If one were to Google search “White Walkers + metaphor,” the results would be pretty universal. The overall hegemonic reading of “Game of Thrones,” particularly in progressive analysis, has read the White Walkers as representing the threat of catastrophic climate change.
In this reading, while the different houses — Stark, Targaryen, Lannister, etc. — engage in their provincial “game of thrones,” an all-encompassing existential threat approaches from “beyond the wall”: the Night King and his White Walkers. Their threat renders the main characters’ intra-house intrigue, conspiracies and power struggles utterly meaningless. The metaphor asserts that the houses represent the different nation-states, all engaged in international politicking, but refusing to band together to meet the existential challenge posed by climate change.
Those who argue for this interpretation have relied on the words of the author to anchor their claim that “Game of Thrones” is basically a metaphor for climate change. George R.R. Martin has himself said:
There’s a certain parallel there…. 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.
The metaphor works in a certain sense. There is a structural homology. But really, do we need the words of an author about his intent to interpret a text? Haven’t we recognized “the death of the author” for some time in criticism? A piece of art is subject to negotiation; its meaning is not universal. It is something that is created.
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The genres of both science fiction and fantasy function as loosely veiled narrativizations of the contemporary moment. They explore political, social and cultural dynamics of the here and now, even though they may take place deep in space or in alternative worlds. They are meant to comment upon our social, political and cultural realities. Moreover, operating within fantastic genres allows authors room for speculation and more ambitious “what-ifs” than a more traditional, realist work of fiction.
One hugely important symbol needs be excluded from interpretation in order to conclude that “Game of Thrones” is a metaphor for climate change. That symbol is, of course, the wall. Manned by the Night’s Watch, it is the dividing line between Westeros and the world beyond: a frozen wasteland, full of mythic monsters made real, and the undead. It is the focal point of the entire show.
The fantasy genre in which “Game of Thrones” operates is a thinly veiled representation of the contemporary political moment. The story is a deeply reactionary project meant to shore up white-supremacist ideology in its moment of crisis. It’s not about climate change at all. It is not progressive, not instructive.
The story, in its ideology, is reflective. It is reflective of the United States at this particular historical conjuncture. It is not a critique of the status quo, asserting a transcendent hope or possibility. It is a reactive argument in favor of it through a mirroring effect representing our ideological landscape in inverted form.
It is reflecting back to us our crisis of identity, our need as a nation to define ourselves by who we are not, our ideological obsession with an inside and an outside, with borders. It is about walls that we build — materially and symbolically, and who is on what side of them. It is asking us to reinvest through identification with it.
The story betrays our obsession with walls, not just the southern border wall, but “other” walls as well — walls that “other.” In other words, “Game of Thrones” is also a show about our relation to the prison, our obsession to disappear people, who, once on the other side of the wall, are not “people” anymore. The wall represents the boundaries of “us” as a nation, and those who are not “us” and must be excluded: the criminal and the immigrant.
How does a nation justify locking children in cages at the southern border wall? How does it justify incarcerating 2.3 million people, 40 percent of whom are Black and two-thirds of whom are people of color? It must construct an ontology of difference, a ranking of being: the human versus the non-human.
Look at the language used to dehumanize immigrants and incarcerated people. They are described as a drug “scourge.” Crime spreads like “a disease.” Immigration “eats away” at the economy. They are described as “vermin.” Gangs and violence “spread.” It’s a contagious disease model.
Immigrants and incarcerated people don’t simply lack that magical something that is humanness. These “others” behind the respective walls of the border and the prison are, in discourse, biohazards — contaminant threats. The proper response to contaminating biohazards is the logic of the quarantine: Walls. Insides and outsides.
The zombie is a metaphorical representation of the subhuman contaminant threat, the immigrant and the incarcerated, behind their respective walls. Through this narrative, they have the potential to contaminate us, to rip us down, to make us like them, to end “civilization.”
Immigrants and incarcerated people are also zombified in our current national discourse.
The Wildings represent the class dynamic in the show. The “Houses” are the elite, the wealthy, the aristocratic. Wildings are the poor whites in this fantasy structuration, forced to live, work alongside of, and survive amongst the “socially dead.” Rolling them within the “great war” is symbolically representative of the racial bribe given to poor whites after Shays’ Rebellion, and operative ever since. It is whiteness as social capital – you may be poor and at the bottom of the hierarchy, but at least you’re not Black, (or in this case, an ice zombie). That’s why they were located beyond the wall (the prison). In the show, they become deputized in the struggle against White Walkers; in reality, the device has been to turn some percentage of them into cops and prison guards with good benefits to ensure their loyalty to white supremacist capital. The key here is that the Wildings are fundamentally on the human side of the “human vs. subhuman/contaminant” binary, just relegated to the role of front-line enforcers of the order.
