With Game of Thrones about to air its final season, it’s an exciting time to think back on the series as we await the conclusion. The George R. R. Martin derived series has become one of the most successful dramatic works of the 21st century. It’s taken seriously both aesthetically and as cult entertainment and has even revived interest in medieval storytelling. Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen is one of the most enigmatic and interesting personalities to be put on the screen, and the high quality cinematography and expansive dramatic situations do a lot to suggest that HD streaming series can compete with film both on aesthetics and dramatic storytelling.
The extremely long running time that a series affords allows for more dramatic development than a film can permit, and Game of Thrones has used this expertly. The series is typically exciting to watch in anticipation of what happens next, but the beauty of it is that this happens in the sense of character development rather than typical Hollywood action as what we anticipate. There is a great deal of subtlety and depth to the portrayal of characters in Game of Thrones. In particular, Cersei Lanister has shown the excesses and horrors of a twisted personality in ways that would be hard to imagine in most dramatic works. There is a psychological richness to this that adds to Game of Thrones as a work of art and cultural achievement as well as entertainment.
With series seven complete and about to give way to the series’ conclusion, we can see paths charted out by these characters that reach very rich depths. Cersei started as someone who seemed innocuous in the first series. As King Robert Baratheon’s wife, she was on the sidelines too much for us to know at first how manipulative and destructive her character would become. As things unfolded though, we saw Cersei whittle away at any shred of decency the kingdom might have had in what would have been only a small way anyhow. Series seven saw her becoming desperate to hold the kingdom that she took control of by destroying so many people. The beginning of a rupture between her and her brother, Jamie, opens exciting possibilities and questions, both in terms of the show’s resolution and in terms of her own psychology starting to fracture. Cersei is so deeply twisted that it’s hard to find much of a personality with consistent values within her. She loves power, corruption, and destruction as much as a depraved politician, and we don’t see anything that is important to her besides that other than having sex with her brother. It’s an interesting twist of perversion becoming dementia that happens in a show that might have been positive towards fetishism like the great band the Lords of Acid are, but instead we see the medieval world unveiling perverse insanity through Cersei.
The shocks that go with the series follow a true medieval logic of shock and horror. This became the precedent of the time partly from kings using terror to maintain and structure their power over kingdoms. They used depraved and shocking violence to woo the population into submission. This is why torture was practiced, and it was used to produce so much shock that the populace would fear the king rather than rebel against being oppressed, as Michel Foucault so excellently charted out in his masterwork, Discipline and Punish. The show takes two basic possibilities of ruling. One involves the use of violence to control people and amass wealth, the model America follows as it abuses poor people very regularly through corrupt scheming with the wealthy. This has led to the show creating great excitement about how accurate it is in portraying contemporary times. The other possibility involves the use of power to support average people and represent their interests in order to raise up society. That model of power doesn’t really exist in the corrupt world of today, but on the show Daenerys and Jon Snow represent this as they fight for larger ideas of justice and protect people who support them. It is likely part of why so many people love the show and identify with its two heroes in great preference to their own crooked leaders.
Jon Snow stands in series seven with a new alliance between him and Daenerys that is brought on both by necessity and good intentions. They see a common desire for justice and and a personal need to actually help the people who support them that leads them to fight together. They also see practical advantages of dealing both with an army of undead people and with Cersei. Magic and mysticism imbue both characters. In the case of Jon, it is through his having been revived from the dead. With Daenerys, it’s through her dragons. The dragons are somewhat up in the air now in how they will impact the show. This was a base of power and uniqueness for Daenerys throughout the whole series, but now a dragon has been taken by the Night King and turned into one of the undead. So we can anticipate an epic fight over this.
The character of Daenerys really is the show’s best invention, and it is somewhat unique to the series more than the books, because the character is so tied to Emilia Clarke’s dramatic portrayal. She is the most just character on the show and the only one who seems to be inspired by something that isn’t at all common. One of the better sides of medieval life and aesthetics was an appreciation for exceptional things, an idea that was often captured by nobility, kings, and varying views of god or magic. Emilia Clarke’s character places that idea in a much larger and otherworldly place by suggesting that she is divinely inspired. This also fits the medieval world well.
