Game of Thrones Returns: As Civilization Collapses, Government Is No Help
Westeros doesn't lack heroes, it lacks competent governance.
The return of HBO's Game of Thrones is always an exciting event for fans of A Song of Ice and Fire, the series upon which it is based. But this season is set to be different from the previous six: having exhausted nearly all of the books' narrative threads, the showrunners are finally in the position of needing to explain what comes next.
If last night's premiere was any indication, what comes next might very well be the end of the world. It is difficult to imagine the scattered forces of good putting up much of a challenge as the impending collapse of civilization unfolds.
The leaders of the Seven Kingdoms continue to deserve much of the blame for that. Westeros does not lack heroes—Ser Davos, Brienne of Tarth, Jon Snow (RIP?), Samwell Tarly—it lacks competent governance. The state has proven itself wholly incapable of undertaking preparations to survive the most serious external threat to humanity: a long winter. Millions will die, if not from the White Walkers, then from starvation. None of the Seven Kingdoms' administrators are ready to face reality, having depleted their financial resources while waging wars of vanity against each other.
In season six, the petty squabbles continue. The events in Dorne—the weakest storyline in the show by far—are a good example. Having apparently realized the Dorne plot wasn't working, the showrunners decided to have Ellaria Sand murder her dead lover's brother and nephew, presumably seizing the throne of Dorne for herself. These developments don't really make sense in and of themselves: we are supposed to believe that Ellaria is angry enough to kill her family members for failing to avenge another family member. But they fit in well with a pattern of Westerosi nobles starting counter-productive wars over personal grievances rather than legitimate national security concerns.
In Winterfell, the Boltons have little time to savor their victory over Stannis Baratheon. By marrying Ramsay to Sansa, they committed treason against the Lannisters, and expect a battle is coming. Unknown to them, the Lannisters are in no position to retaliate, and are currently trying to wrest control of King's Landing from the clutches of religious fanatics. But we understand from last season that Littlefinger, who is competently acquiring kingdom after kingdom, plans to attack the Boltons. The Bolton position is also precarious because they have lost Sansa. Roose and Ramsay discuss attacking Castle Black—the literal last line of defense against the coming apocalypse—in order to re-obtain her.
What to make of this? It's the Westerosi equivalent of Nero fiddling while Rome burned. As rulers of the North, the Boltons should be stockpiling food, sending men to patrol the Wall, and devising strategies with the Night's Watch. Instead, they plan to attack the Night's Watch, under the false assumption that Sansa's half-brother Jon Snow is in command.
Of course, Jon Snow isn't in command: he's dead. He was murdered for being the only competent leader alive—the only person willing to put aside politics and pointless in-fighting and prepare for winter. His killer, Ser Alliser, has taken command. Though an alliance between the Night's Watch and the wildlings is at this point key to humanity's survival, Ser Alliser resents Jon Snow for securing this partnership and seems to have every intention of discontinuing it.
The world—if not the story itself—needs Jon Snow to not be dead, and we are treated to a glimpse of how that could happen. The Lord of Light has revived the dead before, and Jon's corpse is now locked in a room with Melisandre. If anyone can do the seemingly impossible, she can.
But the premiere—aptly titled "The Red Woman"–does not leave us with any indication that the resurrection is about to take place. Instead, it is revealed that Melisandre's appearance is a trick. She is actually decades if not hundreds of years old—her true face is that of a decrepit old woman.
There are at least two different ways to read this scene. On one hand, the revelation is confirmation that Melisandre does indeed possess real power. On the other hand, her magic—powerful though it may be—is still ultimately based in trickery. And the old woman who retired to bed seemed defeated, not prepared for some massive magical undertaking.
The magic of deception might still be useful: in lieu of a full ressurection, maybe Melisandre will make Ser Davos (or, possibly, the direwolf Ghost) acquire Jon Snow's appearance long enough to wreak havoc at the Wall.
With Jon Snow dead, Daenerys is perhaps the only character who is both a self-sacrificing hero and also a world leader. She possesses the courage to do the right thing, and also the means to do it. But Daenerys is now on a literal road to nowhere, stranded from her allies. She is in no position to save the world anytime soon.
One begins to wonder if anything good will come of Daenerys's dragons, or Melisandre's magic, or Ser Davos's bravery, or Samwell Tarly's knowledge, or Brienne's faithfulness to her oath. Given that everyone in an actual position to do something about the coming frost-zombie apocalypse is studiously working to undermine humanity's odds of survival, perhaps this is not the save-the-world tale it appears to be. Perhaps A Song of Ice and Fire is A Song of Government Incompetence While Everyone Freezes and Burns. There is a certain realism in that, I suppose, although whether it makes for satisfying television remains to be seen.