If it's true that we crave stories where good triumphs over evil, then why are so many people watching Game of Thrones? In this sweeping fantasy with high production values and rich source material, that doesn't happen, and I hate to break it to you if you're behind in the books, but it looks like it never will.
In George R. R. Martin's fictional universe, bad things happen again and again. I'm not just talking about the explicit sex and violence that viewers should expect from a serial drama airing on HBO; bad things include heartless, gruesome storylines: an adopted son betraying the family that raised him, a brother selling his sister to a warlord in hope of gaining an army, an honorable man beheaded at the order of a spoiled child, and guests slaughtered at a wedding reception.
"[T]he true horrors of human history derive not from orcs and Dark Lords, but from ourselves," the series' author, Martin, recently explained to The New York Times.
What Martin is describing sounds like a perspective of humanity rooted in an understanding of our sin nature. But I share a conviction with other Christians that where there is darkness, there must also be a source of redeeming light. That light doesn't seem to exist in the world of Game of Thrones.
Jonathan Ryan, in his commentary for Christianity Today, compared Martin's mythological fantasy world to that of J.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. However, he writes, "Martin's image focuses on the ruin, not the glory."
That is not to say that no character in the show shows virtue or seeks honor. But Ryan is correct in noting that even for characters who attempt to do the "right" thing, there is no reward, and it seems that "every good thing [is] corrupted at its heart."
Seeing justice — characters get what they deserve, good or bad— is a different (though no less fervent) craving than our longing for good to counterbalance, even redeem, evil. After all, as Christians we know that virtue cannot redeem us.
And the characters on Game of Thrones are certainly looking for redemption. For example (spoilers ahead!), Ned Stark, the lord of the North, lived by a code of honor that he also taught his sons. His honor didn't save him, and it led him to make bad decisions for his family. But it was an attempt to seek virtue and justify actions that included loyalty to a king who took the throne by force and marrying his daughter to a sociopath.
Other characters seek a Higher Power to guide their decisions. Stannis Baratheon even uses his dedication to "the Lord of Light" to justify human sacrifice.
Game of Thrones mostly includes characters who do the wrong thing for good reasons and characters who do the wrong thing for bad reasons. Most frustrating, still, are the many characters who try to do the right thing for the right reasons, and get beheaded, killed, amputated, or framed for it.
Martin, who calls himself "atheist or agnostic," has expressed his own frustration with theodicy, the idea of a loving God in a world of pain. He pledged that his narrative will never include a being who saves the characters from the mess they're in. But in Game of Thrones, the characters also seem unable to save themselves. The ones who try are the worst off: When Jaime rescues Brienne, he loses his hand. When Arya finally finds her mother, her mother was killed moments before. When Tyrion protects Shae, she implicates him in murder.
Horrors regularly befall characters who are less than single-minded about power. Tywin Lannister, a man who puts control above more sympathetic priorities like honor, loyalty, family, or even fun is one of the only characters whose power has continued to grow over the past four seasons. In a sense, he has become his own (hardly loving) Higher Power, and his influence makes him so to many other characters on the show.
Unlike the other characters, Tywin is not looking for redemption, so perhaps he does not need to learn — over and over and in brutal fashion — that they do not have the power to redeem themselves.
Controversy over the nature of the sex and violence on Game of Thrones will wax and wane along with the ratio of naked female to male anatomy in each episode. But in its depiction of relentless failure by even "good" people, I think the show actually provides a wise lesson. As Christians, we should know we cannot save ourselves, no matter how hard we try to "do good."
"There is something in us, as storytellers and as listeners to stories, that demands the redemptive act, that demands that what falls at least be offered the chance to be restored," Flannery O'Connor wrote in Mystery and Manners. That is true. Our problems start when we expect that restoration to arise through human action, even the fictional kind.