The dragons have always been the least of it—not to mention the wargs and the Children of the Forest and the First Men and the hard-to-remember, centuries-long backstories of the Starks, Lannisters, Targaryens, Baratheons, Greyjoys, Tyrells, and Martells. The elements of fantasy that obsess the millions of fans of Game of Thrones give the story its strangeness and beauty and feed endless, ingenious speculation. To tell the truth, though, these embellishments also give the series its tedium. I mean, really, zombies? Dragonglass? That whole Three-Eyed Raven subplot?
At its heart, Game of Thrones is a story about human beings and the ways they are shaped by the harsh, medievalesque world of Westeros. By now, as the eighth and final season airs, we know these characters better than we know some of our friends—and way better than we know their contemporary real-life equivalents. Littlefinger, the amoral brothel owner and adviser to kings who schemes and manipulates his way to the almost-top, could be Roger Stone with more quiet self-control. Littlefinger’s most famous line, “Chaos is a ladder,” echoes Stone’s affinity for being “an agent of chaos.” (Stone, for his part, was quoting the Joker in The Dark Knight.) President Donald Trump is a mash-up of the gluttonous, oblivious King Robert Baratheon and his supposed firstborn, the sociopathic, narcissistic, blond King Joffrey. The High Sparrow, the deceptively mild-mannered leader of a puritanical religious-political movement—is that perchance Mike Pence?
Maybe not. When friends and I tried to pair up Game of Thrones characters with contemporary political figures, we found it doesn’t work. The Seven Kingdoms—a staggeringly violent, feudal, tradition-bound society over which is laid a (very thin) veneer of chivalry and romance—is just too different from the capitalist, individualistic, democratic postmodern West. Maybe that’s why we love the show so much.
When the series began, it looked like a high-school geeks-and-gamers dream: all prostitutes, princesses, swords, and magick. The female characters were “strong” but subordinate. Based on the overt violence and sexism of the first few episodes, many thought women would never watch. They were wrong: Women love the show as much as men. And what became clear as the female characters gained prominence was that, in spite of its gratuitous, mostly female nudity and every kind of violence, the show sustains a feminist reading.
Like all art worth its salt, Game of Thrones critiques the values it depicts. Westerosi feudalism demands unflinching loyalty, but people backstab one another constantly. (The real Middle Ages were like this, too.) As for chivalry and honor, the only knight who lives by the rules is Brienne of Tarth, a very tall woman whose literal-minded obedience to the knightly code makes her a laughingstock to the male warriors. Similarly, the only person who buys the ideal romance of aristocratic love is the naive teenager Sansa Stark, whose fiancé Joffrey turns out to be a sexual sadist and tyrant. Early on, poor Sansa was disliked by fans for being passive (read: trying to stay alive), but her narrative is actually the most modern. Even today, it can take a woman most of a lifetime to put herself in charge of her own life.
What gives Game of Thrones its strangely compelling quality is the fantasy overlaid on a realistic base. Societies change; people, not so much. That’s why we still read the Iliad and Odyssey as more than historical curiosities. What motivates the warlords and warladies in Game of Thrones are the same things that motivate people now: power, sex, status, greed, family, vanity, and, of course, self-preservation. True, revenge is less important now than in the real or fictional Middle Ages, because honor—saving face—was a greater source of social standing and self-worth in the past. (Just don’t tell Trump.)
It figures that there isn’t much room for love in this picture and less space still for such progressive virtues as solidarity, compassion, rationality, justice, and hope. Daenerys, who began as just another megalomaniacal throne claimant, has come a long way since she promised to “take what is mine with fire and blood,” but even she isn’t above dumping a man who loves her for the possibility of a political marriage—to say nothing of slaughtering first and asking questions later. Along with her virtuous ally turned lover, Jon Snow, and her clever adviser, Tyrion Lannister, Dany represents the possibility of a more just and peaceful Westeros. “Our fathers were evil men,” she tells her allies at the end of Season 7. “We’re going to leave the world better than we found it.”
Good luck with that. The spur to this last-minute grand alliance is the arrival of the Night King, who last season broke through the Wall with his enormous zombie army. Many have seen the long winter and the White Walkers as a metaphor for climate change, only with ice instead of fire. As in Westeros, saving our world will mean making fundamental changes in our ways of living and thinking. Can they do it? Can we?
As the final season begins, most of the villains are already dead. Farewell, Littlefinger, slain in last season’s finale by my favorite tween assassin, Arya Stark. The survivors have mostly become better people, except for Cersei Lannister, the current occupant of the Iron Throne. Why unify to save humanity when she can take advantage of the final war to…?
Meanwhile, Dany and Jon may not be such a great couple after all. His claim to the throne suddenly got stronger than hers, thanks to a revelation about his father and the sexist rules of inheritance; I doubt she’ll be content to be a mere queen consort. Maybe Arya and Sansa will win the day—that is, if there will even be an Iron Throne at all. Chaos is a ladder, but who can climb it? And where does it lead?