|Season 8 Poster|
Before we jump into an analysis of the final season itself, however, I should first explain how I am defining "left" and "right". Obviously Game of Thrones exists in a fantasy quasi-medieval world and thus does not have the same ideological or partisan issues which we might see dividing the left and right in the modern world (e.g. state intervention in the economy). Instead of focusing on narrow issues, therefore, I see the politics of Game of Thrones as viewing left and right wing politics in a much more philosophical sense. On the leftist side, I see Game of Thrones as exploring left wing views on change, reform and revolution. This is most clearly embodied in the character of Danaerys. Dany is, in her views, ahead of her time and more in line with the assumptions of the modern audience than the others who inhabit the quasi-medieval fantasy world of Game of Thrones. She opposes slavery, promotes the liberation of women and talks of "breaking the wheel", which seems to imply the destruction of the oppressive feudal system which dominates the societies of Game of Thrones. What is key to understanding Game of Thrones' politics is that Dany's wider political aims are never questioned by the show: slavery, the oppression of women and the aristocratic feudal system are all seen to be bad things, as they are assumed to be for the typical modern western viewer. Dany's left-wing revolutionary goal of "breaking the wheel" and instituting a more liberated, progressive society is criticised, therefore, not from the perspective that its ultimate aims might be bad, but that it will cost too much to achieve. This is the right wing element of Game of Thrones: an individualist, pragmatic message which emphasises the status quo and stability over change because of fears that Dany's "revolution" will cost too much. This is clearly seen in Dany's problems with the slave owners in Meereen in seasons 4 and 5, in which her idealistic abolition of slavery stirs up so much practical trouble and resistance that we are made to question how worthwhile her reforms really were in the first place.
|Emilia Clarke as Danaerys Targaryen|
This is a question which goes to the heart of one of the most difficult political and moral questions that those on both the left and right have to face. For the right, how much suffering can you bear before change is necessary? On the left, how much suffering can you bear in pursuit of that change, especially if you are unsure what that change will be like? Season 8 most clearly brings these questions to a head in the final confrontation between Jon and Dany in the last episode. Jon questions Dany on her decision to burn King's Landing to the ground, killing thousands of innocent civilians. Dany replies that it 'was necessary', arguing that 'small mercies' will get in the way of building 'the new world we need...a good world'. In this exchange, we see the full spectrum of the politics of Game of Thrones. Dany promotes an idealistic, left wing vision of a good, brave new world built on the back of her violent "revolution", whilst Jon questions whether it will be worth the cost and wonders if this new world can truly be a 'good' one. Politically speaking, these are broadly unanswerable questions which every person has to come to an individual decision about where they stand on. Artistically speaking, this makes for an excellent conclusion: the audience is left to decide where their sympathies lie between two deeply likable, well intentioned characters. The political conclusions of the show are left unanswered, allowing the audience to reflect on their own political opinions and make their own decision.
Or that's at least how it should have been. The problem, of course, is that the widely derided undermining of Dany's character in the last season of Game of Thrones also results in an undermining of the political side of the show that she represents. Much has been written about how the writing in the final season was subpar when compared to previous ones. I don't want to focus on this too much since there is so much out there already, but I do want to highlight one key distinction which I think has fundamentally altered the political nature of Game of Thrones. In previous seasons (up to season 5), based on George R.R. Martin's books, the nature of the storytelling in Game of Thrones was broadly sociological rather than personal. The reason why we can sympathise with deeply immoral characters like Cersei, Tywin or the Hound is that these characters were situated clearly within a wider social context. The personal was intimately linked to the social and political: Cersei's understanding of the vulnerability of her own femininity; Tywin's sense of familial obligation; the Hound's nihilism in the face of a corrupt society. To me, one of the chief problems with the final season is that the writers, having left George R.R. Martin's source material behind, increasingly turned from sociological storytelling to the more typical and "Hollywood" form of personal storytelling. In this way, Dany's narrative arc over both seasons 7 and 8 becomes less about her ideals and wider sense of social injustice, and more about her personal relations and development. In season 8, the key turning point in Dany's story comes in episodes 4 and 5, in which she is increasingly driven to madness by a series of personal losses and setbacks (discovering Jon's claim to the throne; the deaths of Rhaegal and Missandei; Varys' betrayal). In the end, when Dany commits an act of brutal slaughter in episode 5, the Bells, when she burns Kings Landing even after the surrender of the Lannister forces, this is given absolutely no socio-political justification and is motivated only by a sense of Dany's personal instability and possible madness.
