By John Erath
*This post contains spoilers for the end of the Game of Thrones series as well as for the first episode of the prequel, House of the Dragon.*
Like much of the world, I spent many Sunday nights during the 2010s watching HBO’s Game of Thrones. Initially, I was intrigued by the politics and the frequent references to Shakespeare’s history plays, not to mention the occasional shocking death. As the series went on, I started to see it more as a commentary on the dangers of weapons of mass destruction, an unsurprising development given my profession.
In the show, one family had been able to seize and later regain power based on their willingness to use WMDs (in the GoT context, dragons) against civilian targets. For me, this made the Targaryen family the ultimate villains, and the series as a whole an extended metaphor on the risks of relying on nuclear weapons to create an illusion of political legitimacy. Like many viewers, I thought the final season was sloppy and not up to previous standards, but I derived some satisfaction that a character willing to target her enemies with the equivalent of a nuclear weapon did not, in the end, triumph.
It is now 2022 and HBO has a GoT prequel series, House of the Dragon. At the end of the first episode, it was revealed that there was more than a desire for domination and lust for power that motivated the Targaryen dynasty’s founder Aegon the Conqueror. Aegon, it seems, had a premonition about some of the events depicted in GoT’s final season and believed that his family and their dragons would someday be necessary to save the world from an existential threat, as depicted in the original series.
I must admit, this revelation — that WMD were a necessary evil in the world of the show — shook me a bit. I was comfortable with the prior series’ seeming message on the dangers of nuclear weapons. Was author George R.R. Martin flipping the narrative and embracing his metaphorical nuclear weapons? Are we to draw the conclusion that the producers believe nuclear weapons can preserve mankind? Looking for answers, I turned to the internet.
CNN (our unaffiliated office neighbors) provided some useful information. The series depicts a land “about to enter a very nasty, fiery war of succession.” This implies that multiple sides will use WMD, with devastating consequences. Although I should probably be sympathetic to the fictional victims, this will likely make for good television, while showing the folly of such a war. The cautionary message about relying too much on nuclear weapons for security will likely be supplemented by an equally important message for our times. In the opening episode, a narrator said “…the only thing that could tear down the House of the Dragon was itself.” In an age of divisive politics, this may be the key point. How much security can nuclear weapons provide when we are willing to tear ourselves apart?