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Sunday 7 April 2019

game of thrones

You win or you die

  • As its final season approaches, Game of Thrones has supplanted The West Wing and The Godfather as politicians’ favourite cultural reference point
  • They may even learn something from it. There’s now a small industry of people extracting leadership lessons and political strategies from the show
  • But the search for meaning doesn’t stop there. The show could be a celebration of individual greatness, a feminist text, or even an allegory for climate change

By Peter Hoskin

The endeavours of politicians who belong to Britain’s smaller parties often go under-reported – and so it is with those of Pete Wishart, the Scottish National Party MP for the constituency of Perth and North Perthshire.

Whenever a more prominent politician references Game of Thrones, as the government minister Michael Gove did when he recently observed that “winter is coming”, a thousand journalists hurry to their keyboards. However, Wishart’s work is more consistent and concerted. In a parliamentary debate in 2016, he likened the rather archaic House of Lords to the fantasy television show “but without the dragons”. Last year, he even described the Brexit process in Thronesian terms: “While the prime minister is no Mother of Dragons [Daenerys Targaryen], she does have her fire-breathers to contend with, and she might just be about to be consumed by the flames.”

Winter is coming, and it’s testing political loyalties

These are two of the four references to Game of Thrones that Wishart has made in Britain’s parliament, a score surpassed only by his SNP colleague Chris Stephens, who has managed five. In total, there have been 73 mentions of the show’s title since it first aired in 2011, or an average of 1.3 mentions in every month that parliament has been active during that time. They stand out from the dull text of Hansard, the official written record, like arrows in a poor bannerman’s corpse.

There are other measures of British politics’ commitment to Game of Thrones. The former prime minister David Cameron once revealed himself as a fan, as did his chancellor – or should that be Hand of the King? – George Osborne. Gove himself, long before his most recent reference, and before the prospect of a party leadership contest in which he would take part, appeared in a peculiar video to rhapsodise about his favourite character, Tyrion Lannister: “You see there that this misshapen dwarf, reviled throughout his life, thought in the eyes of some to be a toxic figure, can at last rally a small band of loyal followers.”

Tyrion Lannister, Michael Gove’s favourite character

Party staffers gather, with beers and pizzas, to watch the opening episodes of each season, and will do so again when the eighth and final season begins on 14 April.

Game of Thrones has supplanted The West Wing and The Godfather as the political class’s favourite cultural source of quotes and inspiration. But what is it about this tale of power and manipulation that so appeals to them? A serious answer can be found about 3,500 miles from Westminster, as the raven flies, in Columbia Business School, New York. There, students can enrol in Professor Bruce Craven’s Leadership through Fiction course, which had the first season of Game of Thrones added to its curriculum a few years ago. “When I first put up a Game of Thrones slide,” he says across a crackling phone line, “the whole room burst into applause.” That enthusiasm propelled Professor Craven into writing a book, Win or Die: Leadership Secrets from Game of Thrones, which has just been published. It seems that politicians, as well as the rest of us, can actually learn something from the show.

Trouble from the Wildlings: did Jon Snow made the wrong political call?

Those lessons are summarised by the book’s chapter titles, one of which reads: “Don’t get assassinated!” Clear and obvious advice, no? But Professor Craven has a broader point in mind. “Jon Snow had the big idea of bringing the Wildlings across the Wall,” he starts, “because, otherwise, the White Walkers would kill them and turn them into weaponised zombies. But he doesn’t work hard enough to persuade some of his people, he offends them, and he ends up being assassinated. The lesson is: you have to find time to persuade people who aren’t convinced, even if the clock is ticking.”

For Professor Craven, Game of Thrones is more illustrative than innovative. The works of William Shakespeare could serve a similar purpose – and indeed do, in other courses and other books. “Shakespeare’s plays have very high stakes and are very intense. Their characters are often going for gold, or shooting for the top, and they’re willing to fight and sacrifice to get there. I saw the first season of Game of Thrones and I thought that it had the same kind of environment, albeit a little more accessible.” In other words, today’s leadership lessons are brought to you with naked flesh and battle scenes. They are a sweet pill to swallow.

