two illuminating and useful.

One aspect of Game of Thrones which is highlighted by the comparison is its inability to play by its own rules. Babylon 5 is masterful in efficiently setting up the chessboard. The first episode establishes all the major players. The warring factions are the humans, the Psi-Corps (who exist within the human government), the Narn, the Minabari and the Centauri. The Shadows provide the looming threat, and the Vorlons are a powerful force for good and counter-balance to the Shadows who have no analogue in Game of Thrones. What stands out is that across five seasons these remain, with a few exceptions, the major players. Each has an arc that is appropriate to each civilization and what happens at the end of the story is never inconsistent with what we were told at the beginning.

If only Game of Thrones had been so careful. What strikes me about main plot of Game of Thrones is how often major players are being introduced and eliminated, and how often they experience violent and implausible shifts in fortune. Before season 3, you have to listen very hard to notice the existence of the Tyrells. In season three they are suddenly absolutely central, the Lannisters but more so. Meanwhile we are told constantly that the defining quality of the Lannisters is that they are incredibly wealthy, until, very suddenly, they aren’t anymore. The Dothraki and the Starks simply collapse. But most remarkable is the sense one gets that one can’t step ten feet in Westeros without tripping over some new army. Someone has always carelessly left a major fighting force lying around. Sometimes it’s in Dorn, sometimes in Meereen, sometimes north of the wall. Never has a land been so thick with troops.

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The Execution of Ned Stark

The effect of all this constant change is to render every plot twist essentially meaningless. Why would we care what the current balance of power is when it can suddenly be reshuffled with some new infusion of new players? Any one of these sudden shifts may have been justifiable but collectively they create so much uncertainty that the audience can do nothing to anticipate what will happen next. There are no expectations to foil.

It’s worth pausing to note that this unique quality of uncertainty created a key aspect of the enthusiasm for Game of Thrones: the constant dread, nail biting and speculation about what would happen next. Who would die? Who would rise? Who would fall? It was literally anyone’s guess because none of it made any fucking sense anyway. So fans were free to speculate like gamblers betting on the Superbowl. (Though the comparison may be unfair to gamblers who at least have some basis for the decisions they make.) And this is why I will not hear any complaints from and Game of Thrones fans who want to tell me that Bran sitting on the Iron Throne is an “unsatisfying” ending. I’m sure it was, but that misses the point. Any ending to Game of Thrones was inevitably going to be unsatisfying. For an ending to be satisfying it has to fit into some narrative and thematic structure. But the narrative of Game of Thrones was so helplessly muddled by the end that there was nothing for the ending to fit into. So of course the ending was unsatisfying. What was there, after all, to satisfy?

But Game of Thrones’ problems do not end there. The show could have also learned much from Babylon 5 in terms of pacing and development. Bab 5 was an old-fashioned show that ran for over twenty hour-long episodes a season. Of these twenty-odd episodes, some were devoted to telling the main story and some were devoted to stand-alone stories which had little or no impact on the main plot, a format that some viewers may recognize from The X-files. Such a pattern had many advantages. The inclusion of unrelated stories with characters that made one-time appearances made the world feel appropriately vast and lived in. And when, after several such episodes, the audience rejoins the main plot, there is a sense that time has past and the characters may have been concerned with other affairs.

Game of Thrones had seasons of ten episodes or fewer and that always felt inappropriate to a show telling such a massive story with such an expansive tableau (far more expansive, as we’ve already seen, than that of Babylon 5). This gives us a story that always feels like too much and too little. So many sub-plots and minor characters compete for our attention that each one seems to be treated inadequately. I particularly noted this in the story line with Jon Snow and the Night’s Watch. This should have been the story of Jon slowly maturing, coming into his own and taking command. But instead, in what feels like no time at all, he arrives at the Wall, challenges the leadership of the Night Watch, takes over and then departs. The story is so compressed that we hardly have time to react to one change before we are confronted with another. A similar problem plagued the story of Arya’s training with the Faceless Men. She resists their lessons again and again, and then, suddenly, submits. Why exactly she suddenly accepts their discipline is not at all clear because its not at all developed.

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Arya Faceless

Of course such stories with their intense inward focus and their concern with the subtle, conflicting motivations and self-deceptions of individual characters were never going to get the soil they needed with only ten hours to go around. Very clearly this was a case of economics taking precedence over storytelling. HBO was not going to add more episodes because doing so would mean dropping the budgets and spectacle had become a hallmark of the Game of Thrones brand. As budgets ballooned seasons even shrank to fewer than 10 episodes. Character development was shoved to one side in favor of elaborate battle sequences. This basic problem doomed the series from the start. The refusal of the show runners to either prune the characters down to something manageable or else provide the space they needed prevented even the possibility of a telling a successful story.

But even if somehow everything I have already described could have been forgiven, we have still to confront the show’s most unforgivable mistakes. I speak, of course, of the show’s massive, insulting plot-holes. I don’t feel I am exaggerating when I say these alone may have ruined the show for me.