One advantage to living in the medieval world was that population sizes were far smaller and distractions far less. There was no environmental crisis in that era. A major reason to be disappointed by industrial civilization is that while we are told propaganda about higher standards of life, in reality resources have been depleted while populations have boomed to a noisy, nonsensical, and unsustainable level while the wealthy horde the planet’s stolen resources. Daenerys wants a more just world, and this is why so many people of today love her, but she does better than that. She wants justice all around. The beauty of the show and her characterization through Emlia Clarke’s slightly removed performance, made to suggest that she is in touch with higher powers like a sort of Joan of Arc (a character of great cinematic lineage through Jacques Rivette and Carl Dreyer), is that we see all of the enigma that goes along with that. She wants justice, and she knows that part of it involves a world of far more equality and less oppression, but she doesn’t know all the specifics of what justice really is. She is inspired by it but also admits that it is hard to define, and this is her greatest relevancy in portraying a just ruler.
By associating her with dragons in Game of Thrones, we see that there is a mystical side to wanting a better world. The good isn’t described by what everyone around her wants or normal human conventions, because the people around her are too corrupt to know what anything good is in the great game of thrones with so many players. Daenerys looks above herself and everyone else to get a sense as to what would be better. She wants to rule Westeros, because medieval conventions of divine bloodlines give her a reason to think that the throne belongs to her, but she also wants to rule simply because she knows she would be less corrupted than others and would do something better, whatever it turns out to be, something that is predictable based on her lack of selfishness.
George R. R. Martin has fused magic, mysticism, fantasy, and politics in an exciting way that captures the flare of the medieval world very well. Game of Thrones has taken this and shown us endless political allegories placed in the context of very complex character development, but it has also managed to keep the fantastical on the edge of the world of Westeros. It allows for Game of Thrones to be magical without being overtaken by it. That’s a far better accomplishment than what Peter Jackson was able to do with Lord of the Rings. Rather than hitting us over the head with supernaturalism, we see glimpses and hints of it that fit the way medievalists were far more obsessed with magic and divine things than people of the present and how it also affected the way that people actually live and the wild world of corrupt politics around them.
The medieval world also had a real sense of physical things and tangible stuff. Unlike the carefully structured unreality of the present day world where people are surrounded by propaganda, fake news, and distracting electronic screens all built by money and greed, the medieval world Game of Thrones recreates snippets of so carefully as it deconstructs power relations actually had tangible objects. So when someone bought a chair it was made by nearby craftsmen instead of factories in China with the profits going to billionaires, and even though people were ruled by kings, it was at least a physical person in a nearby building rather than a psychotic person thousands of miles away propped up by tools of war so violent that nuclear weapons designed to incinerate the entire earth are stockpiled by the violent and insane leaders of today.
At the same time, kings were violent in maintaining their rule, and the population was treated as a game with people to exploit, much like they are today. So the endless comparisons of the old world before capitalism and democracy shown in Game of Thrones and the present are quite fascinating to unravel. I do suspect that medieval storytelling may gain even more popularity as people get ever more sick of their electronically controlled busy and false lives. The medieval approach of seeing a forest by walking out into an actual physical one is in many ways more attractive than the popular method of today in which people just look at a photo app, but it’s too bad there aren’t any dragons to save us.
A few days after this was posted, Emlia Clarke authored a very moving piece in The New Yorker about suffering from a brain injury. After the first season of Game of Thrones was completed, she nearly died of a brain aneurysm. It was a tragic and painful close call involving multiple surgeries and two serious aneurysms. One surgery fixed an artery less invasively by working a probe up through her circulatory system. Things later got worse with a second brain artery rupturing and nearly killing her. That led to invasive surgery which removed part of her skull to access her brain and repair the damage. She suffered tremendous pain and loss of memory and personal characteristics and did not know if she would survive. The sad tragic nature of the story deserves a mention here, because it adds still more to the character of Daenerys and the inspiring power of the show.
The cinematic persona she most resembles is Joan of Arc, especially the Carl Dreyer version in The Passion of Joan of Arc. Dreyer’s Joan suffers, yet is innocent and more than anything someone unusually inspired. She inspires the best in others, and there is a poetic resonance with such a powerful background story for Emila Clarke. She shaped her experiences into something positive by both recovering and starting a charity to help others with the same condition. Her charity is called SameYou, because brain injury can cause people to lose their identity, not know who they even are, and lose much of what made them their former selves. The terror of traumatic brain injury leaves many people uncomfortable with talking about it, and her charity is aimed at changing that and offering assistance. It’s also worth noting that she was in the last days of her health insurance when the near death injury requiring invasive surgery happened, and in the United States many people don’t have health insurance still. The ability to pay for treatment can be a life or death consideration with brain injuries, and her charity is calling attention to something very important.