Game of Thrones spoils its own ending in the first season.
“The common people pray for rain, health, and a summer that never ends,” Ser Jorah Mormont tells a young Daenerys Targaryen in the show’s eighth episode. “They don’t care what games the high lords play.”
With the White Walkers dramatically defeated at the Battle of Winterfell, the high lords’ games once more dominate the show’s final episodes. But as fans fervently speculate as to which ruler will ultimately sit on the Iron Throne, they miss one of the show’s key messages: it’s never mattered who wins the game of thrones. For the ordinary people of Westeros — who have faced war, displacement, and winter for much of the show’s run — have already lost.
Modelled after medieval European society, Westeros is a continent dominated by peasant farmers. Of course, you wouldn’t know that unless you carefully look at some background shots. For while peasants are everywhere in Game of Thrones, they are nearly invisible.
The few times they get screen time, it’s to serve the main, noble-born characters — often literally so, as house servants and sex workers. On the handful of occasions, they rise to feature characters in their own right, it’s mainly as a foil to some aristocrat. Perhaps no greater metaphor is needed than Hodor, the servant whose body is magically possessed by his master, inadvertently leaving him developmentally disabled.
Even the most prominent arcs for ordinary folks are subsumed into narratives of the rich and powerful. While the monastic High Sparrow — who features prominently in a two-season story arc — comes from humble origins and claims to represent the interests of the peasant class, his real ambitions are self-serving. When he rises to the most powerful figure in the capital, he subjects nobles and commoners alike to ruthlessly enforced religious edict. This is not Liberation theology.
And while we get a brief glimpse of the republican Free Folk north of the Wall during Jon Snow’s sojourn with them, the (monarchist) White Walkers make quick work of wrecking their society. As they cross south for refuge, the Free Folk fade into the background of a story dominated by kings and queens.
But while the “smallfolk” — as they are known in the world of Game of Thrones — appear mostly in the background, they are in fact the beating heart of the show. Indeed, on looking closer, we can see them as our real protagonists. It is the laboring class, after all, who makes possible the agricultural and mineral wealth of families like the Lannisters and the Tyrells. And at the same time, the core narrative of the show — war — shapes the peasants most of all. In total war, it is not the lords and ladies who see the worst horrors, but the peasants whose fields are burned and homes destroyed.
In fact, a major plot point in season two is the refugee crisis at the capital of King’s Landing, as displaced peasants strain an already limited food supply.
But long-suffering as they are, the creators of Game of Thrones do not deprive ordinary people of a way out of the eternal, titular conflict.
Hints of this are scattered through the show. In season one, King Robert Baratheon explains his fear of an invading Viserys Targaryen and his army of Dothraki. While the nobility are safely holed up in their castles, avoiding a losing battle on the open field, the invading army will go from town to town, “looting and burning, killing every man who can’t hide behind a stone wall, stealing all our crops and livestock, enslaving all our women and children.” In such conditions, he asks, “How long do the people of the Seven Kingdoms stand behind their absentee king, their cowardly king hiding behind high walls?”
And it’s not just Robert. From Danaerys to Stannis to Margaery, a slew of kings and queens remind the audience that if pushed too far, the peasantry may turn on their rulers. The thrones may lose at their own game, the show whispers to us. At the end of this tale of seemingly endless woe, there may be hope.
This message resonates far beyond the fictional world of Westeros. After all, George R.R. Martin has made no secret of his contempt for the pointless destruction of warmongering elites, having been a conscious objector to the Vietnam War himself. The books drive home this point even more strongly than the show: in one volume a peasant woman stops the royal party in the streets of Kings Landing, holding her baby who died of malnutrition. She drops the corpse at Cersei’s feet, laying blame on the Queen for a war that starved her child.
But it is Game of Thrones co-creator David Benioff may have put it best, in an interview with TIME in 2017:
The thing that drew us to George’s books and makes them so relevant whether the time they were written or now is that it’s about people, and power, and the pursuit of power, and how that affects those without power.
In a world in which we constantly look to seats of power — whether the Iron Throne in our fantasies or the White House in our own lives — as the loci for mass social change, Game of Thrones reminds us that change from above has its limits. True power comes directly from the people. And the many always retain the capacity to overthrow the few.
One of the best lines in Game of Thrones comes from Varys, the slave-turned-spymaster of the royal court. In the first season, he is asked by a suspicious Ned Stark who he really serves. “The realm, my lord,” Varys replies. “Someone must.”
As we watch these final episodes, we should keep Varys’s words in mind. To serve the realm — to serve any country — one must serve the ordinary people above all. The future belongs not to the thrones, but to us.
Aaron Freedman is a writer based in Brooklyn, NY. Follow him on Twitter at @freedaaron.
Featured image credit: Wikimedia