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Three Cheers for Game of Thrones

books and culture

Three Cheers for Game of Thrones

The just-concluded HBO series was a cultural phenomenon because its themes are timeless and universal. May 22, 2019
Arts and Culture

HBO’s just-concluded Game of Thrones, based on George R. R. Martin’s epic high-fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire, tells the story of a medieval realm, the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, that is torn apart after the political center no longer holds. With the monarchical line of succession in doubt, and the crowning of a young tyrant, war erupts to decide who should sit on the Iron Throne, a frightful chair of black swords, fused together by fire. Meanwhile, an army of ice zombies called White Walkers amasses in the frozen north, threatening to add the entire human race to its legion of the dead and render all political struggles irrelevant.

Game of Thrones was the most popular TV show in the world in 2018, though not a single episode aired. The shocking and controversial final season took twice as long as the previous seven to finish, and if suspense could really kill, millions of people would be dead. Fans of the hit show couldn’t even visit the library to learn how it ends because the last two books haven’t been published yet.

Science fiction and fantasy are not the most popular American genres. In Hollywood, comedy and adventure sell the most box-office tickets. In publishing, crime fiction and romance tower over all others. Yet a clear majority of the most popular movies ever made belong to science fiction or fantasy, with the various Star Wars, Harry Potter, and Lord of the Rings films bigfooting the competition. And now, on television, we have the nearly 80-hours long Game of Thrones bigfooting everything else. There are reasons for that, aside from a relentlessly binge-watchable story.

Literary snobs may have a hard time accepting this, but popular genre fiction has social value. At its best, it is more than mere escapist entertainment, though escapism is where its power lies. The late, great science-fiction author Harlan Ellison saw this early in his career. In the introduction to the famous short story collection Dangerous Visions that he edited in 1967, he writes about a Christian minister he met in Alabama during the civil-rights era who believed that he had found a way to ameliorate resistance to racial integration among some local white teenagers. “He is encouraging them to read science-fiction,” Ellison writes, “in the hope that they may learn, first, to worry about green-skinned Martians instead of black-skinned Americans and, second, that all men are brothers, at least in the face of a very large universe which is likely to contain creatures who are not men at all.”

Photo: horslips5/Flickr

With The Lord of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien all but invented the modern high-fantasy genre, spawning thousands of knockoff novels where kings, knights, wizards, dwarves, dragons, and other mythical creatures wage battles of good against evil. Tolkien wrote much of his three-volume epic during World War II, and it shows. While he insisted that the conflict between the people of Middle Earth and the Dark Lord of Mordor wasn’t an allegory—that his Orcs were not Nazis, and that the Ring of Power didn’t represent atomic weapons or anything else—he had these things on his mind while he wrote it. How could he not? Like all works of fiction, The Lord of the Rings is a product of its time. So is Game of Thrones.

Unlike so much of high fantasy, though, Game of Thrones isn’t a knockoff of Lord of the Rings. While Lord of the Rings centers on Frodo’s journey to Mordor to destroy the Ring of Power, Game of Thrones is a story of political intrigue and war. It’s darker, grittier, and—ice zombies and dragons aside—a lot more realistic. It’s brooding, violent, and emphatically not for children.

And yet, despite its gritty realism, it nevertheless belongs to high fantasy. There are indeed dragons and a bit of magic, though less than the genre’s typical, lesser fare. Rather than fetishizing the fantasy elements, Martin grapples with the tough, timeless political questions without patronizing his audience or telling anyone what to think. Game of Thrones is at times shockingly un-PC, revealing human nature as it is rather than what we would like it to be.

The more you engage with history and politics, the more you’re likely to applaud Game of Thrones. The story is so expansive and richly imagined that you’ll feel you know the entire history of Westeros before the series is even half-finished. The walls feel solid, the characters fully dimensional, and the past is so vivid that it’s not even past. And its politics are far enough removed from our own that calling it “nonpartisan” misses the point. Martin’s world resembles medieval Europe, not twenty-first-century America. Its rulers live in castles, its high-born families are protected by knights, its armies fight with swords and shields, and its people are entertained by jesters and tournaments. Pretty much everybody drinks wine.

