As we endure the long wait for Game of Thrones’ winter to return on April 14, we may consider what the show has in common with our other current national obsession — politics. Even fantasy says something about real-world ethics, after all. If we have mixed feelings about the series on this score, that is due to the deep contradiction between its two primary commitments: to inclusivity and quasi-democracy, on the one hand, and to bloodline or lineage, on the other. The problem here is that the logic of blood in the show is the same logic that continues to fuel the racism that has always existed in this country, but that has become more active and visible in recent years.
Indeed, Game of Thrones engages in a kind of dog-whistle politics. On the surface, the message of the show is one of liberation and inclusivity; the audience is clearly engaged by the veritable rainbow coalition of Wildlings, Dothraki, former slaves, and houses from north and south, while the narcissistic Lannister clan is cast primarily as the enemy. And yet, just beneath this surface, buying into the plot requires accepting a politics of bloodline that undermines democratic values.
If we want to think about the ethics of human stock in Game of Thrones, incest is a good place to start. By the end of Season 7 both parties still competing for the Iron Throne are composed of pairs of close relatives who are sleeping with each other. This isn’t unfamiliar; myths and legends of incest abound. The most relevant might be the story of Camelot, an idyllic land destroyed by the son of King Arthur and his sister Morgana. But in European literature, the theme of sibling incest reached its high point in the Romantic period around 1800, just when both modern racism and modern democracy were also invented. In other words, the incest poses a question about whether the essence of a person is made or born.
Since the Lannisters, Cersei in particular, are GOT’s main villains, we might expect the brother-sister incest to make them even more disgusting to the audience. But it doesn’t play that way. Rather, in line with many Romantic-era depictions, the incest is presented sympathetically. As true love unable to express itself freely, it becomes one of the Lannisters’ few humanizing features. But what is the seductive value behind this fierce love that is held up for somewhat queasy audience approval? It is an intense loyalty to kind, to clan, to race above all ethics and all justice.
Team Targaryen and Snow would seem to be the opposite. We cheer Daenerys and Jon along on their personal missions to eliminate slavery and prejudice, and to recognize the common value of all humans. Unlike the Lannisters, they seem to see family as flexible and welcoming. In the last episode of Season 7, Jon Snow tells Theon Grayjoy, whose loyalty is torn between his birth family and the Starks who raised him, “You don’t have to choose. You are a Grayjoy and a Stark.” How multiculti! Moreover, in Jon and Daenerys’s insistence that their followers’ loyalty must be freely bestowed, they come close to converting royal rule into a form of democracy. Sure, they cross a line by sleeping with each other, but, after all, they don’t know that they are aunt and nephew. Can’t we just see their incest as a symbol that we are all one universal family?
And yet we are wrong to give Daenerys and Jon this benefit of the doubt. The series regularly and stubbornly dismantles its rainbow demographics along with its democratic ideals. While the blood-obsessed Lannisters have no claim at all to the throne through birth, it is our heroes, the open-minded Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen, whose claim — or claims — to the throne rest on blood-line. Daenerys’ father (Jon’s grandfather) was an evil tyrant whose crimes against humanity led to his murder, but his history of wrongdoing does nothing to disrupt the legitimacy of his descendants in the series. Royal blood holds a kind of essential power in the show; it can be sniffed out, literally, by priestesses, it has magical power in rituals, and it conveys inherited super-human abilities.
Moreover, from the very beginning, the series draws a clear connection between the inheritance of these fantasy powers and real-world genetics. In the first season, Ned Stark conducts a kind of genetic research, determining the illegitimacy of Queen Cersei’s children from their hair color. This detail ties the rules of blood within the fantasy to the rules of inheritance in our everyday world. If hair color is a reasonable way to assign privilege in the show, it gives the real-world audience permission to do the same, to tie privileges like rights or citizenship to bloodline signaled by physical appearance.
In a starkly divided America, GOT tries to have it both ways, appealing both to those who crave a return to the values of a pluralistic society and to those for whom family and race and nationalism trump everything else. You can root for Daenerys Targaryen because of her anti-slavery stance or because of the legitimacy of her royal lineage. But just like our national politics, the show does not manage to bridge this gap. The superficial costume of multiculturalism and the seductive pageantry may distract us, but Game of Thrones endorses the sanctity of bloodline with deep ties to racist thinking and encourages the worst in us.
Welcome to winter.
Stefani Engelstein is professor and chair of Germanic Languages and Literature at Duke University