is game of thrones’ final season a metaphor for climate change?
Perhaps one of the most accurate takes on the premiere of the final season of Game of Thrones quotes a tweet with shots of an exasperated and tired Jon Snow, adding “imagine trying to keep an entire country safe from a pending zombie attack while they’re all busy fighting over a chair.” If there’s a better way to sum up the last nine episodes of the show, I haven’t seen it yet. After all, that’s exactly what the Iron Throne is. A chair in which everyone who came out of a noble or royal wants to sit because it gives them power over those they can intimidate with a large army or bribe with enough gold. In the grand scheme of things, this is all meaningless, especially as the Night King, the icy, animated rage of the Children of the Forest, is out to convert everything living into his rapidly growing zombie army.
And no one knows how dire the threat is, and how little the palace intrigue matters than Bran and Jon Snow. As the Three Eyed Raven, Bran saw the birth of the Night King and the White Walkers, and knows that the leader of the legions of wights also has supernatural powers and a keen intellect. Snow saw the horrors of Hardhome, where the White Walkers gave him a small glimpse of their terrifying martial prowess. From their blood-curdling approach as a thundering blizzard after which wailing, terrified free folk clawing at the city gates suddenly fell silent, to the merciless slaughter of every living thing inside the village, to the reanimation of the dead as blue-eyed zombies, every bit of what Snow witnessed seemed designed to give the living who got out severe PTSD.
They understand what the seven kingdoms are up against. The squabbling nobility is blissfully unaware, lost in their blood feuds and navels, arguing over whose long dead ancestor looked funny at their long dead ancestor, and what deal they shook on over wine and mutton over a thousand years ago. For days, Sansa and the rest of the royal court of the North skulk around giving Jon the side-eye for bending the knee as King of the North, debating proper protocols around allegiances while Bran simply quips “we don’t have time for this,” and Jon repeats the royal equivalent of “oh my God, can you all get you heads out of your asses?” Even after the bombshell dropped on him later in the episode, he still seems to be clearly focused on far more important and pressing matters.
Meanwhile, down south, self-appointed Queen of the Iron Throne and incest enthusiast Cercei, naively plots to fend off the White Walkers after they destroy the North, the Dothraki, Daenerys, the Unsullied, and the dragons, using the clearly brilliant “why fight an army of the undead now, when I can fight it when it’s ten times bigger and has three frost wyverns with no help or any elephants?” strategy she thinks will work, primarily because she’s a self-absorbed delusional megalomaniac. All of this certainly sounds familiar to those trying to warn world leaders about the looming threat of climate change, which will kill millions through disease and war. Instead of actually taking the threat seriously, they’re busy whining about who pollutes more and how much mitigation measures might cost right now, if not denying the threat outright because they either don’t want to deal with the problem or simply don’t care and don’t want the problem to be real so they’re not even remotely inconvenienced with making impactful, long term decisions.
In this light, it sure does seem plausible that the White Walkers are an elaborate metaphor for an encroaching, imminent disaster no one without direct experience of their dark deeds takes seriously because they’re so far away, supposedly locked in by a giant ice wall, who must be a myth since so few have seen them or understand the powers they wield, and who can be easily beaten back because the ancestors of today’s Westerosians defeated them before. Or, even if their existence and the dire threat they pose can be demonstrated, cold, calculating sociopaths in power believe they can use the Walkers to hobble their adversaries, then defeat them when the time comes, so confident in their own abilities, the very thought of losing to these creatures doesn’t even enter their minds.
Climate change certainly won’t come in the form of an army. It will be a slow, encroaching, and multifaceted threat which will affect people differently based on where they live and how many resources they and their countries have. It may even involve severe cold snaps in the middle of otherwise warm winters. But the end result is that it will change the world and its politics forever, and there will be no easy way out. Compromises and tough choices will have to be made, if not now, then later, although the more we wait, the more drastic the compromises and choices will have to be. It doesn’t care who pollutes how much relative to others, or who tweeted what. In the grand scheme of things, we’re nothing more than petty, mostly hairless primates fighting and arguing with each other while the world burns, mostly because we thought there was no harm in setting it on fire so we had more pieces of colorful paper.
All that said, any fictional work with deep characters and expansive, well defined worlds could be applied to whatever situation we want if we cherry-pick enough details to fit into whatever narrative or theory we’re trying to pitch. I’m sure the members of the “intellectual dark web” can take a break from fighting the horror of millennial men having less sex or being asked to keep in mind that artificial intelligence can be trained on bad data, and lay out a plausible-sounding fan theory that the White Walkers represent the encroachment of Cultural Marxism, turning college students into zombies and brainwashing children while the nobles and royals representing the sacred tradition of the world as it should be fail to unite against the threat. (It’s more likely that a theory proposing a truce between humanity and the White Walkers which was now broken by those who refused to take ancient history seriously is far more applicable to the plot.)
Likewise, we could say that White Walkers represent the rise of AI and rapid automation, the wights being a metaphor for robots and apps taking jobs from humans swiftly and with no regard for what will happen to those being replaced. Meanwhile, the nobles and royals are politicians and CEOs arguing about tax policy and who is entitled to what offshore accounts and paydays as machines start threatening the livelihood of countless people they consider little more than pawns in their plans that involve little more than sitting in different corner offices, assuming control of different bank accounts, and exchanging numbers representing money, with Bran being an AI expert who can see the future, and Jon Snow as the politician who actually gets it. Meanwhile, Cersei is the anarcho-libertarian waiting for the fiat system to fail and the starving masses to bow before the wisdom of her ways, after she hopefully gets some elephants. It’s all possible if we come up with a remotely plausible metaphor that seems to fit for even a second.
The sheer scope of the GoT universe and the fact that it’s basically Wars of the Roses but with the equivalent of the Mongol Horde, dragons, and ice zombies joining the action, means that we can read whatever we want into it, but neither George RR Martin or the showrunners probably set out to make a hyper-extended metaphor for climate change. Instead, focusing on character development to propel the narrative and borrowing from real history, they managed to capture common themes, behaviors, and ideas we can apply to just about any period of turmoil. Global warming, social change, automation, social media turning toxic, pick a disaster, and the show’s plot points will give you ample reason to claim they’re a metaphor for it. That’s simply the power of good writing and multifaceted characters.