*WARNING – SPOILERS ALERT! DO NOT READ IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE END OF THE SIXTH SERIES!*
I have always found something a bit odious about Game of Thrones, but I’ve never quite been able to put my finger upon what it is. Until recently that is, as I settled down to watch the last episode of the current series, in the midst of a period of national turmoil that is without precedent in my lifetime. You see, as the lengthy credits sequence began to roll, I started to think about the parallels between the overall tone of Game of Thrones and the mood of our country, both of which are intensely pessimistic.
We have collectively decided, through the EU referendum, that the way forward to solving all of the great global threats (climate change, the deregulation of banking systems, religious extremism, famine, starvation, and overpopulation, to name a few) is to cut ourselves off from the countries that surround us and simply to go it alone. We have shown a mistrust of international cooperation, and a belief that divisiveness is necessary in order to protect our own interests. All other countries are fighting for their own supremacy, we have decided, so why shouldn’t we? How can we trust them or work together with them, when they will so clearly endanger our own people through their own inherent selfishness?
Game of Thrones absolutely believes in the inherent selfishness of human beings as well, and I believe that is why it has found such popularity across the world in these dark times. The twin failures of neo-liberalism in the West and democracy in the Middle-East can be seen being played out in the series’ most brutal moments. Scenes of union, symbolised by weddings, quickly turn to rape and bloodshed. Justice, in the form of fairly reasoned trials, are often replaced by combat. Religion, personified by the High Sparrow, brings those in power to task for their failures, but in a manner as brutal, power-hungry, prejudicial, and unforgiving as everyone else. Memorably, at the end of the last season, the democratic election of the Commander of the Night’s Watch is followed by a villainous mutiny shortly afterwards.
What I find odious about this relentlessly bleak vision is its one-dimensionality: of course the world contains unimaginable horrors and violence, of course it is full of various factions fighting each other for supremacy at any one time, of course people can be selfish and stupid and care only for their own blood as ferociously as the monstrous Cersei Lannister. We know the world is a cruel, harsh place, and far wiser creations than Game of Thrones have been observing it through the medium of film, poetry, music, art, and literature for hundreds of years. But you only have to turn off your television, walk outside, and talk to people whom you encounter in the street, in all their different races, nationalities, genders, and sexualities, to discover that life is not at all that simple. People can be beautiful, funny, brave, inspiring. They are all flawed, but they have seen and lived through profoundly amazing things. Any cultural creation that does not recognise this, that can only report to us on the cruelty and misery of mankind, is only showing us one side of the coin, and its foundation is a lie (it’s one of the reasons I’ve never been able to stand most heavy metal music). It’s a dangerous lie, because it implies that violence and divisiveness are the natural order in our world. Our current political systems may not have worked, but that does not make it the case that aggression and isolationism are the only answers. Why the defeatism, both in Game of Thrones and in our culture at large?
Of course there are ‘good’ characters in Game of Thrones as well, but these are as one-dimensional as the ‘bad’ ones, therefore rendering them unrelatable, and besides they are shown to be the rare exceptions, constantly beset upon by an overwhelming tide of evil. Jon Snow formed a romance with a wildling beyond the Wall and a friendship with the affable Samwell Tarly, however, in typical Game of Thrones fashion, she was quickly killed off and Samwell left the Wall, leaving Jon alone and at the mercy of his enemies. Daenerys, another fan favourite, had an intense romance in the first series, but this came to a brutal end and left no lasting impression on either her constitution or the audience’s. Tyrion has been hounded away from family, lover, and friends throughout the course of the series, usually turning to alcohol instead of people for his own solace. No alliances, romantic or filial, can last in this harsh world of divisive regimes, because the show supposes that human beings are destined to be perennially isolated from each other. Which is what we have also chosen to believe in this country, with our decision to leave the EU being motivated primarily by a lack of belief in lengthy, mutually beneficial alliances.
There is hope, though, or at least there is in Game of Thrones: the winds of change permeate the course of the sixth series, leading to a curiously optimistic ending. New alliances are formed: swearing oath under Jon Snow in the North, and crossing the seas with Daenerys in the East. Whether these are to last we shall see, but they certainly seem more permanent than has ever previously been the case. Only Cersei sits on the throne in splendid isolation, having detonated not just her enemies but also her own family in a moment of reckless self-destruction. We can only hope that she will not come to be seen as an analogy of the United Kingdom in the near future, as a former beacon of power sitting alone in a darkened room with no allies and a fabricated throne.
I presume that all of the main families will eventually have to put aside their differences and come together to defeat the White Walkers in a future series, just as our world is going to have to collaborate to defeat the existential terrors that threaten us. The ascension of Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones, and the result of the EU referendum in the UK, are both steps in the wrong direction. But I hope the writers of the show, and the shapers of our history, will seek to reverse the tide. Optimism and collaboration is direly needed, not because of any idealised notions of universal humanity, but because we simply don’t have a choice.
Winter is here.