Photo courtesy of HBO

The Torah of ‘Game of Thrones’


I used to think HBO’s “Game of Thrones” depicted fantasy.

Over seven seasons, the show has featured creatures and events that are not of this world, even as they are fun to imagine: an army of the dead; domesticated dragons; faithful dire wolves; human “wargs,” who can enter the minds of animals and control them; and the threat of an indefinite winter that will sow chaos and cold throughout the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros.    

These are not things we mortals must contend with, so for those of us who enjoy “Game of Thrones,” we suspend our disbelief over dragons that win wars and obsess over cliffhangers without ever taking the show too seriously. We tell ourselves it’s a guilty pleasure, without feeling much guilt. It’s absorbing but not deep; brilliant but not profound.

And we couldn’t be more wrong.

In the wake of two terror attacks in Europe last week — in Spain and Finland — as well as the storm over the deadly neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, Va., I watched “Game of Thrones” on Aug. 20 with new eyes.

If there is a core truth that our world shares with the fictional civilization of Westeros, it is that we are both caught in an inexorable pull toward calamity.

Conflict is the ruling ethos of our day. Gone is the postwar era in which U.S. leadership, international agreements and economic collaboration sustained a world order. The stability that much of the world enjoyed for the latter part of the 20th century has been destabilized by the forces of populist nationalism, protectionism, nuclear threats, competition for global dominance, terrorism, civil war and climate change. “Game of Thrones” used to look like melodrama; now it looks like metaphor.

In the world of Westeros, as in ours, the precondition of existence is to combat an endless stream of existential threats. On the show, it’s a remote and resurgent army of the dead known as White Walkers, who want to annihilate the Seven Kingdoms and everyone in it; for us, it’s amorphous terrorist cells that plot to kill in the name of God and achieve world dominion through an Islamic caliphate.

On the show, the nefarious Cersei Lannister will plot, plunder and murder to preserve her power; in our world, Kim Jong Un and Bashar Assad have demonstrated that no human price is too high to pay to prolong their reigns. Nature brings catastrophe, too: Just as Westeros faces the danger of an endless winter, we face global warming.

Under conditions like these, where there is no rest or respite from the challenges to basic survival, “Game of Thrones” tells us there are no easy solutions for a world in flux. Human beings must expend their time and their resources, using all their economic, political and military capital to stave off chaos. And then it comes, anyway. Again and again and again. 

Forces for good exist, although not always in divine balance. There are heroes on the show, honorable men and women who serve as moral actors and fight for a better world no matter how dangerous the risks or impossible the odds. Many of them die. Evil forces tend to prevail more often because the cravers of power are willing to risk everything precious and the heroes are not. And as history has proven time and again, when evil eventually is defeated, it usually comes after horrendous destruction and loss. As in life, the show resists condemning bad characters to their fate until they’ve done bad deeds. But then it’s too late.

“When you play the game of thrones,” villain Cersei Lannister tells hero Ned Stark in Season One, “you win or you die. There is no middle ground.”

What better explanation is there for the extreme political partisanship we see in many places in the world today? People wonder where the moderates have gone, but in a dog-eat-dog world, there’s no room for centrists. Neutrality is an abdication of responsibility when survival demands you take a side.

Although most every kingdom in Westeros functions more smoothly than our current administration, there are always plots to upend the status quo. The emancipation of women has unleashed strong but not always fair female leadership, altering the destiny of Westeros. The game of thrones is now a faceoff between two queens: a cunning despot and an emancipator of slaves.

But the outcome doesn’t really matter.

“I’m not fighting so some man or woman I barely know can sit on a throne made of swords,” one battle-worn character said to another in last week’s episode.

So for what, then?

“Life,” he said. 

“Death is the enemy. … [And though] the enemy always wins, we still need to fight him. You and I won’t find much joy while we’re here. But we can keep others alive. We can defend those who can’t defend themselves.”

In a world on fire, the show tells us, protecting the vulnerable is the noblest aim. It’s a very Jewish idea — and it isn’t surprising to find it here; the show’s creators, D.B. Weiss and David Benioff, are both Jewish.

So as it nears its final season, “Game of Thrones” has traded fantasy for realism, assuring us there is little reward for doing good but that life ticks on, enabling the game to continue.


Danielle Berrin is a senior writer and columnist at the Jewish Journal.

+