Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan’s overpraised and under-executed 2017 movie, as well as the recent raft of Churchill films—The Darkest Hour, most prominently—were widely interpreted as flag-waving exercises that heralded Britain’s exit from the European Union, even though they were both conceived well before the referendum took place. Dunkirk turned the actual evacuation into a testimonial to Britannia’s stand-alone spirit, and The Darkest Hour gilded this sentiment by ascribing it to Churchill, which is far from the truth. As military historian Max Hastings wrote, “Churchill himself never saw anything in the least glorious about standing alone.”
If Dunkirk and The Darkest Hour were arguments for Brexit, Game of Thrones, with its roots in the War of the Roses and its generous complement of English actors that make it feel more British than American, is an argument against it. Rather than fetishizing splendid isolation, the character Sansa Stark, quoting her late father, advises her little sister Arya, “When the snows fall and the white winds blow, the lone wolf dies, but the pack survives.”
In Season 7, when Jon Snow, king in the North, persuaded Daenerys Targaryen, aka Dany, to defer her attack on King’s Landing and instead join him in a fight against the White Walkers, his argument was simplicity itself. The Night King and his undead minions, called “wights,” were too powerful for any of one of Westeros’s feuding houses to stand against, just as Thanos, in Avengers: Infinity War, reading from the same script as the Night King, picked off the feuding superheroes one by one. Only the combined might of all the houses could hope to defeat them. In so doing, Jon morphed from the head of Winterfell into a coalition builder—what we might today call an internationalist, dependent on a network of alliances. To do this, he had to compromise, a strategy unknown in the either/or, might-makes-right, extremist world of Game of Thrones. In exchange for Dany’s support, he agreed to bend the knee—that is, put his army at her disposal. He became, in essence, a late-onset pluralist, overcoming the deadly house-against-house rivalries that afflicted Westeros by adopting what amounts to the pragmatic approach to politics advocated by a host of postwar American intellectuals, everyone from political scientist Robert Dahl to sociologists like Daniel Bell. Pluralism was based on the assumption that, the more the disparate colors, ethnicities, religions, and political beliefs gathered under the “big tent,” the more stable the society.
Once safely under the tent, these diverse groups found themselves in what historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., writing in 1949, dubbed the “vital center,” a middle way between the extreme right and extreme left that together had so recently created a bloodbath that devastated Europe and beyond. Arm in arm, pluralism and centrism became the principles that more or less guided the domestic and foreign policies of the West from the end of World War II until the presidency of Donald Trump. Even George W. Bush felt it incumbent upon him to nod toward multilateralism, putting together his “coalition of the willing” to sugarcoat his trumped-up war against Iraq.
The global return of the protofascists thought to have been put in their graves by the Allies in World War II, imaginatively represented by the zombie armies goose-stepping (well, shuffling, actually) across our screens, be they the White Walkers, the zekes of World War Z, or the eponymous walking dead of that hit show, has mainstream pundits furiously penning opinion pieces deploring the “collapse of the center” and “the shrinking middle.” As a Brookings Institution fellow put it, “The center is thinning out and the left and right are filling the void.”
If ever a country, or in this case a continent, could use a good dose of pluralism, it is Westeros. Each of the houses comprises a homogeneous family dynasty, whose members rarely ignore a slight, forget a lie, or forgive an injustice. They are trapped in a cycle of revenge, wherein one crime begets another, and another, and so on.
Jon Snow, having seen the hordes of wights with his own eyes, may understand that survival requires joining the Starks and the Targaryens, but Cersei Lannister, who warms the Iron Throne, does not. Like pro-Brexit conservative MPs such as Jacob Rees-Mogg who disdain Britain’s traditional European allies, she prefers to go it alone, turning her back on the nascent coalition.
Cersei is an unreconstructed Lannister-firster, who dedicates herself to promoting the fortunes of House Lannister. For her, family is all, even to the point of taking her twin brother, Jaime, as a lover. Incest, in this show, becomes a metaphor for the narrow, insular obsession with blood ties that will be her undoing.
From a centrist point of view, Cersei is an extremist. Extremists don’t listen. They are impervious to reason. They refuse compromise. As she puts it, “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die—there is no middle ground.” In the black-and-white world of Game of Thrones, there is little room for the Theresa Mays of the world, the hitherers and ditherers, hairsplitters, and needle-threaders.
