#54: The Dictator as False Messiah: A Belated Review of Game Of Thrones Season 8

I.

Game of Thrones has been a mainstay of recent television mania. Each year, the excitement built up more and more, and for the very last season, expectations were high, and, as it goes with genre shows, fans had their very concrete ideas about how things should develop. This now is a very belated, spoiler-filled review.

The reaction to the conclusion of season 8 of Game of Thrones has typically not been kind. In a nutshell, it runs like this: “All the buildup. All the pathos. All the scheming. And it ends like this. Why?”

That’s basically the criticism. Well, you can see it that way. You could also ask, well, let’s just accept this is what’s happening, and ask what it is meant to accomplish and say. Rather than to allow the frustration over the disappointment of one’s own expectations to govern one’s opinion about the show (i.e. How does that make us feel?), we might instead learn something from the experience (i.e. What might that possibly mean?).

We accept audience frustration in the short run – which drives the popularity for basically anything done by Christopher Nolan (Memento, Inception, Interstellar, Tenet), the current master of surprise turns of narrative once M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs, The Village) lost favor. The gimmick of the unreliable narrative and of surprise turns of events seems to work well with audiences if it comes in the form of a movie-length experience. But if it comes in the final run of a 8-year television series, audiences that have fallen for the trick seem to be frustrated. The same happened with Lost and its absolutely brilliant (and apparently equally not understood) ending. Maybe there’s a lesson here. Limit surprise twists to movie or even television season size (like Dr. Who under Steven Moffat – but even he suffered from frustrated audiences).

Or, in short, people who loved Game of Thrones so much that they named their daughters Daenerys or Khaleesi probably were put off a bit by the ending, one would hope.

The spoiler for this review is as follows: It Makes Perfect Sense. In fact, the entire series can be read as a playbook that lets us understand how people fall for a genocidal dictator, how they end up supporting a violent revolution that in fact runs counter to their interest, and how nothing good can ever come out of supporting someone pretending to be a messiah that will solve all your problems.

II.

Daenerys “Danny” Targaryen sees herself as a liberator. She has been abused, she had to fight for survival, she rose to the top, became Khaleesi (basically, a female Khan), she is a sympathetic character overall, but she has always had a cruel streak. She brutally kills her brother (Season 1). She locks Xaro and Doreah in their own vault in Qarth to die (Season 2). She kills the slavers of Astapor (Season 3) and has the slavers of Mereen crucified (Season 4). She feeds a Mereen nobleman to her dragons (Season 5). She kills the Khals that threatened to abuse her (Season 6, and yes, that was sadly very satisfying). She kills Randyll Tarly and his son (Season 7). She kills Varys (Season 8, now we’re finally suspicious). At every point, these are all signs for what’s to come.

Just because some of her victims are bad people, it is telling that Daenerys’ default answer is cruelty. The audience typically likes it because the show is pulling a Hannibal Lector – audiences tend to identify with the protagonist, especially if they are good-looking, charming, played by a great actor, or can claim to fight for the greater good. Her fight is not for justice, it is for revenge. She clearly delights in the violence, it is visible. Every season shows us a reminder of her character. She may have been a victim in the past, but she has become a perpetrator of violence and cruelty. And like every cruel person in history, she has willing accomplices unable or unwilling to stop her.

III.

Tyrion as Daenerys’ advisor basically plays the role many philosophers have played when trying to appease a brutal tyrant. As Plato fails with Dion of Syracuse, Socrates with the Thirty Tyrants, Aristotle with Alexander, Cicero with Augustus, Machiavelli with Cesare Borgia, Thomas More with Henry VIII., Voltaire with Frederick II, Robespierre with the terror he himself helped unleash, Trotzky (no innocent either) with Stalin, and, arguably, Heidegger with Hitler, and Oliver Stone with Castro and Putin, the philosopher/artist typically cannot keep the brutal tyrant from being a brutal tyrant. They may delude themselves into blunting the blow, into convincing the inconvincible, into preventing the worst. In the end, they never do. In the end, they may soil their reputation by getting too close to power, and by enabling the tyrant and providing legitimacy to a reign of terror that they should have seen coming. Cicero and Thomas More finally stood up against tyranny and paid the price. Heidegger is still being read, but with well-deserved disgust. The Faustian bargain hardly ever pays off.

