Daniel W. Drezner

How Game of Thrones found its political groove

[WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD] I enjoyed the first season of Game of Thrones but was somewhat underwhelmed with efforts to use it as a window to understanding world politics today. The second season, which concluded this past Sunday, however, did much better on this score. I think this is because in season one the primary narrative ...

[WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD]

I enjoyed the first season of Game of Thrones but was somewhat underwhelmed with efforts to use it as a window to understanding world politics today. The second season, which concluded this past Sunday, however, did much better on this score. I think this is because in season one the primary narrative dealt with one ruler of Westeros coping with stupendously naive staff contending factions, whereas this season dealt with a more variegated set of leaders, which worked far better for the show. Two signs of this: First, whereas the Daenerys Targaryen plot in the first season was fun and diverting, I found season two’s Dany sections distracting and deadening. Part of this might have been because Dany was whining more, but it was also because she was largely operating in a political vacuum and therefore less interesting. Second, whereas Cersei Lannister seemed like a master Machiavellian in season one, in season two she appeared to be just a little out of her depth. It’s not because she got dumber, but because the protagonists who interacted with her were wiser or more powerful than Ned Stark.

Season two’s War of the Five Kings allowed for greater contrast between different styles of political leadership and political culture — and was therefore all the richer for it. Leadership ranged from Stannis Baratheon’s humorless determination to Tywin Lannister’s stolid competence to Joffrey’s sadism to Robb Stark’s efforts to preserve humanitarian norms to Balon Greyjoy’s sheer bloody-mindedness. The staffers were great too. I’m sorry that Tyrion Lannister and Davos Seaworth never got to share a scene together — that would have been a hoot. Similarly, the interactions between Tyrion and Varys — especially this one — were delicious.

Indeed, the final episode alone is so rich in its contemplation of political leadership alone that it made up for the less comprehensible parts of the plot (why the hell did Bran, Hodor, and company need to abandon Winterfell?) Tyrion’s explanation for why he wanted to stay in King’s Landing was one of those rare moments in television in which a character was honest about his enjoyment of politics. As Alyssa Rosenberg shrewdly observes, the Throne Room scene in which much political kabuki theater transpired was a powerful reminder of how the victors write the history. And the Varys-Ros alliance bodes well for political machinations in season three.

For all of this — and zombies too! — the finale was great. What put it over the top, however, might be the best rejoinder to the Great Speech Theory of Politics that I have ever seen — Theon Greyjoy’s efforts to rally his troops in the face of overwhelming odds during the siege of Winterfell:

Anyone who calls for better political "leadership" should watch this again and again and again. Yes, leadership matters on the margins — but power and purpose matter one whole hell of a lot more.

The end of the episode promises an even wider array of political actors — Mance Rayder, the White Walkers, a returning Dany — influencing activities in Westeros. This bodes very, very well for season three.

What do you think?

 Twitter: @dandrezner

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