The finale of Game of Thrones opens in the wake of a dragon-fire genocide. Ash is falling like snow on to the corpse of a child, a scorched man wanders aimless, another sits in a peeling corridor and weeps. Our hero Jon Snow and our philosopher king, Tyrion Lannister, step through the scene as tourists, faces stupid with horror, unknowing parties of what lay before them.
This show has always been about the machinations behind the scenes of politics. When Tywin Lannister has The Mountain slaughter his own people, and burn their villages to the ground, this is a direct allusion to the military strategy of ‘scorched earth’, used most famously by Joseph Stalin to force the retreat of the Nazi army by destroying Russian crops and towns and starving the invaders out. It is a ruthless tactic, banned by the Geneva Conventions in 1977, yet we see a drawl Tywin discuss strategy with his war council, we know him to be collaborative and methodical, we understand the involvement of the men surrounding him, and we are convinced of their collective moral culpability.
In the penultimate episode, Daenerys Targaryen tells Jon Snow that she only knows two methods to win followers: fear and love. When audiences complain about the later seasons of the show lacking in its former political dexterity, this might be the sticking point. Jon is neither a politician, or a military strategist—he has proven again and again to be incompetent at both, choosing to build rapport with enemies, or else stick them with the pointy end. Yet here Daenerys is, colluding on how she might conquer a country with a man dumbstruck by his own conviction to stand by her no matter what. This is not a war council meeting, this is a war crime soliloquy.
There is a reason why the absolute monarchies and tyrannical dictatorships in our fiction often ring false. Lord Voldemort in Harry Potter is a caricature of Adolf Hitler, venomous from the start, enlisting cowering followers; the cunning, the cowardly, the cackling mad. It is hotly debated why the German people followed Hitler, why they toasted to his success in beer halls, why they rallied to his cause—but there is substantial evidence that it wasn’t always, or even often, fear that hurried them.
German-American political scholar Hannah Arendt rather credits the rise of the Third Reich to populism, a push to enchant the apathetic, to claim votes from those who feel ignored or sidelined by their representatives, to aggravate a rise of the middle with broad strokes ideology about class and race. In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt tells us that individuals, especially those who were politically indifferent, were subsumed by the Government’s agenda. She uses the example of Jewish people pulled from jobs which were then handed to other German citizens, thus redefining them as accomplices in Government crimes. In totalitarianism, then, complicity is a tool of manipulation.
Yet our fiction and our history books both are filled with very singular tyrants, working to dominate a vulnerable people with terror. After a series of defeats, and while Russia ran rampant with plague, Ivan the Terrible declared an absolute monarchy, then sacked the city of Novgorod to prevent the defection of noblemen, slaughtering his own people. After uniting the Mongol warrior tribes, Genghis Kahn tore through the East and West with unprecedented savagery. Daenerys’ evolution is littered with references to such oppressive rulers. Her son, for example, was to be the ‘the stallion who mounts the world’, as Genghis Khan once did. She is all encompassing. The shot in the show’s finale in which she addresses her own Nuremberg rally signals a culmination of these histories.
Tywin Lannister came to show us that war crime doesn’t happen in a vacuum, that it is a sociological affliction rather than a psychological fault, that it can operate in full view of the people and still retain their support. Daenerys, however, bears the burden of a somewhat reductive narrative, that our history is a succession of autocratic villains forcing us into self-destruction. She stands alone in the finale, relishing in her personal conquest.
In Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics, Stephen Greenblatt suggests Shakespeare’s Richard III ‘manages to throw a garish light on an unnerving fact: even those at the centre of the innermost circles of power very often have no idea what is about to happen.’ Shakespeare and the creators of Game of Thrones have this in common. Tyrion’s own resignation from his position as Hand of the Queen in the aftermath of King’s Landing echoes Buckingham’s retreat from King Richard after he is instructed to kill innocent princes. He is a morally compromised figure who loves his sovereign, but still has an individual conscience.
Jon and Tyrion both are framed in the finale as ignorant of Daenerys’ intentions, their inability to understand the High Valyrian of her final dictator’s address emphasising this fact. The expectation is that their culpability is absolved by their refusal to participate any further in her schemes. Their participation at all in her ascension makes their decision to rebel against her all the more heroic. Their love for her turns their perceived duty into sacrifice.
Their bald-faced ignorance feels comically disruptive in an age where politicians are on instagram. More than ever before, we are exposed to the ideologies of political leaders, and we have come to understand these ideologies as shared, not only by an inner sanctum of ham-headed strong-arms, but by the people. Brexit was voted in by referendum. Donald Trump promised his wall to a legion of fans. Scott ‘I stopped the boats’ Morrison was recently elected as Prime Minister. In contemporary democracies especially, our collective astonishment is less often turned to the amoral actions of a leader, but rather to the participants, to ourselves.
Before he plunges a dagger into her gut, Jon embraces Daenerys, with his mind fixated on morality. He asks, ’how do you know what’s good?’ She replies that she just knows, that she is her own moral authority. He then asks, what about all the other people ‘who think they know what’s good?’
‘They don’t have a choice,’ she says.
By the furrow of his brow, we can tell that it is in this moment Jon makes a choice—to kill Daenerys. The choice is not made in isolation, it is marked with three conversations. First with Arya who warns him of what will happen to his sister if Daenerys survives, then with Tyrion who remarks that Jon has pledged himself to protect the ‘realms of men’, and finally with Daenerys, who makes it clear that the hallmark of her tyranny is not found in the resolve of her leadership, but in the complete suppression of any opposition to it.
In the wake of Daenerys’ death, there is a sense of flagrant restoration, the tension is broken, we are allowed to laugh again. It is only three weeks later, but King’s Landing is notably filmed in pockets of sunshine, away from the scourge of what came before. Tyrion adjusting the chairs in the small council room is a delightful reflection of how we might imagine the days after a war is won—a bureaucrat just getting on with things. If Game of Thrones was ever intended to be a depiction of what happens in the shadows of politics, it chooses to end by diffusing these shadows with light.
Whether or not these characters deserve that light, whether they earned it with penance, or permitted cruelties to take it, is another thing. Imprisoned for Daenerys’ assassination, Jon asks Tyrion if what he did was right? It is a question left hanging in the air, thick in its suggestion that morality is never fixed, that we are all just guessing.
‘What we did,’ Tyrion corrects him.