Plot-holes are a delicate matter.  No one wishes to be a pedant. We know that no story, however realistic, is without some contrivance. But what have in Game of Thrones is not mere contrivance, but plot-gaping-chasms that you could drive a caravan of eighteen-wheelers through. They are plot-holes so large that they collectively imply that our characters cannot see ten minutes into the future or an inch in front of their faces. I will limit myself to a few examples.

Season 3 finds Daenerys Targaryen in a distant land, still ambitious of claiming the Iron Throne but with few means of accomplishing it. She has no money or troops, only the prestige of being Khaleesi and a Targaryen and her three still-fledgling dragons. She has the opportunity to find an army in Slaver’s Bay. The Unsullied are a disciplined and effective force of slave-soldiers which their owners and trainers sell to the highest bidder. Having no treasure to purchase such a force, she elects to trade one of her dragons for an army of the Unsullied. This is a difficult decision for her. In order to get what she needs to make her challenge and reclaim her kingdom, she has to give up something of deep value to her both strategically and personally. So far so good.

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Daenerys Targaryen with dragon

Then something incredibly stupid happens. The slave-trader Daenerys is dealing with stipulates that he is willing to sell all of his troops in exchange for one dragon. This made me, alone in my living room, physically throw my hands up in the air in frustration.

Consider this deal from the slave-trader’s perspective. He is agreeing to a trade that will leave him sitting across the table from his client with no troops and one juvenile dragon that does not know him and will in all likelihood not obey him. Daenerys — who loves her dragons like her own children — would then just walk away, ruefully mourning the dragon she left behind while simultaneously leading two dragons and an army. Being a sweet, trusting sort of slave-dealer, he believes this will all actually happen. Meanwhile Daenerys’ supposedly whip-smart political advisors anxiously counsel her not to make such a deal, which a moderately intelligent child could see had no intention of honoring, thus destroying those characters forever. Anytime in the future that they got high-handed or didactic with Daenerys, she should have just reminded them of that time they actually thought she was going to leave her most prized possession behind and not seize the blindingly obvious opportunity to immediately steal it back.

Then the only thing that could possibly happen happens and Daenerys immediately takes her new troops and two remaining dragons to recover her one forfeited dragon. I hoped against hope that there would be some kind of twist to make it less insulting, but in vain. She basically just takes advantage of the fact that her antagonist has absolutely no ability to calculate the consequences of his own actions. The monumentally stupid slave-dealer dies a deserved death, while Daenerys gets her troops and keeps all her dragons. The story declines to force her to make any difficult or interesting decision about what she values and fails to enforce any real trade-off. All that we learn is that several of our characters are much dumber than we’d been lead to believe.

A similarly aneurism-inducing “plot twist” occurs in Season Five. By this time Tommen is crowned King of Westeros, and those surrounding the young king are jockeying for influence and position. In particular Tommen’s mother, Queen Cersei, decides she must remove his wife Queen Margaery, for very inadequate reasons largely having to do with a heretofore unknown prophecy. This is already bad enough, but the real problem is the plan Cersei concocts. She decides to align herself with some religious fanatics who decry decadence, selfishness and negligence among the elite and powerful. She then allows them to place Queen Margaery on trail and have her imprisoned.

It is perhaps worth noting that actual monarchs tend not to do things like this. Indeed Elizabeth I shrank from killing Mary Queen of Scots even after she had made a handful of attempts to take her life and topple her government. Elizabeth still insisted it was never legitimate for citizens to kill a sovereign Queen, and one can see why she would be so keen on such a doctrine, only fifty years before Charles lost his head.  But before anyone complains that I am expecting too much realism from the dragon show, let me again state that I would settle for characters who made even the mildest effort to anticipate the consequences of their own actions. Cersei is obviously not such a character as she apparently gives no thought to elevating a power-hungry zealot who is dedicated to rooting out the kind of corruption that she herself embodies as well or better than Margaery and investing him with the power to depose and judge Queens. So, once again, the only thing that could possibly happen happens, and the religious reformers turn on Cersei, have her imprisoned and take control of the government.

This makes a suitable place to end my essay because, I confess, it was also where I ended with the show.  After such an obviously, ham-fistedly pre-ordained “twist,” I could endure no more. I soldiered on for a few more episodes, but my interest had been mortally wounded. I can only be insulted so many times. It was just a little while after this that I heard the show was starting to get bad.

As much as I hated Game of Thrones, I am very glad I watched as much of it as I did. I feel this way not because it gives me insight into anything it was actually supposed to be about (which it does not), but because I feel it gives me insight into all of you. No television show seemed to channel the zeitgeist so well or play so nimbly on the anxieties of the public. Undoubtedly it will have a great significance for future social historians out of all proportion to its artistic merit, much as the novels of Horatio Alger do for historians of the Gilded Age. And it is because of you, the fans, that I am still moved to think and write about the show now that it has passed into history. I have to think about the differences between us that allowed and even compelled you to continue when I could stomach no more.

So why didn’t you stop? I don’t know how anyone will respond (should anyone respond at all), but I do have experience in this kind of argument. What usually happens is that my interlocutors completely collapse under the slightest pressure. They decline to engage any of my arguments and, say, propose adequate motivation for this character’s action or defend that that piece of direction. This is usually followed by a lot of looking at their shoes and muttering, shame-faced, about how they never thought it was a “good” show (they supply the quotation marks themselves), it was only that they liked it. They knew it had flaws, but they didn’t care. There were dragons and sieges and nudity, and it was a fun ride.

