Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones Is a Show About the Exercise of Political Power

The seventh season finale finds its characters struggling to project legitimacy.

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HBO / Game of Thrones

(Spoilers for the season finale of the seventh season of Game of Thrones below.)

The seventh season of Game of Thrones, the season finale of which aired last night, has been alternately frustrating and thrilling: At just seven episodes long, rather than the usual 10, and with major plot developments coming at a far more rapid clip than ever before, the penultimate stretch of the show has been both too short and too fast.

The show's early season were built on pacing so methodical as to border on agonizing; it gave you time to fully consider the characters and the peril they were in, and then frequently forced them to suffer the worst. Instead of a crawl, this season, in contrast, has been more of a sprint, frantically delivering twists and turns and epic action at which the early at seasons only hinted. It's grander and more cinematic, but less personal, and at times it feels like a subtly different show.

But the through it all, the show has maintained a fascination with the exercise of political power, and the variety of ways that those who seek it attempt to assert legitimacy.

The first half of last night's finale was concerned with a meeting between the warring rival power centers in Westeros: Cersei Lannister and her allies on one side, and Daenerys Targaryen and her allies and armed forces, which include a pair of dragons on the other. Both Cersei and Daenarys believe themselves to be the rightful rulers of the land, and over the course of the show, both have made it clear that they intend to destroy the other one in order to claim power over their domain.

In the process, both women have built armies out of complex systems of alliances with other powers: Cersei, for example, has aligned with Euron Greyjoy, who controls a fleet of ships, as well as with the Iron Bank, which gives her access to credit that she can use to buy both troops and a measure of loyalty. Daenarys, on the other hand, has a pair of dragons, as well as the Unsullied army, and the horse-riding Dothraki. More recently, she has accepted a pledge of allegiance from Jon Snow, now the King of the North, and the region he controls.

Each of these alliances provide military strength. But they also convey political legitimacy. They are designed give the impression of power that is not merely taken by brute force, but is somehow earned. You see this later in the show, too, when Daenarys and Jon Snow plot a march north. They decide to go together in order to be seen by the public as involved in a freely chosen power-sharing alliance. (It doesn't hurt that they are also in love; the show often provides reminders that the quest for power and politics does not always follow a logical path, but is subject to human whim, weakness, and desire.)

Creating the appearance of legitimacy is not the same thing, of course, as actually earning it. Indeed, one of the questions the show frequently asks is whether that sort of power is ever truly supported by anything other than raw force. It is a show that is deeply skeptical of the idea that political power can be truly legitimate. It frequently seems to suggest that the systems by which power is exercised and passed on are inherently arbitrary and contingent.

That idea is embedded in the scenes that take place at Winterfell too, between Sansa and Arya Stark, two sisters who finally enact revenge on Little Finger, the scheming operative who has been pulling their family apart and pitting power players against each other since the show began. Sansa has taken charge of Winterfell in part by virtue of her family history, but also because she appears to be a wise and effective ruler. Good management is hard to find, in any age, and some people will follow competent leaders simply by virtue of their ability to get things done. Power can be claimed and maintained by displays of pragmatic value.

And, of course, it can be exercise through raw, animal force as well: Looming over every scene in last night's episode is the coming of the White Walkers, an army of undead marching steadily towards the lands that everyone else is fighting over. The White Walkers were created as the byproduct of an ancient struggle (a reminder that there are unintended consequences for every action), but over thousands of years, they have become a kind of (un)natural force. Unlike the humans in Westeros, they have no complex strategy, no system of government, no human desires. They simply kill and consume all that is within their path—and if they are not stopped, then the grand designs the show's other players have for Westeros, and for their own lives, will mean nothing.

In the world of Game of Thrones, then, political power amongst the living is always fraught, always tenuous, always in flux. It is ugly at times, and can seem all-important to the humans, but it is also small and frail, constrained by borders that can fall at any moment, and limited by human weaknesses. And its greatest challenge, in the end, comes not from the designs of human rivals, but from the inexorable march of death, and the unthinking, uncaring forces of the world that even the most successful practitioners of power and politics will never really control.

