“Three great men sit in a room. A king, a priest and a rich man. Between them stands a common sell-sword. Each great man bids the sell-sword kill the other two. Who lives? Who dies?”
*If you haven’t watched Season 2 up to episode 8, turn away now. Spoilers Ahead.*
The greatest feat of Game of Thrones in this convoluted second season has been its willingness to play with perspective. With the demise of Ned Stark and the beginning of the War of Five Kings, the narrative splintered. The result has been messy – episodes have jumped from character to character, sometimes artfully and sometimes haphazardly, leaving little time to breathe. It is difficult to sustain momentum for nearly a dozen percolating storylines without a few seeming to be little more than vignettes justifying arbitrary moves on a Risk board. Beyond a few unlikely pairings (Arya and Tywin!) and supporting players that have crossed oceans (Littlefinger), the journeys of these characters have remained largely separate.
Finally, with the much-touted season-climaxing battle nearly upon us, some of these plots are set to violently converge. They do so without the benefit of easy heroes or villains. What the series has done so superbly in this second season is put a compelling, often sympathetic, face on every side of a zero-sum conflict. We have spent time in every camp; enough to laud Tyrion’s governance, Davos’ loyalty and Brienne’s honour.
For any of these warring factions to ‘win’, then a dozen characters we have come to care about have to die. Their goals are utterly incompatible, and the potentially-unifying threat beyond the wall lurches forward only in fits and starts, too far away to save them. The most conventional heroes remain the wronged and honourable Starks; yet Stannis, Ned Stark’s chosen King, promises no mercy for “traitors” like Robb Stark. Both of them would raze King’s Landing and see the Lannister family and thousands of innocent ‘common people’ annihilated in the process. Tyrion has proved himself again and again the game’s best player, and most empathetic to ‘cripples, bastards and broken things’, yet we wish he was not tethered to such an irredeemable monster of a King. And for Dany to succeed, all of them must be consumed by dragon fire.
There is no one to cheer for without reservation, and no one (besides the sociopathic, oh-so-slappable King Joffrey) deserving of unremitting hatred. It feeds beautifully into the ‘anything can happen’ expectation the shocking end of the first season created. While not unique for a novel, only The Wire has been as willing to sprawl so dramatically away from the ensemble format that is the norm on television. It makes the story harder to tell in one-hour chunks, but has made the conflict richer.
By fracturing the narrative this way, the writers have slowly teased out a question far more important than “who will win?” – who deserves to? Season two has been overall an exploration of power; how it is gained and how it is used. And none of the parties vying for supremacy come to the game board with clean hands.
Robb Stark began the war to avenge his family, and has seen it transform into an assertion of territorial autonomy. He has the most emotive, righteous justification for violence, yet the toll in blood must also fall on his side the ledger. And, to learn a lesson from poor Ned, moral conviction may not always be conducive to good decision-making. The Lannister claim to the throne rests on possession (the “nine-tenths of the law” rule is quite persuasive when you’re holding cities and fortresses) and the family’s immense wealth. Stannis’ claim is based on hereditary norms and religious conviction. The Greyjoys will pay the “iron price”: they respect power through force, and force alone. Renly asserted that having the trappings of a King – a crown, a royal guard, a vast army of allies – made him one.
We return to Varys’ riddle. Should the sell-sword listen to the great man wearing a crown, bearing gold or offering God’s favour? Or does his weapon grant the sell-sword all the power? Each of these ‘Kings’ would offer a different answer. And, no doubt, miss the point. Varys explains the fallacy behind the riddle to Tyrion;
“Power resides where men believe it resides. It’s a trick, a shadow on the wall, and a very small man can cast a very large shadow.”
The right to rule in Game of Thrones based on a set of shared assumptions. They are assumptions fundamentally different to those that govern our modern, democratic world. Men believing in these sources of authority bestow the ‘Five Kings’ with power, but none of them correlate with good leadership.
Where, then, does this leave the “common people”? As Jorah Mormont noted in the first season, the people do not care for game of thrones their lords play; they “pray for rain, healthy children and a summer that never ends.” Despite the show’s inevitable foregrounding of the “great men” of this conflict, this season has increasingly broached the topic of the effect on the masses who are doing most of the fighting and dying. Cersei and Joffrey treat the common people within their city with indifference and contempt, viewing them as a nuisance rather than their power base. The reward was a civil uprising. It took a pretty nurse to make Robb Stark cognisant of his personal war’s toll on the thousands of men who have followed him dutifully onto the battlefield. Robb’s disinterest in the throne itself (and all-too-familiar lack of a post-war plan) makes him doubly dangerous; his victory could leave a power vacuum that begets more chaos and bloodshed than a bad king ever could.
The most fascinating counterpoint to the power structures that are largely accepted in Westeros has been slowly teased out in the other-wise fringe ‘North of the Wall’ storyline. Finally given an avatar in the frank, adorable red-head Ygritte, the so-called savages appear to present as great a danger ideologically as their growing army does psychically. After hours of unquestioned feudal politics, it’s a joy to hear Ygritte proclaim “we don’t go serving some shit king who’s only king because his father was”. The Wildlings instead chose their king. That’s no guarantee he’s a better ruler, but being accountable to the people you rule can help stymie those less desirable fascist impulses. Indeed, the so-called savages advocate a political philosophy far closer to our own than that trumpeted by all the series’ Lords and Ladies. The concept is as foreign to Westeros as it would have been in 14th Century Europe, where ‘democracy’ was no more than a failed experiment of the distant classical past.
Sometimes it takes a Lannister wrapped in chains to cut through the hypocrisies that the society and its moral code are predicated on;
“There are so many vows–they make you swear and swear. Defend the king, obey the king–obey your father!–protect the innocent, defend the weak. But what if your father despises the king? What if the king massacres the innocent? It’s too much! No matter what you do, you’re forsaking one vow or another.”
In the next episode, the war comes to King’s Landing. It will be won and lost by virtue of men who fight for loyalty, gold or god. The writers have given us dozens of characters to care about, and yet no easy choice as for who to cheer for. Every character has accepted an illusion of legitimacy that has little to do with whether their King deserves to rule. And any victory will perpetuate an injustice. That’s how war works, and Season 2 has done a brilliant job of assuring us that, no matter who triumphs, there will always be a price that we should be reluctant to pay. Perhaps one that could be avoided if we asked the right questions rather than accepting things ‘as is’. It is the people, on either side of the television screen, who make that choice.
That said, Joffrey being punched in the face would be fantastic too.