Show Hide image

“I did warn you not to trust me”: on history, politics and Game of Thrones

It may have dragons and ice zombies, but there are ways in which Game of Thrones is surprisingly true to European history.

At the end of the first episode of Game of Thrones, in an attempt to cover up a sex scandal, a grown man pushes a 10 year old boy out of a window. Jaime Lannister’s whimsical attempt at child murder is a key moment in communicating quite what a nasty world Westeros is – not just dangerous, but actively vicious – and has been identified by John Lanchester in the LRB as the main moment in the show that gets people hooked. (For me, it was actually the end of the next episode, which sees court politics play out through an argument about misbehaving children, and ends with our hero slaughtering his daughter’s beloved pet dog to get his boss off his back. But anyway.)

There’s another reason that first cliffhanger is key: it’s the inciting incident for the continental civil war we’re about to spend the next decade watching, the spark that sets the tinderbox aflame.

Bran Stark survives his fall; but someone hires an assassin to finish the job, and circumstantial evidence suggests it’s Jaime’s brother Tyrion. So in response, Bran’s mother Catelyn arrests Tyrion, and in response to that Jaime slaughters the Stark’s household guard. Ned Stark moves to prove the Lannisters are usurpers, Ned Stark loses his head for his trouble, House Stark and House Lannister declare war. Events pile upon events, forces the protagonists were barely even aware of at the start move in seeking advantage, and soon an entire continent is at war.

All because a little boy who liked climbing saw something he shouldn’t, and got himself pushed out of a window.

In 1618, back in the real world, three Catholics who said something they shouldn’t got themselves pushed out of a window in Prague. That, too, precipitated a continent-wide conflict, in which allegiances were made and broken, outside forces piled in seeking advantage, and hostilities repeatedly seemed to tail off before whole new armies appeared over the horizon. More people died in the resulting Thirty Years War than in any other conflict before 1914. That, as it happens, is another date on which a single act of violence was enough to spark a continent-wide conflagration. In 1789, it was a domestic argument about taxes that led to a revolution, that led to another revolution, that led to a continent-wide war that lasted for another quarter century.

Game of Thrones may have dragons and ice zombies and priests who can bring you back from the dead. But there are ways in which it’s surprisingly true to European history.

II

I didn’t much like the second season of Thrones at the time. I’d watched most of the first in a single burst, checking out the pilot episode one night on a whim, and then finding myself infuriated, some time the next afternoon, when I had to leave the house before I’d downed the lot. (Worse: the cliffhanger I had reached was, “I did warn you not to trust me.”) 

But that sense of unstoppable momentum, of cause leading inexorably to effect, which made the first season so addictive, seemed strangely absent from the second. There are too many protagonists and too many subplots; we see characters for five minutes every couple of weeks, and it’s easy to lose interest in where they are and what they are doing. Tight plotting gives way to a sprawling mess, and the show stays that way for the next five years or so, until the threads finally start drawing together again in the penultimate season.

The funny thing is that, watching the show again now, in preparation for the start of the final run on Sunday, none of this feels like a problem any more. Re-watched in two or three episode chunks, and ploughing through the lot over weeks rather than years, the significance of each scene, and how events fit into the story, become easier to see.

More than that, dramatic ironies and pay-offs that take years to come suddenly leap out at you. (In the season two finale, there’s a cut from Tyrion crying in Shae’s arms to Robb’s wedding, which, given everything that’s to happen in the next few years, is now utterly heartbreaking.) 

More than any TV show I can think of – more, probably, than any TV show of this length ever – Game of Thrones has been designed to be viewed not as separate episodes, but as a single, long text. Which, frankly, places rather a lot of pressure on its makers not to screw up the ending. 

There’s another thing that jumped out at me on my rewatch. That descent into messiness and sprawl I once found so aggravating is not a bug, but a feature. 

III

Midway through the first series, Cersei reminds her husband, the usurper king Robert Baratheon, that the forces of the crown outnumber a foreign army. Robert responds with a hypothetical question.  “Which is the bigger number – five, or one?”

