Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Game of Thrones

Maybe I'm just paranoid, but a lot of pop culture I've been absorbing following the recent Boston Marathon bombings seems to resonate as allegories for the state of the modern world rather than mere mindless entertainments.

I don't think I'm alone. A lot of people must feel a sense of confusion and helplessness in a world where the enemy can't be clearly defined, with attacks happening on home soil from people that outwardly appear to be members of our own communities. Strangers are eyed with suspicion because it's hard to identify just who the bad guys are these days!

I believe this is why the TV show 'Game of Thrones' has such resonance with viewers. People can really connect to the shifting loyalties and degrees of culpability from the characters. Almost nobody is clearly a 'good' or 'bad' character and they all have their own selfish and at other times altruistic motivations. Modern audiences understand this dynamic!

The two characters in Game of Thrones that define the boundaries of 'good' and 'evil' for me are Ned Stark - who acted in the interest of the kingdom and paid with his life; and King Joffrey - who is a sadistic spoilt little brat who ascended to the Iron Throne through circumstance and entitlement. But even these characters are not so clearly defined! Stark died, so we will never know if he would have gone on to tarnish his reputation and whilst Joffrey does seem irredeemably evil, part of me does feel awkward for wishing harm on someone so young.

King Joffrey - smarmy git!

In season three of Game of Thrones I was even surprised to feel sympathy for the character Jamie Lannister who is a celebrated yet arrogant knight, born into privilege and with a silver spoon in his mouth. Whilst attempting to talk his way out of capture, Lannister's hand was severed as a reminder that he couldn't escape every situation by evoking the name of his powerful father.

Lannister was arguably responsible for the death of Stark and the rise of King Joffrey to the Iron Throne, but nevertheless it was sad to see someone so quickly lose their pride. In one scene fellow captor Brienne of Tarth admonishes Lannister for giving up so easily and wishing for death. Lannister explains that as a knight his sword hand is what defines him. Brienne calls him out and says:

"You have a taste of the real world where people have important things taken from them and you whine, cry and quit."

She finally gets through to him by appealing to his prejudices.

"You sound like a bloody woman!"

This is enough to anger Lannister and for him to find a new reason to fight.

Watching the scene made me think of America in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. There certainly were elements in the world that would have seen the attacks on the World Trade Centre as wounding America's pride and an attack on their military might. I, personally, am glad that America regained their composure and spirit to continue in the face of adversity and a faceless enemy. America isn't a perfect country - but no country is.

Whilst I think Game of Thrones is one of the best shows on TV, this scene did make me feel a bit nostalgic for the naivety of my youth and the Cold War, where there were easily definable good guys and bad guys: How I longed for the simplistic violence of John Rambo, the silent vengeance of Dirty Harry and the incoherent ramblings of Arnold Schwarzenneger playing some variation on the dim-witted cop or rudimentary cyborg theme.

These types of characters have become less popular post 9/11 but to me, surprisingly, the one action hero that has survived and is still relevant is James Bond. It's no coincidence that Bond has stayed in the public consciousness for over 50 years - Bond has always tried to comment on the times with varying degrees of success, but the film 'Skyfall' to me is a triumph, especially the rousing middle act in which Judi Dench's character 'M' perfectly tries to encapsulate the relevance of MI6 in the modern age (and also the Bond franchise) by quoting a poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson during some very dry courtroom proceedings. She states:

"We are not now that strength which in old days moved earth and heaven;
that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
made weak by time and fate, but strong in will,
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."

It's a surprisingly moving courtroom scene which features a parallel escape plot from the bad guy 'Silva' which culminates in M staring down the barrel of his gun with steely resolution, and, of course, refusing to yield.

Judi Dench as 'M'

I visited America a few years after 9/11 and the thing that struck me the most about the people in the street was how everyone went about their daily business despite this looming yet unidentifiable threat. There were still bills to be paid, kids to be dropped off at school and personal relationships to maintain. Sure, as Tennyson said, America might be 'one equal temper of heroic hearts,' but it's hard not to feel a certain helplessness on a personal level.

A song by everyman pop-star Jarvis Cocker, to me, sums up this helplessness (and perhaps a touch of liberal guilt). It was written in the wake of the London bombings in July 2005 and is called 'From Auschwitz to Ipswich.' This part of the song gets me every time:

"Not one single soul was saved,
I was busy ordering an Indian takeaway,
While others went to an early grave,
I got stoned - Yeah I went and got stoned"

It's a great line, but to me the point is really driven home by the chorus which goes:

"It's the end, why don't we admit it,
It's the same, from Auschwitz to Ipswich,
Evil comes, we know from not where,
but if we take a look inside ourselves,
maybe we'll find some in there."

The thought of self examination is not something the general public is comfortable with and certainly nothing justifies the death of innocent lives, but it is hard not to consider how much private citizens are responsible for their governments' actions and what real motivations exist when puzzling things happen like an attack from Afghanistan turning into a protracted and tragic war in Iraq. 

Perhaps I'm a bit like Jarvis - Maybe I'll just go and get stoned instead. Better yet, I should try and find a program on TV that's just a mindless distraction and doesn't offer any insight into the human condition or world affairs. 

Come to think of it, I have just the right program!... 

The six o'clock news!

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