Jon Snow

Happiness and “Game of Thrones”

Game of Thrones is certainly not a “feel-good” show, nor are its characters particularly happy people. Yet we can’t get enough of it . . .

{Note: No spoilers}

Lord Stark 300 croppedWatching the first episode of Season 6 of Game of Thrones, it occurred to me, for probably the hundredth time, that most of the show’s characters are pretty miserable people. Throughout the well-written and superbly-acted series, there have been few characters who we would describe as cheerful, and a modicum of scenes that have been filled with mirth.

Nevertheless, this scarcity of upbeat characters – and indeed of upstanding ones – has not impinged on our enjoyment of the show. Its popularity continues to soar. And as I found myself intensely watching its recent episode, “The Red Woman” – even rewinding one scene to make sure I caught all the dialogue – I had to ask myself: What is it about this show that makes me happy?

To begin, there was the obvious answer of the story itself. George R.R. Martin and the show’s directors have succeeded in creating a story of intrigue, with a complexity that has been restrained from being overwhelming. The detachment of a world that doesn’t exist, and a period comparable to the Middle Ages, is tempered by the realistic nature of the characters and the geographic familiarity. The show’s area encompasses places very similar to Europe and the Near East, even Central Asia.

At the same time, when we watch GoT there is a lot going on subconsciously which also creates a feeling of happiness. For one, I find myself constantly being thankful that I am not a part of their social echelon of cutthroat aristocracy. As Charles Dickens says in a History of England that he wrote for his kids, it was happier and safer to be a farmer than an aristocrat during the Anglo-Saxon age, and the same holds true for the world of GoT. The Lannisters, who parallel many of the European monarchies over the years, are generally a morose and unhappy lot. The members of other families are also melancholy, bloodthirsty, or cruel. The sumptuous feasts are overpowered by a frosty atmosphere of sarcasm, hot tempers, uncomfortable silences, and even assassinations. Little levity is seen with these people, even on the most festive occasions.

Book cover 300One thing I mention in my book, Winning the Fight to Be Happy, is that people who constantly focus on the future instead of the present, and whose main motive in life is to have “more”, are never happy or content. Game of Thrones is full of these types of people, and serves as a reminder that the lives of the rich and powerful are not often happy. The show disabuses us of the fallacy that money will solve our problems, and subconsciously, we experience a delight in seeing this played out before our eyes. We learn that power is addictive and ultimately self-destructive, and feel relieved that the unceasing need to protect and crave power is not something forced on us. For some, there may even be a feeling of Schadenfreude, at seeing the rich and powerful unable to have the happiness which we often think they have.

As for the characters, we are given a spectrum of personages whom we like to watch, although many of them are not likeable in the least. This type of irony is something that viewers enjoy, as it brings out a part of ourselves. Back in the 1980s, the character J.R. on the hit show Dallas was described as “the guy you love to hate”, and GoT succeeds in creating new paragons of this irony. A young lady with strong notions of propriety recently told me that her favorite character on the show was Littlefinger, a.k.a. Lord Baelish – a brothel-owner, assassination-plotter, and overall conniving reptile. Charles Dance’s performance as Lord Tywin was so imposing and convincing that we couldn’t help liking the scenes with him, regardless of how calculating and detestable he was. And the dwarf, Tyrion, initially comes across as a rake and ends up having the most moral nature of any of the characters. Finally, Jon Snow — one of the most mirthless characters ever created on television — is the favorite of many viewers, especially women.

The function of characters that we dislike is to create a vent for viewers’ own frustrations. Many of the characters have traits that we encounter in others in real life; still others resemble people we’ve read about in history; and then there is the third category, like Lord Ramsay — someone so sadistic that he creates a feeling of anger in us and a hope for revenge. Through this “ventilation”, the show taps into the human need to feel and process emotions, though in a manner that is harmless. Anger and vindictiveness are not positive qualities to have, and if we must have them from time to time — by dint of being human — it’s better to experience them virtually.

And thus it becomes useful to watch Game of Thrones and thereby appreciate my humble station in life. It makes me thankful that my life is simple; it makes me grateful that I have friends and family members who don’t seek to undermine me or stab me in the back. Now, if only I could be thankful that I didn’t see the same insatiable cravings for money and power among my country’s leaders as I do in GoT . . .

Click here to buy Winning the Fight to Be Happy from, or here to purchase it from the publisher, iUniverse.


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