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The very uncomfortable chair
I know. You don't waste your time with that fantasy crap. You've got more important things to do than watch a bunch of nudity, blood, and demeaning behavior wedged into a stack of pseudo-medieval sets. You don't watch anything on your television but Cosmos, select episodes of Bill Moyers, and perhaps a little Tchaikovsky on Great Performances. Strike that. You don't even own a TV. Haven't allowed one in the house since Playhouse 90 went off the air or since the word "Kardashian" became part of the language.

Yeah, well... good for you. Still, dust off your beautiful mind, hie over to the neighbors this weekend, and stake out a spot on the couch for the start of a new Game of Thrones season.

And here's why...


You must enter an Intro for your Diary Entry between 300 and 1150 characters long (that's approximately 50-175 words without any html or formatting markup).

The Fantasy
If you've seen any promos for Game of Thrones, you've probably seen a dragon. Maybe a skinny, icy zombie-ish thing. And if you're not a fan of fantasy, this may have put you off the series right from the start.

Forget them. Really. Just pretend they're not there. Frankly, 90% of the time, maybe 99%, the story flows along without them.

The fantasy elements of Game of Thrones very rarely drive the action. They are more about the mythology of the story than the commonplace. Sure, these people have stories about magic, but... really, who does that kind of thing any more? And there are distant lands where strange things live but... hey, who goes there? For the most part, the fantasy elements are rumors, stories, and things that might be history -- though several of the characters are skeptical about elements of those old tomes. Things we regard as fantasy are part of their understanding of the world, but the same was true of our world until quite recently.

Martin was inspired by the 15th century War of the Roses in creating his series of books, and for all intents the fantasy elements play into the books about as much as elves had a hand in deciding the Battle of Wakefield. People and all their messy, frustrating motivations drive these stories, not shiny rings or floating eyes.

Think of the kingdom of Westeros as Western Europe with areas in the book that draw from historical England, Scotland, France, and Spain. There's Old Valyria hovering over the horizon as a clear analog to the fallen Roman Empire, and off in the distance are the the varied cities of the Eastern Mediterranean, from Athens to Alexandria, all of them given thin disguises.

The two elements that draw fantasy back into the story are exactly those what feature in those two minute snippets. First off, there are dragons. Like other strange creatures, they've been relegated to storybooks for a long time, but now one of our characters has her hands on what may be the last of the breed. How will these big lizards play into the story... we don't know. Perhaps even more important is what's happening on the other side of our Hadrian's Wall analog, where spooky white bad guys are looking like a bigger threat than remnant Picts or Celts ever represented on this here Earth. Will these "White Walkers" move south? Eh, we don't know that either.

For the most part, both the dragons and the ice zombies are simply metaphors for "big threats beyond our borders," threats which the many (many) protagonists of our story are largely ignoring because they're so engaged with trying to one-up each other. If you called one of them "terrorism" and the other "Russia" they would serve just as well.

So, if you don't like fantasy, don't worry. It's not about fantasy. If you do... hey look, a dragon!

The Sex
Sex is very much a part of the story, but not perhaps in the way that you may think. Yes, there are men who use sex as an expression of their power, and there are women who use use sexual allure as an attempt to manipulate. There are characters that treat sex as a grand lark, to be indulged in often and lustily. There are characters who think of sex as ugly necessity. There's the fear of sexual assault by the (quite rightfully) enraged populace. There's a great deal of worrying about being forced to have sex with another person you find physically unattractive as part of an arranged marriage. There's active commodification of women (and men) forced into lives in brothels. There are homosexual couples who carry out their union with mixed degrees of trepidation. There are characters who treat both sex and sexuality as weapons. There's sex used as an extension of general brutality. There is sex engaged in in friendship and love. In short... there's sex.

In the television series, there's also an unfortunate tendency to indulge in "sexposition," where sexual antics are used to keep viewers fixed on the screen while characters reveal lengthy bits of backstory otherwise difficult to slot into 50 minutes of video. It's a laziness on the part of the writers and producers that's, thankfully, declined sharply since the first season, though it's not yet been eradicated.

