Creativity in thrall to moral nihilism

Published January 6, 2015

American TV series created for HBO
First episode, April 2011
For ages 18+ only: strong offensive content

The five novels (at least two more are planned) that comprise George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series defied conventional cinematic adaptation: with numerous characters, far-flung locations (everything from deserts to great cities to a wintry wasteland) and complex plots, each of the books was too involved to fit within the confines of even a long movie. HBO’s answer to the challenge was an ongoing series for television. Location filming in Dubrovnik, Malta and Iceland lends beauty and verisimilitude to the invented world of Westeros. The mostly British cast brings considerable gravitas to the characterizations, and they are aided by fine scripting and a first-rate musical score. Game of Thrones is “fantasy,” but it is a very gritty kind of fantasy that uses its fantastical elements (like dragons) sparingly. Its world is one of knights, clashing kingdoms and a preternatural menace that lurks on the other side of an immense wall of ice in the north. Downfall and death can come without warning-even to prominent characters.

But, for all its vaunted preference for painting in “shades of grey” rather than in clearly delineated “black and white,” the series proffers too many characters who are thoroughly despicable. Worse still, it revels in very coarse language, nudity, strong sexual content and brutal violence. Perhaps HBO has the mistaken impression that such content makes their productions “all grown up”? In fact, the deluge of gratuitously ugly content cheapens, degrades and befouls all that’s laudable about Game of Thrones. Indeed, it very nearly derails the series entirely.

Even more troubling is the series’ moral nihilism. Its tagline, after all, is, “You win or you die.” There is a distressing dearth of decency and morality in many (though not all) of the characters. Treachery, brutalization, deceit, cowardice, sadism and outright psychopathy run rampant; and it is discomforting to watch such repugnant characters and behaviour. Conscience is an endangered species in this series; and, somehow, that is deeply off-putting.


And yet, Game of Thrones does exert a magnetic attraction-not because of its distressing lack of a moral centre and its undue fondness for ugliness, but despite those facts. There are (some) men and women of honour; there is true love, courage and self-sacrifice; and there are moments both tender and witty. Game of Thrones is severely wounded by its sometimes ugly and hateful content and by its moral emptiness, but it is saved by its affecting characterizations, its mostly exemplary writing and the breadth of its story.

Still, as moral beings, we instinctively crave a moral centre (and moral behaviours to admire and emulate) in our storytelling. By that measure, Game of Thrones too often substitutes the grotesque, the brutal, the ruthless and the despicable for the qualities that uplift and ennoble us as civilized human beings. And, sad to say, when one surveys the broader television landscape of so-called “reality shows,” game shows, programs devoted to celebrity gossip and lurid crime dramas, the things that uplift and ennoble us seem few and far between-trampled underfoot in the unseemly race to demean, to coarsen and to appeal to our basest instincts.

JOHN ARKELIAN is an award-winning author and journalist.

Copyright © 2014 by John Arkelian.




  • John Arkelian

    John Arkelian is an award-winning author and journalist.

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