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44 responses to “Game of Thrones Is a Show About the Exercise of Political Power

  1. “The seventh season finale finds its characters struggling to project legitimacy.”

    Thanks, Trump.

  2. Seriously??

    1. “Harrumph!” says Rhywun, as he hitches his pants up to his sternum. “Harrumph!”

      1. “Harrumph” comes after the 3rd or 4th story in a row. We’re only at 2 so far.

      2. “Harrumph!” says Rhywun, as he hitches his pants slacks up to his sternum. “Harrumph!”

        After sipping a fresh glass of Metamucil, Rhywun went on to say, “peak television ended with Empty Nest.”

    2. GAME OF THRONES IS BIGGER THAN YOU CAN POSSIBLY COMPREHEND.

    3. Hey, this one has a point to it.

      1. Fair enough. And the description of this season as being more rush-rush that the one season I enjoyed makes me glad I stopped watching.

  3. Yeah, and “Judge Judy” is all about justice.

  4. It is a show that is deeply skeptical of the idea that political power can be truly legitimate. It frequently seems to suggest that the systems by which power is exercised and passed on are inherently arbitrary and contingent.

    A lot of shows seem to do that these days. It is probably more a consequence of focusing on characters with more-or-less realistic motivations, desires, and flaws, and less an intentional statement about the nature of power, based on how few actors/writers/producers seem willing to notice the implications of their creations for real-world politics.

    1. This is why they usually need to resort to a political Messiah figure as their ace in the hole to have any positive outcome. Daenyris being the messiah in GoT

  5. Free point for your upcoming nerd panel at Cato: the hypocrisy of social contract theory as shown in the first Dany-Jon meeting. Dany keeps insisting that the Starks are bound to the oath they made to the Targaryens 300 years ago, even after acknowledging that her father tortured and murdered the Stark ruler and heir. The ruled are expected to follow their end of the contract to the letter (law and order!), while non-performance or violation by the ruling party is not regarded as voiding the social contract. It’s just an unfortunate incident that can be made good with an apology.

    1. Well, all the serfs will be freed in the end. My assessment is that this story is about the end of Kings and Queens.

      1. The end of Kings perhaps. It’s devolved into a feminist masturbatory fantasy.

        1. That’s what I worry about. As though Blood Mary were a better ruler than Henry VIII.

          We can hope those though that it ends with them tossing the iron throne into the sea.

    2. She demands that Jon continue to be a spoke in the wheel that she claims she wants to break. Maybe this is one of the “worse impulses” that Tyrion hopes to talk her out of?

      1. Maybe this is one of the “worse impulses” that Tyrion hopes to talk her out of?

        Tyrion didn’t seem to happy that they were bangin,’ so who knows what’s going through his head right now. Cersei’s pretty much outwitted him at every turn, so he doesn’t really appear to be in Dany’s best graces at the moment.

        Tyrion has pretty good plot armor, but I wouldn’t be surprised if something happens that gets him executed in the end next season.

        Oh, and if Cersei really is pregnant–which I have my doubts, considering how manipulative she is–she’s going to die in childbirth next season and the baby will be a boy (“the younger brother” in the prophecy). Calling it now.

        1. I’m still betting Jaime ends up killing her to save the city in a parallel to the mad king.

  6. Instead of a crawl, this season, in contrast, has been more of a sprint, frantically delivering twists and turns and epic action at which the early at seasons only hinted. It’s grander and more cinematic, but less personal, and at times it feels like a subtly different show.

    And the show was lesser for it. The finale was the best episode in the season precisely because it was the first time the story slowed down enough for the characters to actually talk to each other instead of having to immediately rush off to the next plot point. I think the season as a whole would have been much stronger if it had been drawn out to the full 10 episodes to allow proper time for character development and interaction.

    1. Either that, or if the episodes had all been longer than an hour to provide more time for exposition. This series is making money for HBO hand over fist, it’s not like they couldn’t splurge a bit for some more dialogue.