No one need even ask Martin if his story is allegorical. Clearly, it isn’t. No one stands in as a thinly disguised Donald Trump or Nancy Pelosi. Martin wrote the first book in 1996, but none of his characters is a stand-in for Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich, or any other politician of that period, either. Game of Thrones resonates with a broad modern audience—both Trump and Elizabeth Warren are reportedly fans—precisely because it is removed from our own time. Its politics are stripped down to the studs; no one need brace himself for an ideologically hostile message.

Westeros is distinctly premodern, but its people wrestle with some of the same political questions of our own time. Who gets to rule, and by what right? How should they govern once they acquire their power? What must they do to maintain it? Under what conditions are rebellions and assassinations predictable—and when can they be justifiable? Is it even possible to govern wisely and well enough to stave off calamity, which, in a world without peaceful transfers of power, means war?

Those of us in Western democracies—where power is widely distributed, where government organizational charts are not shaped like pyramids, and where constitutions severely proscribe the authority of the state—easily forget what power really is. Presidents in modern democracies wield little true power, but rulers of old did. “The king takes what he wants,” says Ned Stark, Warden of the North, Hand of the King to Robert Baratheon, and the protagonist of Game of Thrones Season One. “That’s why he’s king.”

Yet even citizens of Martin’s fictional Westeros sometimes forget what true power is. Queen Cersei Lannister reminds Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish when he warns her that he has kompromat on her and her family. “Knowledge is power,” he says—but it isn’t, and she proves it. The two are standing in a courtyard, surrounded by her personal guards. “Seize him,” she says, and they do. “Cut his throat,” she says, and they draw their swords. “Stop,” she says, and they freeze. “Oh wait, she says, “I’ve changed my mind. Let him go.” They let him go.

“Power is power,” she tells Petyr Baelish.

And yet power is somehow less than the ability to command other people if you dig even deeper, and Game of Thrones digs plenty deep. Cersei does not have magical powers. She can’t force her guards to follow her orders. They either do so voluntarily or because they think they don’t have a choice. If they banded together against her, she wouldn’t last seconds. “Power is a curious thing,” spymaster Varys says to Cersei’s younger brother Tyrion Lannister. “Power resides where men believe it resides. It’s a trick, a shadow on the wall.”

Cersei knows this, too, and needs no reminding. Potential rebels and usurpers are everywhere. Her own husband, King Robert, is himself a usurper, having seized the Iron Throne from the despotic Mad King Aerys Targaryen. And before that, her own father, Tywin Lannnister, faced a smaller rebellion in his own kingdom of Casterly Rock. “Ambitious climbers don’t want to stop on the second-highest rung,” Cersei tells the ambitious, climbing young woman who will soon be her daughter-in-law. “If only you could take that final step. You’d see further than all the rest. You’d be alone with nothing but blue sky above you.” When House Reyne rebelled against her father, his men slaughtered the entire Reyne family. “Every man, woman and child, put to the sword. I remember seeing their bodies hanging high above the gates of Casterly Rock. My father let them rot up there all summer. It was a long summer.”

She herself sends death squads into the capital to murder her husband’s bastard sons lest they lay claim to the throne and snatch power from her own children. Her brother Tyrion is shocked and appalled, but she will have none of it. “This is what ruling is,” she says angrily. “Lying on a bed of weeds, ripping them out one by one before they strangle you in your sleep.”

“I think there’s more to ruling than that,” Tyrion says. There certainly is. Ruling is governing, and those who govern badly are more likely to incite ambitious climbers to overthrow them.

