The Stark Knight Rises

Pop Culture

The Stark Knight Rises

Illustration: Namaah/ Arré

he just-concluded sixth season of the popular fantasy epic Game of Thrones has left me with an empty late night Sunday slot to fill with some very confused ideas about who exactly our heroes and villains are.

I thought it was a fairly cut and dried thing: The hero is the guy who does the good, honorable thing and the villain is the guy who does pretty much anything – evil or otherwise – that he feels like doing. And then Sansa Stark feeds a prisoner to a pack of fierce dogs, Ned Stark wins a duel after his opponent is stabbed in the back and Tyrion rationalises the continuation of slavery while working for a queen called “The Breaker of Chains”. Watching on, like the rest of the world, every Sunday/Monday, I found myself questioning why exactly I was cheering for these characters.

Call me old-fashioned, but I like my heroes with a strong streak of heroism. I’m not sure I like being served protagonists who buck the trend of upstanding behaviour. You may accuse me of being out-of-touch (you certainly won’t be the first), but I think it’s important that the heroes of our most popular stories convey a clear message about what’s right and what’s wrong.

Ours is a twisted, crowded, warped world, where it can be hard to find real heroes or villains. There’re always nuances, circumstances and layers of context that stop you from calling out black or white. Fiction (at least fantasy fiction) has always provided a release from that unpalatable reality. In fiction, we know our heroes from our villains. Sansa Stark is a good person. I liked Sansa Stark, and so did millions of others. She’s grown from a child lost in fancy into a strong, powerful woman. But when she killed a bound prisoner by feeding him to feral dogs, something should have snapped. The character should have lost our love for crossing a line. But she didn’t.

This season of GoT left me wondering if the landscape of fantasy fiction – that once clean land where good always triumphed over evil – has changed forever? I’ve always relied on fantasy to give me hope and relief from an otherwise cynical view of the world. Neil Gaiman once said: “Fairy tales are more than true – not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.” Fantasy is meant to be inspirational and uplifting. It’s supposed to demonstrate that sometimes, by doing the right thing, events sort themselves out. But Sansa’s brutality was far from the right thing.

There was a time when that kind of action would put an irredeemable blot on a character. What you might scoff at as an outdated sense of morality is what has kept “The Lord of the Rings” on top of bestseller lists for several decades, while “A Song of Ice and Fire” (the literary series that GoT is adapted from) remained a niche favourite that needed a show filled with attractive naked women to catapult it into the public consciousness.

The moral fibre of the characters in LOTR remains undamaged. Frodo and Sam spare Gollum’s life despite every reason and opportunity to not do so – not because he was winning them over, but because they just weren’t murderers. As heroes, their legacy remains untarnished and gets retold generation after generation. Sansa Stark killing Ramsay Bolton like some kind of James Bond villain, is not likely to leave behind a legacy. Her story will go as far as water cooler conversations the next day, and then get retired to listicles like, “Most Shocking Moments On GoT This Season!”

The awesome, grounded aesthetic that was minted by Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy has been rendered redundant by the law of diminishing marginal utility.

The fact that today’s audience views Sansa’s departure from her ideals as just revenge goes to show how we’ve decided that being righteous and honourable is optional as long as we get our way. Overcoming adversity by any means necessary trumps learning and growing from difficulty. When a show with such a message dominates our cultural landscape, it serves as a mirror to our times.

It’s a common phenomenon; you read a book, or play a video game, and you start supplanting the protagonist with yourself. Their past and motives are filtered through the lens of your thought in a symbiotic relationship. Eventually, if the storytelling is immersive enough, you can understand, empathise and even predict a character’s actions. But we can no longer do that. This greying of lines, this questionable morality, has changed our approach to consuming fiction. We no longer read books or watch movies to draw inspiration from a hero’s struggle; we begin to consume media to satisfy our baser instincts. We watch TV that titillates, excites or enrages us without taking away any learnings from the story.

The trend of gritty realism has wormed its way into nearly every facet of popular culture. In the realm of fiction and entertainment, being “inspired by true events” is almost a prerequisite for films come awards season now. The awesome, grounded aesthetic that was minted by Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy has been rendered redundant by the law of diminishing marginal utility. Armour-clad, sword-wielding Snow White comes to mind, and that was a Disney film.

When we live in a world where the reality is inequality, suffering, poverty, misery and strife, do we want to perpetuate the notion that right and wrong are arbitrary, and have no bearing on outcomes?

As the dust settles on this season finale and you meme and tweet and share posts about GoT, remember this. Cersei is a terrorist, Sansa is a murderer, Daenerys is a dictator, Tyrion is a slave driver and Jon Snow is the Undead. They’re not our heroes because they don’t celebrate the best of us. They represent the worst. I don’t know about you, but I’m not up for that.