The ninth episode of the sixth season of HBO’s Game of Thrones featured the catharsis and carnage of the “greatest” war films of the current century and the previous one.
The program opened with a dragon-led fire-bombing of a naval fleet, and concluded with a 25-minute sequence of mass slaughter between warring armies.
The episode unquestionably satisfied the bloodlust and desire for bodies and war that have persisted since Gladiatorial contests in the Colosseum, but it also took part in a more recent tradition of dramatizing war, aestheticizing it, and ultimately making it cool.
And therein lies the problem.
Any fan of the show has by now accepted several unspoken contracts about what he or she will see each week. Game of Thrones is a fantasy epic that provides front-row seats to extreme experiences of violence, sexuality, vengeance, and anarchy. For some, the viewing pleasure derives from its role as an outlet for repressed human fantasies and desires, while others are potentially driven to the escapism of dragons, magic, and fictional geographies.
To judge a creative work fairly is to judge it by the rules it sets for itself. To impose critical opinions that are incongruent with the basic premises of the show is like criticizing a soccer game because the players didn’t use their hands.
Thus, “Battle of the Bastards” played by the rules and did so magnificently. The show gave audiences exactly what it wanted: a classic thriller format that made palms sweat and stomachs turn with violent pyrotechnics and jerking roller-coaster movements.
It provided the emotional release viewers desire on the eve of another work week, and it gave everyone something to talk about until the following week’s ride on the Game of Thrones express.
Commentators have rightly suggested that this episode and season are certain to receive awards, but they should be careful not to justify this position with a dubious moral argument commonly used for programs like this one that stake their identity in war and violence.
The idea of a show “glorifying war” has become something of a cultural piñata. Films like Saving Private Ryan receive awards because they purportedly don’t “glorify war” (like those other movies), but instead to project images that convince people war is a bad idea.
Through the accumulation of maimed and tortured bodies, the argument goes, the public learns that war isn’t an honorable practice, but something reprehensible that only leads to dead sons, crying mothers, and flags placed over lowering caskets.
The ninth episode of the sixth season of Game of Thrones indeed doesn’t glorify war, but I’m not sure any creative work has since ancient times.
It does something more insidious.
It uses classic storytelling techniques and modern cinematographic technology to aestheticize violence. In other words, it makes war into entertainment and art.
The problem with confusing war and art stems from a simple principle. A representation of reality isn’t actual reality. That is, a romantic comedy has little to do with love, a detective novel teaches nothing about police work, and a war film — no matter how real it makes it — isn’t real war.
Its endgame, therefore, isn’t to depict the horrors of war. The goal is to sell tickets.
Television and movies are cut, choreographed, and written to achieve certain effects. Even films that borrow real footage from battle scenes organize the images, edit them, and place them strategically within a larger narrative. Regardless of the technique, however, the outcome is always the same.
They make violence cool and war even cooler. Take for example Jon Snow (Kit Harington) and his victory over Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon).
The battle perfectly follows the architecture of melodrama because it uses easy binomial distinctions of good versus evil. Jon Snow, the iconic epic hero, has a name that signifies purity and good.
He is also a Christ-like figure because he is the possible “savior” of humanity from the White Walkers; he’s even returned from the dead. Moreover, Snow is irresistible to women — even witches; he’s a superhero with a sword and possesses superhuman strength, as seen in his harrowing escape from drowning in a pile of dead bodies.
Bolton, the quintessential bad guy, is a ludic psychopath with a strange obsession with violent sexuality and an unquenchable thirst for power. He kills his father, rapes women, and castrates men.
He doesn’t possess the ability to unite, like his competitor, but uses cunning and a unique ability to set traps and manipulate his enemies.
The battle between them is the ancient battle of good over evil. Like many films and television programs about war, the show uses the cliché wherein the villain is about to lose but suddenly another bad guy, an old friend, comes and saves the day with another army.
Additionally, the show cleans up war. Sure it has all the departed limbs and sprays of blood and screams, but one must not forget what happens to Snow’s face right after the battle.
After beating Ramsay half to death with his hands, Snow’s face is covered in dirt and blood. But the following scene — only a few seconds later — his face is completely clean.
Did he leave the battle scene, shower, and come right back? No hero can look the woman he protects in the eye with a dirty face. Such an act would be worthy of war, but not the artistic representation of it.
War was sanitized to stay true to the heroism and the melodrama central to the show. Did it glorify war? Of course not. Too many people died to prove that.
It did something worse.
This isn’t a Vietnam-era movie that exposes the true injustices of war. Game of Thrones focuses on a heroic and romanticized few with everything to gain from the slaughter of thousands.
The episode does exactly what it’s supposed to do, but it doesn’t demystify or descralize war. Instead, its carefully choreographed projection of violence makes it cool to kill people perceived as enemies, brandish weapons of war, and fight and die for values rooted in chivalric codes and ancient promises, but never in truth.
The show will likely win big awards in the months to come, but we shouldn’t be blind to what it is and what it does. We also shouldn’t pretend that it and other shows like it don’t mirror the actions of real cultures with easy access to weapons, war, and others to blame.