Good rulers must be virtuous and competent, but that’s hardly enough. Look at Ned Stark, the lord of the northern fortress of Winterfell. He has the chance to take power during Robert’s last days, when the king lies on his deathbed. “You are now Hand of the King,” Petyr Baelish tells him, “and Protector of the Realm. All of the power is yours. You need only reach out and take it.” “What you suggest is treason,” Ned says. “Only if we lose,” replies Baelish.

Stark is an honorable man. He follows all the laws of Westeros by the book—and loses his head for it. Honor and decency aren’t enough; a certain amount of ruthlessness is also required. “Politics ain’t beanbag,” Finley Peter Dunne wrote a century ago, about our own world. Cersei puts it more starkly: “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground.”

Without a middle ground, the political spectrum consists of the brutal and pitiless on one end and the honorable, the hesitant, and the dead on the other. A bleak vision of power and government, but that’s how it is in Westeros. And that’s generally how it was in medieval Europe, too.

In Game of Thrones, though, there is always a “but.” Exhibit A: Ramsey Bolton, the story’s most detestable psychopath. He and his father Roose Bolton conspire with Cersei’s family to murder their way into power in Winterfell.

Killing a king is one thing. Holding the throne after doing so is something else entirely, as Shakespeare so eloquently dramatized in Macbeth. Roose Bolton understands this, even if his son Ramsey does not. “We can’t hold the North with terror alone,” he says. “We don’t have enough men to hold the North if the other houses rise up against us.” Indeed, no noble house, kingdom, or modern nation can stand alone in the world. Under no theory of political science are alliances optional. “If you acquire a reputation as a mad dog,” Roose tells his son, “you will be treated as a mad dog. Taken out back and slaughtered for pig feed.” Events prove him right.

In a world without peaceful transfers of power, the only checks and balances available against tyrants are assassination and war. The Mad King Aerys Targaryen ruled from the Iron Throne in the years before those covered in Game of Thrones Season One. He, too, was a murderous psychopath, burning alive lords who displeased him and advisors who disobeyed him. Half the realm rose up in arms—including Ned Stark and later-king Robert Baratheon. When Tywin Lannister’s army approached the capital, the Mad King ordered his pyromancers to lace enough explosives throughout the city to destroy King’s Landing as thoroughly as a nuclear weapon. “Burn them all!” he screamed. “Burn them all!”

Jaime Lannister, head of his very own King’s Guard, ran a sword through his back in the throne room.

Photo: miroslav_1/iStock

Almost everywhere in Westeros is governed badly, not just by modern standards but by its own. “All I ever wanted was to fight for a lord I believe in,” says the imposing female warrior Brienne of Tarth. “The good ones are dead and the rest are monsters.”

Unlike the Westerosi, modern audiences know the way out: liberal democracy, republicanism, the rule of law, and the separation of powers. Lest we assume these are part of the natural order of things, Game of Thrones—with its echoes of our own distant past—reminds us that they are not, and that maintaining them is as difficult as it is essential.

No Jeffersonian figures inhabit the Game of Thrones universe. Such a modern intrusion would break the spell of epic high fantasy and violate the compact between author and audience. A Jeffersonian wouldn’t make historical sense, anyway. The American Revolution grew out of the European Enlightenment, and no such philosophical movement ever existed in Westeros. Even so, consumers of fiction, whether it’s written or filmed, need someone to identify with, someone who shares at least some of their values. Martin gives us the dangerous yet inspiring Daenerys Targaryen.

She’s the daughter of the Mad King, but her deranged father did not raise her. Though born during a storm on the Westeros island of Dragonstone, she spent nearly all her life across the Narrow Sea on the eastern continent of Essos. She’s plotting a return to Westeros to take back the Iron Throne from the Baratheons and the Lannisters, but she can’t do it without an army, money, advisors, and allies back home. Before Daenerys can even plan her return, she proves herself in foreign lands by marrying a powerful Dothraki horse lord, hatching dragons into the world for the first time in centuries, and finally by conquering and justly governing slave cities.

