A serious question: is it possible in modern society to attend a social gathering without having to listen to a conversation about the latest episode of “Game of Thrones?” Am I the only person whose heart sinks at the inevitable moment in the evening when the conversation turns away from celebrity gossip, sports, politics, or even the weather, and onto the goings-on in Westeros?
Is our culture officially dead?
I happen to be the last living American who has not watched a single second of a single episode of “Game of Thrones”—or at least the last among those Americans who have HBO access. For the entirety of my adolescence and adulthood, I’ve been aggressively uninterested in artistic works set in fantastical worlds. This inability to comprehend Westeros or Middle Earth or Tatooine as metaphor may be a failure on my part. To me, narratives taking place in these invented realms don’t connect back to life on earth as they supposedly do for other viewers. I feel completely at sea when I try to engage them, incapable of understanding why anyone would prefer to watch or read a work that chooses to inhabit the thinner, simplified universe of an author’s imagining instead of addressing the endless complexities of the real world.
No one believes me when I say this—I must be pretending not to like this stuff, I’m just a contrarian—even if, in placing the blame, I generously emphasize my literal-mindedness and overly pragmatic approach to the artistic experience rather than any inadequacy within high fantasy itself (which, in reality, is probably just horrible).
But this isn’t about my tastes. Even if I enjoyed “Game of Thrones,” I feel confident that I would recognize that its ubiquity as a conversation topic presents a significant threat to our civilization. This column is a public service announcement: if you, reader, are the person who always brings up “Game of Thrones” at parties, please stop.
“But,” you’ll argue, “’Game of Thrones’ is the best. Everyone loves it. Everyone loves these conversations except you.”
I grant that “Game of Thrones” may indeed be “the best.” In fact, that’s kind of the problem with it—it’s apparently so well executed as to elevate its genre into a previously unknown respectability, transforming what otherwise would be regarded as the shameful escapism of D&D-playing basement-dwellers into a fully acceptable entertainment product for educated, intelligent adults. The show’s fans—by which I now mean all humans—will argue that Westeros is no childish fairyland: “Game of Thrones” may take place in a reimagined medieval landscape with dragons and zombies, but it’s in a sense a work of realism, with characters driven by the same forces of emotion, libido, personal and political history, and practical need as you and I. Its wide acclaim has emboldened its supporters: they will actually chastise you if you don’t watch, as though the program were a genuinely vital piece of culture.
In this way, “Game of Thrones” shares the same function as all other “prestige television,” in that it provides, as art once did, the basis for a particular type of class-signifying conversation, except it does so without inflicting any of the artistic challenges typically posed by a literary novel or a foreign film.
How can I tell without having watched it that “Game of Thrones” isn’t art? I listen to the conversations. They’re always about what happened on the show, how crazy it is that so-and-so died, and what does everyone think will happen next week. The stories don’t prompt viewers to reflect back on themselves or to think about anything in the world other than the show itself. Conversations about “Game of Thrones” don’t turn into conversations about politics or philosophy—they’re just conversations about plot. Within our newly proud iteration of “nerd culture” (a reaction to the long unjust scorn it received in the 20th century, before its populace encompassed more or less everyone in America), no one is embarrassed by this.
I don’t care if you like “Game of Thrones”—I’m not actually trying to tell you that you shouldn’t. I watch plenty of television that is a lot sillier, I’m sure. But I would like to remind you that, if you don’t have anything to talk about other than “Game of Thrones,” then—for the good of everyone—you probably just shouldn’t leave the house. You may feel that you’ve done your full cultural homework for the week by tuning in to HBO on Sunday night—this, however, is the idea that we must fight. We can’t allow it to continue to be socially acceptable for people to be this lazy and juvenile as content-consumers or as conversationalists.
So remember: if “Game of Thrones” is the best thing you’ve experienced this week, you’ve actually given up on life, on art, on your own brain—you just don’t realize it. You may proudly self-identify as a geek (which is to say: a smart person), but in fact, you are the workaholic dad who can only talk about football, the senile grandmother whose world revolves entirely around her daytime soaps. You have allowed yourself to become limited. You can do better.