Given the popularity of “Game of Thrones” overseas, as well as the pervasiveness of references to it in the broader culture, it's not surprising that a whole range of thinkers and academics draw meaning from its medieval fantasy world. “Its story, rooted in a world that often punishes heroism, rewards the wealthy, and is filled with treachery, feels like a sadly appropriate mirror of our own,” wrote Eric Deggans, NPR's TV critic. “But the flawed characters who begin this new season fighting to save themselves and their families are mostly the kind of heroes we hope to be, facing a historic moment with courage and resolve.”
Then, of course, there are the political undertones. George R.R. Martin, the author of the books that gave life to the TV series, adapted the series' dynastic struggles from England's 15th-century Wars of the Roses. More generally, he modeled his invented continent of Westeros on the geography and history of the British Isles. But that hasn't stopped him from casting his eye to the present.
In an interview with Esquire magazine, Martin likened President Trump to Joffrey Baratheon, a particularly contemptible and sadistic royal who ascends to the throne and promptly displays his lack of experience and poor temperament. “I think Joffrey is now the king in America,” he told Esquire in May. “And he's grown up just as petulant and irrational as he was when he was 13 in the books.” Other actors on the show have volunteered that Trump is a “con man” and a “snake-oil salesman.”
During last year's election campaign, Emily Nussbaum, a TV critic for the New Yorker, said the show “felt perversely relevant.” “It was dominated by debates about purity versus pragmatism; the struggles of female candidates in a male-run world; family dynasties with ugly histories; and assorted deals with various devils,” she wrote.
You could see Hillary Clinton as the exiled Daenerys Targaryen — “a former First Lady who quite literally walks through flames, and whose hawkish (or, I guess, dragonish) résumé is tempered by her desire to make her kingdom less violent, through canny dealmaking,” as Nussbaum put it. Or you could see her as Cersei Lannister, “ethically rotten” and “a born elitist.”
Trump, it can be argued, is also an archetypical member of the Lannister family: weaned on great wealth and driven by the single-minded goal of boosting his family name. Or you could say that his apocalyptic view of the world is similar to the zeal of the cult of the Red God. For Trump, who sees “a mess” in every issue and chaos lurking behind every corner, the night is truly “dark and full of terrors” — and, incidentally, he seeks to expunge America's enemies with fire.
During a recent symposium on the real-life political undercurrents in “Game of Thrones,” Tufts University professor and Washington Post contributor Dan Drezner outlined how certain figures can be seen as “neoconservative,” grounding their rule in diversionary wars, while others could be likened more to former president Barack Obama, imbued with vision but stymied by indecision and squabbling.
In the same conversation, Stephen Dyson, a professor of international relations at the University of Connecticut, points to Targaryen's curious progressive politics; she seems bent on liberating slaves and the oppressed wherever she goes. “Should you run a foreign policy where you go around freeing people who are not your people, in service of this idea of universal human right?” Dyson asked. Critics of liberal interventionism, including Trump, might have exactly the same question.
This new season offers plenty of other parables: The continent of Westeros is facing a divisive refugee crisis in the north; political leaders, consumed by their own jockeying for power, are ignoring a growing climatic menace that might kill everyone; and there's a brewing regional conflagration that may hinge on weapons of mass destruction and the decisions of those wielding them.
“Dragons are the nuclear deterrent,” Martin mused in 2011. “But is that sufficient? These are the kind of issues I’m trying to explore. The United States right now has the ability to destroy the world with our nuclear arsenal, but that doesn’t mean we can achieve specific geopolitical goals. Power is more subtle than that. You can have the power to destroy, but it doesn’t give you the power to reform, or improve, or build.”
“Game of Thrones” is indeed a meditation on the subtlety and fickleness of power. Hubris and complacency are always punished, so too naivete and blind trust. The story is propelled along through hideous battles, surprise assassinations and garish scenes of violence. It is a world of angst and dread.
As my colleague Alyssa Rosenberg wrote, the show provides “a cautionary tale” about the perils of believing in great and lasting change. The transformative slogans of politicians almost always ring hollow and good things invariably come to an end — but that doesn't mean one should abandon hope. “It’s not so much that winter is coming this time, but that history tells us, if only we’d remember to read it, that winter comes again and again,” Rosenberg wrote, invoking the show's most well-known aphorism. “And ultimately, so does spring.”
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