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Game of Thrones could be doing so much more with its big dragon metaphor

The ethics of dragons in combat could be fascinating and relevant

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Photo: HBO

Warning: spoilers ahead for Game of Thrones season 8, including episode 4, “The Last of the Starks.”

Game of Thrones has two episodes left before it wraps, and the series, once defined by mythical creatures and undead ice-men as much as politics and incest, now only has one dragon remaining. Down to one beloved fire-breathing tool of destruction, Daenerys Targaryen is facing her biggest dilemmas yet: whether to risk Drogon in combat and whether it’s worth seizing the Iron Throne quickly and ending her enemies if it means killing thousands of innocent civilians in the process.

That question isn’t just an abstract fantasy idea. Ever since series author George R.R. Martin called the show’s dragons “the nuclear deterrent,”  people have been writing about the dragons’ place in combat and what they represent from a real-world perspective. A significant amount of the series’s success, both in book and TV form, comes from its relevance to real-world events. While so much fantasy fiction tries to build worlds away from the politics and dramas of history, Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series was inspired by the Wars of the Roses and the looming threat of climate change. Showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss continued to parallel history after the source materials dried up, basing season 6’s Battle of the Bastards on Rome’s Battle of Cannae.

One of the show’s most critically acclaimed skirmishes — the Battle of the Goldroad in season 7, episode 4 — represents a radical shift away from historically inspired set pieces, and toward more conventional epic fantasy fare because it’s the first time Dany deploys her dragons as a fully fledged weapons of war. The game-changing sequence explicitly draws on the napalm scene in Apocalypse Now, but the practicalities of the battle are far more fantastical than any previous battle in the show. Season 8’s Battle of Winterfell doubles down on the dynamic, with realistic military tactics playing second fiddle to spectacular, dragon-rich storytelling. That’s somewhat regrettable, given what Martin set dragons up to represent and the potential this story has to represent dark, deeply relevant moral choices.

Image: HBO

The new conduct of war

Game of Thrones has openly compared war to chess — a natural metaphor, with “game” right in the series’s title. In their respective war rooms, Dany and Cersei have their maps of Westeros on which they move pieces around as they strategize. The battles come with a lot of spectacle and variety, but they’re pretty much the same in their basic nature: a force travels to a location to seize territory and gain strategic advantage. Some armies are bigger, and others have special skills: the Greyjoys’ fast-traveling, silent Iron Fleet, the Dothraki riders’ chaotic energy and equestrian expertise, the Unsullied’s loyalty and fearlessness, and so forth. But all the human armies are still on a roughly level playing field in a bloody game of rock-paper-scissors. The game has an extraordinary human cost, but it’s playing by the known rules of human warfare.

The idea of an “ethical war” may sound like a contradiction in terms, but even in war, there are rules — known as jus in bello, or international humanitarian law — which seek to limit the amount of suffering by defining who it’s ethical to fight, how much force is ethical to use, and what weapons are particularly inhumane. The definition of proportional or appropriate force is largely where the moral questions about war have come from, both in the real world and in Game of Thrones.

The topic of combat ethics is more urgently relevant now than ever

On September 15th, 1916, the first British tanks were sent into action against the Germans during the Battle of the Somme in World War I. The war had been deadlocked, with bodies piling up on both sides — essentially a rock-paper-scissors game where both sides kept picking rock. As journalist Christopher Woolf observed in his essay “The day tanks changed war forever,” the new battlefield technology developed as a way to break the stalemate on the Western Front. It also opened up a new world of killing at arm’s length via technological advances. The same process has been seen over and over again, from World War II’s arms race over combat aircraft and atomic weaponry up to the modern day.

Now, drones and robots have made it possible for humans to fight without ever entering the battlefield. Speaking to The Verge in December 2018, John E. Jackson, a retired Navy captain and professor at the Naval War College, described how these technologies have changed war. “It used to be that a warrior prepares, trains, deploys to a foreign location where he is face-to-face with an enemy, he may or may not survive, and at the end, he comes home.” But now, pilots can strike at targets halfway around the planet from their home base, and be home in time for dinner.

The topic of combat ethics is more urgently relevant now than ever. With the Venezuelan opposition threatening to involve the US military with the country’s ongoing crisis, there’s a strong chance that these modern technologies will be deployed in a very public setting in the near future. Of course, Benioff and Weiss wouldn’t have known about this escalation when they were writing season 8 of Game of Thrones over the past two years, but balance-upsetting technologies of war are no new thing, and Martin laid the grounds for the dragons’ world-changing powers back at the beginning of his book series.

Image: HBO

Spectacle over resonance

Following the Battle of the Goldroad, Tyrion Lannister takes a horrified walk around the battlefield, looking over the charred remains of his former allies. This is his “no way back” moment, where he recognizes that it’s impossible for him to rejoin his family after allowing this level of devastation to hit them. For viewers, it’s particularly hard to view Dany as a hero after she’s burned a swath through human flesh. And in the following episode, when she executes Randyll and Dickon Tarly with her dragon, it feels like a particularly excessive and ignoble display of force, even by Game of Thrones’ standards of hangings and beheadings. Seeing the dragons’ devastating power, it is no surprise why Tyrion has repeatedly argued against using them in a siege on King’s Landing.

Dany’s increasing eagerness to use the dragons is being presented as evidence that she might not be a just ruler, that she’s following in the footsteps of her father, the “Mad King” Aerys II. “The Last of the Starks” has Varys hinting at a coup that would crown Jon Snow as king before Dany has even touched the Iron Throne. While the show applauds Dany for her temporary mercy on King’s Landing, Game of Thrones hasn’t otherwise spent much time questioning whether dragons should be used for war. The showrunners are more interested in whether Dany has the required judgment to use them in the right situations. Varys believes Jon has clearer judgment and would be a better leader, but the implication is that no one person should have so much power. Even if Daenerys is a fair and just ruler, her overwhelming weapons still create a moral problem for the advisers who are trying to contain her.

It’s not really necessary for the show to teach its viewers that it’s immoral to set civilians on fire

That’s a frustrating development, given the ways current Daenerys — power-hungry to the point of paranoia, and determined to rush into combat — makes a stark contrast with the breaker of chains who liberated Slaver’s Bay. Now that the threat of the fantastical White Walkers has been extinguished, it seems that the series’s final hours will be defined by which of those two Danys comes to the fore, and her last dragon will play a pivotal role. Given the emotionally charged climax of “The Last of the Starks,” it would be no surprise to see Drogon raining hellfire down on King’s Landing, along with its armies and citizens. That would prove Cersei’s anti-Targaryen propaganda and Varys’ scheming to be right all along, and would set Daenerys up as a murderous tyrant who won the game of thrones through indifferent slaughter of innocents. It would also underline the oft-repeated sentiment, “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

It’s not really necessary for the show to teach its viewers that it’s immoral to set civilians on fire, but it’s strange how minimally it’s contended with this central theme, given how it hangs over the story. Game of Thrones’ dragons are another example of a piece of modern fiction that’s consciously drawing on modern ethical dilemmas for resonance, while also trying not to confront them in a meaningful way. It’s not as on-the-nose as something like The Division 2, the developers of which insist that the game (set during the next Civil War in a post-apocalyptic Washington, DC) is “definitely not making any political statement.” But it is putting fantasy over reality — a major change from the earlier seasons and Martin’s books, which were so often lauded for the way they took the real world into account.

That’s one of the larger reasons so many of the series’s fans argue that Game of Thrones has lost its spine, or at least its unique luster. It was once a show that thrived in the gray areas, where heartache undercuts triumph and anything resembling a classical hero was dispatched with merciless efficiency. It seems disappointingly familiar for Game of Thrones to be building to such a typical “hero considering the dark side” finale.

It feels like Benioff and Weiss are pulling their punches with the dragons, replacing Martin’s big moral conundrums with the softball statements that a) using massively destructive weapons against civilians is immoral, and b) the more powerful someone gets, the more shrouded their judgment becomes. There’s none of the nuance of the real debate about overwhelming force and remote battlefield tactics, and none of the nuance the show once brought to themes like love, religion, and loyalty. Our current reality offers so much rich, complicated, emotional, and logistical debate over the use of overwhelming force, remote weaponry, and attacks on civilians. Benioff and Weiss are touching on that debate in the lightest way possible, but mostly just using it to rush the story along faster.

There’s still a chance to consider the cost of the dragons in combat, including, after Rhaegal’s seeming death in “The Last of the Starks,” the cost to the dragons themselves as living weapons and major targets. But with such limited time to get there, and given season 8’s strong swing toward comparatively weightless wish-fulfillment fantasy, it’s unlikely Game of Thrones is going to take full advantage of one of its most fascinating and relevant metaphors.