Dennis Broe finds parallels between the rich and powerful in the final season of Game of Thrones, and their modern-day equivalents in the real world
It’s wildly and devilishly seductive, glamourous, and the ultimate expression of unbridled passion. It functions as a key plot device driving the story in shows, purporting to give a glimpse into how the wealthiest live or lived. It is the new incest, brothers and sisters who break social bounds and seem entitled to because of their elevated position. Because of its prominence in the most prestigious serial series at the moment – Game of Thrones – and its appearance in what amounted to the best series of 2017 – Taboo – the implications of this plot device are worth exploring.
It’s crucial to note the absolute centrality of sibling love to Game of Thrones. No spoilers here but the entire saga of the breakup of the Stark family, whose wanderings in the Westeros wilderness make up the core of the series, is occasioned by the father Ned and the son Bran discovering the incest of the queen Cersei and her brother Jaime Lannister. It is the precipitating incident for the entire action of the plot. In addition, at the end of season seven, another incident of incest occurs, this time unpremeditated but casting a shadow over what has been presented as a meeting of characters whose purity is unquestioned.
In the BBC series Taboo, the lead character, played by Tom Hardy, returns to 1830s England as a kind of more noir-ish Count of Monte Cristo, with a plan for revenge on the East India Bay Company. He’s a sort of prince of darkness or devilish outsider, and part of his nonconformity is his absolute unfettered desire for his stepsister, the only person he loves, with that desire seen not as forbidden as the title might suggest, but as sanctioned because of the pure nature of the character’s lust. He tells her in the opening that he will have her, though this pledge eventually drives her insane. Jaime and Cersei’s forbidden lovemaking in Game of Thrones is among the sexiest soft-core scenes of the series – that is, is granted a patina of seductiveness enhanced and made more titillating by its forbidden quality. In both series incestuous love among the very rich, rather than being frowned upon, is presented as fetish object of fascination.
There are two crucial points to make about the new incest. First, the seductive quality is possible because it seems to be taking place between equals – it is brother and sister love. The more destructive, yet more common forms of incest, father-daughter, mother-son, are not discussed since there the harm is more obvious. In terms of media presentation, for a long time the subject itself was taboo, though of course we know it has been a factor in all social strata, with Freud focusing prominently on the subject in the upper middle class of Vienna in what used to be called “family violence,” but is now being presented as sexy groundbreaking escapade.
The topic was previously most often approached obliquely and is the subject of David Lynch’s most spectacular work. In Blue Velvet there is a scene where Jeffrey, hiding in the closet, observes his surrogate “parents” Dorothy and Frank in an abusive violent interchange that harks back to Freud’s primal scene where the child first knows that its parents make love, and which is replayed in Game of Thrones with Bran Stark’s discovery of Cersei and Jaime. Jeffrey then sleeps with Dorothy which results in an eruption of violence.
Lynch’s most explicit statement about the destruction caused by incest is of course the first version of Twin Peaks where the killing of the teenage prom queen Laura Palmer, the focus of the mystery of the series, is revealed to be the result of an incestuous coupling. But Lynch’s presentation of incest is critical of the destructive violence, psychic and physical, let loose by this uneven power relationship exercised by adults over still unsuspecting children. In GOT and Taboo the act itself is seen as pure meeting of equals, though this is seldom the case.
The second point may be more crucial. The incest presented on the two shows is lodged in the upper classes, the (as we would say today) one tenth of one percent. In Game of Thrones it takes place among the royals, the elite of the elite, which the series focuses on, with only glancing interest in the common people. In Taboo it takes place between the inheritors of the owner of a shipping company, with a baronial mansion. Taboo though does not just display upper-class privilege: it is also sharply critical of British capitalism, with its villain being the East India Bay Company, presented as a powerful rival to the state.
