On Game of Thrones and Governance

Game of Thrones has been a part of the cultural landscape for almost a decade now.  In it’s own way, its something for everyone; everyone can critique it or praise it for some major or peripheral issue.  At one point or another it was heralded as:

  • A feminist show that demonstrates women can be great leaders
  • A misogynistic show exploiting women as sex objects for exposition and depicting rape and sexual assault without a second thought.
  • A show that breaks the standards.  They killed the only star they had! The Red Wedding! Cersei blew up everyone!
  • A show that falls into typical racial and gender tropes; of course Missandei would die. Of course they have to make Danaerys look mediocre.

These criticisms miss the mark entirely.  As with anything, its a show about characters, in a setting, working towards a goal. These particular characters are very well drawn, with strengths, weaknesses, motivations, and relationships that play out as they should; in a way, that’s what makes the show and books so loved.  The setting is the interesting world of Westeros (and Essos), where all the characters have little places they call their own and build on or travel to.  The setting is so sprawling, they needed a map at the beginning of the credits to give you a sense of where things are in relation to one another.

The goal, the main goal, is control of the kingdom, or at least their part of the kingdom.  And this is what brings me to the point I want to make.  It’s ultimately a story about governance.  Different groups govern themselves different ways.  They choose their leaders differently.  But more importantly, George R.R. Martin has made it a point to underscore that the qualities that help people get into a position of leadership, do not always make great leaders.  All of the characters we would regard as “heroic” have deep seeded flaws that are revealed and amplified with the more power they get.  Below is a list of various characters, how they attained power and why they make terrible leaders:

  • Let’s start with the “Mad King” Aerys.  He succeeded to the throne only after Aemon Targaryen refused it, handing it to his brother.  The scion of the ruling family, he began to go a little bonkers as he grew more paranoid, crazy, and malicious  By the end he had alienated his own protector who put a sword in his back.
  • As a result, Robert Baratheon, leader of a rebellion against the Targaryens, usurped the throne by force. A fierce soldier and military leader, he really had no interest in governing.  He whored, feasted and spent into profligacy.
  • Robert’s final Hand, Ned Stark, was considered as honorable and decent a man as you could find.  All he found in the Capitol was corruption, indecency and debts.  When Robert died and Ned faced down his heirs with the truth (that they weren’t his heirs), they threw him the dungeons.  Without any political support (who wants a narc around), Ned languished.
  • With Robert dead, his “son” Joffrey succeeded to the throne.  Joffrey was a spoiled, bloodlusty, arrogant bully of the worst kind.  He killed Ned Stark for fun.  He understood the status of being King, and making appearances for the little people, but was a horrible ruler.  Eventually, he was killed by Olenna Tyrell who preferred marrying her granddaughter to a more pliable spouse.
  • Next came Joffrey’s brother Tommen.  Tommen was a sweet boy, easily manipulated, believing the best of the vultures around him. A figurehead for other interests if there was one on the show, he thought he was the king but was blind to his actual lack of power.  When his mother destroyed the Sept of Baelor, including his wife, Queen Margary, he realized what little free will he had and chose to use it to jump out the window.
  • Queen Margary is an interesting character.  We first see her married to King Renly Baratheon, Robert’s brother who is trying to establish a different succession following the King’s death.  She’s probably the most forthright of those seeking control, is quite pleasant, and uses her sexuality to her advantage.  She’s politically savvy, and practical in this regard.  She also shows genuine interest in appealing to the common people.  But she also has no principle other than seeking power; when the High Septon (“the High Sparrow”) calls her on it, she gets locked into a cell at the sept.
  • King Robb Stark of the North was a heroic character, inspiring the North to rebellion and the just cause of avenging the wrongful death of his father.  But his power was based on the houses who supported him, whom he spurns in one way or another until his betrayal.
  • Mance Rayder, “The King Beyond the Wall” united all of the clans north of the wall to create the biggest army of all of them.  An unruly band, full of groups that don’t care for one another, his pride gets him killed and subjects the rest of the northerners to an unknown future.
  • The Khals of the Dothraki basically ride their horses, raping and pillaging living a nomadic existence. Their whole power structure is based almost entirely on physical prowess.  You don’t see many 30 year old Dothraki.

Of course, there are others, but for the most part, there are only a handful of contenders left.

  • Jon Snow is another heroic figure. A war hero, someone who inspires people to action, he’s actually a terrible leader.  He was killed by mutineers within the Nights Watch.  He would have lost the Battle of the Bastards if not for Sansa Stark and the Knights of the Vale.  Instead of giving supporters the spoils of that battle, he gave it back to dishonorable houses.  At least he has the good sense to understand how he is not a good leader, and leaves the leading to his sister/cousin Sansa Stark.
  • Cersei Lannister.  She loves power for powers sake, and is actually a pretty effective politician.  She inspires no loyalty or support, and instead rules through fear. She acquired power through marrying Robert Baratheon and supplanted her children by her brother Jamie into the line of succession.  She understands others’ strengths and weaknesses, and works diligently to enhance her position while ruining everyone elses. Probably, more than anyone (an argument could be made of Littlefinger) the savviest politician on the show.  However, she has no moral code whatsoever.  She’s the ultimate Machiavelli Prince put to screen.  She will, literally, “burn a house to the ground” before giving up her position.
  • Danaerys Targaryen started out with just a name, which after her brother was killed, gave her a claim to the throne based on being next in line prior to Robert’s usurpation.  She also acquired three dragons, which is the Westeros equivalent of a nuclear bomb.  Over the course of the show, she has used the dragons to acquire a mercenary army, cities in Essos, and ships to cross the sea to Westeros.  She also managed to kill the Khals and get a Dothraki Horde.  When she has tried to rule, she has tried to rule justly, but requiring of loyalty with mixed results.  She’s at least made an attempt to get better at it, and listens closely to advisors who give her counsel. As her dragons and her armies have withered, she has little base from which to assert her claim, and zero loyalty among the Westerosi, even though she basically saved all of them from certain doom.

Lastly, there is the issue of succession.  How do we transfer power from one to another?  Different groups have different methods.

  • The standard is by birthright.  Eldest, legitimate male heirs inherit it all.  Not only is this for the crown, its also for most of the houses.  There are exceptions though: 1) one could kill off a house or line and claim it by force; 2) in Dorne, women heirs can inherit if legitimate (something not an issue on the show, but is an issue in the books), 3) ladies who are married into a family and/or widowed can rule by proxy or regent, such as Lysa Arryn did; and 4) by decree a Lord can legitimize any bastard children, but their claims are still subservient to legitimate heirs.
  • The Night’s Watch is as close to a democracy as you will see on the show.  They elect their Lord Commander.
  • The Iron Islander’s have a “Kingsmoot” which is essentially a debate about various claims to the throne.

As we near the end people may be eager to find out who ends up on the Iron Throne.  But it actually doesn’t matter. The person will be flawed.  Of the best people to potentially rule, it’s almost certainly two people who won’t be.  Sansa Stark has demonstrated a clever ability to manage Winterfell and commands authority well.  Tyrion, despite making military mistakes, is an excellent manager in peacetime. But the Throne is typically won by birth or by force, and when the battle was happening at Winterfell, they were both relegated to the crypts.

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