|Kit Harrington as Jon Snow|
This right wing conclusion is followed up by the full ending of the show. There is a nod to leftist ideals in Sam's proposals for democracy at the grand council, but this is mostly played for laughs. Instead, what we get is the most bizarrely optimistic, naive conservative ending imaginable, lacking any balance or nuance. This is epitomised most in making Bran king. Bran is the ideal type of conservative ruler. An all seeing, completely wise king who we can trust to rule justly, but who gives absolutely no sign of wanting to shake up the status quo. This is the ideal conservative scenario in that it provides ostensibly just government without actually having to change anything. In reality, something Game of Thrones has always prided itself in having a sense of despite being a fantasy show, this conservative ideal rarely works because the ruling class or monarch cannot maintain justice all the time- a system dependent upon the abilities or sense of justice of a singular individual will always be undermined by that individual's flaws. By imposing Bran as king, however, the show gets around this problem by effectively cancelling out these individual flaws due to Bran's superhuman abilities and wisdom. Instead of the systematic change that Westeros needs, and Dany argues for, these flaws are covered up a fantasy good ruler who can seemingly do no wrong; in other words, Game of Thrones becomes exactly the type of moralistic fantasy it was supposed to critique.
On top of the superhuman powers of Bran the Broken, we are also presented with a hilariously politically misguided scene of the small council. The scene, which is comedic and light in tone, suggests to the audience that whilst there might be some petty squabbling between council members, this new regime headed by Tyrion is serious about ruling well. The seemingly unnoticed irony of this is that the new master of coin, in other words the controller of Westeros' entire financial and economic system, is Bronn, a man who, for all his personal charms, has swindled, lied, blackmailed and cheated his way to the top. The fact that this kind of individual corruption might be systemic in an aristocratic system is completely disregarded, however, and all is made to seem as if things can only get better. On top of this, Samwell Tarly, again a man of significant personal likeability, is also on the small council, despite his total lack of political experience and retained almost childlike naivety, a trait endearing on a personal level but damaging politically. Below the surface of the scene's lighthearted tone, therefore, lies the actual realisation that this new small council is deeply problematic, and is unlikely to really fix the systemic problems facing Westeros.
The point that I am trying to make is that the ending leaves us with an optimistic but deeply false conservative conclusion. Bran acts as a sort of "deus ex machina" figure as king, resolving all the fundamental tensions and flaws that monarchy presents, whilst we are meant to feel hopeful about the new small council, despite the fact that the immorality and inexperience of its members suggests that it may be little better than previous regimes. Most crucial and unforgivable, however, is the fact that the ills that Dany identified with society are entirely ignored: we are given no sense that the current system is anything other than just and benevolent. All we are shown are happy, self-satisfied aristocrats getting on with their jobs, with no sense of how the rest of society might be effected. In other words, the failure of Dany's revolution means nothing.
Overall, I actually think the conservative conclusion to the show is a fitting one. Game of Thrones has always been a deeply pessimistic show and the idea that Dany could effectively implement a political revolution in a feudal country like Westeros seems pretty implausible. What I strongly object to, therefore, is the optimism of this conservative conclusion, which undermines the delicate balance between left and right that the show had previously created and seems to betray Game of Thrones' own realistic, pessimistic sense of itself. It would not take all that many changes to create this ending: giving Dany a proper ideological and sympathetic justification to commit a war atrocity in King's Landing rather than being driven by personal madness; showing that, despite Bran's benevolent rule, significant problems in Westeros still exist for the majority of people; and giving us a much darker picture of the small council, with Tyrion trying to balance Bronn's self-serving corruption with Sam's political naivety. This would give us a much more balanced political picture, truer to Game of Thrones' roots: an ending in which Dany's revolution, for all its admirable idealism, becomes polluted by the slaughter that it necessarily incurs, but the failure of which leaves Westeros where it was at the beginning, still plagued by the same problems.
|David Benioff and D.B Weiss, the showrunners|
of Game of Thrones