It is partly in virtue of such defenses that I say that Game of Thrones fans do not merely have a different standard but are actually wrong.  If I have a fundamental message it is that you, the fans, deserve more. There is no reason that Americans should have to drop their standards so low and overlook so much in order to be entertained. Our anxieties about ecological disaster, declining international order and the corrupting influences of power are reasonable and well founded. They should be explored and articulated in art worthy of such serious concerns. There is no reason to accept lazy plotting and inconsistent style.

No one, I am told, was happy with the end of Game of Thrones. What they should have seen was that such dissatisfaction was preordained. My hope is that next time, fans will remember their disappointment and demand something better. If our politics and culture are awful, at least the fantasy versions of them should entertaining. In these dreadful times I believe we all deserve at least that much.

Notes

[1] https://bloggingheads.tv/videos/46951?in=00:35

[2] https://www.nationalreview.com/2019/05/david-french-response-sohrab-ahmari/

25 Comments »

  1. I agree with you. Wildly overrated. I pretty much only watched it for Maisie Williams, who I thought stole the show (much like Chloe Moretz did in Kick Ass), and I stopped watching during the second season, because I found the sexual violence seriously objectionable; so much so that I literally had to cover my face with my hands during some of the scenes. Very odd that in the current climate one could make such a thing. People get up in arms about the sexism of classic James Bond movies, but have no problem with rape and sexual torture in GoT. The mind reels.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. I read the first book and thought, hmmm… maybe. I started the second book and pretty soon I was spending more time looking at the map and trying to figure who/what/where/when (fruitlessly, I might add) than reading. I decided GoT wasn’t good enough to work that hard.

    When GoT came out on TV? The trailers told me all I needed to know. There was no point in my watching because there was no point to what I would be watching. And when people raved about it? Well, I just didn’t care.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Ah, David, David, David (sigh); well, what have I said about aesthetics and television?

    First, welcome back; you have not submitted an article here for some time, and I for one have rather missed you.

    Your article is an erudite and persuasive work of criticism, and enjoyable to read. I confess I’ve never watched a single episode of the program discussed, and feel no desire to; although I did watch a kind of review of it (I think it was through Youtube’s Honest Trailers) and saw nothing to my liking. So I am certainly not going to argue with your judgment here.

    Let me approach the OP from a different direction entirely. Your position is 1) aesthetic valuations are applicable to television programs. I’m not going to argue that point at all, but, rather agree with it for the sake of getting on to your more specific substantive claims: 2) Game of Thrones violates legitimate aesthetic standards for its genre; 3) to the extent that the program as a whole is just a bad or failed effort within its genre; 4) to the extent that positive valuations of the program are either indefensible or simply wrong; 5) to the extent that – now here’s the rub – its popularity is inexplicable. (You do not come out and say this, but that’s the implication of the article, especially the final paragraphs.) That’s a problem; because the popularity of the program – its successful marketing and profiteering as entertainment commodity – is exactly what has to be explained.

    In the last article I wrote on semiotics that Dan posted here, some complained that they didn’t understand what use semiotics was as a theory or practice of interpretation; yet it is concerning such phenomena as you present us here that semiotic interpretation reveals its real value. If signifiers are repeatedly received receptively, positively, then their signification will be found within the domain of their positive reception. In blunt terms, if someone repeatedly slaps me in the face, and I let them, then the signification of my tolerance of the abuse will not be found in the event, but in my response to the act. I might say, “oh, do it again,” or “no, harder,” or maybe “what did I do this time?” or “I deserved that!” I may laugh, I may cry, I may hang my head in shame. That is not the whole story, but is of keener value in interpreting the phenomenon than trying to decide whether it was a good solid slap or weak wimpy swipe.

    You write: “There is no reason to accept lazy plotting and inconsistent style.” There is *if that’s what the audience wants*. Isn’t it obvious? Much of what you’re complaining of, comprises what brought most of its audience to the program. And apparently that’s such a sizable percentage of the population that it became lingua franca, at least as far as the media was concerned (including much of social media, I gather).

    That means, for greater understanding of the phenomena, we have to approach GoT from a completely different perspective than that of traditional aesthetics. And we actually have one available to us, recently discussed at this site.

    The Game of Thrones is a Post-Modern entertainment. “The problem is that all of our characters are really, just below the surface, modern Americans.” Yes! in post-modern entertainment, it is no longer necessary to imagine a fantasy world or even an era of history, that is in any way different than our own. The first inkling of the post-modern in television included shows like The Wild Wild West, way back in the early ’60s. But by the ’90s, it was so ubiquitous that it was easily missed. Think of (to mention two shows I actually enjoyed), Brisco County Jr, or The Legendary Adventures of Hercules. I don’t know if you watched either of these, but if you did, you were watching post-modern TV coming into its own. (I did know that; I had already read Lyotard and Baudrillard.) We don’t even have to worry about the ‘fourth wall’ or credibility any more. Coffee cups, water bottles? I’m surprised no actor turned to the camera and called “break for lunch!”

