‘Game of Thrones’ Season 8 perverts its own anti-war narrative
Tragedy and Comedy: The Heroic Epic
Unfortunately, the aesthetic sins of Season 8 don’t end at Nazi chic. The finale echoed the unfortunate “epic” moments of Episode 3, all of which would have been great in almost any other contexts, but are particularly jarring against old-school Game of Thrones. Remember how the show used to depict violence and, in particular, war as utterly senseless? Remember when a cinematic duel between Ned and Jaime was interrupted by a rogue soldier with a spear in ‘The Wolf and the Lion,’ which forced Ned to walk with a cane for the rest of his short life? Remember when Oberyn Martell’s arrogance and insistence on hearing Gregore Clegane confess cost him his life in ‘The Mountain and the Viper’? Remember when all your favourite characters were brutally stabbed to death in ‘The Rains of Castamere’ because Robb Stark broke a diplomatic promise?
These scenes were not just entertainment for the sheer and senseless sake of it — they were pure revulsion, inspiring an anti-war message that survives in the overwhelming sense of loss when your favourite character dies in the least poetic way possible. They showed how virtuous, likeable people and families were annihilated in the name of war. Ellaria Sand didn’t leap out of the shadows grandiosely when Oberyn was in danger to bring righteous Judgment upon the Mountain. Robb didn’t slip a dagger between Walder Frey’s ribs under a kiss when the band started playing the Rains of Castamere.
And yet, what do we have in Season 8? A show where all of these things are allowed to happen on screen to grand applause. A show where good characters don’t just win, but they become romantic heroes, the kind Martin explicitly intended to avoid. Again, even if we sit in the camp which dismisses Martin’s intentions as irrelevant, these heroic moments are incongruous with the themes that made the show what it is.
The icing on the cake comes at Sam’s suggestion of total democracy at the council of Lords which meets to discuss the future of rule in Westeros. Sam suggests that — since it is not only Lords and Ladies who suffer the rule of kings, but the common people — the common people should likewise receive a vote on their next king.
The scene is a frustrating near miss because the inevitable dismissal of his idea presents an opportunity to linger on the notion that in war, nothing changes for the common folk — in other words, to appeal to the same themes of the earlier episodes — but suddenly, it’s turned into a great big joke, which seems to throw the whole idea out the window:
Everyone laughs. The audience is expected to laugh too, but not for the same reasons as the characters. If we laugh, it is because we — that is, those of us who are citizens of Western democracies — find amusement in the insinuation that once upon a time, our enlightened ideas of rule were considered ludicrous. Never mind that our democracy can only exist because of modern technology and infrastructure, and never mind that even then it is hanging on by a thread, and never mind that it was democracy that voted in the National Socialists— it is apparently very comical to think that once upon a time the uncivilised barbarians of yore were incapable of wrapping their monkey brains around our modern ideas of equality, freedom, and democracy.
For a moment, the characters are little more than puppets, dancing to a tune of enlightened, Western-democratic intellectual superiority. If there is one thing the West values above all else (or, at least, claims to value) it is democracy. The dismissal of Sam’s suggestion tries to establish a boundary between us, the real people, and them, the fictional people. But the characters of the early seasons of Game of Thrones were never meant to be puppets or caricatures— they were meant to be mirrors, opening up a gaping abyss into a problematic humanity and demanding we look in.