Evidently I’m not alone in thinking that last week’s episode of Game of Thrones was a major disappointment. By this I (and other critics) do not mean that it was simply a case of poor craftmanship. Instead, it featured a corrosive error in judgment that raised questions about the entire work, both the TV show and the book. Game of Thrones has always been a high-wire act; this week the acrobat very nearly fell off.
In long-running conversations, I’ve generally supported both the violence that GoT is known for and the brutal view the show takes of social relations in its fantasy setting, particularly around gender. Complaints about its violence often (though not invariably) come from people whose understanding of high fantasy draws on a very particular domestication of the medieval and early modern European past that has some well-understood touchstones: a relentless focus on noble or aristocratic characters who float above and outside of their society; a construction of violence to either formal warfare or to courtly rivalry; a simplification (or outright banishment) of the political economy of the referent history; orientalist or colonial tropes of cultural and racial difference, often transposed onto exotic fantasy types or creatures; essentially modern ideas about personality, intersubjectivity, sexuality, family and so on smuggled into most of the interior of the characters.
These moves are not in and of themselves bad. Historical accuracy is not the job of fiction, fantasy or otherwise. But it is also possible that audiences start to confuse the fiction for the referent, or that the tropes do some kind of work in the present that’s obnoxious. That’s certainly why some fantasy writers like China Mieville, Phillip Pullman and George R.R. Martin have various objected to the high fantasy template that borrows most directly from Tolkien. It can lead to a misrecognition of the European past, to the sanctification of elitism in the present (by allowing elites to see themselves as nobility), and also simply to the reduction of creative possibility. If a fantasy writer is going to draw on history, there are histories outside of Europe–but also early modern and medieval Europe suggest other templates.
Martin is known to have drawn on the Wars of the Roses and the Hundred Years War (as did Shakespeare) and quite rightly points out when criticized about the violence in Game of Thrones that his books if anything are still less distressing than the historical reality. It’s a fair point on several levels–not just ‘accuracy’, but that the narrative motion of those histories has considerable dramatic possibility that Tolkienesque high fantasy simply can’t make use of. Game of Thrones is proof enough of that point!
But GoT is not Tuchman’s Distant Mirror nor any number of other works. A while back, Crooked Timber did a lovely seminar on Joanna Clarke’s novel Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Most of the commenters focused on the way in which the novel reprises the conflict between romantics and utilitarians in 19th Century Britain, and many asked: so what do you gain by telling that story as a fantasy rather than a history?
To my mind, you gain two things. The one is that there may be deeper and more emotional truths about how it felt to live and be in a past (or present) moment that you only gain by fiction, and that some of those in turn may only be achievable through fiction that amplifies or exaggerates through the use of fantasy. The second is that you gain the hope of contingency. It’s the second that matters to the last episode of Game of Thrones.
Historical fiction has trouble with “what if”? The more it uses fiction’s permission to be “what if”, the more it risks losing its historicity. It’s the same reason that historians don’t like counterfactuals, for the most part: one step beyond the moment of contingency and you either posit that everything would have turned out the same anyway, or you are stuck on a wild ride into an unknown, imaginary future that proceeds from the chosen moment. Fantasy, on the other hand, can follow what ifs as long as it likes. A what if where Franklin decides to be ambassador to the Iroquois rather than the French is a modest bit of low fantasy; a what if where Franklin summons otherworldly spirits and uses the secret alchemical recipes of Isaac Newton is a much bigger leap away, where the question of whether “Franklin” can be held in a recognizable form starts to kick in. But you gain in that move not only a lot of pleasure but precisely the ability to ask, “What makes the late colonial period in the U.S. recognizable? What makes the Enlightenment? What makes Franklin?” in some very new ways.
Part of what governs the use of fantasy as a way of making history contingent is also just storytelling craft: it allows the narratives that history makes available to become more interesting, more compressed, more focused, to conform not just to speculation but to the requirements of drama.
So Game of Thrones has established that its reading of the late medieval and early modern brings forward not only the violence and precarity of life and power in that time but also the uses and abuses of women within male-dominated systems of power. Fine. The show and the books have established that perfectly well at this point. So now you have a character like Sansa who has had seasons and seasons of being in jeopardy, enough to fill a lifetime of shows on the Lifetime channel. And there is some sense of a forward motion in the character’s story. She makes a decision for the first time in ages, she seems to be playing some version of the “game of thrones” at last, within the constraints of her role.
So why simply lose that sense of focus, of motion, of narrative economy? If Monty Python and the Holy Grail had paused to remind us every five minutes that the king is the person who doesn’t have shit on him, the joke would have stopped being funny on the second go. If Game of Thrones is using fantasy to simply remind us that women in its imagined past-invoking world get raped every five minutes unless they are plucky enough to sign up with faceless assassins or own some dragons, it’s not using its license to contingency properly in any sense. It’s not using it to make better stories with better character growth and it is not using it to imagine “what if”? If I want to tell the story of women in Boko Haram camps as if it were suffused with agency and possibility, I would rightly be attacked for trying to excuse crimes, dismiss suffering and ignore the truth. But that is the world that we live in, the world that history and anthropology and political science and policy and politics must describe. Fiction–and all the more, fantasy–have other options, other roads to walk.
There is no requirement for the show to have Sansa raped by Ramsay Bolton, no truth that must be told, not even the requirement of faithfulness to the text. The text has already (thankfully!) been discarded this season when it offers nothing but meandering pointlessness or in the case of Sansa, nothing at all. So to return suddenly to a kind of conservation of a storyline (“False Arya”) that clearly will have nothing to do with Sansa in whatever future books might one day be written is no justification at all. If it’s Sansa moving into that narrative space, then do something more with that movement. Something more in dramatic terms and something more in speculative, contingent terms. Even in the source material Martin wants to use, there are poisoners and martyrs, suicides and lunatics, plotters and runaways he or the showrunners could draw upon for models of women dealing with suffering and power.
Fantasy means you don’t have to do what was done. Sansa’s story doesn’t seem to me to offer any narrative satisfactions, and it doesn’t seem to make use of fantasy’s permissions to do anything new or interesting with the story and the setting. At best it suggests an unimaginative and desperate surrender to a character that the producers and the original author have no ideas about. At worst it suggests a belief that Game of Thrones‘ sense of fantasy has been subordinated to the imperative of “we have to be even grosser and nastier next time”! That’s not fantasy, that’s torture porn.