There's a rather interesting thing about our event television: Those Sunday night cable shows that are live tweeted and which sometimes make for the subtext of cultist current events comedy we consume from Saturday Night Live and The Daily Show to The Colbert Report and Last Week Tonight. Its all complex without seeming complex, and often a commentary on history as well as the present. The Walking Dead is ostensibly about zombies, but its also about combat, the psyche of terror and insurgency. Mad Men is about the beginnings of modern advertising and the sixties social maelstrom, but its also about the lies we tell to live our lives and tensions in a workplace.
Breaking Bad was just as much about the lengths one would theoretically go to in order to survive the financial ruin of a catastrophic medical diagnosis in the American pre-Obamacare system, as it was about a high school teacher and former Los Alamos National Laboratories chemist, who wanted to be great at something again. Even if that "thing" was of nefarious intent. The list can go on. Parallels are often drawn to our present realities in these episodics, but our history or a history that is relevant, is also omnipresent. And so obsessions fan out quickly from the idea layering. We are in many ways making some sense of our world through our fiction, and developing empathy for those in parallel real-life situations.
Game of Thrones provides an interesting, alternative case to this though. While the books cater to a specific niche demographic; the show purposefully aired at a time-slot when the subject matter could be most appealing to a broad swath of people, who most likely never would have read a George R.R. Martin book. The tale of power and ascension to it, airs on Sunday night, the current pre-Netflix and HBOGO space carved out by networks to appeal to college-educated snobs who like to watch obsession-friendly programs which are rife for nerdy parsing within a separate but symbiotic universe online.
While the original literary iterations of Game of Thrones appealed to obsessive board gamers and Dungeons and Dragons types, the show has managed to find a foothold and pull in many political junkies and foreign policy wonks, along with young women looking for a very strong character to follow. (They've found this in Khaleessi.) Its underlying character archetypes reminds us all of the struggles in politics, geopolitics, statecraft and diplomacy, and those unseemly aspirants to the seat of power. For some, it seems to hold the same intellectual relationship de-tangling and examination exercises as House of Cards.
Which is why an interesting take, provided by Benjamin Breen -- the editor of the literary quarterly The Appendix, and a doctorate candidate in history at the University of Texas -- is quite resonant. Breen is working on a dissertation looking to examine the early modern drug trade. In watching Game of Thrones, he has noticed that while we would all characterize Game of Thrones to be a fantasy set in the Medieval (its creators even describe it as so); it isn't. He argues it is so broadly appealing, because it's actually modern. The Medieval period is simply masquerading over times quite a bit more recognizable to ours, from the not-so-distant past. As Breen put it: "Fantasy worlds are never just fantasy. They appeal to us because they refract our own histories and speak to our contemporary interests."
He asserts that Game of Thrones is our recent world history in Pacific Standard's "Why 'Game of Thrones' Isn't Medieval -- And Why That Matters". It is not some hatched egg from its author, George R.R. Martin's mind, at least not completely. As everyone who watches the show has noticed, the fictional world of Game of Thrones is divided by seven kingdoms with cities and towns, all of which share a populous continent. There is also pronounced sea trade and inauspiciously, a southern continent raided for slave labor. There's also: