What Game of Thrones teaches us about tyrants and liberators

Jack Elsom

May 21, 2019

Spoiler alert: this piece was published after the final episode aired.

In the weeks leading up to the final season of Game of Thrones, I embarked on what can only be described as a revolting binge of the first seven series.

That’s a mammoth 67 episodes, each of which lasts for roughly an hour, although it’s sometimes even longer. I would wake up, sometimes very early, and sit bleary-eyed as the warring houses of Westeros schemed, beheaded and romped their way towards the Iron Throne.

To watch myself back over the past few weeks would be like watching a crack addict, except that my drug was Tyrion and Bronn’s bromance, and (ashamedly) watching Daenerys’ dragons soak an entire band of calvary in flames.

I’d squeeze in an episode whenever I could, and it got so bad that I was even getting dressed for work in the lounge in front of the TV. On the upside, I found that the high-octane drama of a bloody battle was just as effective at revving up the body’s cylinders as any morning cup of coffee.

I’m not especially proud of my sickly binge – looking back, it was frankly quite sad. But do I regret it? No way. I absolutely loved it and, in the words of Ser Jaime Lannister, the things I do for love.

Yet one of the many perils of consuming a TV series so quickly is that you become utterly engrossed with the characters and their storylines. From the start, I was really rooting for Daenerys to fulfil what appeared to be her destiny: to defy the memory of her cruel father and become the tyrant-ridding Breaker Of Chains.

At first – and in spite of the lousy advice offered to her by the wet Ser Jorah Mormont – her climb to power seemed to come straight from the Machiavelli playbook.

In The Prince, Machiavelli believes that to successfully hold a kingdom you must win over the plebs and swiftly execute the existing rulers while maintaining many of their laws and customs. When Daenerys took the city of Meereen, she killed the slave masters, became the people’s mhysa (mother) while only moving to gradually phase out slavery and even agreeing to re-open the fighting pits. It was textbook governance.

As the episodes ticked by and season eight was well underway, the keys to the Red Keep were almost in her grasp. But as we all now know, she became as batty as her father and decided to scorch King’s Landing to a pile of rubble.

Yet, as barbaric as her siege was, it didn’t necessarily have to be her downfall. Sure, it was the beginning of her fall from grace (pun intended), but Machiavelli wrote that one single unleashing of terror can help shore up a ruler’s position, if used only once upon claiming the throne, by putting the fear of god in anyone foolish enough to plot against her.

And Jon Snow could have probably stomached the piles of ashy corpses if Daenerys’s display of cruelty was a one-off. However, her chilling address to the Unsullied army made clear that this was not her intention. “You have freed the people of King’s Landing from the grip of a tyrant,” she cried. “But the war is not over. We will not lay down our spears until we have liberated all the people of the world.” It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that this “liberation” would cost the lives of many more innocents.

It also doesn’t take a genius to detect the parallels with interventionism, where foreign powers set out to inflict regime change because they believe they are acting in the bests interests of a nation’s people.

It’s not clear if this was a deliberate dig at the west’s – and particularly Washington’s – practice of involving themselves in the affairs of struggling states, but this was certainly my reading of the episode. There should always be the scope to help those in need overseas, but as Daenerys proved, this can’t always be done with relentless military firepower. However, the more poignant point is that tyrants will often try to paint themselves as liberators to justify their brutality.

In the Soviet Union, successive communist leaders promised to free the people from the shackles of poverty and build a utopia. In reality, this “liberation” saw the deaths of millions, either by indirect means such as starvation or by the cold-blooded slaughter of dissidents.

The willingness to put you in handcuffs – or worse, in front of a firing squad – if you so much as dare speak out against your gracious liberators has been a staple of these regimes throughout history. And it’s still happening now.

In the “Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea”, dictator Kim Jong Un recently told his people: “Following the road of arduous struggle with faith in the certain victory of socialism, our people provided by their own efforts a sure guarantee for defending their sovereignty and achieving peace and prosperity.” This fight for prosperity, of course, involves mass hunger, extreme poverty, and brutal violence.

And on the other side of the world in Venezuela, “President” Maduro, bangs the liberation drum so hard that it seems almost impossible that he’s leading a phoney government which refuses to give up power and has resorted to wiping away democratic institutions.

But of course, it’s sadly true. Those of us who are privileged enough to enjoy such assurances – regular elections, the rule of law, and the ability to gorge on 67 episodes of Game of Thrones without the state hammering down our door to drag us away kicking and screaming – must stay wary of those who promise a vision of supposed liberation and utopia, because the dream may not unfold in reality as it’s set out on paper.


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