GOT's final season may have been disappointing, but not on politics
By Alberto Mingardi
There are a number of remarkable things about Game of Thrones. One is of course how millions of people are, synchronously, watching the series’ ending. This sort of collective TV viewing was once reserved for big sports matches, or perhaps for a few great rock music concerts, like LiveAid.
Many people have commented on the last episodes. They are full of plot faults. Still, at least there is no JarJarBinks or young Anakin spoiling the franchise. The last one has disappointed many, but made more sense than most – for reasons Ilya Somin, my GOT guru among many other things, highlights here.
One interesting twist in the last episodes is that they wanted (or perhaps needed, as this is the gist of the story) to get back to what made many love the series and the books at first: they are all about power. (Spoiler) The rapid evolution of Daenerys Targarean from heroine to mad queen aimed to point to some sort of slippery slope, in wanting power so bad and needing to consolidate it fast.
Power corrupts, and thirst for power of power corrupts absolutely, if we may paraphrase Lord Acton.
There is much of that in Dany’s parable. It reminds us that power is something humans hold, and when they hold it they don’t stop being human.
Leaving aside all the problems with the plot (if a dragon is that powerful, why didn’t she use the other that well before?), all her faults as a power holder can be boiled down to the fact she is a fragile and fallible human being. She is prey to anxiety, insecurity, and anger. How does she react? Pretty much like all of us, but she has a dragon and an army, and that makes her reactions far more deadly than mine or yours.
At the end of the series, power is portrayed as a consuming passion, which ruins who was once a well-intentioned girl. In the next-to-last episode, she becomes a mass murderer because she is weakened by paranoia, by a sense of urgency in grasping power until she enjoys a wide enough consensus, and by a very human desire for revenge. Her advisors have at times tried to prevent these developments but they end up having conflicts of loyalty, allegiance to the crown being terribly demanding. On the other hand, particularly in the final episode, and particularly in Tyrion’s marvelous speech to Jon (one of the great, genuine exercises in political philosophy TV has ever given us), another theme emerges, or better, comes back.
Dany’s evolution has its roots in something older and deeper in the series. Part of her appeal (her appeal to fellow characters and us watchers!) is due to the fact she promised to liberate people. She wanted to break the wheel. She is a revolutionary leader bound to provide us justice on the earth (well, or wherever Westeros is). And to do so she is ruthless and fully confident that such a noble end justify any means. So she organized the crucifixion of the Great Masters of Mereen, and so she slaughters the people of King’s Landing.
To the watcher, the two things may look different. Perhaps Elizabeth Warren would have approved of her favorite character’s actions in the first instance (the bad guys were all awful slave owners), but not in the second (civilians, as we know well, have zero say in whatever happens in the Seven Kingdoms). Still, for Daenerys the two things are pretty much the same, so strong is her identification with justice and the dream of a better world.
On the one hand, this is one of the rare glimpses of modern politics in GOT. The story is set in a consistently pre-modern world: it is all about medieval politics, the notion of honor which is commonly upheld is consistently aristocratic (no time for honoring bourgeois virtues), allegiances are basically a puzzle of mutual, personal loyalties. In shaping Daenerys, Martin needed something that empowered such a character to advance her claim to the Iron Throne, knowing that, though the daughter of the last king of the legitimate dynasty, she is in many ways an outsider. She was raised far away from court, she does not speak the language of kings and courtesans. And she is facing so many difficulties, that she needs something stronger and purer than ambition to propel her. Here comes this version of politicized millenarianism. In a sense, Daenerys is far more honest than revolutionary leaders we knew in the past: at least she is openly and clearly equating the triumph of justice with her personal triumph.
On the other hand, GOT proved good in pointing to some sort of iron law of power. Every brutality becomes, in the game of thrones, just a move necessary to bring about another. In themselves, none of the characters are actually that inhumane: even Cersei cares for her kids, as Tyrion reminds her (to no avail). But once they are in the game, they are influenced by “the wheel”, which turns them into monsters. The breaker of the wheel included.
In a sense, two images of the last show are particularly telling. One is Drogon melting away the Iron Throne. Sure, it’s an animal’s rage. But in a sense, the kid knows what killed his mother, her obsession to gain power, and makes justice of it. The other is Bran being picked as king. No longer a human, Bran is the closest thing to an omniscient being the series has produced. On top of that, his evolution into the three-eyed raven has apparently rid him of anything remotely akin to lust, lust for power included. So, here comes a (temporary) solution for all Westeros’s political problems: a genuine “neutral power” in royalty and a council of wise men who, changed by war and violence, will avoid more.
How long that can last before more human passions will prevail, it is impossible to say. But GOT perhaps is the greatest attempt to remind the younger generations that humans tend to abuse power whenever they have it. In that, for all its flaws, I think this is noteworthy.
At the same time, our difficulty (me included) in accepting the ending of the story, without Jon becoming king, or Dany redeeming herself, and actually the colorless Bran gaining the crown, is interesting too. I suppose the thing most watchers like better was the triumph of Sansa, the most skillful political operator alive. The problem is that stories are so much about characters and personalities because we want and we cherish heroes, the good guys smashing the bad guys, et cetera. And when a story ends with an – admittedly weird – attempt of de-personalizing power, creating a new institutional setting to solve problems, we are disappointed, because we are hard-wired to look for leadership. But it may well be that heroes and peace, or leaders and political stability, don’t really go well together.