Incest among the lower classes is of course always frowned upon, and often the subject of jokes about inbreeding, seen as the background for a kind of primitiveness and backwardness that is part of the tissue of lower-class representation. On television this ranges from The Dukes of Hazzard to a more knowing comment on the misery of poverty in Justified. GOT emphasizes not only the off-handed sexy nature of Jaime and Cersei’s coupling, his famous line in dispensing Bran, “The things I do for love,” but also the melding of a new kind of power couple that by comparison make Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie seem like welfare recipients.
What is emphasized is not the secrecy of the couple but their lust for power. Jamie tells Cersei (in language I’ve cleaned up) “Curse prophecy, curse fate, curse everyone but us. Everything they’ve taken from us we’re going to take back and more.” And what is equally emphasized is the exclusiveness of the couple and their position above everyone else as Cersei later replies to Jamie, “We’ve always been together, we’ll always be together, we’re the only two people in the world.”
What this last sentiment suggests is that the new incest in GOT’s allegorical past is an expression of the present-day upper strata of the upper class, which since they are so much richer than everyone else and since there are increasingly fewer and fewer of them, their mating choices are now limited and they are almost forced to keep it within the family. It’s a sign of their increasing isolation and withdrawal from the life of the planet, as sociologist Serge Paugam reports in a recent study of the rich in Rio de Janeiro, Delhi and Paris. He describes how the upper strata lock themselves in what are called golden ghettos, disdain taking public transportation, and in fact no longer frequent public spaces, preferring to take refuge in their highly securitized residences and send their children only to private establishments where they will never encounter those outside their class.
Recently the Paradise Papers revealed that for example, the family of the richest man in France, Bernard Arnault, which owns the luxury umbrella company LVMH which includes Louis Vuitton, Dior, and Mark Jacobs and has a net worth of over 60 billion dollars, shelters itself at a secret complex outside of London with covered swimming pools, private gym and separate quarters for guests.
They reveal corporations and their wealthy owners concealing wealth either illegally or operating on the edge of legality, in another analogy to incest. Le Monde economist Gabriel Zucman, in studying the revelations of these leaked documents, found that 600 billion dollars is transferred offshore each year by multinationals, with Europe losing one-fifth of its tax base, 60 billion euros, in hidden funds and with France alone losing 11 billion.
Zucman declares that this secret tax avoidance is the principal motor increasing global inequality, with 10 percent of global wealth now hidden in offshore accounts. Since it is so secret the heightening disparity of income, which has been so much fretted over in recent years, is much greater than anyone had imagined. Clearly, the very rich are getting much richer and are keen to keep their wealth secret, hiding it from nation states not only to avoid tax but also because to flaunt it in public is to encourage a reckoning.
Further evidence of the incestuous nature of these relations can be seen in the banks narrowing their client lists, as HSBC’s Swiss bank which carried 30,000 clients with a combined net worth of 3.9 million dollars in pre-crash 2007, by 2014 carried only 10,000 clients, that is two-thirds less, but with almost double the net worth of 6.6 million.
75 percent of assets stowed in foreign countries are undeclared, which deprive governments around the world of taxes needed to improve the shared wealth of the nation and this crisis is particularly acute in developing countries where the need is greatest. The Lannisters and their contemporary equivalents are, in their interior enclaves, oblivious to the fact that their wealth is accrued at the expense of those most in need.
The solution according to Zucman harks back to the incest question, and that is public accounting. Today’s wealthiest corporations and leaders, sheltered in incestuous enclaves like Cersei and Jaime sequestered in their extravagant love nest at King’s Landing, must face the reckoning of those they have ruled over so unfairly since the global crash of 2008.
Dennis Broe is a television, film and culture critic whose latest works are Birth of the Binge: Serial TV and The End of Leisure and the detective novel Left of Eden. He taught in the Master’s Programme in Film and Television Studies at the Sorbonne. His criticism appears in the Morning Star, on Arts Express on the Pacifica Network in the US, on Breaking Glass on Art District Radio in Paris, People’s World, and Crime Time. He is an Associate Editor of Culture Matters.