Extremists are oblivious to the big picture, focusing instead on the little picture. Snow explains, “When dead men come hunting…you think it matters who sits on the Iron Throne?” Echoing his sentiments, Jaime tells her, “This isn’t about noble houses; this is about the living and the dead,” but Cersei doesn’t get it. She chooses the noble houses over the living, confessing, “I don’t care about checking my worst impulses. I don’t care about making the world a better place. Hang the world.” Cersei’s cynicism is too much for Jaime, the general of her armies. He pledges them to the battle against the wights, throwing in his lot with the Starks and the Targaryens.
Initially, Dany only sees the little picture. Like Cersei, she is wedded to the feudal notion of private fiefdoms ruled by family dynasties, and has dedicated herself to reclaiming the Iron Throne for the Targaryens. But eventually Jon opens her eyes to the big picture. She agrees that the survival of the species supersedes her dynastic ambitions, just as the heterogeneous European Union supersedes, at least to some degree, the homogeneous, postmonarchic nation-state. Cersei, on the other hand sees Jaime’s pledge as a betrayal of the Lannister clan, accusing him of disloyalty, but the Amazonian warrior Brienne of Tarth has the last word: “Oh, fuck loyalty.” Well, not quite the last word. It matters to whom and to what one is loyal. Big-picture Jon Snow is loyal too, but his loyalty is to his species, not his family.
Instead of creating alliances, extremists build walls, like the Wall that protects the Seven Kingdoms from the White Walkers to the north—a vast, ostensibly impregnable ice barrier 300 miles long and 700 feet high. As anyone who watches movies and TV knows, walls always fail. In Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim, it only takes an hour for monsters from beneath the sea to burst through the coastal wall built to shield Sydney, Australia. In World War Z, the Israelis build a wall to keep the zekes out of Jerusalem, but in the movie’s most spectacular sequence, the zekes clamber over one another, snaking relentlessly upward until the swarming creatures reach the top—and tumble over, into the city. Walls can never be high enough or strong enough, as we see in Game of Thrones when the undead dragon Visarion turns the great Wall into a pile of ice cubes with one snort of its bad breath.
The invasion of the wights affords an opportunity for extremists to become centrists, for humans to show some humanity, forgiving and forgetting the terrible crimes they have inflicted on one another. Cersei is off the charts, and will always despise brother Tyrion for killing Tywin, their father, but others are not so rigid. Episode 2 of Season 8 provided a veritable frenzy of 12-step amends, as Jaime apologized to one and all for everything he had done to everyone, including Bran Stark, for tossing him off that parapet lo those many years ago. Samwell Tarly forgave Dany for executing his father and brother; the Hound forgave Arya for leaving him for dead; Sansa forgave Theon Greyjoy for nearly burning Winterfell to the ground; and even Jorah Mormont so surprises Dany by defending Tyrion that she exclaims, “You forgive the man who stole your position?” referring to his role as hand of the queen. There’s nothing like an invasion of a horde of zombies to make these dedicated grudge holders forgive and forget. Game of Thrones’ assault on extremism dictates that these pairs will eventually hug it out, kiss, and make up.
What does this scenario have to do with Brexit? According to the logic of Game of Thrones, the Brexiteers are the extremists fixated, like Cersei, on the little picture, on the past and short-term personal gain, as they urge withdrawal from the larger community of European nations that promises Britain long-term prosperity. Were Jon, Sansa, Dany, and Jaime, on the other hand, to time travel to the present, they would join the Remainers, who need all the help they can get because Britain is in worse shape than Westeros.
In Game of Thrones, a consensus of sorts exists that recognizes that the frosty creatures represent a threat, existential or not. Even Cersei agrees, although she thinks she can take advantage of it. In Britain, no one agrees. To Brexit’s base, the White Walkers are presumably the distant, faceless Eurocrats throttling England. But to the Remainers, they are the old-line Tories in Parliament, for whom the sun never sets on the British Empire. There is no consensus. But not to worry. The Force may not be with the Remainers, but Game of Thrones is the next best thing. Its centrist politics put the most powerful storm-born franchise in today’s entertainment universe on their side. Who, after all, most resembles the White Walkers, the Eurocrat enemies of the Brexiteers or the backward-looking Tory enemies of the Remainers? As Dany puts it, in another context, “They can live in my new world or they can die in their old one.”