The answer is obvious – and wrong. “Five,” the king says, spreading his left hand. “One,” he adds, holding up his right fist. “One army, a real army, united behind one leader with one purpose.” 

In some ways this is silly – five is very obviously a bigger number than one, even in high fantasy – but he’s making a broader point: the ability to project force is not always about numbers, or trappings or titles, come to that. Robert, a man who led a rebellion to overthrow a king, and who within two episodes Cersei will manipulate to his own death, understands that power does not always lie where it seems.

This, more than ice zombies or dragons, is what Game of Thrones is really about: power, where it derives from, and the dangers that flow from misreading it. A feudal system is the perfect background against which to explore all this. There is no state separate to the political actors that it consists of, no independent rule of law; people will only do what you can persuade, cajole or force them to do, and even a king can be overthrown. 

So, throughout the series we see a variety of sources of power – land, money, birthright, faith, respect, violence, even sex – and a variety of characters who get into trouble because, in their hubris, they’ve failed to understand how it works.

Viserys Targaryen thinks his status, as last son and rightful heir of a deposed king, carries power in and of itself; but it doesn’t, and not recognising his place in the hierarchy gets him killed. In the same way, Joffrey Baratheon believes that he holds power because he wears a crown; he doesn’t stop to consider that he is held in place by military force, only made possible by his grandfather’s wealth. 

It’s the work of a moment to come up with similar examples for pretty much every significant character. Robb Stark: thinking he can break his promise to Walder Frey; Cersei Lannister: thinking she can control the Faith Militant; Theon Greyjoy: every word he utters for two entire seasons. And so on.

But the show’s greatest example of a hubristic failure to read the landscape comes right at the start. Ned Stark is so consumed by the urge to do what is right that he can’t bring himself to make the grubby political deals he needs to shore up his position. Three times, other courtiers offer their allegiance in exchange for his help; three times, convinced that truth and honour are enough, he turns them down. The result is his death, and the wars that follow, and it’s one of the greatest ironies of the story that if Ned Stark hadn’t been such a good guy fewer innocent people would have had to die. 

On the flip side, there’s Daenerys Targaryen, who starts the story with no control over her destiny whatsoever, being bartered away by her loathesome brother, but by the end of the sixth season is the single most powerful figure in the series. It’s tempting to read this as a story about inner strength, of the wisdom that comes through experience, but the truth is more prosaic: she has power because she has dragons. 

It takes a long time for the full import of this fact to become clear. We’re told from the start of the story that the Targaryen conquest of Westeros, centuries in the past, was made possible by dragons, but it’s only in the seventh series that we finally see what this means.

In Game of Thrones, Dragons are not just magical creatures: they’re effectively aeroplanes equipped with napalm. Danaerys’ army is formidable for exactly the same reason one side of the Wars of the Roses would be if they had been backed up by the United States Air Force. 

And yet, she mostly resists using them. Because she and her advisors have learned that, while overwhelming military force may be perfect for conquest, it’s not necessarily much use if you want to rule afterwards. One reason Daenerys Targaryen is so strong is because she knows her own power’s limits.

IV

All these characters also fall victim to another theme explored by the series: the tendency of rulers to be blown off course by what Harold Macmillan is said to have described as, “Events, dear boy, events.”

And this is why the sprawling, mess of plotlines of mid-period Game of Thrones – the endless new factions popping up without warning, like Gustavus Adolphus marching his army through Germany back in the Thirty Years War – is not a bug, but a feature. Because they show quite how unpredictable the responses to a crisis or a power vacuum can be.

Some of those “events” that the show portrays are, if not predictable, then at least consequential: the cause and effect is comprehensible in retrospect, if not in advance.

We may never see Stannis Baratheon in the first season of the story – but that a man who gets a letter telling him he’s the true king of Westeros should pull together an army and attempt to assert the fact should surprise nobody. In the same way, it should shock, but not surprise, that another northern house would eventually ally with the Lannisters to dislodge the Starks; or that war, famine and a decadent ruling class might spark a fundamentalist religious revival that the authorities will struggle to control. 