On Game of Thrones, Tyrion’s fate – as likeable as he might be – should be much harsher. He should have seen what was happening, but he himself has gotten himself deeper into the dark shadows of questionable morality. When escaping King’s Landing, there was no need to kill his father Tywin, who was quite incapacitated at the moment as he was sitting in his bathroom. Tywin may have been a bad father, but killing him – as emotionally pleasing this may have been for Tyrion – was unnecessary, and it led to the downfall of the city eventually. Always the ultimate narcissist, Tyrion shows his lack of morality. The years of being humiliated by his family finally lead him to his breaking point – or do they finally reveal his true, evil character? In order to seek personal vindication, he ushers in the destruction of the city that never loved him. Naturally, he will partner up with the other murderer in the show. Tyrion, too late, realizes he has been playing the Goebbels to Daenarys’ Hitler.

And Jon Snow, he indeed knows nothing. He is the idiotic Siegfried character, duped by Burgundians (by political power), having abandoned his Brünnhild (Ygritte), lusting after Gutrune / Kriemhild / Daenerys, manipulated somehow by Hagen (now there’s a reason for Tyrion as a dwarf!). Enough Wagner, but it’s certainly fun to cross-read these texts. Jon is hopelessly in love, being seduced by Daenerys, and once he realizes the difference between right and wrong, it is rather late. In his very original defense, he indeed did die and was raised from the dead, so he might just as well be dead inside.

IV.

In all of their defense, if such a defense should be justified, this is the story of a world gone mad. It is not easy to maintain your morality under such circumstances. But this is precisely when it counts. Morality in good times is meaningless if it is not challenged. Morality shows up when it matters most, when you have to decide in favor not of your own selfish survival or comfort, but in support of the greater good. It matters whether you give in to the seduction of a violent quick fix, or whether you seek the path that is complicated, painful, laborious, and time-intensive. Put differently, do you save yourself, or do you save your soul?

Difficult times are no excuse. This is not about surviving a concentration camp, or some other liminal experience, this is about the point where you choose to become a perpetrator to avoid being a victim. You may not have a choice when you are ordered to shoot somebody. But you can always aim to miss. Historical evidence shows that most soldiers in battles actually do everything that keeps them from killing. Ironically, Star Wars was right all along: Most stormtroopers fail to hit their target, and it may just be deliberately. Human beings tend to know what is right and what is wrong.

There has to be a caveat here: We ourselves cannot know how we would act in these circumstances. For good reason, we are talking about exceptional situations. It should not be ours to judge too facetiously, lest we be judged also. We all make mistakes, we are all fallible, we are all human. What I am talking about here are deliberate and coherent patterns of cruelty, displayed by the protagonists of a keystone television show. This is not about characters under momentary duress, this is about characters deliberately and knowingly committing or condoning violence. It’s the difference between self-defense and murder.

V.

The show has always been a historical allegory, initially seemingly about the Fall of Rome, but additionally now about World War II.

The gravity of history is unforgiving. Tragedy is when characters end up doing the wrong thing despite having tried everything to avoid doing it. No matter how much they may have wanted to change, they cannot change their nature. Jamie Lannister realizes this. Daenerys Targaryen realizes this. They give in, because that was always their supposed destiny. They are weak, they surrender to the darkness inside. Contrast this with Arya and Sansa Stark: Both have suffered greatly, and yet they eventually beat the darkness and grow beyond the need for revenge. There is always a choice.

Daenerys has always been not just violent, but outright cruel, sadistic, indulgent in violence, almost a mirror image of Ramsay Bolton. We were warned time and again. She has always been nothing but a combined version of Julius Caesar, Attila the Hun, Napoleon, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot, all in one package. She is all dictators. She is all deluded violent revolutionaries. What brilliance to make her into an attractive young girl to allow the audience to fall for her. She has taken all the tragedy of her life and turned it not to wisdom, kindness or compassion, but into a weapon. Once she has the chance to release it, she does.

Like Ahab, she is mad in her pursuit to break the wheel. Yet the wheel of history cannot be broken. This has always been the truth of the show. It had to be revealed eventually, and shockingly, and the audience had to be punished for believing otherwise.

