This post contains spoilers throughout the first two seasons of Game of Thrones.
In a Queen’s Jubilee-themed piece at The New Statesmen, Laurie Penny posits that good and evil are easily distinguished in Game of Thrones, a show she says supports the outdated idea that all society needs is one “Good Ruler” to watch over it.
But by cruelly enticing its viewers to simultaneously root for characters whose victories would spell each other’s dooms, Game of Thrones, in fact, has few distinguishable heroes and villains. And by regularly reminding us that its central premise — high lords and ladies battling for ultimate power — has devastating consequences for everyone else, the show dismisses the very notion of a “Good Ruler.”
Its major plot points, based on George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire novels, are so simplistic that they may as well have been scrawled in crayon on the intricate wallpaper of literary-televisual tradition: the goodies are the rough, noble Northerners, the Stark family, none of whom have any discernible character defects, and the baddies are the yellow-haired Southern Lannisters, prosperous, duplicitous, incestuous, murderous and lots of other horrible things ending in ‘ous’
It’s true the Starks are mostly decent folks and the Lannisters are mostly “yellow-headed shits,” to borrow a phrase from the first season’s one king Robert Baratheon, to write them off as respective “goodies” and “baddies” is an oversimplification.
Firstly, Tyrion Lannister is arguably the series’ most popular character. His charm and his wit make it almost impossible not to root for him, but he’s still a Lannister. If the Starks win, he’ll end up with his head on a spike.The Starks fight for Northern independence but their late liege lord Ned Stark — the closest thing the first season had to a protagonist — firmly believed Stannis Baratheon was the rightful heir to the throne.
Then there’s Daenerys Targaryen, another fan favourite. While the above mentioned families fight in Westeros, she’s across the Narrow Sea in the east, building power and biding her time until she reclaims the throne that was stolen from her insane father. In doing so, she would wipe almost every major character — Stark, Lannister and Baratheon alike — off the map for good.
Penny describes the war at the centre of Game of Thrones as “The Search For The Good Ruler.”
The essential assumption of this story is a familiar one: sovereignty and leadership are inherently good things, common workers need decent kings or queens to make them happy and prosperous, and even if a catalogue of leaders are bad, mad or murderous, if you can just find the right king, the true, wise, noble king who deserves to be on the throne, then everything will be okay.
This argument is not a stretch. Some episodes, like the recent season two finale, seem to imbue the high-born characters with a certain specialness, exploring notions of destiny with Daenerys’ dragons and Stannis’ fire visions.
But just as viewers start to get lost in the epic fantasy, the writers will butt in to remind us that the Westori masses don’t care who sits on the throne, as each would-be monarch wreaks havoc on the low born citizens’ livelihoods.
When Daenerys tells the exile Jorah Mormont in the first season that the smallfolk are waiting for the Targaryens to return to power, he retorts they are more concerned about having enough food stored away for winter. “They don’t care what games the high lords play,” he states, matter-of-factly.
When self-proclaimed King of the North Robb Stark dismisses a soldier whose festering leg must be amputated as an enemy combatant, war nurse Talisa explains he was just a working-class boy who’d ever held weapon before the Starks declared war on the Lannisters.
As Stannis’ army lurks on the water outside King’s Landing preparing to attack, his loyal follower Dale Seaworth tells his father Davos the people will be glad to see them depose the much-loathed King Joffrey. But Davos explains that to them, Stannis’ army is nothing but a gang of strangers who want to set their city on fire. It’s that sentiment — not loyalty to a king — that Tyrion must seizes upon to rally his troops and beat back the invaders.
Earlier in the season, Lannisters soldiers are seen torturing innocent smallfolk at Harrenhal to glean information about a band of outlaws. Their leader, Tywin, later orders them to burn nearby villages as a warning.
And in the season finale’s most poignant scene, we see three innocent women, murdered by the good ol’ Stark boys and and strung up above the road, for the crime of having sex with Lannister soldiers, something they were likely forced to do. These are the people of Westeros — raped by the Lannisters then murdered by the Starks. Their blood is on Robb’s hands, as he struts about making speeches about wanting to be a good and just leader.
But there is no good and just leader in Game of Thrones.
By engaging in this plot that revolves around these enticing high-born characters, the viewers becomes implicit in all this violence imposed on the masses at the hands of the elites. Suddenly, this “glossy smorgasbord of rape, gratuitous sex and ultra-violence” doesn’t seem so simple.
Penny’s article also touches on race and gender relations in Game of Thrones, which I didn’t get into here because it’s been thoroughly discussed by other writers already. Recommended reading: Sady Doyle’s takedown of the show, and Alyssa Rosenberg’s and Sean T. Collins’ responses.