The Dirty Little Secret of HBO’s Game of Thrones: The People Don’t Want War

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Ever wonder which of the clashing Kings of Westeros the ordinary people want to win the war that rages in HBO’s popular Game of Thrones series? The Lannisters seem so vile; the Starks seem noble by comparison. But Ned Stark, before he lost his head, backed the claim of Stannis Baratheon. And what of Daenerys Targaryen, mother of dragons and daughter of “the Mad King”? The truly subversive answer, periodically revealed throughout the series — and in the George R.R. Martin books on which it’s based — is that the “smallfolk,” as the huddled masses are known, don’t really give a toss about the outcome of the epic power struggles among their betters. They’ll do the bulk of the suffering, the fighting and the dying on all sides. But whether it’s the northern peasants who make up the foot soldiers of Robb Stark’s armies or the southerners who march under the banner of the Lannisters, Tyrells or Baratheons, they fight because they have no choice. 

The show is littered with snarky comments by various peons on the brutal folly of the ruling families, whether from Tyrion Lannister’s mercenary enforcer Bronn, the brothers of the Night Watch (whose Mancunian accents underscore their wry wit) and, in the books, the Hound, whose antipathy for the institution of knighthood knows no limits. To bolster this Greek chorus, the screenwriters decided in last week’s episode to bash viewers over the heads with smallfolk contempt for wars fought over rights to the throne. After a raid on Lannister forces by Robb and his northmen, the 15-year-old “King in the North” comes across a field nurse, introduced as Talisa, ministering to a young boy whose foot requires amputation. (Warning: it’s a grisly scene.) Robb restrains the boy as she hacks off the limb, but Talisa is not prepared to let him off the hook for the compassion he’s shown for a wounded foe.

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“That boy lost his foot on your orders,” she scolds.

“They killed my father,” the teenage warrior answers defensively.

“That boy?”

“The family he fights for …”

“Do you think he’s friends with King Joffrey?” Talisa mocks. “He’s a fisherman’s son that grew up in Lannisport. He probably never held a spear before they shoved one in his hands a few months ago …”

“I have no hatred for the lad …” Robb whines.

“That should help his foot grow back,” she says walking away.

“You’d have us surrender,” Robb counters, following her and sarcastically spinning that scenario. “End all this bloodshed. I understand. The country would be at peace, and life would be just under the righteous hand of good King Joffrey.”

“You going to kill Joffrey?” the nurse asks.

“Gods give me strength.”

“And then what?”

“I don’t know,” says Robb uncertainly. “We’ll go back to Winterfell. I have no desire to sit on the Iron Throne.”

“So who will?”

“I don’t know.”

“You’re fighting to overthrow a King,” she says incredulously, “and yet you have no plan for what comes after…”

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A tale whose focus is the “clash of Kings” is squarely grounded in the “great man” approach to writing history. But the writers of Game of Thrones appear mindful of the critique by the left-wing German poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht, whose “Questions from a Worker Who Reads” also served as inspiration for Studs Terkel’s Working, a celebrated oral history that sought to capture working life through the voices of ordinary Americans. Consider this extract from Brecht’s poem:

Who built the seven gates of Thebes?
The books are filled with names of kings.
Was it the kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone?
And Babylon, so many times destroyed.
Who built the city up each time?

…The young Alexander conquered India.
Was he alone?
Caesar beat the Gauls.
Did he not have even a cook with him?
Philip of Spain wept when his armada
Went down.
Was he the only one to weep?
Frederick the Second won the Seven Years’ War.

Who else won it?
Every page a victory.
Who cooked the feast for the victors?
Every ten years a great man.
Who paid the bill?

The Game of Thrones writers periodically make sure to remind viewers exactly who paid the bill.

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Whether it’s the experience of Arya Stark, forced through circumstances to live by her wits as a King’s Landing street urchin might, or Jon Snow, encountering the doleful tales of his brothers in the Night Watch, the writers make their characters — and audience — privy to the plight of the smallfolk as the war rages around them. Robb Stark, a hereditary leader, calls his banners to war to avenge his father’s execution by the Lannisters. But why do his bannermen heed the call? Sure, they hate those arrogant southerners, but not enough to risk all they have in a war that could destroy them. They join their colors to his because if they didn’t, Robb has the power to strip them of their titles and the lands and taxation powers that go with them. And woe betide any farmer or laborer who denies a Winterfell bannerman his pound of fighting-age flesh when the lord issues the call to arms: Robb’s bannermen have the power to take away their lands and livestock if they refuse to join the fight.

So Robb’s war is not exactly a popular rebellion; it’s just another in an endless series of power struggles among feudal overlords. Those who fight beneath his banners hate their enemy, of course, because their enemy wants to kill them. They fight to survive, both on the battlefield and off it. Sure, some kings and queens are preferable to others, in the sense of being more mindful of the fact that if the smallfolk are pushed too far, they might rebel or throw their weight behind challengers — a danger of which Tyrion Lannister is continuously warning his sister, the Queen Regent Cersei. Tyrion, too, has spent enough time walking among commoners to be aware of the dangers that lurk. And also to know that the war’s outcome means little, either way, to those who’ll remain enslaved by the chains of feudalism when the fighting ends.

The writers of Game of Thrones, to their credit, are making sure to signal the audience just how little stake most people like themselves would have had in the outcome of such a power struggle. But they won’t let that realization spoil the show. Peasant lives were, on the whole, nasty, brutish and short, and hardly the stuff of HBO miniseries. Game of Thrones will always be more Machiavelli than Brecht, with the vicious and diabolical struggles among power seekers forming the show’s dramatic core. Still, it’s refreshing to see the occasional reality jolt that reminds viewers just how little most Westerosi are invested in the clashes of their Kings — even if, like us, they’d be quite happy to sit around their cooking fires and hear the tales of those battles and intrigues told, and retold.

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