The massive popularity of Game of Thrones is something of an outlier in the field of what we might call Quality TV. Much of the 21st-century television renaissance has involved shows that have, in various ways, held up a mirror to what’s going on in post-millennial America: it doesn’t take a genius to draw a line between the subprime mortgage fiasco and TV’s constant narrative theme of a trapdoor opening under an average, middle-class life (Breaking Bad, Weeds, Orange Is the New Black, innumerable zombie shows), while the rise and rise of the antihero seems to parallel a widespread sense of moral ambiguity, a feeling that the world isn’t as straightforward as it used to be. In this context, an epic sword-and-sorcery drama — one that is, let’s be honest, a giant soap opera with lots of death and inventive swearing — seems somewhat out of place. Why is it so popular? You might argue that it’s pure escapism, but I think the answer is more nuanced than that.
There are certainly parallels between Game of Thrones and the ideas that characterize lots of other critically acclaimed shows: there’s something of the antihero about characters like Tyrion Lannister and his brother Jaime, and the show starts with a classic Call to Adventure, when Robert Baratheon turns up at Winterfell to demand the aid of his old mucker Ned Stark, thus disrupting what has hitherto looked like a pretty sweet existence for the Stark clan. And the characters certainly inhabit a world of moral ambiguity, where what’s right and what’s wrong can shift at the swing of a sword.
The thing that unites the world of Game of Thrones and its contemporaries, I think, is how it deals with these questions of what’s right and what’s wrong. If there’s any sort of ethical thread that ties all these shows together, it’s their emphasis on the virtues and dangers of loyalty. Loyalty is something that all the inhabitants of Westeros prize above all else — the Starks are bound by their strong family ties, the Knight’s Watch are bound by oath and “brotherhood,” and even the dastardly Lannisters pride themselves on paying their debts.
Correspondingly, all of the show’s most harrowing moments hinge on betrayal and disloyalty — the Red Wedding, obviously, but also Littlefinger’s fatal betrayal of Ned Stark (the show’s first “Holy shit, are they really gonna just kill off that character?!” moment) and Stannis Baratheon killing his own brother. Jaime Lannister is known by all and sundry as “Kingslayer” and “Oathbreaker,” notwithstanding the fact that the King he slew was as mad as a box of ferrets and fond of burning people alive for no particular reason. And then there’s the matter of Theon Greyjoy, who suffers the worst fate of all, and not because he murdered a couple of little kids and ineptly beheaded Ser Rodrik — no, it’s because he turned on his adoptive family that he ends up in the clutches of a madman to be strapped to a cross, tortured, and castrated. Disloyalty has its price.
Again, you can see the real-world parallels: the idea that this is a strange time, that old certainties are crumbling, that if you can’t trust in corporations and politicians and job security, the only people you can rely on are your friends and family. This idea isn’t new, of course — the notion of unswerving loyalty as a virtue is as old as humanity itself (it’s not for nothing that we call dogs man’s best friend, y’know), and the trope of the faithful sidekick can be seen in everything from Gilgamesh and Enkidu through Robinson Crusoe and Friday to The Lord of the Rings‘ Sam Gamgee.
Loyalty makes for a slippery code of ethics, though. It’s what you might call subjective morality, where right and wrong is defined in reference to your relationship to others, rather than to any universal standard. It’s interesting to look at how post-millennial TV addresses this idea — whereas golden-age TV presented a very black-and-white moral universe, today’s shows take a more nuanced approach. It’s notable that in Game of Thrones, even the most sympathetic characters do terrible things with impunity, and do so because their loyalty is to their family. Arch-pragmatist Tywin Lannister sums up the reasons behind the War of the Five Kings in a discussion with his son toward the end of the show’s first season: “The future of our family will be determined in these next few months. We could establish a dynasty that would last a thousand years, or we could collapse into nothing.” When the stakes are that high, any act is justified. Blood is thicker than water in Game of Thrones — but it runs free regardless.
This moral equivalency is reflected in a lot of Game of Thrones‘ contemporaries. Walter White’s loyalty to Jesse Pinkman was presented as his redeeming feature throughout his descent into the moral gutter, and thus it’s his betrayal of Jesse that’s the most shocking moment of “Ozymandias” — no mean feat, since that particular hour of TV is one of the most harrowing you’ll ever watch. The Sopranos‘ moral compass is loyalty, a consideration far more important than law or conventional morality, and one that leads to some impressive ethical gymnastics (like when Tony decides to spare his cousin Tony Blundetto the ordeal of being killed by Johnny Sachs by, um, killing Blundetto himself).
The result is that, again, we see the new wave of Quality TV interrogating both the tropes of old TV (it seems an age ago, for instance, when something like The West Wing could exist, a sort of utopian evocation of a presidential administration where everyone was pulling together) and the world in which we live. We’re swimming with sharks in the 21st century, and every question of morality is really one of shades of gray. The age of certainty is long gone, and even our most noble emotions can be twisted into very ignoble deeds.