Sword-and-Sorcery Into Plowshares: Game of Thrones’ Anti-War Message

The hit HBO drama makes a carefully constructed argument for the futility of war.

Sean T. Collins

Jon Snow is the only main character to have encountered the real threat to the North. (HBO)

The sprawl, the spec­ta­cle, the sex, the swords, the sor­cery — if you’re look­ing for rea­sons why Game of Thrones has become the most pop­u­lar show on TV, they’re easy to find. But the epic fan­ta­sy might also be pop culture’s most promi­nent anti-war satire since Dr. Strangelove. It’s one long shag­gy dog joke at the expense of mil­i­tary con­flict. For the bulk of its six-plus sea­sons, Game of Thrones has chron­i­cled the bloody pow­er strug­gles of var­i­ous aris­to­crats and their hap­less fol­low­ers — while, unbe­knownst to most, an army of demons and zom­bies in the icy north­ern wastes mass­es to swoop down and slaugh­ter them all. The wars mak­ing up most of the series’ action are not only point­less, but self-defeat­ing: The only ene­my these char­ac­ters need to be fight­ing is a super­nat­ur­al one.

Every fight between humans undercuts the solidarity of the peasant-class men and women whom Jon will one day need to call upon to combat the true foe.

Some­how this les­son is often missed, both by moral­ists who find the series’ vio­lence exploita­tive and bad fans” (as The New York­ers Emi­ly Nuss­baum calls them) in it for the behead­ings. Per­haps it’s the sim­plic­i­ty of the con­ceit that hides the anti-war mes­sage in plain sight. Or maybe it’s the show’s unflinch­ing depic­tion of man’s inhu­man­i­ty to man that enables view­ers to con­fuse por­tray­ing vio­lence with endors­ing it.

Yet the show has been true to the approach of George R. R. Mar­tin, author of the nov­els on which the show is based and a con­sci­en­tious objec­tor dur­ing America’s assault on Viet­nam. As Mar­tin said in a 2012 inter­view, he does not shy away from cap­tur­ing the emo­tion­al stir­ring we feel when we see the ban­ner fly­ing in the wind and we hear the bugles charge” — which, those of us who are opposed to war … tend to for­get.” How­ev­er, he not­ed, If you’re going to write about war and vio­lence, show the cost. Show how ugly it is. Show both sides of it.”

For its first few sea­sons, Game of Thrones mis­di­rect­ed view­ers with a tale of civ­il war between the Starks and the Lan­nis­ters. Lat­er, that cen­tral con­flict spi­der­webs, with blood­thirsty less­er lords enter­ing the fray. Mean­while, to the east, the deposed heir to the Iron Throne, Daen­erys Tar­garyen, leads a rag-tag alliance of sol­diers and freed slaves (plus three semi-tame drag­ons) against their for­mer mas­ters. Noble as this cause may be, her main goal remains unseat­ing the Lan­nis­ters and reclaim­ing the throne — in oth­er words, play­ing the tit­u­lar game.

So it has fall­en to Jon Snow, a black-clad bas­tard raised in House Stark, to attend to the real sto­ry. On the far side of the Wall, a 700-foot-tall, con­ti­nent-wide defen­sive for­ti­fi­ca­tion, looms a threat far more fear­some than any rival House. This is the stalk­ing ground of the White Walk­ers, icy demons with crys­tal-blue eyes whose slain foes rise again as an army of the dead. If they win, they’ll bring an eter­nal win­ter that could wipe out all life on the planet.

Even at the Wall, how­ev­er, sense­less infight­ing often car­ries the day. Sea­son 4’s cen­ter­piece, The Watch­ers on the Wall,” shows Jon and the forces he com­mands defend against the wildlings,” rus­tic humans unfor­tu­nate enough to live on the wrong side of the Wall. It’s a tooth-and-nail strug­gle for sur­vival, but also a refugee cri­sis: The wildlings are only try­ing to flee the undead hordes. Indeed, Jon’s empa­thy for their plight even­tu­al­ly leads him to allow them through peace­ful­ly, an act of mer­cy for which his xeno­pho­bic under­lings mur­der him. Every fight between humans under­cuts the sol­i­dar­i­ty of the peas­ant-class men and women — rou­tine­ly draft­ed into their sup­posed bet­ters’ bat­tles — whom Jon will one day need to call upon to com­bat the true foe.

The show’s cre­ators use metic­u­lous audio and visu­al cues to con­vey this mes­sage, depict­ing death and hor­ror on a scale pre­vi­ous­ly unimag­in­able on tele­vi­sion. The series’ first major bat­tle, Sea­son 2’s Black­wa­ter,” has the Lan­nis­ters fend off an invad­ing fleet with wild­fire,” an explo­sive anal­o­gous to napalm. Direc­tor Neil Mar­shall, whose pri­or films dou­ble as minor-key dirges about the cost of vio­lence, scores the bat­tle with the screams of burn­ing, drown­ing men — a sound effect most TV shows would just as soon eschew. 

Oth­er bat­tle sequences make war’s con­se­quences even clear­er. In The Bat­tle of the Bas­tards,” Jon’s sol­diers col­lide with the forces of the psy­chot­ic Ram­say Bolton in a fight so intense that the bod­ies actu­al­ly pile up into a geo­graph­i­cal fea­ture of the bat­tle­field — a moun­tain that the sur­vivors must climb, or suf­fo­cate under and die.

As far as the show is con­cerned, that’s what war is: a pile of mas­sa­cred bod­ies. It’s the laser focus of the pow­er­ful on accru­ing more pow­er, regard­less of the costs — the pile­up of the dead, the pil­lag­ing of the land, the immis­er­a­tion of the liv­ing — and heed­less of exter­nal threats. In the new sea­son, over­com­ing this lethal myopia has become the char­ac­ters’ cen­tral chal­lenge. The real world may not have White Walk­ers, but in them we see the all-too-real forces threat­en­ing us all: loom­ing cli­mate cat­a­stro­phe, the grind­ing inequal­i­ty of late cap­i­tal­ism, the bru­tal­i­ty not of our so-called ene­mies but of war itself. We can face them togeth­er, or keep play­ing the game.

We’re for­tu­nate to have a series will­ing to make this case force­ful­ly, with­out didac­ti­cism. Until next year’s finale, we won’t know what polit­i­cal sys­tem will arise south of the Wall when (and if) human­i­ty beats back its exis­ten­tial threat, and there’s no rea­son to think it will be an improve­ment. But while solu­tions may be in short sup­ply, the illus­tra­tion of the futil­i­ty and waste of war is, well, stark. Game of Thrones chal­lenges us to rise above our squab­bling and con­front the com­mon threats ahead.

Sean T. Collins has writ­ten for the New York Times, Rolling Stone, Vul­ture, Pitch­fork, Vice, The Comics Jour­nal and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. With his part­ner, car­toon­ist Julia Gfrör­er, he co-edit­ed Mir­ror Mir­ror II, a comics and art anthol­o­gy pub­lished in June. He can be found online at SeanT​Collins​.com and BoiledLeather​.com, on Twit­ter @theseantcollins.
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