There’s a great scene in Tomorrowland where a character suggests we’re placating fears about our impending doom by channeling them into easily consumable apocalyptic entertainment. At first glance, that description seems to fit both Game Of Thrones and The Walking Dead, two bloody, brutal, incredibly popular shows prone to killing off beloved characters in horrific ways (and sometimes bringing them back from the dead). But despite their similarities—which also include frequent zombie attacks—I argue they use their violent worlds to very different ends: Game Of Thrones is a deeply cynical portrait of medieval society while The Walking Dead is a surprisingly optimistic vision of the apocalypse.
Of course, an optimistic show isn’t inherently better than a cynical one or vice versa. In fact, Game Of Thrones is objectively the better written, better acted series and its cynicism is a crucial part of its success. But the two shows’ tonal differences explain why I have such a hard time connecting to Game Of Thrones even though I love The Walking Dead. I’ve always been the kind of person who prefers Star Trek’s optimism to Battlestar Galactica’s pessimism, and the same sort of dichotomy is happening here too, even if it’s harder to spot.
In fact, it probably sounds slightly insane to call The Walking Dead optimistic, given that there’s an element of “tune in to see who dies” baked into its premise. And on paper it might even seem like the more cynical of the two shows since it’s set during a literal apocalypse while Game Of Thrones takes place in a civilized word. But it’s precisely those settings that give the shows their drastically different ideologies: It’s a given that a zombie apocalypse would be bad. It’s jarring to suggest a society could be worse.
The basic idea of John Locke’s social contract is that societies exist because people choose to exchange personal freedom for protection. But despite living in a “civilized” world, the characters on Game Of Thrones have neither freedom nor protection. The show asserts that social stability is, to some extent, a lie. The country’s leaders—even the “good” ones like Ned and Robb—are often too caught up in personal politics to actually rule. Daenerys is the only leader who regularly talks about the people she’s serving, and to some extent she’s created as much chaos as stability for them. And the show regularly subverts fantasy tropes by killing off traditionally heroic figures—most famously Ned Stark—and letting ruthless characters flourish, which makes for both good drama and a decidedly dark take on politics.
Though The Walking Dead occasionally tries to paint its heroes in similar shades of gray—particularly when it pushes Rick to dark places—there’s not actually much nuance to its good vs. bad dichotomy. (The bad guys are the one who run a cannibal village.) Much like the Fast And Furious franchise, the show’s most frequently articulated theme is “family” and everyone’s basic goal is to protect the people they love, with Rick and Carl’s father/son relationship as the show’s ostensible heart. That makes The Walking Dead a far more simplistic show (there are no characters as morally complex as Cersei Lannister, for instance), but also a more hopeful one.
In writing Game Of Thrones, George R.R. Martin’s goal was to insert the harsh realities of medieval history into the black-and-white world of high fantasy. But while the high levels of violence have led some to praise Game Of Thrones for its “gritty realism,” I argue Martin’s world has swung in the opposite direction. He hasn’t written a “realistic” fantasy world so much as an extremely pessimistic one.
The series basically takes every bad thing that happened in medieval history and crams it into the timespan of a few years, creating an improbably high level of non-stop carnage (so far we’ve seen 14 Westerosi rulers/potential rulers murdered onscreen). So while, yes, there were real-life rulers as sadistic as Joffrey Baratheon and Ramsay Bolton, I doubt they lived at the same time, only miles away from each other. That Sansa would wind up being tortured by both of them isn’t realistic, it’s deeply cynical.
Of course, The Walking Dead makes a similarly cynical assumption that the most violent human beings—like those in the Wolves and the Saviors—would flourish during a zombie apocalypse. (As with Game Of Thrones, how much this reads as “realism” just depends on your point of view.) But it also lets its good guys work together rather than isolating them from one another. Though Rick’s been known to go a little crazy at times, his fellow survivors have proved far more effective at providing checks and balances than any Westerosi small council. And the show has frequently (and sometimes tediously) depicted large groups of people trying to earnestly talk through moral dilemmas.
Martin’s conception of political power, meanwhile, is much more individualistic. Virtually every decision is made by three or four people in a private room and usually boils down to the person with the highest title doing what they want. Again, whether that’s cynical or realistic depends on what you think about politics. But it’s worth pointing out that real-life British monarchs have been dealing with some version of Parliament since 1215.
In addition to leadership, The Walking Dead is equally interested in the question of how you have a personal life during the zombie apocalypse, which has led to a whole bunch of charming relationships over the years. The series is better at creating tone and ambiance than actually writing compelling characters, but it at least has fun pairing them up in different combinations, like the Carol/Daryl friendship, the Maggie/Glenn love story, or even the Glenn/Dale friendship way back in the first two seasons. And the show allows for moments of happiness and humanity that are few and far between on Game Of Thrones—from Michonne and Carl bonding to Rick and Daryl’s redneck road trip to Michonne and Rick’s long-awaited hook-up to that heartwarming season five reunion:
Though the show probably isn’t nuanced enough to withstand the comparison, there are parallels to be drawn between The Walking Dead’s desolate world and horrific real-life events like genocides or refugee crises. Viewed through that prism, the show’s assertion that loving bonds can not only survive, but actively flourish in the darkest of times is radically optimistic. There’s an element of Lucy pulling the football from Charlie Brown in how frequently the show throws the characters into danger. But the idea that the show’s survivors keep fighting for one another no matter how many setbacks they face is a lovely testament to human resilience. The apocalypse didn’t break them; it made them a family. Vin Diesel would be proud.
Game Of Thrones, meanwhile, is more interested in ripping families apart than building them up. The show isn’t so much an ensemble series as a bunch of single-protagonist stories spliced together (Dany in Essos, Jon at the Wall, Arya in Braavos, etc.), which means there are fewer relationships to invest in. Given the complicated political landscape and their various positions in it, the characters just don’t have the luxury of focusing on personal happiness. That’s a lesson Robb Stark learned the hard way.
There are other little details that separate the two series as well: Game Of Thrones has never met a child it couldn’t enthusiastically murder, while The Walking Dead has managed to keep a baby alive for three-and-a-half seasons (although to be fair, it’s killed its fair share of children too). And while George R.R. Martin and the Game Of Thrones writers maintain that regularly depicting rape is a necessary for the show’s realism, The Walking Dead images an apocalypse almost entirely free of sexual assault. If that’s not optimistic, I don’t know what is.
Interestingly, however, the two shows have been experiencing something of a role reversal recently. Game Of Thrones doesn’t generally trade in happy meetings, which only made the Jon/Sansa reunion even more touching (even if the two had never actually spoken onscreen before). And there’s a general sense this season that the characters we’re rooting for are finally starting to take control. In fact, the show feels more upbeat than it has at any point since Ned’s execution, which is a refreshing change of pace.
The Walking Dead, meanwhile, has shifted in the opposite direction. The group’s preemptive strike against the Saviors was their most morally questionable action to date. And the fact that Glenn’s first ever non-zombie murder took place as he stabbed a sleeping man in the head is perhaps the ultimate image of the show losing its innocence. And on a meta level, both the Glenn death fake-out and the “who will Negan kill” cliffhanger felt like cheap grabs at attention by AMC.
But on the whole, at least for now, The Walking Dead remains the far more optimistic series. In Game Of Thrones’ first season, Cersei sums up her world by explaining, “When you play the game of thrones you win or you die.” The Walking Dead, meanwhile, is best characterized by Rick’s recent assertion, “We got here together, and we’re still here.”
If we’re doomed to channel our apocalyptic fears over and over again, at least we’ve got two very different visions of the apocalypse to choose from.