What Star Wars Can Learn From Game of Thrones

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Oh yeah, you read that right. This is happening. I’ll be getting into The Force Awakens details below, incidentally, but nothing that hasn’t been officially revealed.

A lot of the news and speculation lately has been about alignments: Kylo Ren is a big fan of Darth Vader, but he’s not a Sith. He’s part of a group called the Knights of Ren, but what are they, exactly? Are they actually Imperials in some respect, or just a cult that he went rogue from?

And then there’s the First Order—recently explained, kind of, by JJ Abrams as follows:

“That all came out of conversations about what would have happened if the Nazis all went to Argentina but then started working together again? What could be born of that? Could The First Order exist as a group that actually admired The Empire?”

Abrams seems to be talking about two different things, here—actual ex-Imperials seeking to get things moving again, and perhaps also a younger generation who “admired” the Empire but weren’t actually a part of it. Just going by ages, it seems logical that Phasma, General Hux, and presumably even Kylo represent the latter, because they would have been toddlers when Palpatine died—if that. Maybe they’re acting completely of their own volition, but if so, who are the retired Nazis in this analogy?

Meanwhile, there’s the interesting dichotomy between the New Republic that we now know existed in the immediate aftermath of Endor, but seems to play no role in the plot of TFA, and the “Resistance”, on whose behalf the heroes are actually fighting. One idea I kind of like is that the action of TFA is a proxy war somewhat analogous to the X-Wing novel The Bacta War; in other words, the “mainstream” Empire and New Republic are busy stabilizing themselves are don’t have the willpower for renewed conflict, so instead smaller, more radical groups are taking matters into their own hands.

Add to that the likelihood that one of the first things we’re going to see in the movie is a defecting stormtrooper (who later ends up using a lightsaber), and the political status of the sequel trilogy is starting to feel like, in Facebook terms, “It’s Complicated”.

Which brings me to Game of Thrones. What could a galaxy-sprawling, all-ages space opera possibly learn from a gory, controversial death march like GoT? For a long time I would’ve said nothing, but now I’ve hit on one crucial thing—indeed, the main thing that keeps me watching it:

Alignments are overrated

First off: I’m not going to try explaining GoT from the ground up right now, so my apologies to anyone who doesn’t know who these characters are. At the end of GoT’s most recent season (spoilers, I guess) Stannis Baratheon is apparently killed by Captain Phas—ah, I mean Brienne of Tarth. This came shortly after his willing execution of his cutey-pie daughter whose name I forget for dumb spiritual reasons that aren’t important, so suffice it to say that I was happy to see him go. Others on Twitter, though, were outraged about the whole thing—not just his death, but the fact that the murder of his daughter (which stannishasn’t happened in the books—yet) had ruined what had been until then one of some fans’ rooting interests in the show.

For me, though, I never liked him at all. He was a fun character to have in the mix—basically the George W. Bush of Westeros—but I certainly never wanted him to win in the end. No, for me there are basically only two characters remaining worth rooting for: Tyrion and Daenerys (and okay, by Daenerys I mostly mean Missandei). I’ve been waiting for five years for them to join forces, so when they finally did so in the last few episodes it wasn’t a moment too soon.

This, though, is what GoT does best: no one in its universe is completely good or completely bad. Well, maybe one or two people, but thematically speaking, there’s no clear protagonist of the story in the way that Star Wars has Luke: I’m hardly alone in rooting for Tyrion and Dany, but there are plenty of people who feel the same way about Jon or Arya or Sansa, or once felt that way about Stannis or Robb.

There are lots of people to root for, really (except for Bran. I don’t think anyone gives a shit about Bran). You can’t do a show this bloody without a wealth of potential rooting interests, and for all the think pieces that have been written over its various high-profile deaths, people are clearly still finding reasons to stay invested, and I’m sure not all of them like Dany. What’s certain, though, is that we’re rooting for characters, not factions—I’m not Team Lannister, after all, I’m Team Tyrion (definitely not Team Lannister).

I think this is something Star Wars could stand more of. As black and white as the first six films are on a superficial level, people overlook how grey the moral of the story actually is: we all have both good and bad in us. The Empire, thinly-veiled Nazi analogues though they may be, isn’t made up of orcs or demons, it’s made up of regular people who were convinced by the established government that it was the right thing to do. The prequels had more of an opportunity to address this complexity than the OT did, but aside from that one bit in Revenge of the Sith‘s opening crawl—“there are heroes on both sides”—I believe it dropped this ball pretty hard, and even The Clone Wars was hit-or-miss in its efforts to present sympathetic Separatists; though at least it tried.

