The huge HBO hit Game of Thrones has long been seen as a metaphor or parable for the climate crisis — and the author of the original books, George R.R. Martin, said as much last year, calling his story “a great parallel” to modern day climate change.
But in the show’s eighth and final season, as the TV series races far past where Martin left the story in his still unfinished book series, HBO’s writers and show runners have literally shattered the entire metaphor. (Warning, spoilers are coming.)
One of the show’s heroes single-handedly ended the existential climate threat with a clever knife trick — abruptly returning the storyline to a conventional tale of humans fighting among themselves for political power.
In the real world, climate change is far too challenging a threat to be ended by one person — or even one battle that doesn’t include all of the major powers.
In fact, the reason so many articles have been written about whether the show is about “the global debate on climate change” (as a Reuters headline put it back in 2015) is that its central theme has long been that the climate is about to change for the worse in a way that poses an existential threat for everyone.
The show’s very first episode was titled, “Winter is Coming,” and we came to understand the people of the continent Westeros faced a long period of very cold weather — and the grave dangers accompanying it, particularly the White Walkers (powerful beings that can raise the dead) and their ever-growing Army of the Dead.
But short term political squabbles — namely, the fight for the Iron Throne in Westeros that would rule the Seven Kingdoms — interfered with the need for everyone to join together to fight the bigger threat. In recent seasons, the focus has been the impending showdown between queen Daenerys Targaryen, mother of dragons, and queen Cersei Lannister.
In the previous season (the seventh), which aired in 2017, the show shifted to whether the (relatively) “good guys” led by Jon Stark, could actually come up with the concrete evidence needed to persuade the two warring queens that the threat is real, imminent, and demanding of their undivided attention if they hoped to survive.
In that season’s third episode, Jon asks Tyrion Lannister (Cersei’s dwarf brother, now adviser to Daenerys) the defining question: “How do I convince people who don’t know me that an enemy they don’t believe in is coming to kill them all?”
Tyrion explains Daenerys’s skepticism: “People’s minds aren’t made for problems that large. White Walkers, the Night King, Army of the Dead, it’s almost a relief to confront a comfortable, familiar monster like my sister.”
And that is a direct analogy to the skepticism with which many people view the threat of climate change. The existential threat is so large to grasp. And most did not see the evidence right in front of them, at least until recently, when the accumulation of devastating wildfires, super-hurricanes, droughts, and floods has boosted concern about climate change in this country to its highest level ever.
Likewise, Jon figures out that the only way he is going to convince skeptics is by providing irrefutable evidence. For climate scientists, that often involves taking skeptical politicians up to the frozen north to see Greenland’s ice sheets melting before their very eyes.
Ultimately, after traveling north and witnessing the Army of the Dead with her own eyes, Daenerys says, “If we hadn’t gone I wouldn’t have seen. You have to see it to know. Now I know.”
Last year, Martin told the New York Times he agreed with those who say “Game of Thrones” is “a perfect metaphor for understanding climate change.” His characters “are fighting their individual battles over power and status and wealth. And those are so distracting [for] 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.”
But in its final season, the HBO show shatters the metaphor.
Whereas climate change does require the whole world to set aside their animosities to stop catastrophic climate change, in the third episode (which aired Sunday, April 28), the climate threat faced by Westeros is eliminated in a single fight, one that does not require the involvement of all the world’s major powers.
And while stopping climate change will be a difficult war that requires every nation to take very strong, sustained action for decades, the Night King and the Army of the Dead are defeated in a single battle when one hero, Jon’s younger sister Arya, stabs the Night King, shattering him into a thousand pieces — and the entire Army of the Dead disintegrates with him.
If any of the big powers in the real world refuse to take on the climate crisis, they will be greatly punished by the devastation caused by the resulting climate impacts. In contrast, Cersei isn’t punished at all for refusing to join the fight. In fact, she is rewarded as Daenerys’s army suffers heavy losses in the battle that leaves her much weaker in the final fight to rule the throne of Westeros.
In the most recent episode Sunday evening, Tyrion makes clear that the show has returned to a conventional political fight among humans. He says of the recent battle against the Night King and his army, “We may have defeated them, but we still have us to contend with.”
The website Thrillist said before the final season began that the series would be about climate change “if the show is brave enough” — but that would have required a very different outcome for the recent battle. It would have required a victory for the Night King against a divided human response.
Ultimately, HBO wimped out, and left us with a simple, fantastical solution to their existential climate threat. Our climate crisis, however, will not be defeated anywhere near as easily. We will require all the major polluters, including the United States, to join this battle if we are to have a serious shot at avoiding a catastrophic outcome.