But the sex itself doesn't bring on either flocks of singing larks, or steaming gates into the abyss. Sex is a thing that happens. It's not the goal. It's sometimes used as shorthand for relationships -- we open the story with one power-couple who enjoy a healthy, active sex life and another whose marriage bed is a place of deception and mutual loathing where sex is generally a one-sided, drunken affair. It's insight into what's more important to the story.

It's the relationships that are held up as important in Game of Thrones, not the sex. It's the relationships that are dangerous. There's a very strong awareness that sex is the necessary first step to producing offspring, and that offspring are necessary as linchpins to hold together often squabbling families and to retain power in an inheritance-based power structure. Still, the focus is firmly on how partnering with another person (more out of bed than in) provides both strengths and weaknesses. Mesh well with your partner, and together you may go far. But even the best-meaning partner can stumble into a mistake that drags down whole regions (like, say, foolishly kidnapping the brother of the queen because you suspect him of being part of a plot against your son).

Relationships in Game of Thrones are very rarely romantic, and when they are, you can be sure that characters are in trouble. Because in a very real sense, this whole series exists as a deconstruction of the old romances of noble nights and great ladies. The one character who comes into the story with a head full of roses, songs, banners and dreamy notions of chivalry, suffers for those childish beliefs. A lot. Anyone who takes their eye off the ball long enough to get misty-eyed in love, should be shopping for tombstones along with wedding rings.

Believe it or not, and despite the fantasy trappings, the intent here is to deliver a view of medieval politics that's far more realistic than the great majority of "historical dramas." Tristan and Iseult would not fare well in Westeros.

The Violence
Is... violent. Want to know how many people have died in Game of Thrones? Not people we just heard about dying. I'm talking about people who have died on screen. Have a number in mind?

Yeah, try 5,179.


That's a bit under 200 deaths on average per episode, though to be fair the bulk of that number comes in just a few minutes of the gory spectacle that is the Battle of Blackwater. That's the battle where Peter Dinklage's character, Tyrion, gets to deliver the greatest motivational speech of all time.

"Those are brave men knocking at our door. Let's go kill them!"
―Tyrion Lannister
Now that's speechifying. In all seriousness, it's not the battlefield violence that causes fans of the show to fall into paroxysms of tormented denial; it's how the show treats the main characters. From the first season, we've seen characters put forward as if they were the center of the drama, only to see that same character reduced to a collection of disassociated pieces. It's distressing. It's supposed to be distressing.

Unlike 99% of all stories, our central characters are not immune to acts of violence, especially when they are at the center of the action.

Again, Game of Thrones is the anti-King Arthur & The Knights of the Round Table. There is no Chosen One, there is no magic "I'm an important character, no one will harm me" shield.  The sooner you get over that, the better for your sanity. Oh, and those who think with a sword are very, very prone to being stabbed by the same.

The Little People
No, I'm not about to make a Peter Dinklage joke.

At the start of Game of Thrones, the story is almost entirely focused on people whose names are proceeded by king, queen, lord or lady. It's a syndrome of nearly all historical fiction. We follow Henry and his band of brothers, not the guy who mulls their wine and frets over getting all those blood stains out of silk.  

For the most part over the first three seasons of the television show, Game of Thrones is no different. The books have a few more "common folk," but few of them get much screen time. We're spending our time with the members of a few "noble" families, watching them all trying to park their butts on that ugly, metal throne.

But as we move along in the story, more and more of the common dross mixes with our noble metals. Not only do we get reminders that these people born outside the castle are often as smart, worldly, and motivated as the ones who have a fancy family crest, as time goes on Game of Thrones does something pretty rare for this kind of story: it shows how all this incessant infighting, this selfish idiocy on the part of a few, causes misery on an enormous scale.

It's not shiny armored knights dying bravely on the battlefield, it's people starving in towns where the fields are burned and the few belongings destroyed. It's the utter failure of civil procedures and the rise of rule by force. It's the luck of the draw as some regions pass through relatively unscathed while others fall into absolute ruin. It's rape and villainy, but also organization and resistance that changes the relationship to power.

