Ordering a Disordered World (continued…)
I made the argument in my last post that at least some of the pleasure to be derived from watching Game of Thrones can be found in the ways in which, despite the tumult of its characters’ clashes, there is a sense of order amidst its disorder, an order quite lacking from our real world. A good way to illustrate this is to consider the opening sequence of Thrones, the credits sequence, which introduces the viewer to the world of Westeros and to the major houses that control it—Baratheon, Stark, Lannister, and Targaryen—and their sigils (heraldic signs): stag, wolf, lion, and dragon, respectively. The sequence provides a 3-D map of the world of the books/TV series, a map that changes based on the locations that will be visited in each episode, with locations added and subtracted as needed, even shifting in appearance as the narrative advances, as in the transformation of Winterfell, the home of the Starks, from a thriving stronghold to a ruin. The map serves a basic purpose of orienting the viewer to some of the pertinent landmarks of this world and their geographic relation to each other, while introducing the major houses. It also provides a sense of both wonder and order, the first drawing the viewer in, the second comforting the viewer with the assurance that there is thread of order, a plan, behind this vast saga.
For those who haven’t yet invested many hours in the world of Thrones, here’s a quick encapsulation of one of these opening sequences, drawn from series one. The sequence opens with a sun, like a fiery flower, pictured within the spinning rings of an astrolabe whose rings bear images of past conflicts. Below the sun is the land of Westeros and the lands beyond it. The camera plunges down, drawing the viewer along with it, towards King’s Landing, traditionally the home of the King of Westeros, now the seat of King Robert Baratheon and his wife, Cersei Lannister. As the camera moves towards it, the city rises from the map, the castle called the Red Keep spinning up and out, appearing before the viewer’s eyes like a series of moving cogs and wheels.
The camera moves on: flying across the map like a raven, swooping north to Winterfell. As in King’s Landing, the building, a mass of wheels and cogs, rise up from the flat surface, but this place is different: smaller, less impressive than King’s Landing, yet there are new, distinctive features, in particular the heart tree at the center of the Godswood, whose red leaves spring forth from the tree’s white trunk as the camera moves up it. If King’s Landing is mechanical, precise, vast and powerful, this location feels organic, unknowable, and profoundly different—hinting at the differences between these locations and the people in them.
The camera moves back into the sky, up above the sun-flower, as the rings revolve, showing more of the history that has led up to this present. The camera then hovers over the map once more, moving from Winterfell further north, towards the vast white height of the Wall. An elevator rises from the base of the Wall to the top, as the camera moves with it, offering a glimpse into the white wastes beyond, home of the wildlings and legendary White Walkers. The cameras moves up and back, pausing for a moment over King’s Landing, then flies across the Narrow Sea, moving sideways to swoop low over the land and take in the sight of the city of Penthos rising from the map’s surface. Then the camera moves back to the sun to show the design of one of the rings, which depicts three of the animals aligned with the major houses—lion, wolf, and dragon—bowing to the triumphant stag of House Baratheon. Then the show’s logo fills the screen: the words “Game of Thrones” on a large, circular shield device and, stretching out from each side of it a stag, a lion, a dragon, and a wolf: grouped together on this single device, yet also separate—another foreshadowing.
The sequence creates a sense of wonder that draws the viewer in through the manner in which the map comes to life, in a sense, yet simultaneously remains a map, an inanimate object. It thereby occupies the uneasy ground of the uncanny, the familiar made unfamiliar (to nod to Sigmund Freud). The image of the cities rising from the ground seem reminiscent of childhood toys, mechanical devices that come to life momentarily at the pull of an (invisible) string. At the same time, the cogs and wheels speak of adult matters: the cogs of industry, of technology and progress, the wheels of battle and, figuratively, of political plotting, Machiavellian maneuvers in which fate’s wheel goes round and round. As these rise in front of the viewer’s eyes, whirling round, bursting forth, the shape, literal and figurative, of this world and its conflicts—conflicts over possession of lands and the people in them—are vividly presented.
At the same time as the credits sequence creates wonder, it also creates a sense of order: the spaces are discrete, knowable, even as the narrative develops the messy swirl of alliances formed and reformed, the bleeding over of one group into another, a constant change. The fixedness of the sequence, appearing at the beginning of each episode, maintains a certain constant, even as each episode shows the metamorphoses of these places and the characters within them. At the same time, the flexibility of the sequence, focusing, as needed, on certain locations, responding to the narrative’s progress and the transformations of each place, both recognizes what has happened and anticipates the shifts that each episode will bring. The sequence indicates that change occurs, even as it maintains a certain changelessness.
Change certainly happens in our real world, but it’s often hard to understand or even see these changes when they first appear, and no one can foresee how they will shape, literally and figuratively, the future. If one goes back in history, so many locations that ruled their corner of the world through their economic, political, and cultural influence, from Babylon to Troy are no more than a few references in history books, and their famous sights—hanging gardens, massive walls, vast libraries, magnificent temples—are long gone. Of the seven wonders of the ancient world, only one—the pyramid at Giza—remains. Countries have transformed, borders and names shifting over time. Who knows what our world will be like, where the borders and the cities will be, where people will exist, a century or two from now, not to mention thousands of years on, as the world is reshaped by humans’ conflict and activity, from wars to global warming, and Nature transforms the familiar through earthquakes, storms, droughts, and volcanic activity to the strange, the sere, the unfamiliar. Our world feels unstable, with no eye to truly map it, no historian to truly trace its history, and no seer to imagine its future.
Given this, there is a certain comfort to be found in the regularity of the world of Thrones, particularly as it is glimpsed in that opening sequence. The world pictured there is diverse, full of a wide variety of cities and landscapes, a place in which people might indeed be divided: part of their own private spheres, driven by singular desires and clannish allegiances, desirous to cling to the familiar and cast off the unknown. Yet there is also a wholeness to this world, a coherence in the space created by the camera, which takes in all these places, and the soundtrack, with its sweeping instruments and thrilling drums that play throughout the camera’s movement as it flies from sight to sight, people to people, creating both diversity and unity: a whole. As I listen to news reports, as I walk through this town, as I watch the sky, ever shifting, I long, if only fleetingly, for such order in a disordered world.