The sex and violence of Game of Thrones sweetens other lessons, too. It is well known that George RR Martin, the author of the books on which the show is based, was inspired by the Wars of the Roses, an on-and-off conflict that two rival houses fought for control of the English throne in the 15th century. It was a very masculine episode in history. Men turned their minds and their swords against other men, so that one of them could be raised to power – which might also explain the appeal of Game of Thrones for (very often, male) politicians. This is not a story of bureaucracy and incremental reform. It is a story in which great individuals are swept to power by their wits, their strength, or both.

Or at least that’s one way of looking at it. There are complicating factors. In the land of its birth, the United States, Game of Thrones is not cited so enthusiastically by politicians of any gender. “Other than the one poster which President Trump published, I haven’t heard a lot of politicians referencing it,” says Professor Craven. A skim through the Congressional Record supports his supposition. There are only six mentions there – and one of those is in a speech given by Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Then there is what Professor Craven calls the show’s “diversity of characters”. As Game of Thrones nears its conclusion, a number of female characters are well positioned to influence proceedings, or perhaps even to claim the throne for themselves. “I think it’s particularly compelling that, at this point, all of these female characters have fought through to these moments of critical leadership.”

As the show has evolved, women have gone from concubines to combatants

In this respect, the show has come a long way. Valerie Estelle Frankel, who wrote the book Women in Game of Thrones: Power, Conformity and Resistance, laughs when she looks back on its first season. “The running theme,” she observes, “was women being treated as objects and taking off as many items of clothing as they possibly could.” In one particularly notorious scene, set in an opulent brothel, a fully-clothed Petyr Baelish describes his childhood to two naked prostitutes while he conducts them through a series of sex acts. The man gets to narrate; the women merely to titillate.

But now, Frankel continues, “there has been a move from a disturbingly sexist place to one of empowerment. Cersei Lannister is on the throne, most of the men are dead, most of the kings are gone, and we’re gearing up for an epic Cersei versus Daenerys Targaryen battle.” In the meantime, items of clothing have remained more firmly in place – which, if we’re being generous, might reflect the show’s natural moral arc; or, if we’re being less generous, might reflect more commercial considerations. As the female characters have become more powerful, so have the actors playing them, to the point that some have had “no nudity” clauses inserted into their contracts. What’s more, as Frankel says, “there’s so much instant internet criticism these days that producers are starting to listen and make changes”.

Those changes are bringing the show more in line with the books. George RR Martin describes himself as a feminist, and Frankel agrees. “He considers women as people, which not all authors do! He decided to write a story in which Daenerys is the Chosen One who would awaken dragons and lead armies, and possibly conquer the world and sit on the Iron Throne.” It also helps that, in the books, a brothel scene, for example, is simply described, rather than shown in widescreen. Nudity loses a lot of its gratuity when it takes the form of print.

Cersei Lannister is on the throne, but for how much longer?

The search for political meaning in Game of Thrones cannot stop there. Martin has also described his work as an allegory for climate change. Speaking to the New York Times last year, he observed: “The people in Westeros are fighting their individual battles over power and status and wealth. And those are so distracting them that they’re ignoring the threat of ‘winter is coming’, which has the potential to destroy all of them and to destroy their world.”

And yet we do not know how Game of Thrones concludes. The show’s final season is about to unwind, while Martin’s series of books is far behind it. Will the books follow the show? Will the White Walkers subject the warring factions of Westeros to a deathless winter? Will Daenerys end up on the Iron Throne, perhaps at the head of a progressive coalition that will bring absolute monarchy to an end and build a democracy? There are many interpretations of Game of Thrones, but every one of them could be upended by what happens next. As Professor Craven says: “I don’t think the ending will cause me to fall to the ground and rip up my book, but you never know.” See you on the other side of Season Eight.


Further reading

There’s only one place to start: the A Song of Ice and Fire books on which Game of Thrones is based. George RR Martin has written five books in the series so far, and is expected to write two more.

We interviewed the authors of two books for this article: Professor Bruce Craven, who wrote Win Or Die: Leadership Secrets from Game of Thrones, and Valerie Estelle Frankel, who wrote Women in Game of Thrones: Power, Conformity and Resistance.

The Washington Post’s Alyssa Rosenberg is one of the best writers about Game of Thrones and its complicated feminism.

Cartography is important to many fantasy books, and Game of Thrones is no different. This online, interactive map of Westeros is a nerdy joy.

Images Courtesy of HBO

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