How Game of Thrones Made Monsters of Us All

How Game of Thrones Made Monsters of Us All

In its final episodes, Game of Thrones achieves something truly worthy of note: it forces its audience to reckon with the reality that we all too easily indulge in the worst aspects of human nature.

Fans are quite outraged, and they’re making their feelings known. Some of these criticisms are certainly valid. The show’s finale was certainly a mess. Developments that would normally take up an entire episode—such as the decision to transition the Six Kingdoms (the Starks got their independence after all) away from primogeniture and towards a Holy Roman Empire-style elective monarchy—were compressed into a mere fifteen minutes. Numerous plot lines were dropped entirely. Character development seasons in the making seemed to come undone for arbitrary reasons. All in all, it could have certainly been handled better. Four more episodes or so could have helped.

One charge that should be disputed, however, is that Daenerys’ sudden transformation into a mad queen came of out left field. Was it a rushed? Perhaps so. But was it really unexpected?

Absolutely not. It was seasons in the making, and was abundantly clear all the while. It says something about the show’s audience that this development went either partially unnoticed or, more worryingly, was conveniently ignored.

It’s not like it wasn’t noticeable When Hizdahr zo Loraq returns from Yunkai with Daenerys’ men, for example, he happily reports that masters of Yunkai have agreed to cede power to a council of elders composed of freedmen and former slave masters. All they ask in return is that they be allowed to reopen their city’s fighting pits. Though slaves used to fight other slaves to the death in these arenas, it would now be freedmen who would fight each other out of their own free will. The pit fighters themselves desire to see the pit reopened, explains Loraq, adding that these fights are an important part of the traditions of Yunkai and Meereen (the book series expands upon this, clarifying that these fights play a religious role in the region’s culture).

Daenerys is entirely obstinate to this rather reasonable request. She states that she “does not respect the tradition of human cockfighting.” Loraq probably should have caught on to this attitude moments earlier, for when he tells Daenerys that “politics is the art of compromise,” her immediate reply is deafening: “I am not a politician. I am a queen.”

That viewers of the show did not express concern at this behavior is indicative. Was this really the Daenerys people believed would free the Seven Kingdoms from tyranny and ill-rule? Someone who so casually disregards the wishes of the people she frees and show open contempt towards their cultural traditions? For the implication of Daenerys’ words were abundantly clear: she essentially stated that her word is law. She does not negotiate or compromise. What she says is good is good, and what she deems forbidden is forbidden.

In the show’s finale, Jon Snow confronts Daenerys for the massacre she carried out. That she has ordered the executions of all men who served the Lannister cause, even if they threw down their weapons in surrender to Daenerys’ army. She attempts to justify it, leading to an exchange that by now should seem all too expected:

Jon: You can forgive all of them, make them see they made a mistake. Make them understand. Please, Dany.

Daenerys: We can't hide behind small mercies. The world we need won't be built by men loyal to the world we have.

Jon: The world we need is a world of mercy. It has to be.

Daenerys: And it will be. It's not easy to see something that's never been before. A good world.

Jon: How do you know? How do you know it'll be good?

Daenerys: Because I know what is good. And so do you.

Jon: I don't.

Daenerys: You do. You do. You've always known.

Jon: What about everyone else? All the other people who think they know what's good.

Daenerys: They don't get to choose.

It is a powerful exchange, and it is with her own words that Daenerys seals her fate. The young girl who set out to liberate the world from slavery and oppression decided in the end, out of a misguided desire to bring peace and unity to the world, to strip people of the greatest, most invaluable freedom of all—their own God-given conscience. Viewers probably shouldn’t have been surprised though at this turn of events: the hints were there all along.

The Reflection in the Mirror

Why then, are some fans so surprised that this came to be? The answer lies in an exchange that Jon Snow had with Tyrion Lannister before seeking out Daenerys.

Tyrion: Would you have burned the city down?

Jon: I don't know.

Tyrion [SCOFFS] Yes, you do. You won't say because you don't want to betray her, but you know. […] When she murdered the slavers of Astapor, I'm sure no one but the slavers complained. After all, they were evil men. When she crucified hundreds of Meereenese nobles, who could argue? They were evil men. The Dothraki khals she burned alive? They would have done worse to her. Everywhere she goes, evil men die and we cheer her for it. And she grows more powerful and more sure that she is good and right. She believes her destiny is to build a better world for everyone. If you believed that, if you truly believed it, wouldn't you kill whoever stood between you and paradise?

Tyrion addresses Jon here, but he might as well have been addressing the show’s viewers directly. That, in a way, is the maddening brilliance of the show’s finale: it presents us, the viewers, with a mirror, and makes us to recognize that we too have partaken what has been going. We, as viewers, celebrated Daenerys’ brutal triumphs over her enemies, tweeting out things like “YAS SLAY QUEEN” in unabashed support. We cheered Arya on in her quest for vengeance, speculating who on her list would be next to be executed. We sat engrossed observing the intrigue in King’s Landing, keeping score on who would be next to die. This, of course, in addition to the rape, torture, decapitation, flaying, incest, crucifixion, and other such barbarities that was shown on air yet people kept watching entranced. Only in the end, by forcing the audience to take the perspective of an army massacring a city, does the show snap people to attention.

It is surely an indicator of how much our own societal sense of morality has degenerated that what was conceived as an outright condemnation of war, greed, tyranny, selfishness, and short-sightedness became a widely-applauded celebration of man’s worst facets and dark desires.

Thankfully, once again, the lesson of A Song of Ice and Fire (and, by extension, though somewhat less clearly, Game of Thrones) is that we humans possess a capacity for both good and evil. A better world, the sort that both Jon and Daenerys dreamed of, is indeed possible. But it is only through acts of mercy, forgiveness, and compassion, not the perpetuation of violence, cruelty, and oppression.

With the end of the television show, viewers might wish to take the opportunity to reflect upon this. And, while they’re at it, probably start reading the original books to see for themselves all the details that they missed out on.

Carlos Roa is the senior editor of The National Interest.

Image: HBO.