All of the dirty DC dealings in Netflix’s House of Cards arguably make it the most cynical of the current crop of highly-acclaimed and talked over television shows. However, the epic Game of Thrones – in spite of its fantastical elements – paints an even more brutal picture of the vile nature of politics, and the ruinous nature of wars with even the noblest stated intentions.
The HBO series, set in the magical-tinged fictional land of Westeros, is nearly finished with its fourth season. The show is often criticized for its graphic violence – though that usually has a larger purpose – and laughably gratuitous sex scenes. But neither gore nor smut is the point. The truly entrancing quality of the show (carried over from the books by George R.R. Martin on which it is based) is the scads of gray, but sympathetic characters to worry over. Indeed, there are flawed, but compelling characters on every side in the series’ ongoing war to win the Iron Throne. Hence the tension that comes from watching, and from the knowledge that there is no happy ending in store for everyone. Hell, there may be no happy ending for any of these characters.
On Monday, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists published an exhaustive comparison between the dragons of would-be Westeros queen – and George W. Bush proxy, according to both liberal and neocon interpretation – Daenerys Targaryen and the game-changing quality of nuclear weapons in warfare. This side-by-side mostly works, but the ideology of Daenerys remains more interesting than her monopoly on dragons/WMDS. For all her conquering hubris, Daenerys considers herself on a humanitarian mission to free the slaves of various cities that lie along her route to win the throne. She is well-meaning, deeply principled, and yet she is shown bumbling into cultures of which she has no awareness. It’s sometimes hard not to read her journey as a parallel with US foreign policy (even if necons prefer to twist that into praise of the Bush doctrine). If Daenerys says she means to bring freedom with her army; if she shouts her noble, chain-breaking mission from the hilltops, everything is sure to end well. And if she savagely punishes the slave masters in various cities, well, they deserved it and there shall be no negative consequences from changing culture by military force. (There will be, though, because this show is that good.)
Detailing each faction and each character in the Game of Thrones conflict would take much more room than I have here. In brief, the biggest clashes are between the painfully honorable Stark clan, who once ruled the North before it became part of the the larger Seven Kingdoms, and the rich, powerful, cruel, but complex Lannisters. (One of whom, the dwarf Tyrion, is a good man and forever punished for it – a running, pessimistic theme in the series, along with the lack of justice for anyone wronged). Meanwhile, Daenerys and her slave-freeing army lurks, and far away supernatural forces like the undead White Walkers grow stronger, but the humans are too concerned with their own petty affairs to see that big picture. (There are also the semi-anarchistic – in the good, and the pejorative sense both – Wildings who don’t subscribe to all this kingly bullshit. They voted for their king, damn it!)
The nature of this world – Wildings notwithstanding – requires one to root for some kind of monarchical justice. Who deserves the Iron Throne of Westeros most? Should we cheer based on proper succession, or try to guess who might be the least awful in a long line of awful kings? Does it even matter?
Now, as for our main characters – most of whom are fighting for power, or at least against seemingly worse versions of it – well, the closer they get to politics, the more likely they are to be burned by it. As viewers learn in the first season from the fate of the too-good Ned Stark, truly honorable people cannot survive in the capital without losing their souls or their heads. Hell, after Stark is killed, the Northerners start to talk more and more about secession. The North is vast, and miles and miles away from the ruling throne. Why should those faraway tyrants have any say over what happens in the North? Shouldn’t they have their own leader who will at least live in the area he rules over? (Decentralization! That’s something to cheer in the show when all else fails!)
As with a lot of political-tinged pop culture, one could conceivably hammer the events of Westeros into fitting any number of ideologies. But at the end of the day, Martin, a Conscientious Objector during the Vietnam war who has also publicly criticized the mechanical nature of drone warfare, isn’t shy about some of his messages. Often stated clearly is the notion that rulers are concerned only with power, and that they rarely give thought to the little guy. But then, the little guy remains indifferent to grand events himself unless a war comes storming into his backyard. Politics is paradoxically the focus of the series, and the object of its endless condemnation. This may feel familiar to libertarians who obsess over politics, while loathing it and those who treat its life and death stakes like an amusing sporting event.
Even comfy Americans who live far from any battlefield can identify with this repeated theme that the average citizens would prefer to be left alone by self-aggrandizing, self-proclaimed leaders who do nothing but make life worse. This is stated directly by wise characters such as Daenerys’ adviser Jorah Mormont, who reminds her that though she is the rightful queen in terms of certain rights by succession, well, the people aren’t actually speaking her name in whispers and hoping for the day she returns. In fact, says Mormont, "The common people pray for rain, health, and a summer that never ends. They don’t care what games the high lords play.” They will not, in short, welcome her with flowers.
The little guy doesn’t care. He just wants to be ignored by the people who have never met him, and have no idea how to run his life, yet presume to speak for and rule him. Mormont’s speech, and similar sentiments from other characters, serve as perfect condemnation of the self-obsessed, self-important "players" in Washington, DC who have no idea how the rest of the country or world lives. This makes Games of Thrones feel all too familiar in spite of the dragons and ice zombies.
Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for Antiwar.com and a columnist for VICE.com. She previously worked as an Associate Editor for Reason magazine. She is most angry about police, prisons, and wars. Steigerwald blogs at www.thestagblog.com.
Read more by Lucy Steigerwald
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