Commentary

How Game of Thrones Channels Our National Id in the Age of Trump

Jul 13, 2017

Chaos. Infighting. Backstabbing. A new leader taking control as controversy swirls and new threats emerge to menace the nation’s safety.

Come to think of it, the new season of Game of Thrones does sound a bit like life in the Age of Trump.

As the show returns with new episodes Sunday on HBO—beginning a 13-episode cruise to the series’ end—the temptation to compare events in the series’ fictional, Medieval-ish Seven Kingdoms to our current national mood is irresistible. It may take place in a land of magic, dragons, swordplay, and royalty, but the struggle for power at the heart of Game of Thrones feels like a window into our national id at a time when everyone is trying to psychoanalyze the meaning of these real-life moments for America and the world.

Of course, in the world of Thrones, the Seven Kingdoms now have a female leader; Lena Headey’s ruthless, victimized Cersei Lannister. She took power last season after engineering an explosion that killed her rivals right before she was to go on trial, completing a journey from bitter victim to surprise victor that might feel like the future that never was for some Hillary Clinton fans.

Cheeky critics might compare our current President Donald Trump to an earlier ruler on the show; sadistic boy King Joffrey Baratheon—the eldest son of Cersei who seemed more focused on the trappings of power than the details of leadership, prone to blame his mistakes on others and short on self control.

But that’s mostly just having fun. The real connection between Thrones and how we feel now is less direct. The show came along when an exploding TV industry gave programmers the idea they could create a series with the scope and detail of an epic film, but with the explicit content allowed on premium cable. It’s a grand expression of what is possible for the medium in the age of #PeakTV.

The series began as an anti-Lord of the Rings—set in a brutal world with a feudal society where heroism was mostly rewarded with a quick and disappointing death. No scene summed up that moment better than the surprise beheading of Sean Bean’s character Ned Stark—a virtuous character who seemed poised to anchor the show (at least, to viewers who hadn’t read George R.R. Martin’s books), but was taken out just before the end of the first season.

But that narrative has changed as the end of Thrones approaches. One hero who was unceremoniously murdered, brooding Jon Snow, was resurrected last season and seems poised to challenge Cersei now that he’s been crowned King in the North. Other characters—Jon’s cousins Arya and Sansa Stark, queen of the dragons Daenerys Targaryen, cynical dwarf Tyrion Lannister—have made similar journeys, powering toward a finale where they all may compete for the Iron Throne Cersei now sits upon.

As the show’s anti-heroes prepare for their big moment, the series itself has progressed. It’s toned down some of the explicit sexual violence that was more commonplace in earlier seasons, likely due to pressure from critics who argued the show had been too cavalier. That hasn’t affected Thrones’ taste for explicit non-sexual violence—culminating with the epically bloody “Battle of the Bastards” episode last season—which mirrors our modern tolerance for blood and gore in pop culture, while remaining touchy about sex in all corners of media. And women, including Cersei, Sansa, Arya, and Daenerys, are now among the most powerful and pivotal characters on the show.

Simply put, there’s a reason why Game of Thrones has become one of TV’s most popular series, with an average of more than 23 million U.S. viewers per episode last season.

Its story, rooted in a world that often punishes heroism, rewards the wealthy, and is filled with treachery, feels like a sadly appropriate mirror of our own. But the flawed characters who begin this new season fighting to save themselves and their families are mostly the kind of heroes we hope to be, facing a historic moment with courage and resolve.

Eric Deggans is the TV critic for NPR.

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