Obligatory warning: Here be mild spoilers for Game of Thrones season 6, episode 8.
There couldn’t be a stranger place to start a story about Game of Thrones than by talking about a Joni Mitchell song.But given that this is also a story about procrastination, it seems entirely appropriate.
My favorite of Joni’s hits is “California.” Not just because she serenades the state where I live, but because its bright melody barely hides its ambiguity. Right after listing all the reasons she wants to go home to California, she sings: “So I bought me a ticket, I caught a plane to … Spain.”
Anyone who has bummed around the world and a girl who went to Braavos and back when she had a To Do list to check off in Westeros the whole time can relate.
Most of the time, we’re not as lost as we think. We know what needs to be done. We know exactly where our heart is calling us.But first we take a quick side trip to somewhere else, because reasons!Then we find ourselves stuck for a week, maybe two, maybe a year.
Game of Thrones is all about that, and it’s not just that the plot tends to lead characters around in circles (looking at you, Arya, and you, the Hound). It is, essentially, a fantasy about the mother of all procrastination techniques.
Previously, we’ve explored how Game of Thrones could be a metaphor for climate change. That’s certainly part of what I’m saying climate change being the biggest problem that the planet as a whole is procrastinating on fixing right now.
But the show’s plot offers a more universal metaphor. Not just for the failure of collective action and the tragedy of the commons or for businesses who focus on their next quarter goals instead of long-term growth.
It’s a metaphor for how we individually fail to get stuff done in our own projects, our own lives. We focus on the bright-hot urgency of our emotional needs, and that makes us ignore the cool intellectual importance of our long-term goals.
In short, we place our “Want To Do” list above our “Must Do” list.
Look at it this way: Ever since Season 1, the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros have had a pretty short “Must Do” list. Here it is, in order of importance:
Stop once-in-a-thousand-years horde of White Walkers from coming south and laying waste to everyone.
Store food and supplies for a likely 10-year long winter that is about to lay waste to everything.
Decide what to do about a homicidal dragon-owning Targaryen who wants to invade and lay waste to everyone.
Admittedly, problem #1 took a while to filter up to the decision-makers on the Small Council, as did the dragon-owning aspect of problem #3. But it didn’t take long before everyone in the Seven Kingdoms knew everything they needed to know to take action against these main threats.
Yes, it’s a world where ravens represent the height of communication technology, but that needn’t stop any attempt at collective action. Sansa, Jon and Ser Davos can scrape up support against the Boltons in Winterfell simply by going door to door across the North, it seems.
And despite what you might think, there is no lack of political will to solve the three major problems. Tywin Lannister’s response to the first report on the White Walkers was to be skeptical, but also to send reinforcements to the Wall. Varys was arranging assassination attempts against Daenerys since before she had dragons. And plans were supposed to be underway to store grain against winter.
So what got in the way? The daily headlines, basically. Outrage over current events not only obscured long-term goals, but gave every power player a skewed vision of what is urgent; of what they must do to not lose face.The need for “strong” responses to short-term offenses, the search for proper punishment, became Westeros’ greatest enemy.
The need for strongresponses to short-term offenses, forproper punishment, became Westeros’ greatest enemy.
Catelyn Stark suspects that Tyrion Lannister tried to murder her son and kidnaps him, upsetting the delicate power balance in King’s Landing. Joffrey beheads Ned Stark, so Robb Stark drags the entire north into war. The Baratheon brothers can’t decide who should take on Joffrey, so shades of Clinton v. Sanders they enter a murderous round of war with each other first.
Even lesser goals fell victim to procrastination. If Robb Stark hadn’t been distracted by the “look, shiny!” of a battlefield nurse, the Red Wedding would never have happened. And if the Red Viper had focused on killing the Mountain, rather than obstinately dragging a confession out of him, he too would be in the show today.
Even those people who have been on the front lines of problem #1 aren’t immune to distraction. Sam Tarly, the most book-smart person on the show, was supposed to be going to Oldtown to raise the alarm about White Walkers, and become a Maester as fast as possible. But he couldn’t resist taking his girlfriend Gilly back home to meet the family first. (At least he got a Valyrian steel sword out of the deal.)
Or take former Lord Commander Jon Snow, who is more aware than anyone save Bran Stark that the White Walkers are a clear and present danger to all life on the continent. He quite literally died for that belief.
So when he is resurrected, what does he do? Organize lines of defense for a zombie invasion that could happen at any minute? Send raven after frantic raven to King’s Landing?
Nope. He mopes about a bit and swans off south to Winterfell with a miserably small army, somehow convinced by Sansa’s need for revenge. He tells himself that the likely casualties, every one of them another soul who can’t kill a White Walker, is worth it if he can just get those damn Boltons off his back. He has swapped long-term strategy for short-term hot-headedness.
The Battle of the Bastards is the official title for the Winterfell clash in Sunday’s episode. Battle of the Procrastinators is more like it.
Lest anyone blame this on the showrunners running out of ideas, I refer you to the books, in which George R.R. Martin’s characters are even bigger procrastinators than the author himself. The wanderings of book Brienne, who is still theoretically looking for Sansa, make show Brienne look like a bee on meth who just read Getting Things Done.
Much of this is deliberate on Martin’s part. “One of the dynamics I started with,” he explained in a 2013 interview, “was the sense of people being so consumed by their petty struggles …that theyre blind to the much greater and more dangerous threats that are happening far away on the periphery of their kingdoms … it’s a common dynamic that takes place in history.”
Indeed, it is uncomfortably common. Martin cited Greek city states and French politicians squabbling while the threats of Philip of Macedon and Hitler, respectively, loomed. We could just as easily talk about Democrats squabbling in the age of Trump.
As a group, we are hardwired to jump to overzealous conclusions about short-term events. We’re not hardwired to remain focused on threats that are larger than human scale, threats that aren’t right in front of our faces.
Rationalization plays a big part in this. To justify procrastination on the scary big problems, we make smaller threats look like bigger deals. We talk about Zika or Ebola or other headline-news diseases far more than we talk about long-term leading killers like type-2 diabetes or heart disease. Everyone has known for years the monstrous scale of the obesity epidemic; barely one country wants to do the slightest thing about sugar water.
Millions of people will tell you that “Islamic terrorism” is one of the greatest existential threats to national security, despite the fact that terrorists including the non-Islamic home-grown kind, who do 90% of the killing are demonstrably less of a danger to our lives than bicycles or ladders.
Few of us dare even discuss the fact that climate change is a national security threat, despite multiple Pentagon reports to that effect. It’s like worrying about White Walkers when the Lannisters have you laying siege to Riverrun. Nobody else around you seems to be paying attention to the currently-invisible problem, so trying to draw attention to it is a surefire way to lose your head.
So enjoy the spectacle that is the Battle of the Bastards, HBO’s most expensive Game of Thrones episode by far. Root for Jon; cheer if or when Ramsay loses his life. Just be aware that you too are being suckered in by the shiny distraction from Westeros’ real problems. This is your own personal ticket to Spain.
Read more: <a href="http://mashable.com/2016/06/17/game-thrones-procrastination/">http://mashable.com/</a>