I haven’t read George RR Martin’s books, don’t plan to—I’m a grown man, for chrissakes—and I’m still not sure whether the Game of Thrones series is any good. I started watching it, and continue to watch it, out of spite, to better ridicule my nerdy-bird friends who are true fans, and to corroborate reports of excessive female nudity.
I have no compunction to contribute to any of the outrage or analysis on the tweet-face or read the blog posts that cascade down every second live feed on Monday mornings. I couldn’t compete.
Instead, GoT fans, I’d ask you to consider the fact that there’s been no such furore over another series on another network that’s run in staggered tandem with HBO’s Game of Thrones, The Borgias. But you don’t really watch The Borgias, that show about the pope and Italy’s “original crime family”. (You don’t really watch Showtime. Eww.)
The disparity between the two serials’ acceptance and fanfare surprises someone like me, looking at you pack of freaks from the outside, because once you get the chainmail off, they’re essentially the same show.
Look no further than The Borgias’ Season 3 Episode 9, which, like GoT’s Season 3 Episode 9’s Red Wedding scene—which shot past infamy with an alacrity that only the Digital Age could accommodate—also included a massacre at a feast, of sorts. Just that here it was at the beginning of the episode, not at the end.
Lucrezia Borgia putting to sleep with poison an entire banquet hall of Bacchanalians to furnish her escape from Naples didn’t have quite the visual acuity that repeatedly stabbing a fetus through its mother’s stomach did, but these tonal variants are superficial. GoT’s fantasy universe may often be more graphic than the conniving, decadent Rome of Alexander Sextus, but don’t be fooled.
Both shows have got your standard playbook scenarios for a 21st-century series not beholden to public-network censors. You got your easy-money shots of various maidens stripping off, sure, that’s a longtime given on cable, but these days you gotta have your incest—played as early as it was possible to be played in GoT; simmered and brought to a tea-kettle scream over a couple of seasons on The Borgias. You got your closet homosexuality—again, played early and often in GoT, implied but not made manifest in The Borgias until relatively recently—a theme which trots in lockstep with the now mandatory, not-nearly-egalitarian but obviously well-intended bits of male nudity. (One day, ladies, parity will be reached.) Game of Thrones, in all its expected delicacy, first ticked this off the list by exposing an oafish, retarded golem with a baguette between his legs. In The Borgias, First Cock is a lithe man-boy with proportions more in line with the preferences of the Italian masters.
The Borgias did beat GoT to the wedding bed when it came to showing aristocratic family members assuring from nearby that a marriage would be truly consummated, and in this, The Borgias managed to out-creep GoT, but the consistent and near-identical aspects of the shows are plot driven. Like, plot driven and plot driven. They’re both about how people in power fuck each other over. There’s plenty of Machiavellian scheming in GoT, but in The Borgias, there’s Machiavelli.
I don’t know why you Martin acolytes don’t watch The Borgias. It can’t be because you’re turned off by the implausibility or the funny clothes. It’s all the same tropes of medieval European class-intrigue that’ve been behind the entire fantasy genre since The Lord of the Rings, just that GoT's caste system is speckled with magic and dragons, and The Borgias’ Renaissance Italy is of the hyper-real.
The Borgias may be set in 16th-century Italy, but all the characters in both shows speak with class-distinct British accents: the posh London Lannisters, the loutish Wildings from somewhere between Manchester and Yorkshire. The Borgia family’s lilts befit a high tea at Windsor Castle and Jeremy Irons speaks exactly like, well, Jeremy Irons, and in the first-person plural of a Renaissance pope, to boot.
We could go on.
But the point is, if The Borgias and GoT are at root the same show, why is one so much more popular than the other? (Trust me, I know this, I see the Pirate Bay seeder’s tally after every week’s episode goes up to steal.) The obvious argument is that George RR Martin’s books have had comic-con types slavering for years and they’re an easily assembled core audience, whereas Irish film director Neil Jordan, who created, and writes and directs several episodes of The Borgias, usually helms subtle, pensive films for grown-ups. (There is irony here, in that it was Neil Jordan who gave popular cinema its first real high-profile, mainstream flash of the old baby carrot back in 1992 with The Crying Game, when to see it, you had to wait, pay, and be in a theatre and see it ten feet high. When it came out—ahem—it was akin to the mania created by Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Halcyon days, halcyon days.)
I’d like to posit that the current attraction to these types of shows is somehow an atavistic anchoring to idealised times gone by, where the social mores of either show are past their statutes of limitations, frozen forever to an amoral posterity, and therefore easy to bat around for fun. Those of us with a tendency for anachronism find romance in the kings and queens and knights and battles and bar wenches, in spite and because of the fact that these fictional feudal kingdoms and Apostolic mafias contravene every civil rights battle for personal and social freedom and equality that followed the historical periods in which both these series’ subtexts ground themselves. It’s all placating the lizard brain that we haven’t quite out-evolved yet. Just a bit of escapism, innit? No harm in that.
Of course not. It’s entertainment. So we cloak these regressive societies with hyper-reality or fantasy to eschew the fact that we’re taking pleasure in what today’s political correctness can’t afford us. The veil that saves us having to admit we’re getting off on barbarity, moral turpitude and the ability to subjugate women, however, is as thin as Daenerys Targaryen’s bathrobe. But it’s okay, we’re not recidivist savages so long as there are dragons and people with funny names involved (although it seems a good half of GoT’s families that populate what is essentially the British Isles with reality-matching vernacular have some pretty British names as it is. They even have a big fuck-off Hadrian’s Wall, but they wouldn’t dare give the White Walkers who roam the untamed north Scottish accents; so far those automatons just grunt and roar with unprovoked anger).
The great precursor of this current fantasy trend, The Lord of the Rings, was like this, too. When The Hobbit was published in 1954, who in England wouldn’t want to escape post-war Britain for the Shire—the fucking Shire, man—for a bit? The success of Tolkien’s books is perhaps what we have to thank for setting the British-Isle template into any fantasy scenario that would follow.
Does this mean that by judging how George RR Martin’s books have blown up these past years that we’re also living in such unmoored times as after WWII? I’m not sure. There are arguments to be made for that. A case can also be made that it’s just a matter of the usual couple-of-decades cycle between repetitive trends we see all the time in fashion and music.
As someone delusional enough to attempt to earn their keep as a wordsmith in this Digital Age, I know all too well that times for plebs of my ilk are tough, and my reality often has me pining for escape fantasies. But call it a matter of taste, I like my fantasy to at least pretend to be tied to a tangible history. I feel like underneath the glow, there’s at least a modicum of learning going on, and it’s The Borgias that does that for me. I like how a scene is set in Leonardo Da Vinci’s workshop, that the show brings to life, in all but their BO and their gangrene and their boils, the Sforzas and the Medicis, and that the writers saw fit to include Ludovico of Milan’s assassination.
I guess I’m just a nerd of a different order. But I’ve always hated Dungeons and Dragons, and I don’t derive much empathy from the parallel universe of Westeros. Except for that Peter Dinklage character. I love that dude, because one thing that hasn’t changed since medieval times, in Martin’s world, Jordan’s world, or ours, is that dwarves are funny.
For any GoT fans that would admonish me for that benighted comment, please take it in the context that I am speaking from your beloved King’s Landing, where such attitudes and their typical, commensurate, and even more repugnant moral attitudes would not only be acceptable, but encouraged and applauded.
Now bring in the whores, I am tired after a long ride and I wish to be bathed and have a vat of claret poured down my throat. And I’ll take that excommunication to go.