“May I Watch Game of Thrones?” is the Wrong Question

The important questions is, “What good does it do me to watch Game of Thrones?”

(photo: Register Files)

Even among secular media watchers, HBO’s Game of Thrones has its mild detractors.  Among Catholics, debate about the ethics of—and the ethics of watching—the show can get heated.  I’ve seen multiple social media dumps on articles about the series: articles critiquing its violence, articles praising its realism, articles slamming its sixth commandment shenanigans, articles noting the limited virtue of various characters.

What I haven’t seen is the series itself; and I don’t plan to see it.  I don’t plan to see it because, of all the articles I’ve read on Game of Thrones, not one has made a case for the series that convinces me it’s worth my time’s investment.  I’m not saying a convincing case for the series couldn’t be made.  But the arguments I’ve read for GoT so far have been unconvincing: for none of them ask the right question.

I realized this recently, in the wake of a conversation with an acquaintance who happens to be a priest.  In that conversation, the case was raised of a person who has been viewing music videos—not the sort of videos that get banned from YouTube, but your standard music video, featuring skimpily-clad, suggestively-gyrating people.  How do you convince the viewer to change his habits (before they degenerate into something worse)?

One possibility, of course, is to point out precisely where those habits naturally lead.  But the best of us have a tendency to deny slippery slope arguments when they infringe upon our pleasures; and I was dubious of the viability of that sort of argument in the court of our viewer’s conscience.  The priest at the table suggested another tack.  Rather than making the negative case against music videos, why not make a positive case by appealing to the person’s interest in virtue?  He said (I paraphrase as best as memory allows):

“First of all, let’s be clear: We’re not talking about pornography; we’re talking about lewd dancing.  Secondly, the viewer is wrong if he thinks that this won’t affect him—but you’re not going to convince him of that.  Instead, what you could do is ask him this question: ‘How is watching these videos making you a better person?  What virtue are they instilling?’  And if he’s honest,” the priest added with a chuckle, “he’s going to have to say, ‘None at all!’”

The proper question, in other words, is not “May I watch Miley Cyrus without sin?” but “What good does it do me to watch Miley Cyrus?”

Of course, if someone challenged my own guilty pleasures, I know what my rejoinder would be.  It’s just recreation.  Recreation is permissible, indeed necessary.  Laudable, even.  Remember that saint who said he’d keep playing pool even if the world were about to end?

But while the vehicle of the argument is true, the tenor is false.  Human beings do require recreation—even contemplative monks and nuns!—but the form that recreation takes is not a matter of indifference.  If we’re serious in saying that we love God, then recreation is not a God-free zone.  This is not to say that every recreational film must fall into the category exemplified by The Reluctant Saint or The Song of Bernadette or (heaven help us) The Mission.  Not all our actions need involve pointing the searchlight directly at the heavens.  But all our entertainment should be things we’re comfortable sharing with the heavens—like a child sharing a common garden snail with his mother, in the consciousness that she’s seen a thousand of them, and has greater things to mind—but knowing too that she’ll smile at the snail, which isn’t a snake.

Thus, as in the case of our musical friend, the important question with Game of Thrones isn’t “May I watch Game of Thrones without sin?” but rather “What good does it do me to watch Game of Thrones?”

As far as I know, no one has come up with an answer to that question.

This is not meant, incidentally, as a carte blanche indictment of cinematic violence. I have watched (and would watch again) a few films that probably deserve an R rating: at the moment, I’m thinking specifically of the epic Polish films based on Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Trilogy and directed by Jerzy Hoffmann (Ogniem i Mieczem, Potop, and Pan Wołodyjowski).  There are plenty of war scenes (and yes, even some execution and torture scenes) for which squeamishness demands the fast-forward button.  But Sienkiewicz’s historical novels (which include Quo Vadis) all come not only with dramatic, high-stakes scenarios and spine-tingling villains, but also with heroes and heroines worthy of the name, with middle-characters whose arcs satisfyingly rise or fall into virtue or vice, and even (usually) with a few jesters to round out the fun.  All of this Hoffmann represents with moderate faithfulness.  None of this (again, so far as the reviews have revealed) exists in the world of Game of Thrones.

That’s why I don’t plan to see the series. Indubitably, it would be recreative. But recreation isn’t mere refreshment, as if we were all web pages that recharge with magical identicality each time, regardless of who or what hits the reload button. The motions, words, sounds, and images of recreation shape memories and thus thoughts for hours, days, and even years to come, and in so doing they do indeed re-create a miniscule fragment of a human soul.