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TFA, though, is looking to be downright postmodern in its use of the Empire. The antagonists’ one unifying factor seems to be a reverence, mistaken or otherwise, for what it represented. It’s easy to see how Finn, born years after the death of Palpatine, could have grown up in a chaotic galaxy and been tempted to bring civilization back through the stability of the First Order—only later learning of the brutal realities that caused people to overthrow the Empire in the first place.

That the trilogy begins with a defection is, I hope, a sign that this era will prioritize characters over alignments. Right now I can’t imagine what Phasma’s history is or what she hopes to achieve, but I’d love for the film itself to answer those questions—which is hardly a guarantee in this franchise. If Supreme Leader Snoke ends up being the trilogy’s Palpatine figure, I’d love to see a story where even the First Order eventually awakens (see what I did there?) to his bullshit, and for Episode IX to feature rebels, stormtroopers and Jedi fighting side-by-side and rejecting the lures of the dark side as a society—Luke throwing away his lightsaber on a macro level.

Or, hell, maybe Snoke himself ends up being a good guy. We really have no idea what the “awakening” he refers to is, or what that might mean for people who are highly Force-sensitive. Point being, if the ST is to earn its place as the next chapter of Star Wars, it has to actually progress the message as well as the story. So if the message is “we all have good and bad within us”, I want to see that in everybody now; from Luke to Kylo to the lowliest stormtrooper.

9 comments

  1. “I believe it dropped this ball pretty hard, and even The Clone Wars was hit-or-miss in its efforts to present sympathetic Separatists; though at least it tried.”

    You do realise that the Rebels of Episodes IV, V and VI ARE basicaly what the Separatists were in II and III (except their greedy corrupted leaders), right?

    You know, Episodes I, II and III and Episodes IV, V and VI being a one single story and all that.

    • Mike Cooper Mike Cooper says:

      I think that’s the case in an abstract sense (and I’d love to see the ST deal with that) but what I recognize intellectually isn’t the criticism—what the films actually show is. And the PT didn’t show any Separatists but their greedy corrupted leaders and the battle droids. Like I said, TCW did better, but it was too little, too late for me. Reasonable people can differ.

    • John says:

      There is some interesting continuity – I was always amused that the Mon Cals were Separatists and then Rebels.

      In terms of their political goals and ideology, though, the Alliance and the Separatists are pretty much the exact opposite. There’s the fact that the entire Separatist Alliance was little more than a Sith ploy, but even accepting the Separatists’ goals at face value, they are very different. Both the Alliance and the Separatists are fighting against what they believe to be a corrupt central galactic government. However, their solutions to the problem of government corruption is very different. The Separatists (as their name suggests) want to *leave* the Republic and establish their own (presumably superior) galactic civilization. The Alliance wants to destroy the existing central government and replace it with a new, just Republic. Ideologically, the Separatists have given up on the idea of an indivisible galactic Republic, whereas the Alliance holds the Republic as its guiding ideal.

      So, other than “they are fighting against the central government,” they don’t really have that much in common.

      • Mike Cooper Mike Cooper says:

        I think what the average citizen on a sep world actually wanted was just a more fair and representative government—which is the same thing the Alliance was fighting for. The difference was that actual Sep movement only existed to further Palpatine’s aims—he took advantage of the real complaints to stir up trouble. Once the Clone Wars were over and the Republic became even worse, those people eventually teamed up with disaffected loyalists to become the Alliance. The fact that the Alliance leadership consisted primarily of former Republic senators is A) kind of hilarious, but B) largely the result of a lack of PT info, I think—so I hope that going forward there’ll be a deliberate effort to show that all those millions of everyday Seps didn’t just vanish after the Clone Wars.

      • John says:

        I still think there is a major difference between the Alliance and the Separatists in terms of the motivating political ideology as it pertains to the idea of a Galactic Republic as an organizing principle for galactic civilization. “Fair and representative government” is too generic a goal to actually tell us much about the content of either movement – even the Empire or the Hutts could claim to be for “fairness.” What matters in comparing the Alliance and the Separatists is not the goal of fairness, but the more specific prescription of how fairness is to be achieved.

        Both the Separatists and the Alliance might stand for “fairness” in a generic sense, but their prescriptions for how to achieve fairness are radically different. The core precept of Separatism is that fairness is best achieved by separation (hence, the name). Per the Separatists, the late Republic was incurably corrupt, so the best hope for a fair galactic society was to leave the Republic behind, and form a Confederacy of Independent Systems. One might speculate from the emphasis on system-level independence in their official name that Separatist political ideology emphasized the corrupting evils of a large interstellar bureaucracy, and called for restoring greater system-by-system autonomy in interstellar governance. Perhaps this drive for fairness-by-autonomy was embraced by the large interstellar corporations (Trade Federation, Banking Clan, Techno-Union) because it would decrease bureaucratic oversight of their activities. Regardless, what makes Separatists Separatists is not the pursuit of “fairness,” but rather the pursuit of Separation.