    Television is a passive entertainment medium. We used to watch it as family, but now, your own report of watching GoT alone is probably the common experience. That being the case, there is no longer any limiting value to what viewers allow themselves to watch. That is, when it was watched in the family, there were certain topics and presentations that were taboo; as well as certain values we expected would be shared with other viewers. That’s no longer the case. Fans of various shows today therefore have to seek each other out – hence reliance on social media – and if some fans are themselves known media figures, all the better for the still important audience share. GoT is such a phenomenon because its fan base has enlarged to include wide swaths of the populations of multiple media.

    This also suggests that much of what you – and Dan – found deplorable in GoT is what, in the privacy of their own viewing, the audience enjoyed – the violence, the sex, the lazy plot twists, the irrational behavior, the weird mix of middleclass upward-mobility ambitions with grandiose aristocratic intrigue – this is what they were looking for, and GoT supplied it.

    With a passively received entertainment, enjoyed alone, it should also be noted that once the audience has invested in the characters, the only necessary means of getting the audience to return again and again to the program is to provide the hook of interest in “what happens next.” Hence our current allergy to “spoilers,” a matter of concern that only mystery novel readers once shared. But even then, once one knew Brigid O’Shaughnessy “dun it,” did that really spoil the enjoyment of re-reading the Maltese Falcon, or watching Huston’s brilliant film version? But with only the “what happens next?” to link episodes together in our serial entertainments, of course we’re horrified that “what happens next” might not be worth the candle.

    In the post-modern era, aesthetic valuations give way to “what happens next?” No aesthetic judgment is required for defense of one’s enjoyments. Hence art gives way to kitsch. The Game of Thrones is the kitschification of fantasy literature, which itself was something of a kitschification of the grand sagas and epics it derived from. (I was never all that enamored of Tolkien, preferring the Norwegian Sagas he drew upon.)

    The first philosophic text to suggest how Kitsch might appear on the cultural horizon was a remark Kant makes in the Critique of Aesthetic Judgment. It’s the passage where he describes entering a room and finding a bird chirping away, and finding it charming; only to discover, upon drawing closer, that it’s only a mechanical ‘bird’ on a music box, and feeling disappointed.

    That disappointment reminds us that Kant is a Modern. The post-modern says, “screw the real thing, I want the mechanical bird!” The GoT is the mechanical bird of fantasy entertainment.

    I’ve gone on too long, but one last note: Apparently, GoT’s viewers are largely disappointed with the finale. Without knowing anything about it (other than that some of the characters survive,) I can say what would probably have been the most audience-satisfying way to end the series: In a final battle everybody kills everybody else, and a long track to an aerial view presents all their bodies strewn across the battlefield. Fade to black.

    As Baudrillard could have remarked, it is post-modern to prefer the mechanical bird to the real thing. But I’ve also read Deleuze and Guattari; it is also post-modern to throw both against the wall and enjoy the scattering of broken parts as abstract design.

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  4. Give us your thoughts on True Detective, especially season 1. Some dialogues are cringe, but the cinematography is the best I have ever seen in a tv series. Oh, and the intro!

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  5. Great article, thank you for writing it David.

    “But before anyone complains that I am expecting too much realism from the dragon show”

    It’s worth noting that fans of the show have tended to point out that it is “just a fantasy dragon show” when explaining away absurd plot holes and contrivances, while also defending gratuitous death, rape and torture as based on the “historically accurate” consequences of realpolitik.

    This is one of the most obnoxious aspects of the show (along with lots of recent “gritty” pop entertainment): fantasy and brutal realism are combined such that the writers always have an excuse for poor plotting and lurid sensationalism.

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  6. Hey Dan,

    “Very odd that in the current climate one could make such a thing. People get up in arms about the sexism of classic James Bond movies, but have no problem with rape and sexual torture in GoT. The mind reels.”
    I can tell you since I listen to more PC stuff than you do that it did get a lot of heat but from people who all identified as big fans otherwise. Certainly agree it was very weird.

    hi lif strand,

    You didn’t miss much.

    hi ej,

    Well you gave me a lot to respond to here, forgive me if I don’t get it all.

    I actually don’t accept your account of my philosophy of aesthetics. this would not be the place to give a full account of my beliefs I can make a few comments. 1) I don’t think making value judgments is rule governed for the reasons Kant and Sibley pointed out. 2) I agree largely with Collingwood’s theory of art. Basically I am calling my reader’s attention to features of the work and seeing if they share the same reaction I have.

    “There is *if that’s what the audience wants*. Isn’t it obvious?”

    It’s not yet obvious to me. I think what audiences watch is partly a function of what they have been asked to accept. I think if they were offered something better they would flock to it. And they have when Netflix has offered them really good stories. For similar reasons I don’t believe we’re in a postmodern era as you describe it.

    hi Max,

    I loved TD season 1, and almost loved it against my will. It sounded really cliche but it won me over. I found Russ very worn as a character archetype. He was essentially Hamlet, brilliant and indecisive (much like Jon Snow actually). I was far more drawn to Cole, who I found to be a very new and compelling character.

    hi C Russo,

    “It’s worth noting that fans of the show have tended to point out that it is “just a fantasy dragon show” when explaining away absurd plot holes and contrivances”

    I know, I know, and it drives me crazy. I understand the desire for schlock, but I wish people would at least demand good schlock. Plot holes and such are pretty basic.