Daenerys shares some of our modern values. Not all of them, surely. She plots to rule Westeros as an absolute autocrat. Throughout most of the series, however, she comes across as more of a philosopher king (or queen) than a tyrant, more Marcus Aurelius than Benito Mussolini. She’s mortified when her savage Dothraki allies attack a village, rape its women, and seize its men to sell as slaves for gold to buy ships for her army. She makes them stop. It’s not clear where her sense of decency comes from. Madness and ruthlessness run in her family, and she didn’t inherit an instinct for justice from her father.

She’s the implacable enemy of everyone who dares hold a slave. She purchases a whole army of them, known as the Unsullied, in the city of Astapor. They’re trained to obey their masters unflinchingly, and the moment their title passes to her, she commands them to kill every man holding a whip. Then she frees them and asks if they will fight for her as free men.  

Liberating slaves and adding them to her army is not just a means to an end. For Daenerys, it’s also a moral crusade, and she proves it after conquering a second slave city, Mereen. The masters there nailed the bodies of 163 children to mileposts along the main road to the city to warn all who approach that they are traveling to a place ruled with remorseless brutality. Her advisor Barriston Selmy suggests that she go easy on the former slaveholders after the city is hers and that she answer injustice with mercy. “I will answer injustice with justice,” she says, and orders her men to nail 163 former masters to the very same mileposts, announcing to all that she can be as pitiless as anyone.  

“You have a good claim, title, a birthright,” says Jorah Mormont, another advisor and her most devoted supporter. “But you have something more than that. You may cover it up and deny it, but you have a gentle heart. You would not only be respected and feared, you would be loved. Someone who can and should rule. Centuries come and go without someone like that coming into the world.”

Daenerys isn’t the saint Jorah thinks she is, though. In the broken world George Martin imagines, she would not be believable if she were. She is frequently tempted to use the terrifying power at her disposal—three full-grown dragons—to destroy her enemies. Her advisors must talk her down more than once. When despots from Yunkai, for instance, besiege Mereen with plans to conquer it and reimpose slavery, she vows to Tyrion Lannister that she will “return their cities to the dirt.” Tyrion reminds her that her own father threatened to do the same to King’s Landing before the end, when he shouted, “Burn them all!” as Tyrion’s brother Jaime shoved a sword through his back.

“He would have burned every one of his citizens,” Tyrion says, “the loyal ones and the traitors. Every man, woman, and child.”

“This is entirely different,” Daenerys says.

“You’re talking about destroying cities,” he says. “It’s not entirely different.”

She stands down and restricts her use of force to military targets, as today’s Western armies do. With more self-awareness than self-control and haunted by her family’s history, she’s wise enough to surround herself with those who pull her back from the brink. Later, however, the recently crowned King of the North Jon Snow warns her again when her conquest of Westeros gets off to a bad start in Season Seven. “You can build a world that’s different from the shit one [we’ve] always known,” he says. “But if you use [dragons] to melt castles and burn cities, you’re not different. You’re just more of the same.”

She heeds Jon Snow. She has to; he’s her first and only ally in Westeros. And he’s a good match for her. He’s governing his own kingdom well, and his virtues compensate for her flaws. He is both temperate and humble, and temperance and humility are the two traits she utterly lacks. As the bastard son of Ned Stark, Jon Snow spends his early adulthood not even eligible to inherit lands, let alone rule them, but he’s the kind of leader people believe in, the kind of lord Brienne of Tarth yearns to fight for. Like his father, he isn’t ruthless or ambitious enough to seize power for himself, not even in his own land. The power he acquires late in the series is given to him rather than taken. He has no mind to remake the world, only to save it. Initially, his alliance with Daenerys, a union of ice and fire, suggests—at least to Game of Thrones fans, if no one else—that the people of Westeros have a fighting chance to thrive as well as survive.  