The business of dictators is seduction, and Daenerys has certainly seduced us into (false) hope, just as the show and its producers have seduced us, almost soma-laden, into believing that the wheel of history can be broken, that violent and unprincipled psychopaths shalt lead the way to the revolution, and that everything will be all right.

No, it won’t. It never will be. That way, there’ll only be dragons.

#53: What Is “Left”? A Very Erratic Attempt

Marx famously called for “a ruthless criticism of everything existing” in his 1843 letter to Ruge. Even if you do not agree with Marx in many other things, there is something in here that actually functions as an endorsement of disagreement and skepticism. In the letter it says, in the Original:

“Ist die Construction der Zukunft und das fertig werden für alle Zeiten nicht unsere Sache; so ist desto gewisser, was wir gegenwärtig zu vollbringen haben, ich meine die rücksichtslose Kritik alles Bestehenden, rücksichtslos sowohl in dem Sinne, dass die Kritik sich nicht vor ihren Resultaten fürchtet und eben so wenig vor dem Conflikte mit den vorhandenen Mächten.”

and in English:

“If we have no business with the construction of the future or with organizing it for all time, there can still be no doubt about the task confronting us at present: the ruthless criticism of everything existing, ruthless in that it will shrink neither from its own discoveries, nor from conflict with the powers that be.”

There’s a reason it’s called the “left” – la sinistra, in Italian – the sinister side, not the “right” side, not the straight and narrow, but the other, the alternative, the deviant, creative, non-conforming, erratic, always critical, always critical of criticism, always irreverent part. Insults, hyperbole, aggressive argument (but no physical violence), joie de vivre, endless nights of spirited, no-holds-barred discussion, possibly lubricated with alcohol, THAT is what the left has always been. The chaos out of which a deconstructed order can grow. The cry of the wounded animal seeking healing.

This ruthlessness is an act of respect towards the other disputant. You treat the other person as the idealized version of themselves. You do not give false deference to somebody, you assume they can take it, not that they are weak (does that sound too Klingon? Marx would have loved Klingon blood wine and drink…)

No terms are agreed upon, nothing stands still, thinking never stands still, thinking always has multiple dimensions. There shalt be no orthodoxy. There shalt be no conformity. No collective. No agreement. No safe spaces intellectually, only physically.

Leftism is venal, is concrete, is bacchanalian, both generative and degenerate, both intellectually creative and destructive, but it is not crass – crass is crassism for its own sake. There is always a point to leftism: The destruction of dogma, the liberation of the individual mind, a ruthless and voracious education, and the utopian dedication to shaping a better future made up of a bunch of probably drunk belligerent intellectuals who like to lecture the “little people” on how best to join them, or at least to listen to them. But ideally, the more, the merrier.

Nobody excluded, no dogma, no thoughts forbidden, nothing too inconvenient, everything outright offensive, all language allowed, especially sarcasm, irony, fun, play, and deviance.

This is how the left as an intellectual movement can thrive.

But, sadly, there will always come a point where the creative, destructive, demonic, dialectic energy is contained, harmonized, dogmaticized, in order to bring the troops in line. Manifestos are written, party ideologues take over, discussion is streamlined, the nonconformists swapped out for the conformists, and the character of the “Left” disappears.

The happy catholic spectacle of radical theology (for what else is theology than unhinged philosophy?) turns into the frown-faced and dour eliminationist puritanism that will never tolerate an inconvenient thought. Whatever this new censorious regime of right and wrong, new left and alt-right, of good and evil may be, it certainly should not be called “left,” and it is heading nowhere good.

Personally, I don’t much care for too much causticity in dialog, and Marx’ personality certainly was not very, well, conciliatory. Neither is the talking down to the “little people” helpful. We need to be respectful of each other, and be inclusive of everyone. But respect does not survive well in a puritan thought-control environment either. There needs to be a middle way.

#52: Crisis Fatigue

It is easy to get overwhelmed these times. For too long, “normal” has not existed, and if so, only as a “new normal.” This seems too much to handle at times, and it will not end any time soon, and being overwhelmed is perfectly understandable.

