Ceci n’est pas une wheel: Misdirection and perception in Game of Thrones

[Contains spoilers for seasons 1–5 of HBO’s Game of Thrones, but no book spoilers. Proceed at your own peril!]

There are certain shortcuts our brains utilize in order to process the stimuli that ceaselessly assault us; shortcuts that are applied to literally everything we experience in life. The scary, wonderful thing is that we often don’t realize when our brain is tricking us — and how it conspires with every other part of our body to do so. (Your eyes and your brain are definitely in cahoots, by the way.)

Storytellers often play with human perception as a means of communicating deeper truths to their audiences. René Magritte iconically demonstrated this in his most well-known piece, 1929’s “La trahison des images” (“The treachery of images”). In it, a realistic-looking pipe is depicted, underscored by the words “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (“This is not a pipe”).

As Marina Veras Borges writes:

The viewer immediately recognizes the fact that the image in the painting is that of a pipe, and our schematic means of understanding the world proves to be a burden: by immediately categorizing the image of a pipe as a pipe object, the viewer falls into the pitfalls of perception — to the “treachery of images.”

Magritte’s painting challenges those unthinking assumptions even now, almost 90 years later. No matter how many new storytelling mediums have come and gone since 1929, his wonderfully simple point stands: Perception is not reality…and everything is perception.

So…how pretentious, trite, or crazy do I have to be to apply this brilliant surrealist premise to HBO’s Game of Thrones, television show that displays an average of 5.6 boobs per episode in the first season alone? (Don’t answer that.)

It occurred to me as I was watching Daenerys Targaryen’s kickass “wheel” speech from Season 5, Episode 8:

Daenerys: Lannister, Targaryen, Baratheon, Stark, Tyrell. They’re all just spokes on a wheel. This one’s on top, that one’s on top, and on and on it spins, crushing those on the ground.
Tyrion: It’s a beautiful dream, stopping the wheel. You’re not the first person who’s ever dreamt it.
Daenerys: I’m not going to stop the wheel. I’m going to break the wheel.

In a testament to both Emilia Clarke’s acting and Daenerys Targaryen’s conviction, you can see how much she truly means it. Clappping ensued. “Hell yeah, dude!” may have been shouted.

Then it set in just how hilariously deranged it is for a character like Daenerys Targaryen to make a statement like that.

It takes a special kind of cognitive dissonance to talk about “breaking the wheel” while drinking wine at the top of a pyramid. If she stood closer to a window, she might have even heard the wailing of “those on the ground” fighting each other to death in the slavery-friendly fighting pits that she personally re-opened.

It may seem laughable, but we share in her delusion. How else can we hope for anyone to seize control of a throne that we’ve seen corrupt so many? Deep down, we understand that the Starks and Targaryens and Lannisters and Baratheons are remnants of a system that crushes the common people of this world, direct beneficiaries of the stratified society their ancestors built. The wheel must be broken, after all!

Too bad we can’t break free of our own perception long enough to truly believe it.

Game of Thrones shows us a lot of things. Politics. Battles. Dragons! And this is where its treachery lies: By showing us where to look, it keeps us from noticing what actually matters.

From the opening credits, the series shows us exactly what it wants viewers to see. We see cities rise and fall, helpfully changing with the events of the current season so we know where is important. We see a literal wheel, with the sigils of Houses Stark, Targaryen, Lannister, and Baratheon prominently displayed.

Isn’t this a little on the nose, guys?

We are meant to glean that certain houses, people, and places are important from the moment the theme music starts playing.

But this story isn’t about them. You can be sure of it by the way the show never lets them out of our sight.

It’s classic misdirection:

Misdirection is a form of deception in which the attention of an audience is focused on one thing in order to distract its attention from another. Managing the audience’s attention is the aim of all Theater, it is the foremost requirement of Theatrical Magic.

A few examples, of which there are dozens more, from previous seasons:

· Ned Stark’s death shocked everyone because he was a seemingly central character; one we had been watching at length from the very beginning.

· There were a million people who wanted King Joffrey dead, but neither the characters nor the audience expected Olenna Tyrell and Petyr Baelish to be the ones who carried it out — we certainly never saw them plotting it.

· No one saw the battle at Hardhome coming, because both Jon Snow and the audience were anticipating a tense negotiation between the Night’s Watch and the remaining wildling clans.

So what are we, the slow learners of the world, to make of this?

Let’s start with the characters.

From season one, the show directs us towards the characters it wants us to spend time with. These are the characters who will feed us information throughout the course of the show, whose viewpoints we learn to trust. Starks. Targaryens. Lannisters. Baratheons.

