When It’s OK to Kill: The Ethics of Violence in ‘Game of Thrones’

From_WallpaperUPThe streets, rooms, and castles of Westeros are strewn with dead bodies –throats slit and bodies impaled, stabbed, or decapitated.  Yet Game of Thrones is as popular as ever. Does this indicate a penchant for violence among fans and viewers?

One sure hopes not. Viewers may relish the entertainment value of the schemings and killings, among others, but would not condone them in real life. There, all of the major GOT characters would be arrested, tried, and prosecuted for murder. In theory at least.

But alas, Westeros is not a democracy, which is one reason why and how Game of Thrones resonates in our world today. While art and literature do not simply “mirror” history, the series does portray an undemocratic society ruled by few elite, one-percent families. There is no voting, no consultations, no participatory governance, no deliberative democracy.  Only war, power grabbing, and the eponymous game of the series.

More importantly, Westeros is a land where the traditional, old-fashioned moral order — where good and evil are easy to tell apart — has broken down, if not disappeared altogether.  It is never really clear in Game of Thrones who the bida is. This isn’t the case in, say, Lord of the Rings, or the Harry Potter, where everyone knows that Sauron and Lord Voldemort are the villains, and that Aragorn and Harry are the heroes.

Indeed, the plot of Game of Thrones deliberately frustrates the tendency, as in all narratives, to look for, choose, and side with the bida. More specifically, it brutally disabuses us from the long-standing assumption that the good guys will triumph in the end. Season 1 sets up one character as a protagonist, only for him to be decapitated later on. Something similar happens in the Red Wedding. To be fair, however, two of the nastiest of characters in the series get their comeuppance as well, both of whom die a violent, if not well-deserved deaths. Many others in between — “innocent” and “guilty” — are struck down. As far as killing goes, Game of Thrones does not take sides. Anyone can die.

This is an undeniably cruel world. But this indiscriminate, bloodthirsty penchant for killing is paralleled, balanced, moderated, or contradicted (depending on your point of view) by an even-handedness that is less evident in the TV series: the books devote several chapters to each major character, and allows readers to get to know another, if not deeper look, into their respective personalities and motivations. It is as if the narrator gives everyone a chance to speak on the microphone, to let each of them have their say, and to let us, the viewers and readers, sympathize and gain different vantage points. Such generosity, if not liberal democratic tendency, runs counter to the Machiavellian cruelty and Hobbesian violence of the series.

Through this fairness, Game of Thrones seeks to preclude us from making clear-cut moral judgments, that X is good, while Y is bad, and gives us instead a gray-colored moral landscape. This is particularly true of Jamie Lannister. In the first episode of Season 1/in the first book, he starts off as a typical villain, but as we get to know him through his chapters, especially in his interactions with Lady Brienne, one sees his different, perhaps nicer and kinder side. That he isn’t so bad after all. And Cersei, for all her ruthlessness, is painted differently and somewhat more sympathetically (she is a victim of patriarchy; and often complains a la feminist mode how women are limited), the more deeply one delves into her mind. Even the good guys betray a streak of ruthlessness every now and then.

Even if there are no traditional protagonists in Game of Thrones ala Aragorn, Frodo Baggins, or Harry Potter, viewers still choose from several contenders for the role of bida, the one who will control King’s Landing. And how they make such decisions partly entails a moral decision on their part, one that justifies or ignores the killing(s) perpetrated by their chosen “hero.” This is just entertainment, but the kinds of moral reasoning employed here is troubling, for they resemble the types of justifications of real-life killings.   Even if s/he killed someone, he is nice guy deep down; her heart is in the right place; he killed in self-defense; she just wanted revenge; it’s the fog of war; we understand where he is coming from; it’s a kill or be-killed society; she had no choice; he had to do it as a show of force; everyone in Westeros has blood on their hands, anyway.

There is then little, if at all, solid moral ground from which we choose our bida. For whatever our reasons are, they essentially boil down to a justification of killing and murder; and reflect choices that we would not otherwise or hesitate to make (one hopes at least) in real life: few would not justify the murders committed in Westeros, even those by, say, Arya or Jon Snow, no matter good and how kind-hearted we find them. Whatever her merits and despite her past history, Arya is a murderer.

In many ways, this kind of decision-making in fiction reflects a world of increasing cynicism and growing moral and political complexity, not least that of business, where the goal is to “win,” get ahead, and “defeat” competitors, often with advice from The Art of War, The Book of Five Rings; or the 48 Laws of Power; where questions of ethics are displaced by neoliberal notions of risk and returns, gains and profits; where everyone is urged to be less idealistic and be more practical; where compromise and getting our hands dirty are routine; where due process is done away with; where killing is justified, legitimized, sanctioned, and tacitly approved in various ways.

