*Note: This essay was published in USA Today on September 24, 2019. It can also be found online here.
HBO’s “Game of Thrones” did it again Sunday night, demonstrating, yet again, its unquestioned dominance in this Golden Age of Television. “Thrones” took in 12 Emmys, including winning for best drama series in its final season. Walking onto the red carpet, the show already held the title for most Emmys won by a comedy or drama (47), and this year’s 32 nominations (for a season that drew in an average of 44 million viewers per episode), raised the show’s overall total to 161 nominations. But overlooked in these impressive figures—as well as the glitz, bright lights, and raw star power—is the uncomfortable fact that the show about fictional Westeros was full of actual lessons on the brutality of real war.
“Game of Thrones” was always about war. There’ve been other possibilities floated for years on the internet. The “lessons” ranged from debt to the meaning of life to the perfect wedding—but everyone knows, in the end, it was really all about war. And the ugly reaction to the series finale provides a glimpse into the anger, dissatisfaction, and lingering agony felt by anyone that’s spent a significant period of time invested in a real war.
Nobody feels good about having been part of a war, even when it ends. Victory parades may look pretty but often mask deep sadness and abundant scars.
I know this feeling well. I spent two years in combat in Iraq early in my military career and lost three soldiers close to me. One was a friend from West Point, one a subordinate who served under me, and one a captain I looked up to. It’s common for veterans to wear a black bracelet bearing the names of the lost—I went so far as to have one made with their names—but found that I couldn’t wear it without being entirely distracted from daily life. I’d see their faces, as if frozen in the last moments before death. Rigor mortis, meet déjà vu.
I’ll never feel comfortable with the way my war ended. Never.
And “Game of Thrones” fans seem to feel the same way about the end of their own long war.
Critics howled. Over 1.7 million fans signed an online petition to “remake” the final season. George R.R. Martin, writer of the books on which the show was based, recently commented on the “madness” that gripped fans on the internet at the series’ conclusion; he called it “toxic.” HBO’s own companion documentary to the series, “The Last Watch,” showcased a parade of stars tearfully lamenting the end of the series. It included a background character known as the ‘King of Extras,’ who concluded his own run on the show by weeping.
It’s not so surprising that a work of fiction can reveal the real emotional response to war. “Game of Thrones” was essentially a reassembly of history. The “Starks” and the “Lannisters” represent the Yorks and Lancasters of the Wars of the Roses. The show’s “Wall” was inspired by Hadrian’s in England, with echoes of the DMZ that separates the North from South Korea. The great Battle of the Bastards is a version of Cannae of the Second Punic War, and the dragon’s fire that strafes King’s Landing in the final season was a terrible glimpse into the Allied firebombing of Dresden in World War II.
We know full well that Martin wrote his books based on real wars, as much as showrunners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff were mindful to shoot scenes designed to reimagine real conflicts. So the human essence of war lives onscreen, in abundant supply. And one good example, even if achieved through fiction, can tap into universal truths.
And one of those truths is that wars may stop, but they don’t really end. Leaving a war behind, any war, is an emotional flood that most struggle to dam up. Some feelings are good, most are bad, some are appreciative, most are disappointing. The commonality is that they don’t go away.
That lingering dissatisfaction is amplified most by the pain of losing someone that matters. In Iraq, another of our losses was a really big, really nice guy that crammed himself into a tank as a driver. He drowned in the desert when his tank crested a wadi (a large pond), and the tank turned downward and the turret got stuck in the mud, trapping him inside as water slowly filled the hatch. His death was a grenade to the unit’s soul.
It reminded me of the loss of another large man in “Game of Thrones”—Hodor. Over time, the helpful, genial giant grew to be one of the show’s most popular (and meme-able) figures. Though hard to know for sure, the story suggests he may have had a premonition of how he would eventually die, and yet, when his awful end approached, he still willingly held the door back against evil to prevent harm to his friends. His self-sacrifice was painful to legions of fans.
And if series’ fans felt some sting, some pain, some hurt in losing Hodor—or any other character they’d cared for—then they’ve felt some small approximation of what it’s like to lose a comrade or close-friend in combat.
After the dragon has flown off, and fires have finished—and both have left a barren, charred landscape to match the scarred psyches of those who survived to tell the tale—the last message from Westeros is that war is agony, and peace is precious. It’s one we should never forget.