By the end of the actual War of the Roses, the position of nobles in the kingdom had been significantly weakened, with growing power for merchants and trade unions. The elaborate, tangled mass of the feudal system was chopped back, streamlined, with more power simultaneously moving to the central government even as more slipped from the hands of the king.

Will we see the same changes in Westeros? Will whoever finally gets to park for an extended period on the Iron Throne find that's it's become a seat of not-so-much power? Stay tuned.

Personae Dramatis
If you've made it this far, I'm going to assume you have some interest in watching the show. Or maybe you're just really dedicated to the idea of telling me how you still aren't going to watch. In that case, congrats, you can now skip straight to the comments.

For those who think they might give it a try, the best thing at this point would be to find a copy of Season 1 and plunk yourself down for a binge. The sexposition may be jaw-droppingly lazy way to deliver back story, but by the time the sword falls (you'll know which sword) you'll have a good feel for these people.

Barring that, here's the quick guide to the characters and their situations at the start of Season 4, and yes that means there are spoilers if you haven't seen the first three seasons.

The Starks
Honest, reliable and tough, but also self-righteous and prickly about their honor, the Starks are our Scottish Lords stand-in. Drawn down to London King's Landing at the request of the former king, they are singularly unsuited for the subtle, completely dishonorable, deep and twisty intrigue of the capital. Eddard "Ned" Stark opens Game of Thrones as the apparent main character, and ends the first season with his head and body on separate pikes. Ned's wife Catelyn, whose own rash act (that queen's brother kidnapping mentioned above) kicks off a lot of the action, spends a lot of the next two seasons tromping the kingdom in misery, unable to reassemble her scattered clan. Son Rob sets out to avenge his father on the battlefield, and proves an unexpectedly able commander. He wins every battle and looks set to get what passes for justice. Only he also rashly marries the wrong woman, breaking a deal with the odious House Frey. And makes the same mistake his father made -- expecting those around him to display some degree of honor. In short order, Robb loses half his army. Robb, the rest of his forces, his wife, his unborn child, mother Catelyn, and assorted partridges and pear trees all end up being betrayed and killed in particulary ugly fashion at the scream-inducing "red wedding." All that's left of clan Stark at the moment is four children. Daughter Sansa Stark, who came to King's Landing expecting fairytales and got only nightmares, has been married off to her last choice in any kingdom; younger daughter Arya is loose and wandering the countryside in the company of a scarred killer, but that's okay because Arya is well on her way to killing more people than anyone else in the story. Frankly I wouldn't be surprised if the whole thing ends with Arya standing on a field of corpses, and it might be oddly satisfying. Son Bran (paralyzed in the very first episode when he catches the queen indulging in a bit of incest) is being carried off to an unknown destination in the far north. And youngest son Rickon is... well, we don't know where.

