Daniel W. Drezner

Ideas, Identity, and Game of Thrones

[WARNING #1:  SPOILERS AHEAD] [WARNING #2:  I HAVE NOT READ THE GAME OF THRONES BOOKS.  WHAT FOLLOWS IS AN ANALYSIS BASED SOLELY ON THE HBO SHOW.  YES, I KNOW I COULD READ THE BOOKS TO DISCOVER WHAT HAPPENS AND MAKE THESE INTERPRETIVE POSTS SOUND INCREDIBLY PRESCIENT, BUT I HAVE FOUND WITH THE WALKING DEAD THAT ...

[WARNING #1:  SPOILERS AHEAD]

[WARNING #2:  I HAVE NOT READ THE GAME OF THRONES BOOKS.  WHAT FOLLOWS IS AN ANALYSIS BASED SOLELY ON THE HBO SHOW.  YES, I KNOW I COULD READ THE BOOKS TO DISCOVER WHAT HAPPENS AND MAKE THESE INTERPRETIVE POSTS SOUND INCREDIBLY PRESCIENT, BUT I HAVE FOUND WITH THE WALKING DEAD THAT I DIDN’T ENJOY THE SHOW AS MUCH KNOWING WHAT WAS COMING.  JUST DEAL WITH IT.]

As a political scientist, I liked but did not love season one of HBO’s Game of Thrones, because of the rather murky ways the fractious politics of Westeros translated into the modern world.  I really liked season two, as the War of the Five Kings highlighted variations in political leadership that resonated better with recent political debates.   

And season three?  I confess to some decidedly mixed feelings.  On the one hand, elements of this season started to drive me bonkers. The overwhelming number of plotlines meant that, from episode to episode, not a lot seemed to happen.  There were a few eps where, literally, the overwhelming bulk of the show consisted of protagonists marching from point A to point B while they argued, kind of a poor medieval version of bad Aaron Sorkin.  Speaking of marching, those damn White Walkers have been taking their sweet time getting down to the Wall, eh?  And finally, the torture of Theon Greyjoy after the first cycle was redundant — and the opportunity costs of that screen time pretty significant. 

And yet the season’s high points were pretty friggin’ high.  There was this: 

And, of course, there was the Red Wedding.  Any scene that leads to these kind of reactions is clearly doing something very, very right: 

Stepping back, as a political scientist I think Season Three of Game of Thrones got two Very Big And Interrelated Things right — but the risks are very high.  First, they f**ked with the viewer’s sense of identity.  As Jonathan Mercer observed a while ago, it is very easy for humans to form identities and shared understandings that distinguish between in-group and out=group, and somewhat more difficult to dislodge them.  Game of Thrones started the narrative by having the viewer sympathize with House Stark.  They’re good, they’re honorable, they seem down to earth, and so forth.  Compared to the other Westeroi families we encountered in season one — the grab-bag of Baratheons, the moneyed, incestuous Lannisters, the decrepit, scheming Walder Frey, and the rent-seeking lot in the Small Council — you automatically start rooting for the Starks (well, except for Sansa).  It’s from the Starks’ vantage point that we entered this narrative, and we don’t like leaving that first point of reference. 

By the Red Wedding, however, Game of Thrones has shifted our perspective just a wee bit.  Now there are Lannisters that merit some sympathy, such Tyrion and Jamie.  There are other Lannisters — Tywin — that at least prompt some grudging degree of admiration.  The Tyrells have added a more intriguing flavor of politics to Kings Landing.  And as for the Starks, their downfall demonstrates the difference between military and political competency.  Eddard, Robb, Catelyn, Arya, Sansa — only in that lot would Jon Snow be considered the master strategist of the group.  So while the downfall of the Starks was tragic, it also taught the viewer that, truly, anything can happen in this world.  Somewhere, Joss Whedon is smiling, because that’s the one thing he has in common with George R.R. Martin.  My point is not that the Red Wedding isn’t shocking — it’s that after the Red Wedding, one can only look back and think, "man, did the Starks screw up."

The other thing that changed this season was the insertion of actual ideas in the myriad conflicts.  From the anarchism of Mance Rayder and the wildlings to the monotheism/anti-feudalism of the Brotherhood Without Banners to the deep anti-slavery sentiments of Daenerys Targaryen, we are now seeing actors whose power flows not just from the traditional sources of blood and treasure, but from new and interesting social purposes.  Indeed, this season of Game of Thrones raises a very provocative question:  who died and elected any particular house of Westeros to the Iron Throne?  Hell, why even have an Iron Throne?  By the end of the season, the wildlings’ political philosophy seems rather bankrupt, or at least ineffective (one of the nice pieces of symmetry in that narrative was to make Jon Snow seem out of touch north of the Wall, but to make Ygritte seem equally out of touch south of the Wall).  Monotheism, democracy, liberty and human rights are pretty appealing, on the other hand. 

Going forward, however, Game of Thrones has put itself into a bit of a pickle.  Wrenching the viewer away from the perspective of the Starks automatically reduces the tendency to identify with any other group.  And it seems like the White Walkers will eventually pay Westeros a visit, which could cause a lot of these transgressive ideas to fall by the wayside.  In other words, I’m worried that the very things I liked about this season will be squelched in season four. 

What do you think? 

 Twitter: @dandrezner

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