‘No guarantee of justice’

The Atlantic is doing a series of five articles in the lead-up to the premier of HBO’s Game of Thrones series, adapted from the work of George R.R. Martin. The first post is by Alyssa Rosenberg and it treads ground well-worn by Adam Serwer of The American Prospect. Nonetheless, Rosenberg captures some of the uniqueness of Martin’s moral universe as distinct from other examples of the fantasy genre:

The cruelty of Game of Thrones, much like that of The Wire, isn’t transformative—it’s revealing. Just as trying to reduce crime by creating a safe zone for drugs will get a good cop fired, there are grave consequences for Arya Stark, the noble girl who steps outside her sphere to challenge her world’s expectations for how girls should spend their time. Conformity is no certain refuge either: In Baltimore, adhering to an agreement earns an informant a beating, while in Westeros, Arya’s sister Sansa learns that lying for a prince won’t keep her safe. And there are terrible consequences for those who see the truth more clearly than others, whether it’s a plot that gets you thrown off the police force in The Wire, or an encounter with an ancient evil that leads others to think you’re mad—and to kill you for it—in Game of Thrones.

The Wire‘s Omar Little might warn us that “It’s all in the game.” The Game of Thrones‘ black sheep nobleman Tyrion Lannister might tell us that “all dwarves are bastards in their fathers’ eyes.” But whether in David Simon’s reportage-informed fictional America or in George R.R. Martin’s fantastical realms, on HBO, there is no guarantee of justice.

Rosenberg also puts Game of Thrones in contrast with contemporary fantasy stories like Harry Potter and Twilight (I’ve never read either books and only experienced the Potter movies). Hopefully the HBO series is as faithful to the books as it appears, but I think Rosenberg’s treatment is likely right. It is a brutal world that Martin has created and while there is “no guarantee of justice” in the sense of the good guys winning and the bad guys getting their just desserts, there is most certainly a uniformity of system to the world Martin has created. Things happen because of the course of events which proceeds them, not because we might wish it otherwise and certainly not because Martin obliges himself of deus ex machina to achieve justice.

To put it differently, Martin’s series is incomplete. The fifth of seven books is slated to be released early this summer. I don’t know how the final three books will end. I don’t know if Martin knows either. But to the extent that there may be justice as Rosenberg seeks it, I would expect that it would only come on the full time line of Martin’s A Song of Ice & Fire. It may well be the case that things which appear as injustices in the first book lay the groundwork for justice in the seventh.

Regardless, I think the series presents some of the most interesting and compelling narratives in the fantasy world, fueled by the cold realities that life in Martin’s universe is hard for his characters and not everyone is going to get out alive. He  pulls the rug out from under his audience numerous time in A Game of Thrones and I expect the HBO adaption will seek to do the same. Maybe that’s not what people like Rosenberg want (I find it hard to tell if she’s making a normative judgment about the lack of justice in the HBO series). But I’d hope that this series attracts a critical, thoughtful audience like The Wire and not the same crowd that flocks to Twilight films.

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