History is replete with examples of revolutionaries becoming tyrants and war criminals. After shouting “liberty, equality, and fraternity” during the French Revolution, the Jacobins executed thousands during the Reign of Terror. After toppling the autocratic Tsar Nicholas II in Russia, Communists murdered and enslaved tens of millions. It’s a story that has repeated itself with numbing regularity. In 1991, democratic activist Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma (Myanmar) won a Nobel Peace Prize for standing up to the brutal SLORC regime, yet in 2016 she became an accomplice to war crimes. She is not the first person in history to do this, nor will she be the last.

In the penultimate episode of Game of Thrones Season Eight, during the last battle in the war for the Iron Throne, Daenerys Targaryen goes full Mad Queen and kills not only her enemies in King’s Landing but countless innocent people with dragon fire. Television critics across the political spectrum were shocked and appalled—not at her, but at the writers. More than a million furious fans signed a change.org petition demanding a Season Eight remake.

They have a point. Daenerys’s transformation from liberating heroine to génocidaire mostly unfolds over fewer than two hours of screen time in a series that runs more than 70 hours. Had the showrunners taken their time and filmed ten episodes instead of six in the final season and transformed Daenerys more slowly, the audience might have been able to accept it more easily, with a rising sense of dread rather than bewildered shock. The writers could have at least explained why everyone’s favorite heroine broke so badly just before the end of the story.

Yet clues to her character’s destiny were there all along. Daenerys threatens to destroy cities and murder innocent and guilty alike as early as Season Two, starting with Qarth at the edge of the Red Waste on Essos. “We will lay waste to armies and burn cities to the ground!” she screams when a welcoming party threatens to close the gates in her face and let her and her companions die in the desert. “Turn us away and we will burn you first.” “Ah,” says the spice merchant at the head of that welcoming party. “You are a true Targaryen.” (It’s our fault for not taking that exchange seriously at the time. We don’t let political leaders get away with threatening to destroy cities with nuclear weapons in our world, so it’s worth asking why so many—including me—shrugged it off in Game of Thrones.)

Daenerys’s dark side surfaces at least once in every season thereafter. She’s only able to keep her family’s murderous gene in recession when her advisors restrain her, and they don’t always succeed. Despite Tyrion Lannister’s pleadings, she burns Randyll and Dickon Tarly alive in the middle of Season Seven for refusing to bend the knee to her, and she does so after their army surrenders. Summarily executing prisoners is a war crime. That’s by our own standards, to be sure, rather than by the medieval code that governs Game of Thrones, but that scene was a warning, and most of us missed it.

Later in the same season, long before Daenerys brings about an apocalypse in King’s Landing, the writers script two anachronistic lines of dialogue that sound so startlingly modern that they stand out like cannon shot. Cersei is negotiating with the Iron Bank and hoping they’ll invest in her army instead of Daenerys’. “From what I gather,” she says to the wavering banker, “she considers herself more of a revolutionary than a monarch. In your experience, how do bankers usually fare with revolutionaries?” These lines are jarringly out of place in the world that this story unfolds in, but in hindsight it’s clear that they are hints that compel us, at least for a moment, to think of Daenerys Targaryen and Josef Stalin at the same time.

Photo: Marc Bruxelle/iStock

Season Eight feels like a rush job, on both first and second viewings, but everything that needs to happen to transform Daenerys from a flawed but inspiring revolutionary leader into a war criminal unfolds in a logical order. In the first episode of Season Eight, the entirely sympathetic and decent Samwell Tarly sobs when he learns that Daenerys roasted his father and brother alive in the previous season. Many fans let Daenerys off the hook for it at the time, yet Sam’s tears are reminders that they should not have looked away. “You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs,” a saying popular in our own world among the politically violent, doesn’t work for him. Distraught, in the next scene he rushes to Jon Snow’s side and tells him the great and terrible secret that so far only he and Brandon Stark know: that as the secret son of Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark, Jon, not Daenerys, is the true heir to the Iron Throne. “You gave up your crown to save your people,” Sam says to Jon. “Would she do the same?” We all know, instinctively, that the answer is no.