        The Alliance, on the other hand, is the “Alliance to Restore the Republic.” The key word there I think is actually “Restore,” and in this discussion I think it would make more sense to talk about “Separatists” versus “Restorationists” in galactic politics. Whereas Separatism sees leaving the Republic as the route to fairness, Restorationists presumably believe that the Republic itself can once again become a vehicle for fairness, if only it can be restored to a previous, more just configuration. In that way, Restorationism rests primarily on the power of an historical imagining of a previous version of the Republic which was able to achieve fairness. Like most political uses of history, Restorationism’s understanding of the past might be pretty seriously flawed, but its emotive and political appeal lies in the promise of being able to get things back to the way that they were in the good old days. Insofar as we see it in the movies, the Restorationism that motivates the Alliance to Restore the Republic has its roots not in the Separatism of the CIS but rather in the loyalist opposition to the expansion of Chancellor Palpatine’s powers during the Clone Wars. Yet during the Clone Wars, Restorationists actually saw Separatism as a greater threat to their vision of a renewed all-encompassing Republic than Palpatine’s militarism. Both in terms of content (Separatism versus Restorationism) and in terms of origin (CIS versus loyal opposition), the Separatists and the Alliance are very different groups.

        As a sidebar, there are similar separation versus restoration debates throughout history. The one that comes most immediately to mind is that of the early Church of England (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Puritans#Puritans_and_Separatists). Both Puritans and Dissenters (or Separatists, as they were also called) sought to achieve a more holy and just society, but they were very different groups, because they had radically different understandings of how best to reach their goal. Even when they pursued similar policies (i.e., sailing across the Atlantic to found new colonies in the Massachusetts Bay area), they did so for very different reasons. The original Dissenters at Plymouth hoped to leave England behind and build their own little world, free of the corrupting influence of the old church. The Puritans, on the other hand, founded their colonies at Salem and Boston to construct perfect Christian communities that would then serve as a base for returning and purifying the Church of England. Both sought holiness and justice; both headed to Massachusetts; yet each embraced a very different worldview from the other. I see a similar division existing between the Separatists and the Alliance in the GFFA.

        All of that said, I agree that at some point along the line the two streams probably intersected. The tension between Separatism and Restorationism peeked through occasionally even in the earlier Legends stories – think, for example, of the division between Mon Mothma (Restorationist par excellence) and Garm Bel Iblis (the original pre-Prequels Separatist). Indeed, if we were to write a political history of the Alliance to Restore the Republic, the primary narrative would probably be about the successes of Restorationist leaders like Mon Mothma and Bail Organa in converting former Separatists to their cause. The basis for this conversion would be (as you say) that the “good” Separatists only wanted fairness and representation, and become convinced that Restoration is a better way to accomplish this than Separatism. Alternatively, perhaps there were Alliance supporters who remained staunch Separatists, and saw their connection to the Restorationist Alliance as a tactical move to improve their chances of achieving separate independence. I think that winning over former Separatists to the cause of Restoration would be excellent story material, perhaps for “Rebels.”

        However, the fact that some Separtists were won over to the cause of Restoration does not mean that the two causes are the same, or that they somehow stand for the same things. Both may seek “fairness” in some abstract sense, but the differences between them are very real.

  2. Bria says:

    I’m sorry– I’m too busy giggling at your casual GoT commentary to really have anything constructive to add here… except EXCUSE YOU DO NOT BADMOUTH THE HOUSE OF LANNISTER.

  3. John says:

    I’m all for complex character motivations and dramatic character development (when they actually serve a well-plotted story), but I’d be very unhappy if the new Star Wars movies adopted GoT’s level of relativism and cynicism. Never watched the show, but the GoT novels get pretty repetitive in their “And then this guy was a jerk. And then this guy was a jerk. And then this guy was a jerk. And then all three of them got murdered at a wedding.” The first novel or two worked fairly well as a sort of dark twist on a lot of traditional heroic fantasy, but after five novels I’m afraid GoT has lost the plot. If the Sequels gets bogged down in questions like, “Are the First Order really the good guys?” then I will probably take a nap. I don’t want to see a dark satire of the tropes that made the original Star Wars movies great; I want to see more Star Wars.

    Not that you can’t have characters who really believe in the First Order. Not that you can’t have the protagonists experience moments of doubt. Not that every member of the First Order needs to be a bald, mustache-twirling cyborg monster. Solid antagonist motivations, challenges to the protagonist’s viewpoint, and unexpected plot twists are all hallmarks of good storytelling. But if in the end audience can’t tell the good guys and bad guys apart, then I think the Sequels will have strayed out of the mythic realm in which I believe Star Wars movies are supposed to exist.

    As far as I’m concerned, they should save the antagonist apologetics for the novels and Sourcebooks.

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