It’s All in the Game (of Thrones)


Both series concern themselves with the pursuit of power, otherwise known as “the game,” including everyone from noblemen to common folk in their examinations. “The Wire” takes aim at the War on Drugs, putting the entire city of Baltimore under the microscope to evaluate the role of its citizens in perpetuating “the game” by maintaining the status quo (and their jobs). Characters intersect and influence each other in the most spectacular and mundane ways. “The shit always rolls downhill,” meaning one character’s mistakes ripple into the lives of others, creating a world in which everything is connected and every player is to blame.

This is about as far away as you could get from “Game of Thrones,” whose characters are so geographically separated that the theme song changes each week to tell you where the hell you’re going. The game of “Game of Thrones” is the eponymous title, in which scheming and manipulating are keys to becoming king of the seven kingdoms. 

Denying your opponents the truth creates a sticky situation, in which the emphasis shifts to how people change depending on who’s listening and the ulterior motives that propel us towards reckless self-interest. How many have ranted about their desire to slit that bastard Joffrey’s throat in the privacy of their secret meetings, yet kneel before him as he sits atop the iron throne? Characters’ motives are never fully clear to one another, whereas all the trouble in “The Wire” comes from proving those intentions in a court of law.

The only court of any real substance in Westeros is that of war, and its outcome is essentially as fair as the ones coming out of Baltimore: The good get turned bad, the bad are made worse, and those who don’t play the game are destroyed for not taking a greater stake in their own destiny.

But it’s not enough to encourage selfishness. In order for the game to continue, it must also eradicate all empathy — empathy that could ruin the fun for everyone playing the game. 

“There you go again, giving a fuck when it ain’t your turn,” says one disgruntled homicide policeman to Detective Jimmy McNulty in “The Wire,” as he is ripped a new one for taking an interest in a murder he’s not responsible for solving. 

McNulty at first appears to be our righteous surrogate, steering us towards the side of the good and honorable in the same way Ned Stark did as he traveled straight into the heart of the game of thrones at King’s Landing. But the forces of the game are all-corrupting, leading the troubled McNulty into a controversial tailspin in the series’ final season that parallels Ned Stark’s own stumbling path of righteousness, with equally devastating results. 

However, describing either show as pessimistic is a gross oversimplification that fails to take into account all the moments of poetry and humor that are as authentic as any moment of soul-crushing depression. And make no mistake, when these two shows explore the beauty of their respective worlds, they are capable of producing sites and sounds that can put the greatest filmmakers on the ropes.

Because really, what these shows (and the heart of the game) are concerned with are the lives of people in every gory bit of detail. And when television uses its ample running time to explore both the light and the dark, it can elevate both to epic proportions. 

In the words of the wise Detective Lester Freamon, “A life, Jimmy, you know what that is? It’s the shit that happens while you wait for moments that never come.”