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    • David,
      ” I think what audiences watch is partly a function of what they have been asked to accept. I think if they were offered something better they would flock to it.”

      Are you seriously suggesting that over eight seasons across nine years an audience of 20 million – 30 million for the final 2 seasons, nearly a tenth of the US population – including many people intelligent enough to be themselves professional writers, including professional critics – found nothing better offered to them in that particular time-slot on television? Couldn’t they just decide to read a good book?

      I remember a professor of mine dismissing punk rock with: “Kids can’t possibly really want to slam dance!” – they just needed more interesting entertainments offered them. Being a punk rocker, I knew he was wrong then; with no commitments to GoT, I can still say that you’re wrong now.

      Post-modernism is one possible explanation for GoT as cultural phenomenon; it persuades me until a stronger explanation shows up. But you have no explanation to offer at all.

      You suggest towards the end of the OP that when confronted with your arguments GoT fans seem embarrassed and have no counter-arguments to make. In the present era, they don’t need to make any such arguments; “it was a fun ride” is all they need. And I doubt they are anywhere near as “shame-faced” as you make them out to be. There was no point in arguing for punk rock with my professor; I could only go out and slam dance the next time the Ramones were in town. They were of my tribe.

      You are not of the tribe of GoT fans. Neither am I, but I feel no need to take either an aesthetic or political high ground in relation to that.

      I am not happy that there are ever socio-cultural phenomena like that of GoT. I am not happy that I am living in what I believe to be the era of Post-Modernity. But insisting that standards set by the Enlightenment, counterbalanced with certain Romantic modifications, circumscribe the horizons of what art or entertainment have to offer us, misses the evident experience we live with, that the “us” needs now to be reconsidered, the “we” is a signifier no longer inclusive of voices simply sharing the same time and place. There is a history to that fragmentation; however unhappy, it needs study and further explanation for the sake of understanding – not dismissal.

      Thirty million people over a nine year period; and the most you can say of them is that they’re “wrong”?

      “We are asked to toggle back and forth between empathy and jealousy until, ultimately, we can’t really feel anything at all.
      Ultimately, a similar dissonance arises between the audience and Westeros as a whole.”

      Numbness and dissonance may be exactly what the audience was looking for. Post-modernism offers one possible explanation for that; you are actually implying that this can’t be the case. But when I see ducks flock to water I don’t assume they are delusional and would be happier on dry land; I ask what benefits they receive from the water and accept these when evident.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I would imagine that you, EJ Winner, got into punk rock because it appeared when you were younger and at the age when almost all of us are seeking a tribe. You probably still like punk rock, as most of us continue to enjoy the music that we listened when we were young, in large part, I believe, because of the positive associations that it has.

        I doubt that you would become as enthused about a new type of pop music that now appears because from what I can see from what you write here, you’ve become a relatively autonomous individual with your own special artistic and intellectual tastes, who is no longer member of any mass or herd.

        David is younger than us and so is facing that moment when one becomes aware of the fact that one no longer has herd tastes of any kind and that there is no going back, that one is on one’s own intellectually and culturally. He’s processing that and as you probably recall from your own life, that process is not always easy.

        Once that process is over, one can even watch mass programs like Game of Thrones with a sense of humor and a certain distance, although I confess that I’ve never seen the program nor had the least bit of interest in watching it.

        Liked by 2 people

  7. If I may say something so boring that I’m afraid to say it: people don’t altways like things because of the qualities of the thing itself.
    Perhaps the sociological aspect of “liking” GoT is important too.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ah, I didn’t see EJ’s most recent contribution when I was typing my reaction. He points to the sociological aspects I was thinking about, tribes etc. Apologies.

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  8. 1. Two years ago Matthew Walter wrote a short article for The Week with the title: “Game of Thrones is bad — and bad for you” which might be of interest.

    2. You could some of the interest for the show as a function of people who were “book fans” and were happy to see their favorite high fantasy book series made into a HBO TV show.

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  9. And now for a different take.

    I started reading the book and I started watching the series. I quickly abandoned both because they did not ‘resonate‘ with me. The key word here is ‘resonate‘. If you are a mechanical engineer or an electronics engineer you will know that resonance plays a large role in structures. And you may even have been wrongly taught that resonance was the cause of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge failure.

    If you have idly tapped your wine glass with your finger nail you will have heard it ring at its resonant frequency. Tap it with the fleshy part of your finger and all you will hear is a soft thud. You have failed to excite the wine glass at its resonant frequency. Stroke its rim in the right way and you will produce a gratifying sound as it resonates at its natural frequency. This is what most producers try to do, stroke our collective psyche in such a way that it produces cultural resonance across a large segment of society. This is a very difficult thing to do but when they do you get a phenomenon like Game of Thrones.

