The Death of Revolutionary Thought: What the Game of Thrones Finale Revealed About Ourselves
By Rocio Mercedes Alvarez (May 29, 2019)
Over a week has passed. The series is wrapped up and millions of Game of Thrones fans worldwide have either had their hearts broken or their decades-long theories confirmed. To say the final season was controversial is an understatement, especially if you followed the countless super-fans on a variety of social media platforms (Youtube, Twitter, Facebook, and Westeros specific forums)—shout out to all the amazing Youtubers who got us “through the loooong night” that was the year and a half break between seasons 7 and 8.
If you followed these super-fans and “casual fans” throughout season 8, or read anything online about season 8, you’d note that much of the controversy was aimed at two specific individuals: David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, the show runners and creators of the hit HBO series (or “D&D”, as they are “affectionately” called by the fandom).
The fandom wasn’t necessarily angered by the “major beats” of the plot—which A Song of Ice and Fire creator George R.R. Martin confirmed would most likely be analogous in the book series from which the show is adapted—but rather with the pacing of the story. Many felt the story was too rushed to make certain events believable (e.g. that Jon Snow and Daenerys had a meaningful love affair beyond a one “boat” stand and a magic dragon ride) or to evoke the right emotion when needed (e.g. the death of Daenerys at the hands of her “lover” Jon Snow). Given that it was revealed that HBO would have thrown all the money in the world at Game of Thrones to avoid its hasty conclusion, and that D&D declined the offer, the criticism certainly seems warranted: it was their direction and their version of the story that made it to screen in these final three seasons. But I’m not here to add to that critique. What is far more fascinating is when the microscope is turned onto the fandom itself, and what it reveals about our own global society, its power structures, how they work and how we, its flesh and blood inhabitants, react to them.
Martin has often stated in various interviews that his series should not be read as an allegory to real world issues or crises, despite wonderful commentary and theories to the contrary (e.g. that the threat of the White Walkers can be viewed as our current threat of Climate Change or that the series offers an underlying anti-war sentiment, etc.). But does Martin get to choose how we—the viewers, the readers, the audience—interpret his work? This question could take us down a rabbit hole of debates within philosophy of art and aesthetic theory on whether the interpretation of art ought to consider the author/artist’s intentions for the work (intentionalism) or the work itself, independent of the author/artist’s intentions (anti-intentionalism). To be sure, it is an interesting question and debate, of which I would recommend anyone interested in it to investigate, but I’m not here to contribute to that either. If you must know, my stance lies somewhere in the middle.
Knowing what I know about Martin’s background, one would be hard pressed to separate his own political sentiments from the work. For those of you who don’t know, Martin certainly could be described as anti-war, being a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, and he has stated that he could empathize with an exiled princess, growing up in obscurity and relative poverty where once his family had been influential and wealthy. But there are elements of his work (and by extension what we saw in the show), intentional or not, that ought to make us all who have enjoyed and continue to enjoy his work pause: an important depiction on the strategies of political change.
Around the mid-point of season 8, fans became increasingly more disgruntled with the direction of the story (episode 3 “The Long Night” and episode 4 “The Last of the Starks”). A lot of it had to do with the still-opaque conclusion of the White Walker storyline, and then the “beginning” of “Daenerys’ turn” towards the “dark-side”. Admittedly, that fourth episode hurt. Our favorite characters had just come together to defeat the Night King, his generals of White Walkers, and the Army of the Dead only to slide back into their old, toxic habits—I’m looking at you Jaime and Sansa! Up to that point most of us believed that these wonderfully rich characters had carved a new life for themselves and shedde the past attitudes and motivations that often got them in trouble, for the common good. We were wrong.
It is also around this time that more criticism was hitting the internet, ranging from how D&D were trash for not giving viewers sufficient insight into the White Walkers and their motivations to intersectional critiques about Daenerys as a female leader with tinges of entitlement, white privilege and white savior troupes. What many fans have enjoyed about the series is its realism at the heart of its more fantastical elements. Why should we expect to get any kind of resolution from death? Death comes, often with no reason or explanation, no matter how many times we try to convince ourselves that “everything happens for a reason”—reminding me of Jaqen H’ghar’s poignant line to Arya in the House of Black and White: “Does death only come for the wicked?” No. And why would we critique the patriarchal attitudes toward Dany as “The Mad Queen” within the context of the story, which tells us over and over again that the majority of Westerosi society is patriarchal. Did we forget Cersei’s storyline? Critics seemed to also forget that whatever entitlement Dany had as the sole surviving member of House Targaryen ended with the annihilation of her house approximately fifteen years before the start of the current story. The power she gained throughout the story was from her own efforts, beginning with the birth of her dragons. As for the racial critiques, we ought to remember that Dany’s family are foreigners to Westeros as well. The Valyrian people are eastern, and according to some super-fans perhaps descendants of the even further east and older societies of Yi-Ti and the Great Empire of the Dawn. Dany shouldn’t be seen as an outsider to the inhabitants of Essos. She is one of them—perhaps an albino—but she is the blood of Old Valyria. Furthermore, when has anyone’s flexing of white privilege or white savior troupe ever asked the people “Do you want to be free?” She demonstrated her power in “culturally relevant” ways. The Unsullied, the former slaves of Astapor, Yunkai and Meereen, and the Dothraki chose, in their freedom, to support her agenda of “breaking the wheel” in the societies they found themselves in. Not particularly keen on nor convinced by these shallow commentaries, I began to embrace the dystopian future ahead.
