We don’t create very many tragedies in our media these days. It’s sort of a lost art form. Tragedy is about suffering and calamity. I read A Game of Thrones (GOT) years ago, but at the time it never struck me that it could be a tragedy. It’s got all the hallmarks of a tragedy, especially the tragic part. But it’s series is even called a Song of Fire and Ice, which would put it in the traditional vein of tragic drama (which was sung). We see these so rarely that it’s tough to spot. Everything has a happy ending nowadays, but GOT shakes us violently from those expectations.
Martin wrote GOT and we’ve all mostly taken it for diversionary entertainment, but that’s a mistake. Sure, we may use GOT as a diversion, but that’s not what it is. I think this actually happens to us a lot, when we are the audience for problematic film, books, games, and movies. We treat them as mere amusement and don’t really judge them independent of our motives. But tragedy …this is the stuff that makes us uncomfortable. As tragedy is supposed to do.
We all know what nervous laughter feels like and how it comes out when all we want to do is quiver and cry. We laugh. The laughter is our uncertainty and discomfort. But at what point do we say to ourselves “no don’t laugh, this time …what am I feeling and why?”
And so a culture where diversionary entertainment is the only kind we know, whose goal is to assure the us that everything is actually OK and …LOOK! His head just got blown off with a grenade! LAUGH! JOY! AWESOME!
The death of tragedy is, fittingly, quite tragic.
The Catharsis of Terror
So how does one “enjoy” tragedy? Well, I’m afraid the answer is: We’re not supposed to take joy in it’s specific events. It’s not supposed to entertain by getting the audience to find joy in guillotines and rape. It’s supposed to be therapeutic, a pleasure in resolving our emotions about those troubling events. That’s why it’s possible to enjoy games and movies which have this kind of content. They give us catharsis, a way to confront and get rid of our discomfort in a safe way.
Sometimes though, the content is just too much to wrap our heads around. That feeling of nervous laughter sets in. In those moments, we look for a diversion to put the thoughts from our minds. In other words, we flee from our most troubling feelings instead of dealing with them. The fear and anxiety people feel when talking about how problematic it is that The Mountain, a murderous rapist, is a favored knight of the kingdom or how dark the humor of Jaime Lannister is …it takes over us. It angers us. Dammit we didnt’ turn this on to to feel bad about crimes!
And catharsis, that “purging of the emotions” that we’re so damned used to being told suppress, to drown it with alcohol or cloud it with marijuana and cover over with the “bright side” of things …it’s waiting for us if we would only stop fighting it. It’s catharsis that gives us the chance to confront the emotions that trouble us most, and shows like Game of Thrones are like the shock therapy of tragedies! It’s the medicine we don’t want if only we could resist its candy coating. So we watch it and we laugh, but some of us are trembling on the inside at what we see.
History as Entertainment
The rape of queens, dashing of infant heads into stone, flaying of soldiers, incest of twins, the Red Wedding …historical? I’m sure these terrible things have happened at some point or another in our dark past, but are we really reliving these things for laughs and entertainment?
If the show doesn’t kill off characters I’m attached to – whether they’re killed psychologically, physically, or emotionally – then they become immortal which is anti-reality, anti-history. It fools me into a false sense of joy, suspends my human emotional expectations. it’s not because I believe people live forever, but that when everyone survives in tact we never come to terms with our own brokeness. I think this is the point of a tragic performance. This isn’t entertainment. It’s therapy.
I’m a sucker for a great medieval fantasy like many RPG lovers. There’s something about the setting that’s really comforting. Maybe it’s the simplicity of life. Things aren’t easy, but they’re much simpler than our complex society today. Plus there’s always a sense of adventure, the world as an unknown quantity. Is it truly round? Can I sail around it? Can I run off the horizon? It’s not that medieval societies didn’t have these answers, but the fact that those were uncommon feats and allows one to imagine what that could look like and be like. The world, from this perspective, is full of potential and excitement. That makes for a great fantasy for a gamer like me.
But tragedy isn’t fantasy. How do I enjoy GOT? I take it for what it is as best I can and let the tragedy do it’s work on me. That means sometimes I walk away from an episode angry. Sometimes numb. Sometimes glad. Whatever emotions it invokes, I don’t try to explain it away. I just feel it and let it be.