Jon Snow never wanted a crown, but it’s no great secret that Daenerys never truly wanted anything else. “All my life,” she tells Sansa Stark midway through Season Eight, “I’ve known one goal: the Iron Throne.” Not justice, not freedom, not good government, and not protecting people from monsters, but the Iron Throne.

The Northerners are furious that, almost immediately after freeing themselves from the imperial grip of King’s Landing, Jon Snow gave up his crown and pledged fealty to a foreign queen whom they have every reason to distrust. Daenerys is disturbed that they do not like her, let alone love her, not even after she helps save them from the dread White Walkers. Their reception likely would have been warmer had she not come to rule them as well as protect them. Aside from Jon Snow, no one in Westeros loves Daenerys. She is a stranger there and is treated as such.

And when she learns that Jon Snow is true heir to the throne, it eats at her like acid. He says that he doesn’t want to be king, and she believes him, but she’s smart enough to know that if the secret ever gets out, a popular drive to place him in power would be too strong to control—especially since so many love him and mistrust her. “I saw the way they looked at you,” she tells him. “I know that look. So many people have looked at me that way but never here. Never on this side of the sea.”

She loses all her closest friends and advisors over the course of Season Eight. The army of the dead takes Jorah Mormont. Tyrion Lannister makes too many naïve mistakes, and she warns him that his next will be his last. Cersei brutally dispatches Daenerys’s translator and advisor Missandei on the walls of King’s Landing. When Daenerys announces her plan to kill all her enemies in the capital, Lord Varys, fearing the worst, tries to convince Jon Snow to take the throne from her. “They say every time a Targaryen is born,” he says to Jon, “the gods toss a coin and the world holds its breath. We both know what she’s about to do . . . I still don’t know how her coin has landed, but I’m quite certain about yours.” Daenerys executes him with dragon fire.

She finds herself nearly alone in the world for the first time. “Far more people in Westeros love you than love me,” she says to Jon Snow. “I don’t have love here. I only have fear.” Not even Jon loves her anymore, at least not like he used to, now that they both know they’re blood relatives. And when he rebuffs her, she withdraws and says, “All right then. Let it be fear.”

Had the showrunners slowed down the pacing, Daenerys’s transformation from the Breaker of Chains to the Mad Queen would have surprised few. We know Lord Acton’s famous saying about absolute power corrupting absolutely. Lust for absolute power is equally dangerous, and it’s George Martin’s bottom line. He answers all the thorny questions he poses earlier by arguing that power itself is a disease, that all who thirst for it are dangerous, and that none who can rule wisely and well even want it. It’s the one consistent message from the first season and book to the last.

Many found the series finale too pat and anti-climactic. After nearly 80 hours of intrigue and war, Brandon Stark sits on the Iron Throne? He never even wanted it! Brandon Stark doesn’t want anything! Which is precisely Martin’s point: power is best held by those who want it least. Westeros managed to arrange this happy outcome for itself only when its ruling families found themselves checkmated after a near-apocalypse, with no king or queen, and wisely chose to break an imperial monarchy into an oligarchy. A constitutional republic beats an oligarchy, no question, but we can’t expect Westeros to make the political journey from A to Z in one step. History doesn’t work that way anywhere—not even in epic high fantasy.

Game of Thrones is a story of politics as much as it is a story of war, and because it is fantasy and far enough removed from our own time, it’s one that we can all identify with, even in a time of unprecedented polarization. Its themes are timeless and universal, the nuts and bolts of its politics elemental rather than partisan. It may have wobbled a bit (or a lot) at the end, but its nearly decade-long run was a cultural phenomenon that may not happen again anytime soon; it gave us a neutral space where left and right could come together and see the same political actors as heroes or villains, and for the same reasons. For that alone, George Martin and HBO deserve our gratitude.

Top Photo: Joel Carillet/iStock

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