The Rise of “Game of Thrones” Was Part of the Fall of America

HBO knows that neither we nor they any longer have the imagination to care about reality.

Photo: Courtesy of HBO

Like all America’s publications, The Intercept is legally required to run something about the end of the HBO television series “Game of Thrones.” Here it is:

Despite the internet’s current excitement about the show, the most lucid perspective on “Game of Thrones” appeared years ago in December 2016 — coincidentally, just after the election of Donald Trump — and not online. Instead, it was part of the season one finale of another HBO show, “Westworld.”

At the end of the episode, the park’s director, Robert Ford, addresses a large gathering of the executives and investors of the corporation that owns Westworld — themselves some of the park’s heaviest users. “Since I was a child,” he tells them, “I’ve always loved a good story. I believed that stories helped us to ennoble ourselves, to fix what was broken in us, and to help us become the people we dreamed of being. Lies that told a deeper truth.”

Unfortunately, he says, he’s learned that human beings “don’t want to change, or cannot change.” He has therefore written a final story that “will have all those things that you have always enjoyed. Surprises. Violence.”

Then, in violence that is genuinely surprising to Ford’s sleek audience, one of the robots raises a gun and blows Ford’s brains out. At that point, the other robots join in and start slaughtering all of the assembled humans.

On the one hand, it’s hilarious that HBO was implying that its showrunners feel such despair about human possibility that they want to die, and that HBO’s own affluent viewers are so loathsome that they deserve to be exterminated. But the fascination with “Game of Thrones” among America’s most privileged liberals indicates that the joke is, in a profound sense, on us.

If you haven’t watched “Game of Thrones,” you should know that all of the celebration it received is justified. The writing was, at least until recently, deeply gratifying for anyone who likes words. The acting was beautifully precise. The design and technical production were wizardly.

But there was always something unsettling about the show: its unremitting thirst for cruelty. Incest, decapitation, tongues torn out, pregnant women stabbed in the stomach, castration, people having their skin peeled off, rape, crucifixion, children thrown from windows, children jumping from windows, children being burned at the stake, people eaten alive by dogs, more incest. Then it culminated in actual genocide. Its enormous conglomeration of talent was harnessed to exquisitely depict ever more baroque barbarism.

Of course, great stories almost always involve some degree of violence. It’s hardwired into humans to pay close attention to it, for good reason.

But because that’s true, the bad stories pumped out by America’s entertainment factory include violence as well, because they don’t have anything else. “Game of Thrones” was perfect for an audience that’s been marinated since birth in bad stories full of more banal brutality. Like drug addicts, we needed higher and higher doses for our burned-out nervous systems to feel anything. The core viewership for “Game of Thrones” was people who are rich enough to afford an HBO subscription — and therefore have almost any kind of distraction instantly available to them — yet deeply bored.

Anyone who knows anything about history will recognize this kind of decadence of imagination. It’s common among elites in societies in decline. In fact, “Game of Thrones” puts this worldview in the mouth of Sansa, a princess from the provinces who yearned to move to the sophisticated capital — and herself part of a collapsing elite.

“You’ve got to invent a story,” she tells one of her servants as she sits on a dock, speculating on where all the ships on the water are going.

“Why should I make up a story when I know the truth?” asks the servant.

“Because,” Sansa replies, “the truth is always either terrible or boring.”

This is completely wrong: If you can taste more than the strongest mental flavors, much of the truth is both non-terrible and exciting. We actually have the capacity to invent a system that powers everything via the giant glowing orb in the sky. We could use a small fraction of our wealth to provide everyone on Earth with clean water. We could focus our lives on creating something the world’s never seen before: an actual democracy.

However, anyone who’s spent time in the upper precincts of America knows many of the people there believe Sansa in their hearts. Their lives are so cosseted and lush that only extremes can get their attention. Indeed, Trump — even as he experiences the most extreme life possible as president of the United States — is so bored that the only thing he wants to do is watch cable TV.

That’s where “Game of Thrones” leaves us in the end. As some of the few remaining characters discuss building better sewage systems so that regular people don’t die like flies, the camera slowly pulls back, leaving them to it. HBO knows that we simply don’t have the imagination to care about reality.

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