What “Game of Thrones” Could Have Taught Us About Electoral Politics
“I’m not sure I get a vote,” Ser Davos Seaworth, also known as the Onion Knight, says, in the final episode of “Game of Thrones,” as a group of characters seated in a row chairs, in an arena called the Dragon Pit, in the ruined city of King’s Landing, try to decide who the new ruler of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros should be. (There are spoilers here; there also appears to have been an errant water bottle in the scene.) The answer, by any logic, would be no—Davos should not get a vote. Why should he? In the feudal terms under which “Game of Thrones” largely operated, he is just a vassal (originally of House Baratheon, later of House Stark). Some of the chairs are occupied by the paramount lords and ladies of the aforementioned Seven Kingdoms, but others are occupied by other vassals who happen to have had a lot of screen time, like Samwell Tarly, who suggests that everybody—the people!—should have a vote, a proposal that is treated as a joke. The alternative that all the assembled settle on, at the suggestion of Tyrion Lannister—who had just been pulled out of a prison cell, where his now-dead queen, Daenerys Targaryen, had confined him, for treason—is something like the prince-elector system that operated in the Holy Roman Empire during its more medieval centuries. The introduction of that system could have been a compelling resolution to eight seasons of war and plotting, but it was bungled, in part, because Ser Davos’s implicit question—Just who are the electors, and how powerful a lord or lady do you need to be to qualify?—is not resolved. (Fifteen votes are cast, which is more than the number of kingdoms but a lot less than the number of vassal lords still at large.) And it also fails because the choice that the electors make is not convincingly explained. A show that had gained much of its strength from seriously considering the sources of a ruler’s legitimate power didn’t do so at the crucial moment, when a ruler was actually being chosen.
The previous episode ended with other variations on the question of power: How can you tell if you’ve won a war, and how do you know that it’s over? How do you persuade a population to not only surrender—something that the people of King’s Landing, the capital of the Seven Kingdoms, had already done before Daenerys decided to level their city by firebombing it with Drogon, her dragon—but to submit to and eventually support a new ruler? There is plenty of evidence from recent real-world history to suggest that airpower is a dangerous temptation that can lead even well-meaning military planners into very dark places. I’ve been reading “Our Man,” George Packer’s biography of Richard Holbrooke, the diplomat whose early career was spent in Vietnam, when American involvement in the war there was escalating and the United States had persuaded itself that bombing cities in the North would somehow lead to the dissolution of the Viet Cong in the South. Just after last week’s episode of “Game of Thrones” aired, I got to this passage in Packer’s book:
We prefer our wars quick and decisive, concluding with a surrender
ceremony, and we like firepower more than we want to admit, while
counterinsurgency requires supreme restraint (its apostles in Vietnam
used to say, “The best weapon for killing is a knife. If you can’t use
a knife, then a gun. The worst weapon is airpower”) and is, according
to the experts, 80 percent political.
Arya Stark might agree with the part about the knife—a couple of episodes back, she used a Valyrian-steel dagger to kill the Night King, which caused his army of walking-dead wights to crumble into dust. Or she might not. Assassinations are rarely clarifying, even in Westeros. (And certainly not in Vietnam, where American support for the coup against President Ngo Dinh Diem and the more knife-level, targeted-killing-focussed Phoenix Program became both practical and moral morasses.)
Daenerys’s army didn’t crumble—she had the marauding Dothrakis and the disciplined, ideologically committed Unsullied on her side. She also had a utopian vision of the kind that can lead to industrial-scale murder. She was both a charismatic leader and, as the daughter of Aerys II, also known as the Mad King, had a claim to legitimacy as the heir to the Iron Throne, which her father had held before he was overthrown by Robert Baratheon, who had previously been Lord Paramount of the Stormlands. (Robert’s out-of-wedlock son Gendry, recently legitimized by Daenerys, is one of the electors in the finale; legitimacy is the show’s obsession in every sense of the word.) There was a threat to her claim in the person of Jon Snow, who was believed to be the illegitimate son of Eddard Stark, the late paramount lord of the North, but, it turned out, was really Aegon Targaryen—and ahead of her in the succession, as the legitimate male-line grandson of the Mad King—though very few people knew this. Jon assassinates Daenerys, his aunt and former lover, the viewer is led to believe, because he thinks that she will keep on destroying cities. But this act is entirely divorced from any depiction of the crisis of legitimacy that their relationship has set off. In the end, it’s not clear how many of the people who will have to assess the assassination—the lords and ladies in the chairs in the Dragon Pit, who also need to decide his fate; the various armies; the civilian population—have found out that Jon Snow is Aegon. How did Jon, when Daenerys’s death was discovered, a scene we didn’t see, explain and defend his actions, and to whom? (As the Washington Post’s Alyssa Rosenberg and my colleague Sarah Larson point out, this season has felt rushed, with the plotting frequently foreshortened.) How might he have presented himself as a liberator to the Unsullied and the Dothraki—and to his own Northern forces, who eagerly sacked King’s Landing while Daenerys was torching the place—without blaming them for war crimes? Why wouldn’t they assume that he was simply a usurper or an angry ex-boyfriend? Was it only by ignoring his own claim to the throne that he could make the point that any monarch who acts as Daenerys did is not legitimate—not just one who tried to pretend that her nephew wasn’t the true heir? Was that point even made, outside of a small circle? (Jon, speaking alone with Tyrion in his cell, says, “It doesn’t feel right.”) In other words, what was the public, or political, story of the murder?