The White Walker is a flat and unintelligent character. It has no agency. It is a foil upon which drama is built. It is not human, but walking dead. In the language of prison, civically and socially dead, the immigrant without “rights.” Outside of this inverted mirror, they are the stationary, the warehoused, the territorially sequestered, the imprisoned. The mirror of ideology flips things between its poles.
The ideology of “Game of Thrones” is not meant to be instructive. It is not telling the audience to think of Black incarcerated people and immigrants — as less than human zombies, the dead, the contaminant. It is a reflection of the fact that within the very logics of the racialized American social formation, in discourse and in law, we already do. Like the paranoid, right-wing fantasies that drive Steve Bannon’s apocalyptic films, the show depicts political realities of our present.
“Game of Thrones” is white civil society’s thinly veiled and unconscious fever dream — a return of the repressed — that the walls and boundaries, symbolic and material, that constitute American white supremacist society will collapse, that the levees will break in reverse.
The fear of the White Walkers breaking through the northern wall is a thinly veiled metaphor for the immigrants who, it is feared, will “overrun” the border, the Black people who will escape the hyperghetto and the prison. It is white society’s fear that if the boundaries separating us from them were removed, we wouldn’t be us anymore. We would be diluted, just like them — an amorphous mass. In psychoanalytic language, it is a fear of loss of differentiation. We wouldn’t be exceptional. At bottom, it is a fear of miscegenation. Without our “other” in this twisted Hegelian logic, we would not recognize ourselves as the agents and master of history. White history and “progress” would be eviscerated.
The White Walker is a materialization of the ideological figure of otherness in the American imaginary. We see ourselves seeing the other. That’s how we think of people that we other, as “not us,” but as material and symbolic contaminants.
The story asks us to psychologically reinvest in white supremacy by identifying with the show’s protagonists. It is a meditation on how to continue to rule despite the rising levels of expectation and agitation and activism from the populations fighting back against the white supremacist system.
The story represents for its audience the multiculturalism and identity politics of white neoliberal society that leaves the structures of capitalist exploitation and racial domination unperturbed.
Missandei’s execution is the logical outcome of the white supremacist ideological structuration of the show. Her character, because she is Black, allows for audience self-identification with the all-white, aristocratic houses of “Game of Thrones” as “not racist.” That is, this show can’t be about race and “otherness” because the audience identifies with Missandei, and comes to even love the character. After all, she is Black.
You can have Black people close to power — but not in power. The Black man (Grey Worm) must be literally castrated to be “good,” to be safe. Pulled from the dregs, freed by whiteness, Black men can’t pose a sexual threat to white women. They must be thankful. The Black woman, Missandei, must bear European standards of beauty — be light, non-threatening, sexually desirable, submissive. When she is executed, it is purely as foil in furtherance of the plot demand to energize the coming confrontation between two visions of white supremacy, the Lannisters and the Targaryens. She is a tool to further white supremacy and to ideologically reinforce it. Much like the Wildings, the Dothraki and the Unsullied — particularly reprehensible representations of the role of poor peoples of colors’ obligation to function as imperial cannon fodder — Missandei’s continued role in the narrative was dependent on her willingness to follow the leadership of an idealized white hero.
The universal hand-wringing over Missandei’s death functions to allow both the characters and the audience to disavow their own embeddedness in white supremacy by feeling sympathy for a Black character. It is a representation of the “I have Black friends so I can’t be racist” argument.
The ideological work further comes in the form of crafting identifications with a particular house: Targaryen, Lannister, Stark. With whom do you identify? Are you “team” Stark? Targaryen? Lannister? All offer different configurations of neoliberal white supremacist capital for its multicultural audience to cheer for.
The young “liberal” lean-in feminism of Dany Targaryen, liberator of Iraq/Meereen, is one choice. To be a stronger warlord than men is the mark. Maybe you consider yourself a conservative — you have the patriarchal Lannisters, headed by Tywin and now Cersei/Clinton. Perhaps you’re relatively apolitical — you can always place your bets with “I-never-wanted-this-responsibility” Jon “white-and-pure-as-the” Snow.
Now that the “threat” from “beyond the wall” has been extinguished, in its final episodes, white society can argue with itself about how to maintain itself as a hegemonic social formation. That’s what the “game of thrones” is about: white society’s conversation with itself around how to retain hegemonic control in arrangements of inheritance of authoritarian wealth and power.
The ideological trick is to normalize it and get the audience to identify with and cheer for it, and even though framed within fantasy, it is still representative of a “realpolitik.” The story is reactive because it’s about locating our own monstrosity within “others,” excluding them, and then violently enforcing these boundaries of otherness, even to the point of genocidal liquidation.
There are no zombies, just like youth gangs aren’t “viruses” that “contaminate,” and people who use drugs or have mental illness aren’t “scourges.” Black youth are not “superpredators.”
There are no monsters beyond our walls. There are human beings. We construct the fantasy object of the monster in order to hide from our own monstrosity.