Red Wedding
Robb Stark, Catelyn Stark, and Robb's wife she-who-is-also-dead. Don't expect to see these people.
Jon Snow and the Night's Watch
The Night's Watch is a rag-tag group of soldiers stationed up at that scaled-up Hadrian's Wall substitute. They're charged with keeping all the Very Bad Things out of the kingdom, but since 99.42% of people in the kingdom no longer believe there are any Very Bad Things out there, the Night's Watch is really just a handy place to exile people who rob or rape or who upset some political apple cart. By the end of the third season, this group is nominally led by Jon Snow, who is by acclimation the Bestest Guy Left in Westeros. We've been told many, many times that Jon is Ned Stark's bastard son. I'm telling you, based on several hints from both book and show, that he's not. On the other side of the wall are "wildlings" (assorted barbarians along with gnarly beasties) and also those ice-zombies. All those guys are getting ready to march on the poorly defended and disheartened wall. Should be fun. Oh, and everyone loves Jon. Fear for him.
Jon Snow, son of.... hmmm.
The Lannisters
Ladies and gentlemen, your obvious bad guys. The Lannisters are the family of the queen, and by the end of the third season, they've orchestrated the death of the old king, Ned Stark's beheading, Rob Stark's betrayal and ewwww death, and the placement of young King Joffery on the throne. The Lannisters, in short, seem to have this war all but wrapped up. There are only a few problems. First, there is practically no pathology which Joffery doesn't demonstrate in spades. He's a sadomasochistic narcissist whose only good quality is that, when not watching children and women die for his amusement, he's raging coward. Which makes him at least a little bit controllable by his coldly competent grandfather. The Lannister family includes the beautiful former queen Cersei, who is finding that being queen-mother is distinctly less satisfying than she expected as her power-base contracts and the ultimate snotty-bastardness of her son blooms. Then there's her brother Jamie, who started the series by attempting to kill a child while having sex with sis, and somehow has gone on to become one of the most layered and sympathetic characters. There's iron-willed, unforgiving dad at the head of the clan, the king in all but name. And there's Tyrion, the without a doubt fan-favorite both in book and in film. Unlike everyone else on Team Lannister, Tyrion really wants to be a good person. He's also learned, humerous, and unexpectedly brave. Fear for him, too.
King Joffrey -- tell me you don't want to punch that face
The Baratheons
Really, at this point it's just the Baratheon. Stannis Baratheon and his small family. Stannis is the eldest brother of the former king and on paper he's the rightful heir to the throne. If anyone would bother to read the paper. Stannis is also the most humorless, head-hearted, iron-fisted, unlovable man in all of Westeros. After losing half his forces at that fiery, stabby, arrowy, explody Battle of the Blackwater, he's moved most of what remains to the far north. He's perched there with a priestess of the One True God, giving his campaign for the throne all the pleasant characteristics of a crusade. What's he going to do up there in the north? Damned if we know.
Stannis in a very good mood
The Targaryens
These guys had the throne for generation until their reign came down to a king so crazy and corrupt that he just had to be offed (or at least, so say the winners of that battle). At the end of season three, we know of exactly one Targaryen -- Daenerys. She's across the sea, popping between the GOT equivalents of Athens, Alexandria, and Istanbul, freeing slaves and building up an army for her very slow to come return to Westeros. Oh, and she's the one with the dragons. We like her, we just wish she'd get her ass in gear.
Daenerys Targaryens
The Greyjoys
Tough as nails folks who live on a series of barren islands and are always looking for a reason to revolt. Frankly, we're not sure how many of them are still about at this point. Theon Greyjoy was a supposed friend of the Starks, but betrayed their cause (there's a lot of that going around) and spent the last year getting tortured by another bastard even more evil than himself. We don't feel particularly sorry for him. The rest of the Greyjoys at this point are a kind of salt-stained mass, with the exception of Theon's sister Asha, who seems to be the only one of the bunch with both tactical sense and common sense.
Theon in more... intact days
The Professor and Mary Ann!
Not so much, actually, but there are some characters that are essentially loners who still manage to put a hand into the big picture. For example, Lord Varys (who's not really a lord) is the spymaster to the king, but also plotting behind the scenes, likely in support of Dani's claim, though we can't be sure. Meanwhile Petyr Baelish, also known as Littlefinger, is a minor noble who has used his cold cunning and fiscal knowledge to manipulate all the big players. There's no point asking who Littlefinger is pulling for... he's on Littlefinger's side.
Why should you watch?
Watch because this is a story about politics. Watch because this is a story about how people strive for, obtain, consolidate, squander, and lose power. Watch because this is a story about how political infighting leaves the backroom and walks onto the battlefield. Watch because it's about how war affects the common folk. Watch because it's about how small lies and little betrayals can fracture nations. Watch because it's well acted and lovingly produced. Hell, watch because Dame Diana Rigg does the best imitation of Katherine Hepburn playing Elanor of Aquitaine in The Lion in Winter that you've ever seen. Watch because Peter Dinklage is so fun to watch. Watch because Arya is just the cutest little psychopath.

Watch, and you'll find your own reasons.

Extended (Optional)

Originally posted to Devil's Tower on Sat Apr 05, 2014 at 01:30 PM PDT.

Also republished by Daily Kos.

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