These are hard issues—legitimacy, counterinsurgency, propaganda, what wars do to civilians and combatants—in which “Game of Thrones” has been immersed. Robert’s Rebellion, which brought down the Mad King, was, we were told, based on a lie about the king’s son having kidnapped and raped a Stark. (The two were Jon’s parents, and secretly married.) The mere giving of credibility to the rumor that Cersei Lannister’s children with King Robert Baratheon were not legitimate set off the War of the Five Kings. Two of those kings were brothers, one of whom, Stannis Baratheon, tried for quick-kill fixes by murdering first his brother Renly and then his daughter, Shireen; the latter act caused the bulk of his troops to abandon him in horror—a reminder that the appearance of what might be called majesty is not irrelevant, even in a feudal system. Nor is the function of consent. (The power of the later-season High Sparrow and his religious followers provided another such reminder—before Cersei immolated them, anyway.) Power vacuums, in Westeros, tend to lead to a surfeit of competing claims. In the final episode, it produced a row of chairs, haphazardly inhabited, at the council where Ser Davos thinks it’s at least possible he’ll get a vote. Meanwhile, Grey Worm, who has real power, in the form of an army, seems to assume that he is disenfranchised, telling the others, “Choose, then.”
The solution that Tyrion comes up with represents a deep misunderstanding of the role of narrative in establishing legitimacy. The king, he says, should be Bran Stark—“Bran the Broken”—because he has the best story. He was pushed out of a window by Jaime Lannister, and survived, and can “warg” into—basically, psychically inhabit—birds, and thus fly. Indeed, Bran has, in his possession, all the stories, because he has become the Three-Eyed Raven, meaning that he can see into the past and also have visions. And what in the world, Tyrion asks, is more powerful than a good story?
That narrative power is real, as in the case of Shireen, but it came not from having a story but from telling it and persuading others of its truth. And we didn’t see a trace of that in Bran’s ascension. He generally fails to speak in anything other than fractured, gnomic phrases. He doesn’t tend to connect. And, to the extent that he filled people with awe, it was in dark rooms in Winterfell, the Starks’ castle. How do the other lords even know his story? And yet what’s frustrating is that the choice of Bran could have worked brilliantly if he had, indeed, become the teller of the story of himself—if, for example, he had addressed each of the paramount lords and ladies who served as electors in a way that revealed that he knew their secrets and desires. He might have taken a turn that showed him to be regal or ruthless, doling out just the right favors or threats. (After so many lords have been killed, there’s a lot to redistribute.)
Still, everyone votes for Bran, and the unanimity obscures the question of who and how many of those present actually had a right to serve as electors in this and future selections of a king. (Bran, as a result of that fall out of the window, relies on a wheelchair and cannot have children.) Or, rather, near-unanimity: Bran’s sister, Sansa Stark, says that the North, where the Starks are paramount, will be an independent kingdom. (She has, sensibly, brought an army with her to King’s Landing.) Her subsequent staging of a coronation for herself as Queen in the North, seen in a montage at the end of the episode, demonstrates that she has a sense of the relationship between power and show—of the importance of public narratives. In contrast, the scenes we saw of Bran as king—popping into a Small Council meeting to observe that he doesn’t yet have a spymaster or a top legal counsel, and, upon being told that candidates will be produced, leaving to see if he can have a vision of Drogon, who’s flown far away—suggest weakness joined with inscrutability. Some commentators asked whether we were meant to think that he is actually Tyrion’s puppet.
And did Sansa’s independence gambit not occur to Yara Greyjoy, the fierce quasi-pirate of the Iron Islands, or to the Prince of Dorne, whose territory, in the mythology of “Game of Thrones,” became part of the Seven Kingdoms not through conquest but marriage? (The backstory of the princes of Dorne recalls the motto of the House of Habsburg—“Bella gerant alii, tu felix Austria nube”; “Others wage war; you, happy Austria, marry”—though some of the marriages ended badly.) In any event, it’s the Six Kingdoms now. By the time that Bran the Broken passes away, Westeros may have settled on a one-kingdom, one-vote system. And the next election could end with a three-to-three tie.