Game of Thrones and the missing conversation about climate change
The show teaches us that only way of defeating a giant threat is coming together
It goes without saying that Game of Thrones is a cultural phenomenon and one of the most — if not the most — talked-about TV shows of our time. No medieval fantasy has amassed the amount of popularity and influence this juggernaut has since The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit franchises. An amalgamation of stunning cinematography (with the exception of this season's third episode, but that might be your TV's fault, according to their production team), wild character arcs and remarkable sets, the show grabs your attention and sucks you in — flaws and all.
Canadians can take pride in knowing we've contributed to the madness, and we have the province of Alberta to thank for that. In the first episode of the series, viewers are introduced to Winterfell, a.k.a. the home of the Starks. The family's sigil is a direwolf — one of the most remarkable prehistoric species to actually exist in North America. Alberta's population of large wolves scored the interest of GoT showrunners, who filmed in Banff as well as Calgary, where they shot scenes featuring Jon Snow's direwolf, Ghost (played by Arctic wolf Quigly, who, unfortunately, never got a proper hug or goodbye).
Canadian viewers may also recognize similarities between the land north of The Wall and northwest parts of our country. Canada could have easily been a filming location for some of GoT's heaviest winter scenes instead of Iceland, especially since our rugged terrain is so frequently used as a backdrop in TV and film, attracting camera crews from shows like Fargo and films like the Academy Award-winning The Revenant.
But it's no secret that the Canadian climate is changing. According to a report from Environment and Climate Change Canada, our country is warming up twice as fast as the rest of the world, largely due to greenhouse gas emissions. We've already started to see the tangible results of this, with disastrous flooding and massive wildfires becoming more and more common.
With climate change comes disappearing natural habitats and the call to protect these spaces from an impending demise. Various Indigenous climate leaders have been calling out Canada for its lack of protection of land and wildlife for years now, highlighting the increasing risk of natural disaster. And yet, as much as it's talked about, it's also swept under the rug.
In Game of Thrones, "Winter is coming" has been the refrain since episode one, and it's continued right up until the Battle of Winterfell in the third episode of this final season. Throughout the entire show, we're constantly reminded of the ever-looming return of the Night King, the White Walkers/Army of the Dead and the endless winter they will bring.
We also learn a bit about the origins of the fabled White Walkers as the series progresses: that they're pretty much ancient, that they were the product of early magic and that they ironically worked to protect the Children of the Forest against the First Men (a.k.a. us) who were — surprise, surprise — trying to wage war against them. But the Walkers eventually became a powerful, unstoppable force of nature on their own — and it only makes sense they would try to fight back against those who struck first, taking the land and lives of men. Still, this is all largely hearsay for the inhabitants of the Seven Kingdoms. It isn't until Samwell Tarly comes face to face with a White Walker in season 3 that the threat becomes real.
They're ignoring the threat of 'winter is coming,' which has the potential to destroy all of them and to destroy their world. And there is a great parallel there to [...] what I see this planet doing here.- George R. R. Martin
The theory that the White Walkers represent climate change is not a new idea. Though George R. R. Martin started writing his iconic A Song of Ice and Fire series in the early '90s, when climate change wasn't as much a part of public discourse as it is today, it's hard to ignore his novels's grim underlying message about environmental change and our attitude toward it.
In a Q&A with The New York Times, Martin was asked about the parallels between the Army of the Dead and our very real climate change problem (what many are calling an environmental disaster, particularly for Canadians). "The people in Westeros are fighting their individual battles over power and status and wealth," he said. "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. And there is a great parallel there to [...] what I see this planet doing here, where we're fighting our own battles."
A quick look at fantasy in film and television tells us that the enemy is almost always within our own ranks. From The Lord of the Rings to Avatar, the line between message and myth is blurred over and over again, reminding us of our very permanent, often devastating impact on Earth, despite our impermanent lives.
They also tell us that united we stand, divided we fall, and that our best chance at defeating a common enemy is to band together despite our differences. Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve explored this idea in his 2016 sci-fi film Arrival, where nations around the world were faced with a common potential alien threat.
Now that the Night King is gone, it's become clear that the real threat is, and always has been, us.- Lindsey Addawoo
In this final GoT season, however, unity is short-lived. After winter finally arrives in Winterfell, it takes all of their army and alliances — the Unsullied, the Wildlings, the Dothraki, Daenerys with her two last dragons, the remaining members of House Mormont — to defend the living and fight for humanity. Yet despite their victory, in last week's penultimate episode, Dany points her army south to take the city of King's Landing — and chooses to destroy the city and Red Keep at the eleventh hour, even after the city's surrender.
Now that the Night King is gone, it's become clear that the real threat is, and always has been, us.
The show sends a powerful message about the transience of landscape, infrastructure and human life in the hands of a power-hungry leader. As the Mad Queen burns the city down and claims the Iron Throne, it leads one to ask: just who — and more importantly, what — will be left to rule after everything is said and done?
The final episodes of the series have raised the question of whether man is capable of being redeemed or is even worth redeeming. And these are the questions we'll be left to think about long after GoT has ended — especially when we're facing an opponent that can't just be felled with a single dagger.