We seem to be not very good at handling a crisis that endures for longer than a few weeks. The news cycle gets tired almost as quickly as we do – we tend to not hear about certain things any more as we adjust to a changed reality. Are there still fires in California? Yes. Is Coronavirus still wreaking havoc? Yes. Is the crisis in Syria still ongoing? Yes. Is the war in the Congo still ongoing? Yes. Is x still happening? Most likely, yes. Is it still on the news? Most likely not, unless something drastic has changed.

We adjust to things, but we are fatigued by it as well. That may work as a coping mechanism on the surface, but deep down, we kinda know. We keep it at bay by keeping it out of our daily concern. But that may mean we are letting our guard down.

The Coronavirus crisis could just as well be over if we all distanced, wore masks, practiced hygiene, stayed at home as much as possible, but adhered to all health guidance – mandated or just recommended – if we did go out to support the economy. Why is that so difficult? We are tired of it, for sure. But is that really a good excuse?

#51: The Politics of Division Cannot Work

Democracy means that every single citizen can participate in politics. This means voting, running for office, serving in office, contributing and shaping the political discourse, and educating each other about the needs of our various communities, stakeholders, interest groups, and about the world around us. This is a collaborative enterprise, it needs all of us, no exceptions. Democracy is not the democracy of a few, but of all those who – as citizens – constitute the sovereign of the country as it moves throughout time.

If all voices matter, this means that all voices should be considered in decision-making. This is the principle of every single democratic nation on the planet. The exact mechanism about how to go about that may differ from country to country, but the principle is still the same. As human beings are not perfect, we need rules and regulations that help us negotiate between our different and divergent interests.

People’s interests diverge because people’s lives are not the same. We are all different, thank heavens – and our diversity is a strength. This pertains not just to diversity of different socially constructed groups, but especially to a diversity of opinion. Depending on where we live, what our histories are, how and where we grew up, whether we have children or not, what kind of work we do, what our communities are, etc., we all have different perspectives, interests and needs that are legitimate from our own perspectives. We all want to be recognized for that, and for our individual perspectives to count and to matter in society at large.

That does not mean that all our wills be done, or even should be done. This is not how it works. Democracy means constant compromise, constant negotiation, constant attention to everybody’s needs. For that to happen, we need to respect each other’s interests, each other’s perspectives and interests. If we lose that respect, if we keep fostering division, if we respect and heed only the special interests of a select few, we all will lose, no matter how legitimate those interests may seem to some.

The Romans knew how to conquer an enemy: “divide et impera” – divide and conquer. Only united will we keep our democracy.

#50: The Value of the Musical Long Form

Music in the long form is seriously undervalued nowadays. Especially classical music – typical, but not exclusive domain of the long form – is distorted in public perception into something that is pleasing, calming, soothing, relaxing, inconsequential. Inoffensive snippets and soundbites of Mozart, Beethoven and Bach (and maybe a few others) are what most people get to identify with classical music.

This is caused by the victory of the “song” model of music, where music only exists as a roughly 2-5 minute snippet of melody, typically with voice, and ideally without any difficult melodic development, maybe in an A-B-A form. There is of course value to such music; but it should not be all there is.

Even genres like pop, rock, country, hip hop/rap, R&B etc. have suffered from this. Contrast albums (and their songs) from the 1960s through the early 2000s with what you typically get today. A song like Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” – which did launch the music video business for real – could probably not find (and sustain) an audience today. Concept albums like Eminem’s second and third albums (The Marshall Mathers LP, The Eminem Show) or Fluke’s Risotto and Puppy, or Moloko’s Statues (or even better, Live at Brixton) or Klaus Schulze’s Dig It need to be seen as coherent pieces of work, not just composed of single songs. The iTunes-i-fication has seriously endangered albums, the long form, and our attention span.

Music needs the long form. It needs the symphony, the music drama, the complete concept album. It needs pieces longer than 5 minutes, needs listeners able and willing to sit through a work of more than 30 minutes in concentration, without interruption, and let it work on them, in all their ambiguity, ups and downs, nuances, contradictions.

If you cannot have this, cannot have a serious interrogation of musical material, and the resulting emotional drama, there cannot be true catharsis. Maybe that’s what we are missing today.