      1. I believe that the episode number was because HBO pays the actors in part based on the number of episodes that they appear in but I generally like the longer episodes. A lot of other shows (e.g. Sons of Anarchy, The Walking Dead) run into pacing problems with extended length episodes which are more about selling more ad space but Game of Thrones generally does them well by focusing on dialogue and plot development which is one of the things the show excels at when it has the chance to.

  7. Vaguely amusing is that George RR Martin is an unapologetic progressive- and was fully trusting of the Obama White House.

    1. You have a generous sense of humor.

    2. See what i said above about creators not recognizing the implications of their own art for politics. Martin says that his focus is on how much shit the powerful inevitably rain down on everyone beneath them, and he does a great job of portraying said shit-monsoon, but he doesn’t quite seem to connect it to his real worldview.

      1. See what i said above about creators not recognizing the implications of their own art for politics.

        David Simon and Joss Whedon are two of the most notorious examples of this.

        1. This is because all of them, almost without exception, attribute all the ills of the world to *maliciois* rulers. Once the well-intentioned ruler shows up, the day is saved. The idea of a well-Intentioned ruler wreaking havoc in his/her ineptitude and arrogance and pride still doesn’t register.

          1. Yes.

            Or, as I like to call it: the “Just vote harder!” syndrome.

  8. It’s apparent that they ran out of whatever material GRRM had given them and started making up the story as they went along. Hence the ridiculous love affair between Missandei and Grey Worm.

    After realizing that the show’s writers can’t actually write if they don’t have GRRM’s writing to rely on, and that everyone already figured out that Jon Snow is the son of Rhaegar Targaryan, they presumably decided to wrap it up as quickly as possible, fill in the blanks with whatever they thought the fans would enjoy (Undead Dragon), and just summarize the major plot points – Jon Snow winds up with Daenarys on the Iron Throne, obviously. Arya probably kills Cersei, and they use one of the arbalasts to fire a dragonglass tipped spear at the undead dragon to kill it, then Jon Snow (or maybe Samwell) kills the Night King in single combat and the entire army of the dead drops dead.

    1. Oh and the main message of the story is don’t trust the historical narrative.

      It’s fundamentally a mystery novel, not fantasy. You get told a false version of history by Robert Baratheon in book one – which is supported by the POV narrative coming from the people on the winning side, and then it is slowly revealed over the course of several books, that Lyanna Stark was actually not kidnapped and raped but ran off and eloped with Rhaegar, and that Jon Snow is their child. History is written by the victors.

    2. The Missandei-Grey Worm relationship has been going on for three years.

      And Jaime kills Cersei, duh.

    3. The most fitting ending would be a victory for the Walkers. “Who cares about all of the ways we’ve mangled your precious fantasy world over the past two seasons! Everyone just dies anyway!”

      1. I could definitely see Martin ending the series with “Everybody’s dead. Fuck you.”

        1. And then we get a movie with Kathy Bates breaking his ankles, right?

          -jcr

          1. No, then we get him flying off to Neptune in a dick-shaped spaceship made of gold.

  9. Clearly an inside job…. dragonfire can’t melt magic ice walls; it is known

    1. Gendry didn’t appear to be at Eastwatch anymore when the attack occurred. What did he know and when did he know it?!

      1. Gendry does not know anything about ice and snow!

  10. the show often provides reminders that the quest for power and politics does not always follow a logical path, but is subject to human whim, weakness, and desire.)

    If Rob Stark had just managed to keep it in his pants and marry a Frey, the show would have been over by the end of season 4. What a maroon.

    1. Alas, 15 year old boys are notorious for their horny stupidity.

  11. Still convinced that Samwell Tarley is going to save the world.

    -jcr

    1. Na, Ser Twenty of House Goodmen will be the final hero in the show.

      1. Is that an alias just for this article? Sam delegated to latrine duty in Oldtown was the funniest sequence this season.

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