But we don’t trust all of these characters, do we? Yes and no. We trust our perception of them. We trust who they are as characters, not what they do as characters. We can tell when Cersei Lannister is being manipulative, just as we can tell when her brother Tyrion is lying. We know when Ned Stark is struggling with whether to do the right thing or the easy thing. These characters’ motivations are laid bare from the beginning, and we are right alongside them as they twist and turn. We are complicit. Starks. Targaryens. Lannisters. Baratheons.

Then there are the other characters — the ones who aren’t featured in the opening credits’ fancy wheel.

In other shows, these might be considered “minor” characters. Characters undeserving of much screen time because they might not be fully fleshed out, or have much of anything interesting to say.

In Game of Thrones, “minor” characters are anything but. Lysa Arryn is a notable example. Lysa was introduced as nothing more than Catelyn Stark’s crazy sister in season one, and that was that…until three seasons later. When we met her again, we realized for the first time just how many story-altering events she was directly responsible for setting in motion. Plot points we had taken for granted — didn’t the Lannisters kill Jon Arryn? — were suddenly bust wide open, giving us a momentary glimpse of the big picture. Only Petyr Baelish seemed unsurprised, which in turn surprised the hell out of us — shouldn’t he have let us, the viewers, in on this by now? But the show didn’t give us much time to explore that question; Lysa started acting nastily towards Sansa, and the narrative shifted back to where we were most comfortable: Starks. Targaryens. Lannisters. Baratheons.

If the Starks, Targaryens, Lannisters, and Baratheons are the spokes on the wheel, characters like Lysa Arryn and Petyr Baelish make up the whole damn wagon.

Yet nearly everything we think we know about these kinds of characters is through the lens of our own perception, or the perception of the characters we trust. We are rarely left on our own to hang out with Lord Varys or Jaqen H’ghar or Lady Melisandre, but we spend a lot of time with them by proxy, through the pre-approved, tried-and-true characters the storytellers have selected for us. And because we are shown from the beginning who is important — Starks, Targaryens, Lannisters, Baratheons — we are tricked into believing these interactions are about them, about Arya and Daenerys and Cersei and Stannis, when they are actually giving us insight into the big picture.

One thing is certain: If Game of Thrones is telling us that a person, place, or thing is important, we should look elsewhere for the truth.

If we don’t, we will end up being blindsided along with the characters we’ve spent so much time with. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing — delivering the unexpected is a hallmark of a great story, after all! — but for those of us obsessed with piecing together the puzzle long before the big reveal, it’s absolutely essential to keep in mind.

The show spends so much time showing us the squabbles, the battles, the sex, and the violence — to shine light on anything else would reveal too much. Like Melisandre and her flames, or Bran and his visions, we’re only able to see parts of the whole as they’re presented to us — truth, fiction, or somewhere in between.


Here’s some unfinished business and loose ends for fans of the show to consider — please add your own if you think of any, whether you think you know the answer or not!

Jon Snow’s true parentage * The Hound being left to die offscreen — seems suspicious considering we see gory deaths all the time * The connection between Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark * Who truly built the Wall, and why * How much of what Lord Varys says is the truth — what proof do we have that he is from Lys, or is even a eunuch? Does he really serve the realm, as he claims, and how does he serve it, exactly? Does he actually hate magic? * The Doom of Valyria — is it coincidence that Daenerys’ ancestors managed to flee the city before the cataclysm, while all the common people perished? Is there a wrong to be righted here? * All that wildfire under King’s Landing * Catacombs and tunnels under King’s Landing * The Red God bringing people back from the dead — how, and why? What does it mean? * Who is Melisandre really? What is she after? * The relationship between the old gods, the new gods, the red god, the many-faced god * Where did Gendry end up? * Or Rickon and Osha and Hodor? * How benign are the Children Bran is hanging out with * Where is Arya’s wolf? * Medical experimentation was banned by the Maesters in Old Town — why? Did something happen? * Daenerys’ visions in the House of the Undying — King’s Landing covered in snow, or ash? * Daenerys never actually saw her dead child — described as horrible and scaly with claws. Sounds like greyscale? Her ancestors are from Valyria, where they currently send greyscale victims… * Did Princess Shireen truly get greyscale from a doll, or from living at Dragonstone? * King’s blood — how powerful is it really, and why does it seem to work * Where is the Blackfish??? * Where did dragons come from * What is going on in Asshai — where Melisandre and the Red God are from * The dead army — to kill humans or for some other purpose? * Valyrian steel and dragonglass killing the undead — one is rare, owned only by noble families, and the other is common. What’s the connection?