Like millions of other fans of HBO’s “Game of Thrones” series, I’m eagerly awaiting the series’ final episode, which is slated to air on Sunday evening. While no one knows exactly how the show will conclude, one thing has been made abundantly clear by the trials and tribulations of our favorite (and least favorite) characters: You can’t trust a powerful centralized government.
Game of Thrones takes place in author George R.R. Martin’s fictional continents of Essos and Westeros. Over the course of the series’ more than 70 episodes, viewers have been immersed in Martin’s brutal world of dueling kings, assassinations, double-crosses, alliances, torture, and, of course, dragons and magic.
However, Game of Thrones isn’t your typical fantasy story. What has made the show and books so popular is their gritty portrayal of humanity and commitment to providing viewers with twists and turns that don’t always fit the traditional Hollywood story arc.
In Game of Thrones, the "good guys" don’t always win, the guy doesn’t always get the girl, and it’s entirely possible the show won’t provide viewers with the quintessential happy ending we’ve all grown so accustomed to.
The show’s unique blend of fantasy and gritty portrayal of human nature was put on display in its most recent episode. (Warning: There are spoilers below!) After years of rooting for the likeable, beautiful, smart, dragon-riding Daenerys Targaryen’s rise to power, many viewers were appalled to see Daenerys spend much of the most recent episode mass-murdering the entire population of King’s Landing, the capital of Westeros and the home to Daenerys’ biggest rival. Countless men, women, and children were all burned alive by Daenerys — all in the name of providing a better world for future generations.
What made the episode so difficult to watch for many is that Daenerys is one of the show’s primary protagonists. We’ve watched her develop from being a voiceless victim to an emperor hellbent on ridding the universe of slavery and the ruthlessness of the other rulers in the realm.
In many respects, it’s the same story that has played out throughout human history, on every continent. If you’re waiting for someone to solve the world’s problems, you’ll always be disappointed.
Viewers can’t help but fall in love with Daenerys, even though she, very early on, makes it clear her chief goal is to one day rule all of Westeros, just as her family had done previously. She wants to be queen, yes, but a good queen. She wants power, but she pledges to use that power to rule fairly, and she proves herself to be worthy of viewers’ love throughout the show. She has her moments of brutality, sure, but it’s always in the name of a higher good.
But then, in a classic “Game of Thrones” twist, during the height of one of the show’s most important battles, Daenerys, fueled by frustration and despair, murders thousands of innocent people in the pursuit of power.
Now, Daenerys is no longer one of the show’s heroes. Despite all the character’s spectacular moments of generosity, kindness, and selflessness, as well as her incredibly admirable personality traits, in the end, Daenerys proves herself to be just as ruthless and, indeed, human as all the other murderous tyrants of Westeros and Essos.
The reaction from viewers to Daenerys’ rampage has been remarkable. Many are so upset by Daenerys’ actions that they formed a petition demanding the entire final season be remade. As of Friday morning, more than a million people had signed the petition.
To many “Game of Thrones” fans, it’s unconscionable that their beloved Daenerys would commit such horrifying atrocities, but I think Daenerys’ turn for the worst provides an important lesson about the corrupting nature of absolute power and the danger of centralized government.
Throughout the series, “Game of Thrones” provides viewers with numerous social, political, military, and religious leaders. But no matter how promising they appear at first, they inevitably fall from grace, often because they put their own interests before others. Even when characters do consistently act selflessly, many falter because they act in kindness while continuing to operate within the story’s “game” of fighting for absolute power. One way or another, the pursuit of absolute power consumes almost everyone in the show, even those who have no interest in attaining it for themselves.
What makes the story of Daenerys so tragic for many viewers is that she was supposed to be different. She was the queen we’ve all been waiting for, a truly just, merciful, and powerful dictator.
And therein lies the show’s most important message thus far: There is no such thing as a truly benevolent dictator or altruistic centralized authority. When people are placed into great positions of power, they will eventually abuse that power, perhaps even with good intentions.
Viewers have been convinced Daenerys is the perfect person to lead the seven kingdoms of “Game of Thrones,” but the writers of the show have made it abundantly clear that no one is the perfect person to lead Westeros or Essos — because no one person, organization, or government should have that sort of absolute power. If you’re a “Game of Thrones” fan and you’re still waiting for an all-powerful ruler to act as the show’s savior, you’re missing the point.
It’s this theme that makes “Game of Thrones” so brilliant. Martin and the writers of the show have managed to convince millions of people to fall in love with a character who has from the very beginning openly pursued absolute power. We’ve all been fooled into rooting for a dictator, only to learn that even the great Daenerys can’t be trusted with that sort of unmitigated power.
Sound familiar? In many respects, it’s the same story that has played out throughout human history, on every continent. If you’re waiting for someone — or something, in the case of government — to solve the world’s problems, you’ll always be disappointed.