    This has comparatively little to do with aesthetics or other forms of merit but has everything to do with elasticity, coupling and absence of damping. Resonant systems must be elastic and strongly coupled, with an absence of damping. Younger demographics tend to be more flexible(elastic) and more strongly coupled by a clear sense of identity. The heightened sense of individuality with concomitant reduced societal controls means that there is low damping.

    All of this means is that there are large segments of society with a natural tendency to resonance. Finding the right way to excite that resonance is the difficult part because of the complexity and continually mutating nature of society. Game of Thrones got it right. Trump got it right.

    I agree with David’s assessment and loved the way he put it. But it is almost beside the point because resonance has today largely supplanted merit as the primary goal. Moreover we have aged out of the resonant groups. This ageing process makes us less flexible and therefore not as easily excited into resonance. With experience we become more dispassionate observers and this reduces our coupling with societal groups. Careful thought is a damping force. With reduced flexibility, reduced coupling and greater damping, we are no longer as easily excited into resonance.

    But this is not a cause for celebration but rather an occasion for sadness if it means that our capacity for enthusiasm, awe, reverence and delight are diminished. To experience this important side of our nature we must restore our flexibility and heighten our coupling with objects of beauty and intrinsic merit. We must reduce damping forces by becoming more committed and involved with things that excite awe and reverence. We must allow ourselves to be excited by them and to experience the wonder of curiosity.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Future historians will have a lot of fun with how terrible pop culture is now. You have a bunch of people with a relatively high standard of living who have come to fetishize suffering. They live in the richest country in the world during a period of unprecedented economic prosperity and they see Armageddon all around them. There are more women than men at US universities now, but in the fantasies of Hollywood, women are dressed up as nuns and raped according to a fixed schedule.

    It really is a fetish too. They derive pleasure from the idea of being hurt. Victimhood is their favorite thing to talk about. You’ve got multimillionaire actresses who want to check their phone while they are in Prada shopping for an outfit to wear on their boyfriend’s yacht and see babies in ICE custody with untreated flu symptoms. They could change the plight of that kid tomorrow if they wanted, but the child’s fate is not important. What’s important is how their voyeurism makes them feel. And that’s what their audiences want too. It’s pornographic.

    Our storytellers are so spoiled they can’t portray suffering in a credible way – or depict a realistic villain – and that produces some really bad art. (Perhaps content is a better word than art.) Their storytelling comes across as either gratuitous violence or contrived, self-indulgent whining. They live in a bubble in the real world where someone wrapping their hands around your shoulders without a notarized consent form is assault (that’s how far they have to reach to come up with some perceived wrong in their environment) and they still can’t have a romantic relationship twenty years later…. Of course they are terrible storytellers.

    They love the idea of an antihero, but they have no idea what an antihero is. An antihero is a person with basically good impulses who courageously chooses to live outside an unjust system. Now people tell stories about people with basically bad impulses making objectively awful life decisions and praise them for rebelling against wisdom traditions – that’s what they think an antihero is, because their ideas about virtue are upside down.

    I think a lot of this situation ultimately stems from how the entertainment industry has become highly consolidated both financially and ideologically. Everything you can say about how terrible pop culture is you can say about the ridiculousness of the American left in politics and academia. In the era of big tech and big media, substantially all content is funneled through the same set of wretched, anti-intellectual, emotional people and consumed by the same. The chattering class on the right watches this content so they have something to chatter about, and the ridiculousness rubs off on them too. They all assume that the majority of America wants to consume what is produced because they have created a financial and political universe where they only see people like them.

    Liked by 2 people

    • saucysandpiper

      Great comment.

      “… They all assume that the majority of America wants to consume what is produced because they have created a financial and political universe where they only see people like them.”

      It’s worse than that, in my opinion. That “financial and political universe” has, facilitated by digital technologies, profoundly affected the way most younger people think.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. I struggle with understanding the extent of their influence on younger generations. I try to follow the attitudes of Generation Z because our daughter (though too young to form opinions on such topics at the moment) belongs to that generation. As far as I can tell, they are so turned off by the values of both old media and streaming services that they get much of their content off of YouTube precisely because they can hear the other side. Google products have their problems, but to me, that seems promising. My husband and I are Gen X, we homeschool, and a lot of our friends have gradually moved toward homeschooling (along with millions of other people… it seems to be increasing exponentially) as schools and media have both become unglued. (For us, working in the tech industry has made that financially and logistically possible.) I suspect that culture is starting to swing hard in the other direction. I sort of wonder if after the 60s crowd is in assisted living that culture is going to swing hard in the other direction because you are going to have both Gen X and Gen Z ganging up on Millennials saying we are done with brats and fetishized suffering and reclaiming western civilization and traditional values. There are reasons these ideas endure, after all.

    Liked by 1 person

    • saucysandpiper

      I almost share your optimism about generational change. But, as I see it, a stable culture must be historically rooted and tethered. I think we have lost that sense of continuity with the past.

