What Game of Thrones can teach us about hope and resiliency in the face of mortality and a demoralizing political climate

Not everyone agrees, but I thought “The Battle of Winterfell” episode of Game of Thrones last week was transcendent. For me, it was a truly spiritual experience, and I’m not being hyperbolic. By taking audiences to the lowest lows of demoralization, and then giving them something to hold on to—a path to triumph—the episode makes a stark (ha!) and important message about how we should live in a world that often feels dead—dead morally, where immigration policy in America is becoming more and more aggressive, dead to the common good, where anti-vaccination rhetoric values individual lives over community health, and dead ecologically, on an earth that seems to be anthropomorphically screaming at us to stop killing it.

            The episode was not what most of us expected. For an entire week, the internet was inundated with anticipatory predictions about the majority of the main characters dying. In fact, very few characters died. Nevertheless, the first 45 minutes of the episode were grim, and convincingly nihilistic. The white walker zombies figuratively shrug their shoulders at every coup de ta that the humans pull out of their back pockets. Blast them with dragon fire? Eh. The Night King just stares at Dany, the way I stare at my toddler, when she thinks throwing a fit will get her a piece of candy. Summon the lord of light to light fire trenches? Meh. The zombies simply throw their bodies over the flames to make a bridge for their brethren. Send the Dothraki—the fantasy world’s toughest army—out in the front line with flaming swords (fire kills the white walkers, remember!)—they are literally extinguished in an agonizing 60 seconds of off-camera battle. I’ve listed these moments out of order, mostly because the Dothraki episode stuck with me. We don’t see the battle—and here, the producers cleverly sidestep some of the most hackneyed cinematic battle tropes of “the gorier, the more emotional impact.” Instead, we see the group that we, as viewers have been trained to put most of our hope in (them and the Unsullied), ride off with the weapon that the world of the series has carefully taught us is supposed to be foolproof—foolproof!—against the zombies. And, then, instead of watching a battle, we watch the faces of the series’ most beloved protagonists reacting to the battle. We spend about 60 full seconds watching them struggle to make out what is happening in the distance, and we watch as they begin to make sense of the astonishingly quick work the zombies make of the Dothraki and their “foolproof” weapons. Sixty seconds is a long time in cinema, especially for one, unmoving shot of characters’ faces, watching a scene that we aren’t ourselves privy to. Yet, this excruciatingly long shot implies that the chronicity here is “real time,” that we are following their reactions for exactly as long as they occur—and 60 seconds is a horrifically short time for an entire army to be vanquished in a battle. Like the characters whose faces we watch, our morale gets a suckerpunch.

            After the zombies get past the fire-trench, they’re up and over the castle walls in fairly quick order, and then we witness them free-falling through ceiling and railings, hoisting their bodies like artillery. My first, odd, reaction was surprise at the fact that the zombies were breaking things. It’s typical, of course, to see zombies break down doors and windows, but I hadn’t seen—either in zombie films (off the top of my head) or battle scenes—such brazen disregard for the basics of traffic pathways.

            Of course that is ridiculous. Of course zombies don’t care about politely going through doors. But this is the genius of the episode. I teach zombie media regularly in my college courses, and still this demonstration of the disregard zombies obviously would have for our arbitrary practices and structures was shocking. I’d never seen a show follow things out to their logical conclusion to that extent. And it struck me—this pairing of time, empathy and social codes are what make this episode so powerful.

            The zombies don’t care about barriers, and they don’t care about rules (even implicit ones, like walls in buildings), things that most of us take for granted. Even in fictional worlds, it can surprise us when zombies simply burst through ceilings, because that’s just not what we do. And, because of this, they have the capacity to wear us down. For every inch humans gain in a zombie battle, the zombies have already gained one more body to use as artillery and throw through our ceilings, or, more to the point, our paltry ideas of how the world should work.

            As we watch Clegane and Arya—two of the series’ bravest warriors stymied with hopelessness, we see that the decks are always stacked against humans in zombie-battles. Humans have the capacity to be traumatized by violence and worn down by effort. We see this in our daily lives, here in the real world, where it can often feel as if a metaphorical, spiritual winter is coming. Every day, we are inundated with stories of people fighting battles with disease, articles shared about corporate greed’s continuous injustices, the complex issues impacting the Global South, sexual assault victims regarded with skepticism—and we feel gut-punched, just like the characters who watch the Dothraki lights go out. We can’t possibly—each of us individually—solve all these problems. We likely can’t solve one of them, all on our own, so enmeshed are we in the demands of modern capitalism—we spend most of our time trying to stay afloat financially ourselves, carrying on with the status quo—there’s not a lot left over in time or money at the end of the day, and so, so, so much endless need and want. I talk about this with my students in almost every course at some point, and they all agree—it leaves you feeling numb, helpless, inept, grasping with useless fingers at a solution that doesn’t seem to exist, and instead, staring hopelessly into a void of want created by evil and greed so much bigger than your reach.

As Clegane says, “we’re fighting death. We can’t beat death.” Agreed. As the slow piano music takes over in the last 10 or so minute of the episode, the juxtaposition of the sweet-sad sounds with the still-continuing, endless fight create a feeling of acceptance. We can’t beat death. We will all die. We can only choose how to live. Slowly, we see each character in these few moments, rallying their strength and fighting the good fight. But here’s what’s important: they are only capable of doing this because they have accepted that death is inevitable. When easy success (so easy to wish for in our Insta-Age) seemed possible, it was easy to flag, quickly tire, and give up. Out of the depths of that despair, though, after “fighting with death” and simply accepting it—the characters choose to live their truths and enact their moral values. Their actions give us a recipe for success in an age of demoralization. We can’t build our hope on instant results. We can only live out the ethics we know are best for our global neighborhood and our planet. If we do this, we are rejuvenated and convicted by our own beliefs, and we can engage sustainable political and environmental action without getting burned out by the endless corruption that seems to hem in our efforts. Then, maybe, just maybe, we’ll get to stick around and see that final stroke of justice before the end credits.