Taking a cue from Derrick Bell’s concept of racial realism and the permanence of racism, I began to look differently at the events unfolding in Westeros.
On Bell’s view there is a permanence to the institution of racism in the United States that no amount of legislative, legal, or social reform will do away with. As I understand Bell, the sooner we understand that fact (i.e., the permanence of racism), the sooner we can develop better strategies for living in a society that maintains and perpetuates racism on a permanent basis. Am I saying that Westeros has a problem with racism like the U.S.? Absolutely not, though they certainly have their fair share of xenophobia (just ask Gilly, Tormund, Wun Wun, Daenerys, Missandei, Grey Worm or Qhono). What I’m saying is that Westeros, and perhaps the entire Ice and Fire world has a permanence of oppressive oligarchical rule, whether seen through the noble houses of Westeros, or the nobility of enslavers in Slaver’s Bay. Sure there are the Nine Free Cities in Essos, but their oligarchies resemble our own with powerful capitalist merchants, financial and religious institutions. Still, for the most part, Westeros and Essos have a permanence of oligarchical rule. By the end of the fourth episode I was convinced that Martin and/or D&D had read some of Bell’s work as the story looked like it was leading to the return of a permanent state of oligarchy. Then episode 5 “The Bells” happened (perhaps aptly titled?). Daenerys torched King’s Landing, along with most of its occupants, and for that week, between “The Bells” and the season/series finale, “The Iron Throne,” I thought, “She’s going to do it! She’s going to break the motherfucking wheel!”
See, Daenerys was the only true revolutionary leader of the series. Cersei told us as much back in season 7, episode 3 “The Queen’s Justice”. In her pursuit of a successful alliance between herself and the Iron Bank, Cersei said, “From what I gather, she [Daenerys] considers herself more of a revolutionary than a monarch. In your experience how do bankers usually fair with revolutionaries? The Lannisters owe the Iron Bank quite a lot of money, but Lannisters always pay their debts. Do former slaves, or Dothrakis, or dragons?” Daenerys’ revolutionary tactics in Essos were palatable to viewers and readers because they targeted oligarchs that we didn’t have much sympathy for. No one’s going to shed a tear for sadistic “noble” enslavers or a group of Khals and their blood riders who just threatened to rape her to death. Most fans only started to question Daenerys’ tactics when she turned, or threatened to turn, them on the oligarchs that we had sympathy for, and the people who keep them in power. (Much can be said about this subjective characteristic, but I’ll set that aside for the moment.)
For many fans, Daenerys’ targeting of innocent people in King’s Landing was unforgivable, both for her character and D&D. They speculated that Dany would have to die for her crime and complained that D&D had not provided enough character development that could sufficiently convince us that Daenerys—The Breaker of Chains and all that—could be capable of mass murder. I beg to differ. In a short scene between Daenerys and Tyrion just before her destruction of King’s Landing, Daenerys herself explains why the people are not innocent, effectively maintaining character continuity.
Tyrion: The people who live there, they’re not your enemies. They’re innocents, like the one’s you liberated in Meereen.
Daenerys: In Meereen the slaves turned on the masters and liberated the city themselves the moment I arrived.
Tyrion: They’re afraid. Anyone who resists Cersei will see his family butchered. You can’t expect them to be heroes. They’re hostages.
Daenerys: They are. In a tyrant’s grip. Whose fault is that? Mine?
Tyrion: What does it matter whose fault it is? Thousands of children will die if the city burns!
Daenerys: Your sister knows how to use her enemies weaknesses against them. That’s what she thinks our mercy is: weakness.
Tyrion: I beg you, my Queen—
Daenerys: But she’s wrong. Mercy is our strength. Our mercy towards future generations who will never again be held hostage by a tyrant.
In other words, the “innocent” people of King’s Landing were her enemies, and she explicitly states here, and in the finale, that her calculated actions and future actions would be for the betterment of future generations. As Dany said, she would do whatever was necessary to ensure future generations didn’t have to live under tyrants. Given Tyrion’s horrendous strategy to date that arguably led to the loss of two of her dragon-children, nearly all of her true allies, as well as the growing betrayal and second-guessing of her remaining supposed allies, few options were left to make her agenda a reality.
