Winter is Coming (Again and Again and Again): The Eternal Return in Star Wars, Game of Thrones, and True Detective

I saw The Force Awakens (TFA) on Christmas eve because Star Wars is the closest I’ve come to a religious experience. I loved it. I have my various quibbles, but it is in the nature of a Star Wars fan to merrily nitpick.

The biggest complaint, so far as I can tell, is that it repeats too much of A New Hope (ANH). I think the creative team really wanted to reassure fans that this was going to be the Star Wars they know and love; that the sequels wouldn’t be cut from the same cloth as the prequels. Fans deserved to have their faith restored by a familiar feeling crowd-pleaser.

Perhaps the subsequent sequels will go in all kinds of unexpected directions, and TFA was simply meant to ground fans and establish trust. Either way, I’m excited to see where it goes.

However, I think there’s another, deeper, reason why TFA repeated so much of ANH. The dialectic of the Force is a metaphysical phenomenon: Jedi vs. Sith, Light vs. Dark, Good vs. Evil. This is the nature of the Star Wars universe (and perhaps our own). Various political entities manifest themselves throughout history, exhibiting the different spectra of the Force, but the Force remains. So the Resistance comes from the Rebellion and First Order arises from the Empire.


In philosophy we call this the eternal return. There are many different schools of thought around this concept and many philosophers have written about it. Friedrich Nietzsche, perhaps most famously, discussed the idea throughout his work. But I want to talk more about Gilles Deleuze, who was influenced by Nietzsche. I find Deleuze extremely difficult but very rewarding. So try to bear with me as I work through this because I’m not really sure I understand it myself. This post will be an essay in the original sense, from the French verb “to try.”

The most famous instance of Nietzsche’s concept of the eternal return comes as a thought experiment. He tells the reader to consider the possibility of living her life over and over again. The exercise is meant to galvanize the reader into living a more authentic life, or to love one’s fate (amor fati). Nietzsche takes it a step further, later asserting that the law of conservation of energy demands the eternal recurrence, that physical patterns will constantly be repeating themselves over the course of eternity.

Working with these principles, Deleuze builds a concept of ontology that is based on repetition and difference.

Deleuze asserts that things are constantly in a state of becoming; matter is dynamic not static. This makes a lot more sense when you think of entropy, or the arrow of time. Our bodies, for example, are always getting older, changing over time. Deleuze would say there’s no separate “meta” version of your body. Your body is thus always in a state of becoming.

Therefore, because things are always in flux, they’re always in a state of difference. Things are disparate entities, discreet from one another. Moreover, it is only when beings are repeated as something other that their disparateness is revealed.

As you can see this is a paradoxical idea. It reminds me of a great quote that’s attributed to Mark Twain: “History doesn’t repeat itself but it does rhyme.”

Someone once told me it’s a lot easier to understand Deleuze’s ideas when you apply them as opposed to trying to figure them out in and of themselves. So, let’s apply these concepts of difference and repetition and see what happens.


We can see how difference and repetition plays out in TFA.

In many ways, Rey is similar to Luke; a Jedi raised on a shitty desert planet who encounters a drone that leads her into an adventure that is eventually reveals her true identity. But in many ways they’re different. She’s a woman, she has a new dynamic with Finn, and her training will be different under Luke than his was under Yoda’s.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Kylo Ren is repeating Vader’s journey to the Dark Side. He fashions himself like Vader with the all-black-everything and spooky mask, and like his grandfather he is conflicted about which side of the Force he belongs. (I would suggest that the Skywalker gene carries a predisposition towards bipolar disorder.)

But again, he’s different. On a superficial level, unlike Vader, he wears the mask for affect not because he’s scarred. Also, we’re not sure what drove Ren to the Dark Side, but it certainly seems to a different motive than wanting to protect his mother.

If the Force is the ontological substance of the universe then it must be in a constant state of becoming. Therefore we see it repeatedly manifested in different ways.


Jon Snow tries to understand difference and repetition in puppies

Let’s move onto another series to explore the political dimension of difference and repetition: Game of Thrones.

The Targaryens are replaced by the Lannisters who are pretty much the same. Jaime and Cersei have inbred children and use the state’s resources to achieve their own personal goals and people are trampled beneath their follies and whims.

The story begins with Robert’s grip on power slipping and a long summer coming to an end. Many people thought it would be the never-ending summer, but winter is *totally* coming. Likewise, all the hope that Robert’s reign would put an end to the despotism of House Targaryen is all but dissolved.

The nature of the political system of Westeros and the power dynamics force characters into a wheel of repetitive motifs. Tyrion, for example, is always getting captured or arrested then trying to get himself out of trouble through his brainpower. Twice he undergoes trial by combat with different results.

By employing the infinite return and difference/repetition, Martin is subverting the fairy tale narrative of happy endings. It reminds me of TS Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” which revolves around the myth of renewal. What if spring doesn’t come? Or what if spring isn’t what we thought it was in the first place?

There’s this myth that a hero will come and save us or a glorious revolution will solve all our problems, but then we just keep ramming our heads into the same old problems, again and again.


Close, McConaughey.

Nietzsche’s concept of the infinite return is expressly referenced in the first season of True Detective. (I haven’t seen the second season yet so I don’t know if they come back to the concept again.)

When Cohle and Marty get Leddoux and Dewall, Leddoux tells Cohle that this is all going to happen again, “time is a flat circle.” This becomes a sort of mantra for Cohle, often repeating it.

Nietzsche cautions against overly simplistic interpretations of the eternal return. That’s why I find Deleuze’s concept of difference/repetition so useful. Accordingly, the events of True Detective repeat, but in a different way, forming a kind of diptych.

Although Cohle and Marty think they’ve solved the case of the murdered women and kidnapped children, Cohle soon learns that the case is much bigger than they imagined and that the real killer is still out there. As the plot continues, Cohle becomes further unhinged. He cannot stop replaying the events of not only the raid but also of his daughter’s death.

They eventually find the real killer and kill him. However, Cohle again despairs because they didn’t get all the conspirators. Marty reassures him that they did as good as can be expected. Cohle looks up to the stars and remarks on all the darkness, but Marty takes a more optimistic perspective and looks at the stars, observing that the light is winning.


I think if you strip away all the highfalutin jargon and dramatic plot lines, it rings true to our personal experience. We often find ourselves struggling with the paradox of difference/repetition in our daily lives. In order to achieve that state of amor fati Nietzsche talks about, you have to own all the circumstances in your life and turn them into something positive.

Rey, Tyrion, and Cohle all find themselves repeating seemingly deterministic patterns.What makes them heroic is that they find the possibility to achieve something new and worthwhile within their circumstances.

After all, if things are constantly in a state of becoming, then you have an infinite potential to achieve something different.



~ by braddunne on December 30, 2015.

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