Game of Thrones reflects and responds to a world beyond good and evil, as it were, presenting and problematizing a social order dominated by power, competition, and violence. To what extent, if at all, can ethics work in this world beyond good and evil? Do such categories still work given the compromises that many of us have to do and live with? Are we forced to abandon our ethical ideals? Can ethics help us survive such a cruel word?

Such questions pervade our popular culture, from Iron Man 1, which simultaneously questions and upholds the US Military-Industrial Complex, to The Walking Dead, which asks just how much and what kind of morality applies in a post-apocalyptic, zombie-infested world.

Indeed, the exercise of power has been one of the perennial themes of sci-fi and fantasy, from Lord of the Rings and Wheel of Time to Star Wars and Harry Potter. But ethics, as we have seen, is not far behind. In true Aristotelian vein, morality is intimately tied to politics, concerned as it is with selflessness and humility, and with selfishness and ambition that drive Tom Riddle and Anakin Skywalker to the dark side. Many of these films or novels function as, among other things, moral fables. And while it may seem naive, if not academically unfashionable, to speak of fables in this morally complex world, what makes ethics seem so superfluous and outdated is also what makes it so urgent and difficult to come by.

Enjoy the rest of Season 7, but do not forget that the world beyond is dark and full of terrors.

Magic Old and Out-of-Sync? A Review and Defense of ‘Harry Potter and the Cursed Play’

Cursed_Child_Grabbed_From_Pottermore

Beware, my fellow Muggle friend
Of what you’ll see and hear below
For if the play you haven’t read
A simple curse for you awaits
I spill the beans and spoil the fun
The mystery’ll be gone, the magic there’ll be none. 

I did not particularly like it. And apparently, many others didn’t too. But as I thought about and wrote this review, I realized that in not liking the play, I failed to listen to its lesson: that love means accepting people for who they are, not who they could be or who they want to be.

Similarly, loving Harry and his adventures, including the latest one in this play, means accepting him and his friends for who they are. Love for the series should not blind us to the fact that Harry Potter and the Cursed Child deserves love from us, just as much as Albus Severus Potter does, and in the way most beneficial to him, not for Harry.

Like many fans, we read this play with happy memories and great expectations created by the seven books. Reading the series from the Sorcerer’s Stone to Deathly Hallows was such a spellbinding experience that the Cursed Child understandably falls short of our expectations. Though there are scenes in the play echoing the novels — Harry and Ron’s Ford Anglia ride and Albus and Scorpius’ escape from the Hogwarts Express; and Harry and Draco’s brief duel, among others — it’s just not like the typical Harry Potter narrative that we’ve come to know and love.

First, there really are many jarring encounters in the play, which are so unbecoming of our characters. First is the idea of Harry talking down, threatening, and even bossing Minerva McGonagall around; even the portrait of Albus Dumbledore gets a share of the blame and a talking down; Draco Malfoy taking orders from and working with Hermione Granger; Harry’s son being Sorted into Slytherin; two Slytherin boys who turn out be the heroes, so unlike the fate of others from their House who became Death Eaters; a Potter and a Malfoy being best friends; and lastly, Voldemort shagging Bellatrix Lestrange. It’s really hard for me to picture Lord Voldemort having sex. I would have thought that in his quest for power, and in his loneliness and hatred, he had no time for such mundane matters. And as Dumbledore said, Tom Riddle is incapable of love. So his making love seems rather unusual and unnerving, to say the least.

Second, this is a play, and thus cannot be compared to a/the novels. As a piece of theater, the play does not have the time and luxury to build up the suspense, sympathy, emotion, exposition in ways made the Harry Potter novels effective storytelling. It’s true that the play feels like it’s just one scene after another; we are not given enough time to relish events and dwell on them the way we could in a novel. But then again, this is us expecting the Cursed Child to be just like the novels.  A cursed play if ever there was one, to live under so much expectation. Yet also, perhaps more importantly, the full magic of the play cannot be felt by reading it; it has to be performed and seen, what with all the effects that a West End or a Broadway production can create, to be really appreciated.

Third, we’ve changed. As simple as that. Perhaps we’ve grown older and wiser, and perhaps more cynical and less enchanted. Maybe our Muggle tastes and interests have shifted a bit as well, so much so that Harry Potter does not excite many of us the way it used to. I did not even know that the Cursed Child would be coming out last week. When Books 5, 6, and 7 came out, we were in front of the book store first thing in the morning of release day. And I still remember. Book 5 came out on 21 June 2003; Book 6, 16 July 2005; and Book 7 (this one, I forgot). 