Tyrion’s appeal to her by attempting to equate the liberation of King’s Landing with Meereen was quickly shot down, and it should be obvious to us too, that those two situations are vastly different. The people of King’s Landing did nothing to liberate themselves from Cersei’s power and cruelty. Cersei didn’t lift a finger to stop the murder of Robert’s bastards, let the people starve, empowered the Faith Militant, blew up the Sept of Balor and they did nothing. Fast forward to Dany’s arrival in Westeros, the people either knew or should have known that she would have their backs in a rebellion against Cersei, and again they did nothing—actually they continued to support Cersei and look to her for protection. Tyrion says they were scared, and therefore can’t be expected to be “hereos”—sure, tell that to the slaves of Yunkai and Meereen! Varys, on numerous occasions has said that “men decide where power resides” so how could we fault Dany for viewing the people of King’s Landing as enemies? The people of King’s Landing are not innocent. The people of King’s Landing are complacent. Have they been manipulated into this complacency? Possibly. But that doesn’t absolve them from the complacency.
Still the majority of fans viewed Daenerys’ actions as morally wrong, unforgivable, irrational, and “dark” because, I suspect, they cling to a particular conception of innocence. In many ways this situation is reminiscent of America’s inability to reckon with its historical and present day racism and exploitation. When we think about contemporary arguments against reparations for slavery or indigenous genocide, the go to response is “I had nothing to do with that…I am innocent”. But many of these “innocents” fail to observe the historical and contemporary impact of those policies and how they have, and continue to unfairly benefit from them in a structural sense. Like the population of King’s Landing, the vast majority of Americans not only don’t give a damn about “the games the high lords play,” but they are truly apathetic towards radical revolution and an overthrow of those systems and institutions that envelop them with the warm blanket of complacency, settling for the illusion of “gradual change”. For Dany, and anyone who is anti-racist, anti-war, anti-capitalism, and against the oligarchies and complacency that keeps those oligarchs and the institutions that maintain and perpetuate such systems, there is no innocence when it comes to explicit or implicit support of rotten systems and institutions… you are the enemy.
Now at this point you may be thinking, “But the children! What about the children?? Surely they’re innocent in all of this.” Are they? Consider for a moment that since the Civil Rights Movement it has been argued, by many a conservative, liberal and those in between, that our society is post-racial. Let’s not just flat out laugh at this preposterous statement, but take it as a serious position. How then do we explain the continuation of racism in our current society, young and old? Furthermore, let’s not pretend that the American empire has not and does not continue to systematically murder, enslave (or comply with or abet the murder and enslavement of) other people’s children and innocents. How disgusting are we as a culture to be morally offended at the actions in a fictional drama yet have nothing to say in the real world, about real systems, real institutions and real people? Like King’s Landing, the American empire is crumbling all around us yet we continue to bury our heads in the sand, clinging to the absurd notion that if we just keep our heads down and proclaim our innocence, we’ll be safe.
In discussing this piece with my mom she rightfully questioned, “Well, what makes Dany’s actions different from regime change?” I think this can be addressed by recognizing different forms of regime change. Cersei effected regime change in King’s Landing, but it was selfishly motivated to increase her own power and authority at little cost to herself. You can argue, “But she lost Jaime and their three incest-born children.” True, though it is often theorized, more so in the books than the series, that Cersei’s seemingly unconditional love for Jaime and her children are actually rooted in her own narcissism and the proximity to power that she gains from them—and let’s not forget, Jaime went back to her! On the other hand, Daenerys’ desire for regime change was mostly rooted in her own experiences of exile, abuse, and enslavement and not wanting to see others treated similarly. Yes, she had a sense of entitlement, mainly through the education of her abusive brother, but also because she believed it was her destiny to use her power in the liberation of oppressed peoples. She was their Queen not by right of inheritance, but because as Missandei stated, “She’s the Queen we chose”. In this context, her slaughter of King’s Landing was a mercy—a mercy to those unwilling to liberate themselves, and a mercy to future generations. Daenerys was a revolutionary, and just like our real world revolutionaries, she was shamefully portrayed (for us and the characters) as a Hitler-esque fascist, assassinated, and her movement neutralized by the FBI and CIA of Westeros, the noble houses.
Within the past few days popular philosopher, Slavoj Zizek writing for The Independent, and Matthew Yglesias writing for Vox, have offered similar points of critique—Zizek on Dany’s role as a revolutionary and our aversion to such agents of change and Yglesias on the supposed innocence of King’s Landing. Zizek and Yglesias are certainly on the right track, but for whatever reason, do not take us far enough in what these critiques can reveal about ourselves, our own global society, its power structures, how they work and how we react to them.
Fan reaction to Daenerys’ final story arc reveals that many of us fail to see the nuance in strategies for real change. In fact, what is revealed is that our society is so entrenched in neoliberal ideology that we cheer for revolutionary change when it comes at no cost to ourselves and what or whom we hold dear, but as soon as revolutionary change gets too close we recoil, drudging out all the moral and social scientific arguments we’ve been taught by our neoliberal institutions. The kind of exceptionalism arguments that tout Just War Theory principles when aggression is leveled at those we’ve defined as “innocent”, but fly by the wayside when directed at those whom we feel less connected with. The kind of arguments that claim certain timeframes and goal posts need to be met so that we can have gradual change. The kind of arguments that suggest there is a right way and a wrong way to approach social change. What the final season of Game of Thrones has revealed is the death of revolutionary thought and the complacency of a decaying empire stubbornly and oppressively trying to retain its power. And, if there was ever a time where the world needed truly revolutionary thought it is now.