Reflections on "Game of Thrones"
An impressive achievement that could have been even better. The series had its flaws, but did effectively convey the importance of institutional constraints on political power.
All TV series must die! Sunday night's final episode of Game of Thrones is a good opportunity to reflect on the series' legacy. Like many viewers, I have plenty of complaints about what the show-runners did in the final season, and also Season 7 before it. At the same time, it's hard to deny the series' impressive achievements, which build on those of the books by George R.R. Martin on which it is based. If the show were not so good to begin with, we wouldn't care so much about its failings.
NOTE: The rest of this post contains many spoilers about both the series finale, and other previous episodes.
What Game of Thrones Achieved
The most obvious strengths are the series' intricate plotting and characterization, and its willingness to upend traditional fantasy storytelling tropes with horrific events such as the "Red Wedding" - unexpectedly killing the "good" protagonists and showing that heroism is not enough to ensure that good triumphs.
Another distinctive theme is the emphasis on the idea that the dangers of political power require institutional solutions, not merely the replacement of bad rulers with good ones. Early on in the story, it sometimes seems as if all will be well if evil rulers (like Lord Tywin), and deranged ones (like King Joffrey and Ramsay Bolton) are replaced by good ones. But it gradually becomes clear that even the few relatively well-intentioned lords, like Ned and Robb Stark, are largely unable to help the people. Only institutional change can overcome the structural flaws built into the Game of Thrones. No one is truly worthy to wield the vast power of the Westerosi monarchy, symbolized by the Iron Throne.
As Daenerys Targaryen famously put it, the goal must be to "break the wheel" of political power, not simply spin it in a different direction. The point holds true even though she never had a clear idea of how to do it, and in Season 8 (somewhat implausibly) came to exemplify the very sort of evil she had previously opposed.
The importance of institutions was once again driven home in the finale, where the conflict with the newly villainous Queen Daenerys was unexpectedly disposed of in the first part of the episode, and the bulk of the time was devoted to the remaining characters' efforts to establish a postwar settlement for Westeros. In the process, the previously hereditary monarchy was made elective (albeit with the lords of the various provinces as the electors, rather than the people). This vaguely Magna Carta-like settlement is the first step towards limiting the previously absolute power of the monarch. If the lords of the realm can choose the king, it is a short step from that to concluding that they can also remove him, if he proves to be incompetent or oppressive. It isn't liberal democracy or constitutional government. But it's a major step in the right direction - as big as can be expected given the world the story is set in.
The unexpected selection of Bran Stark as the new king is also a subtle nod in the direction of institutionalism. As the "Three-Eyed Raven," he is no longer fully human, and does not even have normal human desires. The implication is that no person subject to normal human weaknesses can be trusted with monarchical power.
Finally, the independence of the North and the newly-elevated Queen Sansa introduces another important constraint on the power of the Westerosi monarchy, which no longer dominates an entire continent (though the show's seeming portrayal of Sansa as an unproblematically wonderful ruler is somewhat at odds with the series' message that we should be suspicious of concentrated power). It was good that the series consistently maintained the thread of the longstanding tensions between the North and the monarchy, an element of the story that highlighted the dangers of overcentralized authority.
The series' emphasis on the need for institutional constraints on power and the dangers of charismatic "personalist" political leadership are highly relevant to the real world. We are not as much different from the benighted Westerosi as we like to think.
…And Where it Went Wrong
These strengths of the series do not fully negate the many flaws of the last two seasons. Others have catalogued the many serious plot holes in Season 7. Season 8 had many problems of its own. As in season 7, logistics and distances were often thrown to the wind, and inconsistencies multiplied. For example, Queen Cersei's anti-dragon ballistas were devastatingly rapid and accurate in Episode 4, but almost completely ineffective in the next episode, when Daenerys and her last remaining dragon, Drogon, easily defeated a large army and fleet armed with dozens of them - and the ballistas did not even come close to scoring a single hit.
More importantly, count me among those who found Daenerys' transformation into a mass-murdering villain to be implausible. It just simply does not make any sense for her to slaughter an entire city-full of innocent civilians after that city had already surrendered and the war was won.
