Power, Human Nature, and a Claim to the Throne

I can’t resist a little commentary on the first episode of the final season of Game of Thrones.  Be aware that there are spoilers in what follows.

For background on my perspective, I was a fan of the books before HBO took the story over, and I was bitter that George R.R. Martin let the TV series get ahead of the book series when it came to the plot.  About a year and a half ago, I overheard some fellow soccer parents discussing a plot twist just beyond the reach of the books, and I realized that (even assuming Martin ever finished them) I would never get to read the books without knowing significant details, and I decided to catch up with the show.

Now that I’m all caught up, I expect that the books will never be finished, because now Martin will not only have to pull all of his complicated narrative threads together, but he’ll have to grapple with the fact that the TV producers changed some consequential details.  That means he’ll have to figure out how the story he originally intended to write can and should differ from the story with which everybody will already be familiar.

Anyway… the TV show does continue to incorporate to some extent the depth of questions that make the books so compelling.  In 2011, I argued that — intentionally or not — the books were turning into a socially conservative parable:

Plainly put, the Wall is a defensible line across the narrowest region of the continent that incorporates all of the most desirable geography for habitation and trade. It defends civilization from an ancient darkness that would destroy it. With that darkness long receded, some people choose to exist beyond the Wall, where they can claim greater individual liberty (albeit with the more superficial freedom that comes with rejection of civilized norms). But with the tide of evil again rising, that choice is no longer tolerable to the larger society of mankind, and Jon is in the most likely position in the realm to spot that reality. The Wildlings have to be brought within the defensible border and encouraged to bolster the Night’s Watch, the traditional institution that has heretofore symbolized for them the militant arm of a society that would force them to be “kneelers.”

Naturally, the Hollywooders didn’t develop that theme as thoroughly as Martin did, either out of greater bias than the author or because TV shows can incorporate so much less content than books.  Still, I think David French’s review of last night’s episode counts as evidence that it isn’t entirely gone.

He reprises how Daenerys Targaryen executed the father and brother of one of our heroes, Samwell Tarly, primarily for being overly principled and noble on the wrong side.  French suggests that she appears now to have to deal with the consequences of that sin, as he calls it:

… thus we saw the questions in Jon’s heart. He is the show’s honorable man — honorable sometimes to the point of foolishness. Daenerys is the show’s conflicted hero, torn between her quest for vengeance and her desire for justice. It was a masterful moment, and it illustrated that one moment in time — Daenerys’s impulsive decision to burn her honorable opponents rather than imprison them — could have consequences that turn the course of history. She did a terrible thing, and she can’t control what happens next.

Adding some other plot history and a cultural dimension improves the point.  Earlier in the story, Daenerys went about conquering the slave-holding cities in the story’s version of the Near-to-Middle East.  Toward the completion of that quest, her adviser, Tyrion, was humbled as a strategist when he sought to play the political game by the rules of Westerosi nobles and saw is plan fall apart.  The Tarly execution scene suggests that Daenerys took the experience as more of a lesson than Tyrion did.  The problem is that, in Westeros, Tyrion’s rules actually apply, and the execution scene itself carries the warning.  Tyrion hands Daenerys every option to respect the nobility of her opposition, but she takes a hard line.

One could see this, like David French, as evidence of the war between her forgiving nature and her cold sense of justice, but that cold sense of justice wasn’t innate.  It was forged through her experiences in distant nations.  Lord Tarly amplifies this distinction by saying that, ultimately, he won’t kneel to her because she is not from there, which was a point raised repeatedly last night.

Of course, the sins of humanity are not cultural, betrayal of norms among them.  Look to the infamous Red Wedding or Cersei’s newly hatched plot to have both of her brothers assassinated by somebody they trust.

So, perhaps the television folks have removed much of the socially conservative content from the theme, but it remains in a more-political sense of tradition.  The Eastern nations had resolved humanity’s puzzles by dividing into various city states — some with untrammeled liberty to lubricate commerce and some with a balance of slavery and the released tensions of gladiator games — with varying superstitions and mysticism.

Westeros went with a united continent under a strict hierarchy of familial lines demarcated under their own banners, with hereditary pledges of allegiance and a social code relying more on religion than mysticism.  Although the nobles live well, it doesn’t appear that they inevitably rule with iron hands and, at the end of the day, everybody up the hierarchy is aware of their fundamental reliance on the continued support of those lower down.

As the global kingdom of the living faces down the dark, magical forces of the dead, the importance of these rules of behavior and respect makes its appearance.  In Jon Snow, we see the archetype of the honorable man who is now known to be the rightful king, according to the seemingly arbitrary rules of heredity.  He is exactly what the civic system of Westeros is intended to produce in the ideal.

For her part, Cersei is a representation of the exertion of power.  She has manipulated the rules of Westeros in order to become a queen, and there are no bonds that she will not sever in order to hand power to her child.  One intriguing parallel to modern American politics can be found in the fact that she does not seem to appreciate the degree to which others must continue to adhere to the rules she is breaking if her bloodline is to maintain its place.  She wants her assertion of raw, unsubstantiated power to put her family at the top of the hierarchy, where she expects it to remain simply because of the rules of lineage.

One central question of the final episodes, therefore, is whether Daenerys will prove to be like Cersei, relying on her raw power and a false hereditary claim, or will come to understand the underpinnings of Westerosi society and thereby prove to be from there.


Featured image: Still shot from the season 8 trailer and episode 1 on HBO.

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