Once again, we steel our nerves for the beginning of a new season of Game of Thrones. Death, destruction, and upheaval loom large, as always. But these themes have increasingly felt like a battle between the authors (George R. R. Martin or his HBO adaptors) and the audience, rather than something intrinsic to the world.
This dynamic obscures the relationship that the characters have developed with the horror of their world. The series does show us moments of grief and anger, but it also shows us the religious beliefs that develop in these times of hardship.
Unsurprisingly, apocalyptic beliefs run strong in these conditions. Long-established faiths take on new dimensions, and new religions rise to the fore, promising that the world will be destroyed and rebuilt in their own image. The connection between war-torn lands and fiery prophecy is central to this world.
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As we gird ourselves for the return of Game of Thrones, recover from the joyless collisions of Batman and Superman, and persevere through the deaths of pretty much every lesbian on television, it’s time to pause and ask ourselves—why is pop culture so dark right now? And more importantly, is there any value in this unending dash toward being the Darkest and the Edgiest of all?
The easy answer is, of course, to lay the blame at George R. R. Martin and the copious bloodletting which reverberates throughout A Song of Ice and Fire. HBO generated a hit with his story when they put it on TV, and everyone else is trying to imitate him. If they got ratings with Ned Stark’s head on a pike, then goddamn it, the rest of us are going to keep putting heads on pikes until we get an Entertainment Weekly cover of our own.
Violence, death, and despair add a level of gravitas, which is clearly being craved in the newly-prestigious realms of television and superhero movies. But it’s increasingly little more than meaningless trend-following, with story and character sacrificed to appeal to some marketing executive’s belief of what audiences want. It’s destructive and it needs to end.
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