      The need for homeschooling (which I agree with you about) says it all. The wider culture has gone off the rails, captured by the forces of stupidity and philistinism. There are also grave financial, economic and possibly geopolitical problems looming. This is very subjective but to me it seems more like a time for hunkering down and keeping the flickering flame alive rather than for rebuilding. The serious rebuilding will come later.

      Liked by 2 people

  12. TS Eliot – The Hollow Men

    We are the hollow men
    We are the stuffed men
    Leaning together
    Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
    Our dried voices, when
    We whisper together
    Are quiet and meaningless
    As wind in dry grass
    Or rats’ feet over broken glass
    In our dry cellar

    Shape without form, shade without colour,
    Paralysed force, gesture without motion;

    Between the idea
    And the reality
    Between the motion
    And the act
    Falls the Shadow

    Between the conception
    And the creation
    Between the emotion
    And the response
    Falls the Shadow

    Between the desire
    And the spasm
    Between the potency
    And the existence
    Between the essence
    And the descent
    Falls the Shadow

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  13. I honestly had not taken homeschooling seriously as a social phenomenon until a couple years ago. We started homeschooling because it was a great fit for our family. My husband and I both work in financial technology, but we also have graduate philosophy degrees and studied many languages. We are autodidacts who saw school as a waste of our time, and we did not want our daughter to have to experience that. Our daughter was several grades ahead of her peers academically when we briefly tried her on an elite private school. A traditional school wasn’t going to work for her. And we have clients all over the world, so staying up all night working on a project in another time zone is normal for us. It’s impossible to go from that to waiting in a car line for an hour just to pick your kid up because every school now is considered a security risk (because our culture sucks).

    We expected to be freaks in our community, but the opposite is true. We moved a little over a year ago to a seaside town in Florida with about 80,000 people. There are 1,000 homeschooling families here. Homeschooling rivals the public school system. That ratio shocked me, considering government statistics say there are a few million homeschoolers nationally versus hundreds of millions of children. I started researching it, and learned there are many major states that do essentially nothing to track homeschooling families and collect no data on them. (I imagine this is entirely political – why would teachers unions want the government publishing how many families are yanking their kids out of the system? What a cultural indictment that would be.)

    It reminds me of all the talk about the “shadow banking system” during the financial crisis (where loans were made by bundling investor cash as opposed to traditional banks lending money from savings – the loans coming from investors were taking place pretty much in the dark from a regulatory perspective). Well, we have a “shadow education system” in this country.

    There are major movements within homeschooling to return to a classical and literary education. We consider ourselves classical homeschoolers. Our daughter is 7 and can talk your head off about Greece and Rome and can read some Latin. She knows the story of Beowulf. There are massive communities of parents like us, and classical homeschooling groups on social media with tens of thousands of members apiece. Even the secular homeschoolers are heavy on a literary education and the classics. Give it ten years or so when this generation of homeschoolers hits the market. They will not have spent their teenage years parading their angst on social media and debating what gender they are. Their heroes will be CS Lewis and Cardinal Newman, not Lena Dunham. Homeschoolers are certainly preserving culture and there are legions of us now.

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  14. In the early morning a convoy of trucks delivered us to our training camp at Nanyuki, on the lower slopes of Mount Kenya. As we disembarked on the vast parade ground I saw a platoon of recruits marching by at the double, with a fearsome looking sergeant from the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers barking furious orders. My heart quailed. They executed a smart left turn on the march. Except for one benighted soul who turned right, earning the wrath of the devil himself. He scuttled back to his place with the greatest alacrity.

    Much, much later, I was training in the drill squad for our inter-regimental drill competition, which we won. As we marched, performing intricate manoeuvres in perfect unison, I remember wondering how it was that we did this, in such perfect coordination, with our eyes fixed straight ahead and hardly seeing each other. I could not answer the question. It seemed like a miracle, and there I was in the middle of this miracle, wondering how it was possible. I am told that it is also like this when playing in an orchestra.

    As my two anecdotes show, we are a strange species. We are the supreme individualists who nevertheless coordinate our behaviour with exquisite precision, using a multitude of invisible cues(and some not so invisible!). This also happens in the animal world but with only a fraction of the precision, purpose and effectiveness that we are capable of.

    How do we do it? What makes us so effective? The answer lies in the power of narrative. We have woven a colossal and invisible world of narrative that transcends the material world[1]. It is ephemeral but kept alive because we believe in it and constantly refresh it in a myriad ways, small and large. This narrative answers all our questions. Who am I? What should I do? What is expected of me? What can I hope for? How can I get there? This narrative is the impetus for our imagination, allowing us to imagine the future and work for a better future. The power of narratives is that they shape the future. But most of all, this narrative coordinates our behaviour, multiplying our effectiveness by an extraordinary amount, so that we can arrive at this future.

    Narrative then is central to our lives in every way[2]. The quality of our lives depends on the quality of our narratives. Because we value narratives so much we reward the story tellers greatly. This raises two important questions:

    1) Should we now be worrying about the quality of the narratives and their story tellers? Have they started to lead society and no longer reflect society? Is this the kind of leadership we need? Have the rewards corrupted their judgement? Are the narratives corrupting us? David’s essay is powerful evidence of this.

