In the 1960s, Americans who wanted to see a hero watched “Gunsmoke,’’ a show about a stoic marshal who ran rapists and murderers out of Dodge City. In the ’70s, we tuned into “Bionic Woman,’’ who saved the day with feminism and science. In the 1980s, we cheered on “The A-Team,’’ a multiracial band of brothers who vanquished the bad guys with weapons fashioned out of household items.
Today we watch “Game of Thrones,’’ a medieval magical world torn apart by politics. It’s fundamentally different from those other shows. For one thing, the good guys don’t always win. In fact, they often die. Megalomaniacs and liars get ahead.
How could a show so dark and cynical become one of the most popular in America? Some say it’s the sex. Others say it’s the violence. But I suspect it’s something else altogether: the complex, brutal, unforgiving world of Westeros looks an awful lot like our own.
Most of the leaders in “Game of Thrones’’ are fighting for power, not the common good. They care more about winning than governing. Sound familiar?
This is a world where it’s not enough to be strong, smart, and kind. One also must be cunning. It’s a place where a beloved hero can lose his head because he’s too green, too new, too naive. In the end, we despise him for his innocence. (Am I talking about Ned Stark or President Obama?)
It’s a world where the federal authorities are at once careless and corrupt, ostentatious and in debt. It’s no coincidence that the show’s popularity comes as Americans’ trust in government hits record lows. Back in 1958, about 73 percent of Americans trusted the federal government to do what is right “always or most of the time.” Today, just 19 percent do, according to the Pew Research Center.
“After the Second World War, the public was pro-government,” said Andrew Kohut, founding director of the Pew Research Center. “Then the 1970s brought us the Vietnam war and Watergate. Trust in government fell and really never recovered.”
But while there were periods of extremely low public trust in the past, such as the 1990s, Americans still felt optimistic about the future. Despite the Monica Lewinsky scandal, business boomed. But today, we face a double whammy: distrust of Washington and fear of the future.
America’s sense of optimism has declined steadily since 2001. Back then, 71 percent said they were satisfied with the US position in the world, according to Gallup. Today, only 37 percent feel that way. Back then, 71 percent believed that children would likely have a better life than their parents. Today, just 49 percent think so.
“Game of Thrones’’ gives voice to these anxieties by showing us a place where the future isn’t pre-ordained to be better than the past; where each period of peace is purchased with violence that sows the seeds of future war. There is no arc of history bending toward justice, only constantly shifting alliances in a complex and dangerous world.
Is it any surprise that Americans are fascinated by this epic saga of a world order crumbling? To citizens of a superpower, who face challenges from ISIS to Russia to a rising China, this fictitious world doesn’t feel foreign at all. Instead, it helps us makes sense of events at a time of moral ambiguity, where a dictator like Bashar Assad can be an enemy in one episode, but an ally in the next, after the rise of an even more terrible army. It helps us see how political squabbles prevent us from stopping the biggest threat of all: climate change, which will be difficult to combat even without the zombie army.
Sure, it’s just television. It’s fiction. But it may well shape the worldview of Americans more than any news program. On average, 8.4 million Americans watch “Game of Thrones.’’ That’s nearly three times more than the viewers of Fox News, MSNBC, and CNN combined, according to Nielsen, which tracks TV ratings.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Sex and violence aside, “Game of Thrones’’ is good for us. It toughens us up. Hollywood, which has shown us the defeat of communists and Nazis over and over again, is finally preparing us for the future. Not one of witches and dragons, of course, but of epic struggles we can’t yet imagine, that our heroes aren’t predestined to win.Farah Stockman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @fstockman.