Thursday, July 20, 2017

Game of Souls

I really didn't want to get into this, but I've seen a good deal of Catholic social media take on Game of Thrones and I've had a few friends ask me about my thoughts.  This has all come to a point primarily because of Matthew Walther's article "Game of Thrones is Bad - and Bad for You."  It is a good read at and I highly recommend Googling it.  Matthew Loftus wrote a similar article, "Finding the Gospel in Game of Thrones," at where he concludes that you cannot.

Seeing as how my blog is about the intersection of faith and pop culture, I thought I should throw in my two cents.

First, I do not disagree with the above authors the show is vile.  I would not be beyond saying that it is pornographic.  If you take the literal root of the word "pornography" it can be translated as evil images.  This means that the images are there to elicit an evil moral response by taking pleasure in darkness, whether that be lust or bloodlust.  And Game of Thrones provides plenty of both.

And on that point, I think any morally rational can come to the conclusion that there is much to condemn in the show.  I have ceased watching the show because I found it to be corrosive to the soul.  I think that some part of the producers actually enjoy punishing their audience.

Here is where I disagree: there are things to praise about Game of Thrones.

Do not misunderstand: praising aspects of the art does not redeem the art.  But I think that those who are engaged in the arts would be imperiled if we ignore what Game of Thrones does right.

I think it is a mistake to attribute the wide-spread interest in the show to only its pornographic elements.  If that were the case, then many other shows on premium cable would enjoy the popularity that GOT does.  X-rated exploits may bring people in, but won't necessarily make them stay in the numbers GOT has.  Just look at the 50 Shades series, where the second one cost more and made less.  GOT offers a bit more than that.

Please forgive me for over-emphasizing this point: acknowledging what GOT does well artisticly does not make it good morally.  Nor does it balance out the immorality and make it "okay."  There some I have talked with who would say that giving this show any kind of praise is tantamount to endorsing it.  I wish to be perfectly clear that I do not endorse this show.  But I disagree that making the following observations is the same as endorsing it.

1.  Great Acting.
The performances I've seen on the show have been excellent, Peter Dinklage most of all.  Even some of the worst characters are given emotional depth by the actors.

2.  Amazing Spectacle.
Though there is a lot of visual raunch, there is also a lot of skill with the camera and the special effects that goes into each episode.  The "Battle of the Bastards" from this past season is one of the greatest battle scenes I've ever seen put to film.

3.  Engaging Plot
The story at the center of Game of Thrones is incredibly complex and intriguing.  It is a plot that moves along several layers all at once and the different moving parts come together in some rather unexpected ways sometimes.  I remember talking to a friend of mine recently who does not watch the show.  I spent nearly two hours going over the events of the series (in a sanitized way) and he was intrigued the entire time.  To this day I do not watch the show but catch episode summaries so I can find out how the story progresses.

4.  Shock.
Here I do not simply mean violence.  Instead, in GOT the good guys don't always win.  One of the things that sets this show apart is that no one is safe, not even a lead character.  And yes, there are other shows that have shocking deaths, but I don't think most people are really worried that Rick Grimes is going to die or that Walter White wouldn't make it to the end of the series.  But in this show, no one is safe.

It is this last point that I think presents GOT with its biggest strength and biggest challenge.  One of the reasons that I think people are fascinated by this show is because it is dangerous.  Anyone who watches it does not watch it casually while multitasking.  They watch with great attention because they know that disaster can fall unexpectedly at any time.  If you watch a typical episode of The Flash (a show I love), you aren't usually worried from episode to episode if Barry Allen isn't going to get out of the trap set for him by Gorilla Grodd.  But in GOT if Jon Snow is surrounded by White Walkers, it may be the last time we see him.

Because of this "anything goes" style of writing, the show is not predictable and is therefore exciting in a way that most shows aren't.

However as I said earlier, it is also the show's biggest challenge because if it fails to bring the story threads together into a satisfying conclusion.  Stephen King often had this same problem where the spice of the unexpected caused the bitter aftertaste of poor resolutions.

I cannot say if GOT will have this same problem, but we will see.

Returning to the main point of this article, there is much to praise about the artistry of GOT.  This does not excuse the use of this artistry for a bad end.  In fact, in some ways it makes it worse because good art can reach the heart in a way that bypasses the rational mind.

So why praise the good art inside this morally pernicious show?

Because we need to understand what it does right if we are to make effective art that enlightens rather than darkens the soul.  The four above positives of GOT are not by their nature wicked.  It would be stupid and pointless to use pornography to try and tell a story that uplifts the soul.  That is because pornography is by its nature wicked and a tool of the enemy.  But acting, spectacle, plot, and even shock are morally neutral tools that if used well can help tell a good story.

In the culture wars if we do not know how to fight on the battlefield where the enemy has engaged us, then we are sure to lose.  Movies and television are one front in the Game of Souls.  Perhaps some of my critics are correct and that to even engage this content by praising any aspect of it is the same as playing with fire.  But if you are going to be engaged at all with the popular culture, you do run the risk of being burned by it.

And in the Game of Souls you either win or you burn.

1 comment:

  1. "in some ways it makes it worse because good art can reach the heart in a way that bypasses the rational mind"

    That, I think, is why video games rooted in nihilism can be so popular. I hate The Last of Us, but I can recognize how technically masterful and well acted it is. I've written off shooting games for being built around killing people, but I still feel a smidge of longing to play Half-Life 2 again whenever I cross it in the Steam store. It's a technical masterpiece with unforgettable characters, but it's all a manipulation for us to revel in its brutal violence.