    2) Have we outsourced narrative telling in our families? There was a time when narratives were first constructed in the bosom of the family. The earliest examples are the stories we read to our children. We continued the narrative construction with the informal stories we told each other in a family setting as we related our work, school and societal experiences to each other. These early, familial narratives became the foundation for the adult world of narrative. They provided the prism of values that allowed us to filter and evaluate the flood of new narratives that would envelop us in the adult world. They are foundational for the formation of a good citizen.

    However today’s parents have become passive spectators, watching the narratives of others with prurient fascination, leaving their children free to pick and choose narratives, from the fertile smorgasbord of Hollywood(and others), guided only by juvenile desires. Hollywood, unsurprisingly, have responded to juvenile desire, with predictable results.

    We, the parents, are to blame. We have relinquished our role of story tellers, outsourcing it to Hollywood. We have stopped constructing healthy narratives in the family. We launch our children into a complex world, supported only by the defective, juvenile and corrupt narratives provided by Hollywood. They remain juvenile.

    And so I was greatly heartened to read what SaucySandpiper said about home schooling. Through home schooling we can reclaim the power of good narrative, guiding the formation of healthy young adults. Who knows, they may even learn about St. Augustine, St. Thomas and St. Anselm!

    1. Noah Hariri, in Sapiens, makes this point very effectively, describing the way all of human life is ordered by fictions.

    2. Alisdair MacIntyre says this
    (1) comprehensible human action is narrative in form, (2) human life has a basically narrative shape, (3) persons are essentially story-telling creatures, (4) people establish their lives and arguments in narrative histories and communities, (5) traditions consist and are continued by means of narrative histories, and (6) epistemic progress, as in Kuhnian science, is characterised by the construction and reconstruction of narratives with greater interpretative power.

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  15. The Russian folklorist, Vladimir Propp, did groundbreaking work when he analysed 100 Russian fairy tales to discover their underlying structure. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vladimir_Propp) Here we will discover plot-holes of every conceivable type. We will discovery treachery, improbability, contradiction and the inconceivable in great variety. And yet Maria Tatar(The Classic Fairy Tales, A Critical Edition) says this

    ..fairy tales are still arguably the most powerfully formative tales of childhood and permeate mass media for children and adults, it is not unusual to find them deemed of marginal cultural importance and dismissed as unworthy of critical attention, Yet the staying power of these stories, their widespread and enduring popularity, suggests that they must be addressing issues that have a significant social function—whether critical, conservative, compensatory, or therapeutic.

    I know I am arguing against myself(a good habit?) but I am going to put on another of De Bono’s Six Thinking Hats. I am beginning to wonder if Game of Thrones should not more properly be seen through the lens of traditional folklore or fairy tales. Below are Propp’s 31 elements of folklore. If I had the fortitude and time to watch all of the Game of Thrones I would look for these 31 elements.

    Propp’s Thirty One Functions
    1. Absention. One of the members of a family absents himself from home.
    2. Interdiction. An interdiction is addressed to the hero.
    3. Violation. The interdiction is violated.
    4. Reconnaissance. The villain makes an attempt at reconnaissance.
    5. Delivery. The villain receives information about his victim.
    6. Trickery. The villain attempts to deceive his victim in order to take possession of him or his belongings.
    7. Complicity. The victim submits to deception and thereby unwittingly helps his enemy.
    8, Villainy. The villain causes harm or injury to a member of the family.
    8a. Luck. One member of a family either lacks something or desires to have something.
    9. Mediation, the connective incident. Misfortune or lack is made known; the hero is approached with a request or command; he is allowed to go or he is dispatched.
    10. Beginning counteraction. The seeker agrees to or decides upon counteraction.
    11. Departure. The hero leaves home.
    12. First function of the donor. The hero is tested, interrogated, attacked, etc, which prepares the way for his receiving either a magical agent or helper.
    13. Hero’s reaction. The hero reacts to the actions of the future donor.
    14. Provision or receipt of a magical agent. The hero acquires the use of a magical agent.
    15. Transference, guidance. The hero is transferred, delivered, at led to the whereabouts of an object of search.
    16. Struggle. The hero and the villain join in direct combat.
    17. Branding, marking. The hero is branded.
    18. Victory. The villain is defeated.
    19. Liquidation. The initial misfortune or lack is liquidated.
    20. Return. The hero returns.
    21. Pursuit, chase. The hero is pursued.
    22. Rescue. Rescue of the hero from pursuit.
    23. Unrecognised arrival. The hero, unrecognised, arrives home or in another country.
    24, Unfounded claims. A false hero presents unfounded claims.
    25. Difficult task. A difficult task is proposed to the hero.
    26, Solution. The task is resolved.
    27, Recognition. The hero is recognised.
    28, Exposure. The false hero or villain is exposed.
    29, Transfiguration. The hero is given a new appearance.
    30. Punishment. The villain is punished.
    31. Wedding. The hero is married and ascends the throne.

    Propp’s Dramatis Personae
    1. Villain
    2. Donor or provider
    3. Helper
    4. Princess (a sought-for person) and her father
    5. Dispatcher
    6. Hero
    7. False Hero

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