These endlessly multiplying factions threw me at the start, because it’s not the sort of thing dramas tend to do: you’d feel short-changed by a murder mystery in which the culprit turned out to be someone we’d never heard of until five minutes before the end. But history and politics are less dramatically satisfying in structure. And the idea minor characters would take advantage of a national crisis to promote their own interests feels a lot more plausible in an age when, five years after David Cameron promised a referendum he never thought he’d need to hold, Mark Francois is somehow being touted as a future prime minister in the pages of the Telegraph.

There’s another type of event that can derail a leader: the crisis that seems to come from a clear blue sky. And this is in many ways the most haunting aspect of Game of Thrones. From its very first scene, we have known that there is a supernatural existential threat, massing its forces just off screen; and that, one day, it will attack. 

Yet the series is nearing its end before anyone very far south of the wall is paying that threat even the slightest attention, and the myriad houses and factions of Westeros have continued fighting their wars, unaware that which of them wins may not even matter. 

This part of the series makes me wonder what Europe’s leaders would have said were their priorities in, say, May 1914. Worse, it leads one to wonder what future events historians will one day look back on, and marvel at the fact we never saw coming.

V

A Song of Ice & Fire, George R. R. Martin’s sequence of books on which Game of Thrones is based, so far consists of five novels. In theory, there will be two more.

But it’s far from clear that the series will ever be finished. The gaps between the books have been getting wider: the fifth was published in 2011, the year the show began, and the sixth still doesn’t have a publication date. The fear is that Martin has written himself into a corner, with too many characters in too many locations. Unlike the adaptation, he can’t go back to prune dead end storylines or merge duplicate characters. He can only try to finish what he’s started.

This is increasingly infuriating to fans of the books, of course, but it matters little to the show: the TV version left the source text behind somewhere around the end of the fifth season, and has now been off-book almost as long as it’s been on. That’s allowed the writers to pick up the pace, but it’s had other effects too, and where once the show was known for sudden, shocking deaths, now the remaining protagonists have an occasionally surprising tendency to survive against the odds.

To risk a heresy in nerd-dom: this may be no bad thing. The unpredictability was a great strength of the series early on – but after following these characters for this long, you want to see stories pay off, and watching Jaime Lannister get unexpectedly immolated by a grumpy dragon would have actually been quite irritating. (This, incidentally, is why I never believed for a moment that Jon Snow was really dead: too much had been set up that had yet to pay off.) 

This, in conversations on the internet that tend to involve the phrase “God I hope they don’t fuck it up”, is one good reason to worry about what the last six episodes will bring. It must be tempting, at this point, with no further need of these characters, to dispose of a few to provide shocking cliffhangers and raise the stakes. That may be true to the series’ early ethos, and true in a horrible way, too, to life. But it risks being a shitty, dramatically unsatisfying end to a story, nonetheless.

There’s another reason to fret about where the last season might take us: that it will give us an ending that’s depressing, or meaningless, or both. If Daenerys does end up on the Iron Throne, will it be by force? Or if, as some more left-field theories suggest, Sansa Stark somehow becomes queen, having learned through suffering like Elizabeth I, will that imply a terrible lesson about where the wisdom to rule comes from? Or could everyone just get wiped out by ice zombies, thus rendering the preceding eight years a total waste of time? 

But perhaps obsessing about how the series will end is to miss the point. The Doom of Valyria, the Targeryan conquest, Robert’s rebellion, based on a lie, a kingdom conquered for the love of a woman who never actually loved him back – throughout the series, the glimpses of the backstory has reminded us that nothing can ever be permanent. 

Perhaps the final lesson of Game of Thrones is that no victory lasts forever, but that life will go on, all the same. There are worse messages, in 2019.

Jonn Elledge is assistant editor of the New Statesman, in charge of day to day running of the website and its sister site, CityMetric. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.