[Spoilers for Game of Thrones Season 8 Episode 5]
As we head into the final episode of Game of Thrones this coming weekend, the show’s ultimate question remains unanswered: who will end up on the Iron Throne? For many fans of the show, a longtime favorite to take the throne has been Daenerys Targaryen; an exiled daughter of the former monarch. For several seasons, Dany grappled with power and leadership in the so-called Free Cities of Essos before heading West across the Narrow Sea to reclaim what she saw as her birthright. Then, this past week in episode five, she burned thousands if not tens or hundreds of thousands of innocent men, women, and children alive.
Daenerys may have come to Westeros with the lofty goal of freeing its people from the despotic and cruel tyrant Cersei Lannister, and from all the other powerful people like Cersei who have “rolled over everyone both rich and poor”, but this week we finally saw that regardless of intentions ultimate power can ultimately corrupt. Daenerys did not break the wheel; she became the wheel. Instead of freeing the common people; she destroyed them for personal gain. The underlying problem is not a lack of personal conviction but is a political problem. Totalitarian monarchies are bound to result in abuses of power and despotism.
An absolute monarchy combines an unelected rule-by-birthright system with the total unrestrained centrality of sovereignty and power in one person (in this case, whoever sits on the Iron Throne). This political structure vests far too much power in one individual and ensures that regardless of their ill qualifications for the job they will sit on the throne until they die only for their children to ascend to the throne.
Beyond the obvious deprivation of voting rights and of popular sovereignty, absolute monarchies are also arguably the most likely form of government to trample over civil rights and liberties as the ruler has little to no accountability beyond a full-on revolution and they have all the incentives to further their personal accumulation of power and wealth. In a true monarchy, there is little to no independent justice, pronounced class differences, and the populace is subject to every whim of whoever wears the crown.
As the Targaryen’s have proven for centuries, succession does not guarantee competence. As Varys reminded us this past week, each time a Targaryen is born “the gods flip a coin and the world holds its breath”. Daenerys’ father Aerys II was dubbed the ‘Mad King’ because of the mental health problems that resulted in him hearing voices and killing subjects with wildfire in the throne room. Monarchy is, given enough time, almost certain to produce such incompetent or sick rulers.
Some fans of the show may argue that perhaps if this character flaw is something Daenerys inherited from her father, then someone with different lineage may be well suited for the Iron Throne. As luck would have it, Aerys II’s firstborn son Rhaegar was known to be “brave, kind, and wise” and fathered a legitimate heir before his death at the Trident. This makes Jon Snow’s claim to the throne stronger even than Dany’s. He has his secret admirers, such as the late Lord Varys who sought to push his claim above Daenerys’ pursuit for the throne. If the problem is that Dany would risk being as cruel a leader as her father, many people reason that someone like Jon Snow would be perfect for the throne.
Yet, Jon has demonstrated plenty of character weaknesses of his own throughout the series. Much like his adopted father Eddard Stark, Jon’s insistence on honor and duty to his family has made him weak in the face of more cunning opponents. His love for Dany prevented him from seeing her darker side until it was too late and thousands of innocent people had already been burned alive. Arguably, his own failure to recognize who his sister Sansa would tell about Dany’s secret as well as Dany’s violent reaction when Jon’s lineage came to light demonstrates his weakness as a leader and suggests he is in part morally culpable for the slaughter in King’s Landing. He is unable to manage conflicting interests to the point that he was even killed by his own Night’s Watch. The same logic goes for Tyrion Lannister, another fan favorite. While he may be unusually clever, he has still made mistakes that have resulted in the death of his Queen’s troops.
While these two characters may be better suited for the Iron Throne than most others in the Seven Kingdoms, if they were on the throne the very nature of an absolute monarchy would mean that these smaller flaws would be amplified one hundred times over and at a great cost for the populace. If the supposedly honorable King Jon Snow made a decision that he felt was in his duty but was damaging to the realm, there is no way to stop hundreds of thousands from feeling the repercussions. Instead of championing one ruler for the Seven Kingdoms, the more just solution would be the abolition of the throne entirely.
So, what does all this mean for Westeros? It seems very unlikely that the final episode will result in a popular democratic form of governance where there is no Iron Throne and, in its place, an independent judiciary, a fairly elected and regularly accountable legislature, and a balanced executive supported by decent civil servants. Instead, we are likely to be left with a bittersweet or even outright tragic ending in which our heroes either die or become the villains. So is the game of thrones. Perhaps, in an era in which the President and his Cabinet are ignoring subpoenas from Congress and constraining the judiciary’s jurisdiction, Game of Thrones can teach us a thing or two about the need to reign in executive power.
Image Source: GOTsfile