In the wake of the debut this past weekend of the fourth season of HBO’s Game of Thrones, some writers must be forgiven for jumping the proverbial shark while exploiting the cable network hit to make some odd policy points. The show, based on the novels of George R.R. Martin, is a fantasy set in a mythical world similar to our own Middle Ages but including dragons and zombies along with human characters. The novels are a great read and the show is riveting even though, predictably for HBO, it has a lot more sex than the books along with very graphic violence. Martin’s multi-layered plot revolves around a dynastic struggle that has been aptly compared to England’s War of the Roses, and if the author’s elegant and fully characterized prose is not quite the equal of Shakespeare’s account of that conflict in his history plays, it is still a marvelous confection. But it is also an irresistible target for pundits seeking a news hook for rehearsing old political grudges.
One such example comes from Ezra Klein’s new site Vox where Zach Beauchamp argues that one of the most beloved characters on Thrones is actually a stand-in for that liberal boogeyman George W. Bush. According to Beauchamp, Daenerys Targarean, the platinum blond bombshell that is the last remnant of a deposed dynasty as well as a magical figure known as the mother of dragons that she helped hatch in a fire that left her untouched, is a stand-in for the 43rd president. The princess isn’t just intent on regaining the throne her mad father lost. In her exile, she has taken up the anti-slavery cause and, aided by broadsword and spear wielding allies, has become the John Brown of the fantasy world. Thus, if you weren’t already won over by her hot looks and those dragons that dote on her, her anti-slavery credentials make her an unambiguous good guy in a story where even the greatest heroes and worst villains are (with perhaps only one exception) complex creations rather than cardboard cutouts.
But Beauchamp thinks there’s a hidden problem with Daenerys. In a piece that seems more serious than tongue in check, he builds a case that the princess’s foreign policy is “Bushian to a tee.” He points out that, like neoconservatives, the mother of dragons sees the world in black and white rather than in Obama-like grey terms. She tells the slave masters that they must either give up their evildoing or face the consequences and her “freedom agenda” is just like the rhetoric that got W into the business of overthrowing Saddam Hussein and trying to remake Afghanistan. But while such a mission is both complicated and more costly than a more self-interested quest for a throne, if we accept this premise, it’s worth asking whether Thrones is quite the commentary on the futility of war that its left-leaning author intended it to be.
Martin was actually a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War and a stern critic of Bush who, as Beauchamp notes, saw his literary saga as an attempt to debunk the notion of military glory. In Thrones, really bad things happen to good people all the time and even a war launched for supposedly noble purposes leads to widespread suffering and chaos that mocks the goals of those that started the violence. Indeed, as anyone who has read all five of the books (with more promised by the writer as well as at least two more seasons after this one from HBO) knows, Daenerys’s war of slave liberation leads to conflicts that are as difficult to resolve as the more cynical fighting that goes on for less principled reasons in this fantasy world.
That means, as Beauchamp writes, by the end of the story, if indeed Martin ever comes up with one, the conclusion may leave the princess feeling a bit like Bush 43 at the end of his second term.
But if that’s the worst thing you can say about the character then perhaps Bush’s rehabilitation has migrated from the realm of conservative punditry and started to infiltrate the world of popular culture. Whatever happened in Iraq or Afghanistan, President Bush and those who helped craft that “freedom agenda” that is so despised by his immediate successor stood up for the highest values of Western civilization. In seeking to draw a bright line between the forces of tyranny and terror and those of democracy, Bush held out hope for captive peoples. By casting his policy in moral terms in which the notion of freedom wasn’t limited to Anglophone democracies but to the entire planet, he articulated a vision that may well stand up better than the “lead from behind” incompetence of his successor. Perhaps history will ultimately decide that such idealism did more good than the harm that “freedom agenda” wars unleashed in both the real world and the fantasy kingdoms of Martin’s Westeros.
Much as Martin may not have intended it, Beauchamp may be right that Daenerys is something of a neoconservative. If so, her popularity may indicate that in the eyes of pop culture, George W. Bush wasn’t such a bad guy after all.