An Unhappy Family in an Unhappy Land

It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that Western Drama begins with Aeschylus’ Oresteia, the only trilogy to survive from classical Athens, first performed in a single festival around 458 BC. Agamemnon returns home from sacking Troy, Clytemnestra gets up from sacking Aegisthus to murder him (for having murdered their daughter Iphigenia so that the winds would change and the Greeks could get to Troy in the first place), Orestes comes home to find his dad dead, murders his mom and Aegisthus in revenge (with help from his sister Elektra), is pursued by the harpy-like Furies, who are stopped in their revenge by Athena and agree to a trial by jury instead. Orestes is acquitted (revenging dad takes precedence over killing mom) and the Furies turn into guardian spirits of Athens, ensuring the city’s prosperity. Peace and patriarchy are restored to the land, and all can flourish.

Since that time, it’s not much exaggeration to say that Western drama finds its nexus in the conflict between agora and  home, between the values of collective, political life and individual familial loyalty and conscience. From Oedipus to Hamlet, from Nora walking out on Torvald when he rejects her for threatening to ruin his reputation (in Ibsen’s A Doll House) to Michael whacking Fredo in The Godfather Part 2 to Tony’s mom maybe kinda sorta telling her brother-in-law to whack Tony in the first season of The Sopranos, family life and its discontents- and more importantly perhaps, the impossibility of reconciling all our conflicting loyalties and obligations- are what it’s all about. Breaking Bad was so absorbing for so long because the stated desire driving Walt forward for most of the series– to provide for his family after his death– is one we recognize as legitimate and even admirable, even as it drove him to worse and worse bloodshed and betrayal, and ultimately to the destruction of the family he claimed to want to serve and protect. Not until the very last episode did Breaking Bad let us off the hook a bit, by having Walt acknowledge that it was his own vanity and cupidity that had made him launch and continue his crime spree. Until then the show was much more ambivalent than its show runners would admit in interviews about whether we should side with Walt, leading to copious hate-mail and threats from fans to the actress playing Walt’s wife Skyler, for not enabling his self-realization in the way the drama made us (bad fans that we are) desire. As David Mamet wrote in Three Uses of the Knife:

We live in an extraordinarily debauched, interesting, savage world, where things really don’t come out even. The purpose of true drama is to help remind us of that. Perhaps this does have an accidental, a cumulative social effect — to remind us to be a little more humble or a little more grateful or a little more ruminative. Stanislavsky says there are two kinds of plays. There are plays that you leave, and you say to yourself, “By God, I just, I never, gosh, I want to, now I understand! What a masterpiece! Let’s get a cup of coffee;’ and by the time you get home, you can’t remember the name of the play, you can’t remember what the play was about. And there are plays-and books and songs and poems and dances that are perhaps upsetting or intricate or unusual, that you leave unsure, but which you think about perhaps the next day, and perhaps for a week, and perhaps for the rest of your life. Because they aren’t clean, they aren’t neat, but there’s something in them that comes from the heart, and, so, goes to the heart. What comes from the head is perceived by the audience, the child, the electorate, as manipulative. And we may succumb to the manipulative for a moment because it makes us feel good to side with the powerful. But finally we understand we’re being manipulated. And we resent it.

Game of Thrones has become less interesting  recently because it abandoned the moral uncertainty and tension that made the first few seasons so gripping- the contradictions between different kinds of obligation and desire, the undoing of aspiration and the mistakes and blindness that mark all good dramatic heroes and heroines. Ned’s bullheaded insistence on the honorable and foolhardy act, Sansa’s hunger for courtly glamour (and lemon cakes), Arya’s thirst for revenge, and even Tyrion’s inability to resist falling in love, all placed the protagonists’ true selves in conflict with the conditions of their world, with the arrows of moral obligation pointing in multiple conflicting directions.

In drama’s absence, we are served ideology, all the female characters morphing into Approved Feminist Role Models, the easy (at least morally) replacement of the bad old patriarchy, in which sexuality exists almost entirely as rape, with the good coming matriarchy, in which all forms of conscience– familial and political, spiritual and individual– point in the same direction and same way.

But in the end, only when we are siding with the powerful does conscience cease to prick us in the chest and begin to tell us unambiguously what to do.

As in Aeschylus, the order of the society will arrive in the end, and those on top shall be shown to deserve their station. Athena will approve of the way things are, and not of the way things are not.  But until then, drama should give us pause, and make us wonder which of many kinds of loyalty, many commands on our heart, we should serve.

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