I used to watch Game of Thrones. Then I realized it was endangering my immortal soul.
Game of Thrones is unquestionably the most acclaimed and beloved show on television. But HBO's hit fantasy series, which returns for a seventh season this Sunday, is not a drama for adults. It's not even a soap opera. It is ultra-violent wizard porn — and boring ultra-violent wizard porn at that. Two decades ago, watching it would have gotten you shoved into a locker.
The extraordinary thing is not that Game of Thrones exists, or that it has a huge base of fans for whom each week's new episode is the object of febrile, quasi-eschatological anticipation, and who write book-length treatises about what will happen to their favorite dwarf princes and troll handlers next season, and who obsessively reread all 4,000 pages of the extant volumes of George R.R. Martin's source material. (There is a couple in Sweden who have read the novels so many times that they are kept on retainer by Martin to remind him of the sex of a certain character's horse, among other details of no-doubt world-historic significance. They met, by their own admission, while playing a Lord of the Rings-based roleplaying game on the internet. Imagine that!) But nerds have always overindulged — that's what being a nerd means.
What is astonishing is that the show's last season attracted some 23 million viewers, most of them adults, seemingly well-socialized, emotionally well-adjusted tax-paying contributors to our GDP.
Popular culture in the English-speaking world is in the grips of a downward nerd-driven death spiral. Outside of the art-house theaters of our major cities it is almost impossible to find more than one semi-decent film a month that is not an adaptation of some decades-old picture book franchise about men in rubber costumes punching each other. The average video game player is more than 30 years old. The only book that most Americans between the ages of 23 and 40 seem to have read whose title does not begin with some variation of "Harry Potter and the” is a fable about talking animals that they were assigned in middle school. Things are bad.
How did this happen? Obviously there is a problem of supply — people can only watch the films and television programs that get made. But supply doesn't exist without demand. There is a deeper sense in which the old problems that were the hallmark of realist fiction and drama — the old stand-bys of morals, manners, marriage, and money — are simply not interesting to people who are not emotionally mature enough to engage with them. And that group, I think, makes up a larger and larger percentage of the dollars-spending, media-consuming American public each year. We really are, emotionally speaking, a nation of teenagers — albeit horny ones with generous allowances.
But the real problem with Game of Thrones is not that it is, like most American popular culture these days, fundamentally adolescent. It is that it is obscene. It is not just bad art; it is art that is bad and bad for you.
I had this realization sometime last year. My wife had gone to bed, and I was sitting up having just finished the penultimate episode of the show's sixth season on my laptop. Then it occurred to me.
My goodness. I've just spent an hour watching to see if a guy who raped a teenage girl at bow-and-arrow point is going to be eaten alive by the animals he has spent the last few seasons subjecting to forms of cruelty that make Michael Vick look like a PETA ambassador or beaten to death in the freezing cold by his victim's half-brother. Thank goodness the guy who set his terminally ill daughter on fire in a pyromantic oblation to a heathen god at the behest of a witch who never seems to wear any clothes is not around to prevent justice from being carried out here — the woman whose size makes her the frequent butt of bestiality-related jokes killed him just in time! Lucky that she has a wealthy and well-connected benefactor in a one-armed knight whose hobbies from childhood on have included killing people and sleeping with his queen sister — including in a church right next to the corpse of one of their unacknowledged sons — to whom we were first introduced when he pushed the little brother of the above-mentioned rape victim out of a window to conceal his incest from her drunken prostitute-addicted domestic-abuser husband! Almighty God has made me in His own image and endowed me with faculties of reason and sense perception and given me free will so that I can tune in next week to see whether the unidextrous dueling champ's royal sister sets her daughter-in-law and the rest of her extended family on fire or just a bunch of priests. Hallelujah!
What does it say about our culture and the state of the souls of millions who participate in it that anyone could find any of this even mildly diverting, much less praise it as a triumph of man's creative energies and subject it to endless hours of analysis and speculation? Half a century ago, when our absurdly generous obscenity laws were still occasionally enforced, a program like this could not have been conceived, much less produced at great expense and broadcast.
One of the most persistent liberal myths is that art has no moral content, that reading or watching or listening to something can never be in itself evil. This is something that can only be true if, conversely, art does not have the power to affect or change us for the good. It is only possible to believe this if you think all art is essentially meaningless and people are insensate vehicles for random information consumption. You can only watch so many decapitations and eye-gouges and rapes and brother-on-sister grope fests before you either give up on the wretched proceedings in disgust or decide to pretend that "Lol, nothing matters" and it's not worth having feelings anyway. Not exactly, in the latter, case a resounding victory for the human spirit.
Game of Thrones reminds us that boredom and despair are, theologically speaking, synonyms.