It is also inconsistent with Daenerys' previously established character. The point is not that she was ever an ideal ruler. Far from it. As I repeatedly pointed out in previous writings about the show, the Dragon Queen could certainly be faulted for her love of power, and for her lack of any institutional vision for how to accomplish her objective of "breaking the wheel." Unlike Senator Elizabeth Warren, I don't doubt that Daenerys wanted to be a "dictator."
It is also true that she could be harsh with enemies, as with her crucifixion of the slave masters of Meereen, her burning of the Dothraki khaals, and her execution by fire of Lord Randyll Tarly and his son. On the other hand, she had also liberated many thousands of people from slavery, and at times risked her life for the sake of the common people, even in situations where there was no self-interested reason to do so. In Season 7, she accepts Tyrion Lannister's (probably wrongheaded) advice to avoid attacking King's Landing in order to avoid large-scale civilian casualties (though the events of the final battle of Season 8 ironically show that she could easily have taken the city without harming large numbers of civilians). Even in Season 8, she again took risks for the sake of others in the Battle of Winterfell, when her forces played a key part in defeating the "Night King" and his army of undead zombies.
As for her previous questionable killings, they can be faulted for lack of due process, and for the methods of execution. But until the last couple episodes, all of the victims were themselves brutal oppressors, such as the Masters and the Khaals. Despite understandable viewer sympathy for them, Randyll and Dickon Tarly were not exceptions. After all, they had just gotten through plundering their own homeland of Highgarden, ensuring that numerous peasants were likely to suffer privation in the coming winter. Flawed though her earlier decisions were, Daenerys had never previously massacred innocent civilians, and certainly not when there was no strategic reason for doing so.
As for the argument that she "lost it" because of various recent setbacks, it makes little sense in light of the fact that she did not go insane when she suffered much worse ordeals in previous seasons, including being raped and enslaved, among other things.
There were far more plausible ways to transform Daenerys into a villain, if the showrunners wanted to go there. Here is one that occurred to me immediately after the episode in which she burns King's Landing:
Daenerys' forces destroy the enemy fleet and most of Queen Cersei's army (just like in the actual episode). But Cersei manages to barricade herself in the Red Keep with a relatively small force (not enough to pose a serious offensive threat) and many thousands of trapped civilians. She refuses to surrender. Daenerys orders Drogon to burn down the Keep, killing Cersei, but also all the civilians. This is villainous, but a reasonable extension of her previously developed character (she is willing to be harsh when necessary to defeat her enemies, a trait perhaps augmented by anger and frustration).
Although I personally would have preferred a plotline in which Daenerys remains a relatively "good" ruler, but still proves unworthy of the power of the Iron Throne, I recognize that it was entirely possible to go the other way, and still have a strong conclusion to her character arc. The show-runners just chose a bad way to carry out this plan.
The failure is notable not only because it undermined the development of a central character, but because it muddied the series' message about the dangers of power. If Daenerys failed to become an admirable ruler because of a fit of madness or because of a defect in her character, that suggests the problem is not really "the wheel" of power, but merely the personality of the person on the throne. If her self-control were a little better, everything would have turned out fine! The series' message would have been more powerful if she failed despite not becoming a villain, or if she arrived at that villainy through decisions that viewers could regard as reasonable at the time she made them.
The mishandling of this crucial character story was just the most significant of many mistakes made in the course of the two final seasons, which were unduly disorganized and rushed - possibly because of the showrunners' desire to move on to other projects. It's unfortunate that the series had to end in this way. Hopefully, George R.R. Martin will develop the conclusion better when and if he completes the final two installments in the book series. In the meantime, the flaws of the last two seasons should not be allowed to completely overshadow Game of Thrones' impressive achievements.
UPDATE: For those who may be interested, I included links to all my pre-2019 writings on Game of Thrones here. I also wrote two previous posts on issues that came up during the final season: a critique of Elizabeth Warren's take on Daenerys, and a post on how the series illustrates dangers of "personalist" political regimes. I also recently did a podcast on the politics of the series with Prof. Christopher Robichaud of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.