Third, Harry, Hermione, Ron, and the others have changed too. After over years, we cannot expect them to behave the same as they did in the books. After all, Hermione’s the Minister of Magic, and Harry’s the Head of Magical Law Enforcement.

But this litany of disjunctures does not simply pertain to our feelings about the play; the gap between past and present, and the clashing expectations between different people lie at the heart of the narrative itself. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child involves a lot of time traveling, where we take little trip down memory lane as we revisit old scenes (the Triwizard Tournament, etc.). More importantly, the time traveling reveals the contrast between what actually happened (in the seven books) and what might or could have been.

The disjunction between past and present, and the desire to heal the rift, is of course brought about by an inability to accept the latter. This holds true for at least three people: Albus Potter, Delphi Riddle, and Harry Potter himself. Albus Potter struggles with the weight and legacy of his famous father; they have a complicated relationship, to say the least. A conflict between the two partly sparks the near-crisis that everyone averts in the end. Albus teams up with his best friend Scorpius Malfoy to steal a Time Turner so that they could change the past and thus remedy the present. At one point, they had met Amos Diggory,  and moved by his loneliness and bitterness because of Cedric’s death, the boys want to go back in time to save him. In the meantime, Delphi Riddle is the hitherto unknown daughter of Lord Voldemort and Bellatrix Lestrange. As a Dark Wizard herself, she wants to resurrect Voldemort by going back in time, to Halloween 1981, to prevent Voldemort from attempting to kill Harry.

Delphi almost succeeds because of Albus and Scorpius’ escapade to steal the Time-Turner. She initially befriends the two boys, and during one of their (the two boys) time-traveling adventures, gets hold of the Time Turner and reveals who she really is and what she wants. At any rate, Albus and Scorpius’ journeys through time and interfere therein finds them in different scenarios, all of which failed to save Cedric. In one instance, they time-travel to an era where Voldemort did not die at the Battle of Hogwarts,  Harry Potter was dead, and where Hermione, Ron, and Severus Snape led the rebellion; where Cedric became a Death Eater; and where Ron and Hermione did not end up together.  

Basically, the lesson is: Remember, but don’t mess with time. Get in touch with your past, accept it, even its pains. Only then can you move on.

This acceptance also has to do with love, the central concept in the Harry Potter novels, the key emotion to defeating Lord Voldemort. In this case, Harry and his son, Albus have a fraught relationship, where at one point Harry says that he wished he could have had a better son (Or something to that effect). Later in the play, we hear Harry confess that he was blinded by his love for James, and this helped strain their relationship, just as Dumbledore was blinded by his love for Harry and hurt him unintentionally. The conflict between father and son is resolved just as the struggle against the Dark Wizard ends. Harry and Albus reconcile and reconnect (across time, if I may add) and learn to accept, and thus love each one another properly and healthily.

Thus is how the acceptance of the past, of one another is a core lesson of the book. And that, I think, goes as well for our relationship with the Harry Potter series, both the seven-novel series, and this play. I do agree that I really wanted a novel, and that it’s just not the same Harry Potter story that we used to know; but it’s still a Harry Potter story. And just as Harry and Albus have to accept each other and learn from their mistakes, so too do we need to accept this play and love it for what it is. We can’t change the present (having the Cursed Child) by figuratively going back in time to pattern it after the past (remembering the magic of the novels). After all, “if you truly loved Harry Potter, really loved her, then you know the way forward.”

Reactionary Form, Revolutionary Criticism: Taking Pop Culture Seriously

Philippine telenovelas have been, as a genre, denounced and then ignored as wishful thinking, classless, and poor taste; it doesn’t empower the poor, and so on. But because of, among other things, the erasure of the boundaries between high and low culture, some scholars have treated telenovelas, and other forms of popular culture, with all the seriousness that had previously been given to, say, the greats and classics of literature.

The academic study of popular literature in the Philippines was given great impetus and direction by Soledad Reyes and other scholars who did related work on folklore, popular theater,  indigenous psychology, and the like. Today, this sympathetic but serious criticism of popular culture carries on in the work of, among others, Rolando Tolentino (media, etc.), Louie Jon Sanchez (teleseryes), and the contributors to the former’s edited volume on popular culture. Their works have done much to advance the study of and our appreciation of popular culture.

I see myself in this scholarly tradition, and I agree that any radical and progressive should take popular culture seriously, not dismiss it out of hand. It is ironic for people to espouse democratic ideals while dismissing other people’s taste in entertainment and media. A truly radical, progressive, and even revolutionary politics must come to terms with popular culture, and some of its practitioners must set aside their views of it as crass and jologs.

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