#54: The Dictator as False Messiah: A Belated Review of Game Of Thrones Season 8

I.

This is very belated, spoiler-filled review.

The reaction to the conclusion of season 8 of Game of Thrones has typically not been kind. In a nutshell, it runs like this: “All the buildup. All the pathos. All the scheming. And it ends like this. Why?”

That’s basically the criticism. Well, you can see it that way. You could also ask, well, let’s just accept this is what’s happening, and ask what it is meant to accomplish and say. Rather than to allow the frustration over the disappointment of one’s own expectations to govern one’s opinion about the show (i.e. How does that make us feel?), we might instead learn something from the experience (i.e. What might that possibly mean?).

We accept audience frustration in the short run – which drives the popularity for basically anything done by Christopher Nolan (Memento, Inception, Interstellar, Tenet), the current master of surprise turns of narrative once M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs, The Village) lost favor. The gimmick of the unreliable narrative and of surprise turns of events seems to work well with audiences if it comes in the form of a movie-length experience. But if it comes in the final run of a 8-year television series, audiences that have fallen for the trick seem to be frustrated. The same happened with Lost and its absolutely brilliant (and apparently equally not understood) ending. Maybe there’s a lesson here. Limit surprise twists to movie or even television season size (like Dr. Who under Steven Moffat – but even he suffered from frustrated audiences).

Or, in short, people who loved Game of Thrones so much that they named their daughters Daenerys or Khaleesi probably were put off a bit by the ending, one would hope.

The spoiler for this review is as follows: It Makes Perfect Sense. In fact, the entire series can be read as a playbook that lets us understand how people fall for a genocidal dictator, how they end up supporting a violent revolution that in fact runs counter to their interest, and how nothing good can ever come out of supporting someone pretending to be a messiah that will solve all your problems.

II.

Daenerys “Danny” Targaryen sees herself as a liberator. She has been abused, she had to fight for survival, she rose to the top, became Khaleesi (basically, a female Khan), she is a sympathetic character overall, but she has always had a cruel streak. She brutally kills her brother (Season 1). She locks Xaro and Doreah in his own vault in Qarth to die (Season 2). She kills the slavers of Astapor (Season 3) and has the slavers of Mereen crucified (Season 4). She feeds a Daenerys a Meereen nobleman to her dragons (Season 5). She kills the Khals that threatened to abuse her (Season 6, and yes, that was sadly very satisfying). She kills the Randyll Tarly and his son (Season 7). She kills Varys (Season 8, now we’re finally suspicious). At every point, these are all signs for what’s to come.

Just because some of her victims are bad people, it is telling that Daenerys’ default answer is cruelty. The audience typically likes it because the show is pulling a Hannibal Lector – audiences tend to identify with the protagonist, especially if they are good lucking, charming, played by a great actor, or can claim to fight for the greater good. Her fight is not for justice, it is for revenge. She clearly delights in the violence, it is visible. Every season shows us a reminder of her character. She may have been a victim in the past, but she has become a perpetrator of violence and cruelty. And like every cruel person in history, she has willing accomplices unable or unwilling to stop her.

III.

Tyrion as Daenerys’ advisor basically plays the role many philosophers have played when trying to appease a brutal tyrant. As Plato fails Dion of Syracuse, Socrates with the Thirty Tyrants, Aristotle with Alexander, Cicero with Augustus, Machiavelli with Cesare Borgia, Thomas More with Henry VIII., Voltaire with Frederick II, Robespierre with the terror he himself helped unleash, Trotzky (no innocent either) with Stalin, and, arguably, Heidegger with Hitler, and Oliver Stone with Castro and Putin, the philosopher/artist typically cannot keep the brutal tyrant from being a brutal tyrant. They may delude themselves into blunting the blow, into convincing the inconvincible, into preventing the worst. In the end, they never do. In the end, they may soil their reputation by getting too close to power, and by enabling the tyrant and providing legitimacy to a reign of terror that they should have seen coming. Cicero and Thomas More finally stood up against tyranny and paid the price. Heidegger is still read, but with well-deserved disgust. The Faustian bargain hardly ever pays off.

On Game of Thrones, Tyrion’s fate – as likeable as he might be – should be much harsher. He should have seen what was happening, but he himself has gotten himself deeper into the dark shadows of questionable morality. When escaping King’s Landing, there was no need to kill his father Tywin, who is quite incapacitated at the moment, as he is sitting in his bathroom. Tywin may have been a bad father, but killing him – as emotionally pleasing this may have been for Tyrion – was unnecessary, and it led to the downfall of the city eventually. Always the ultimate narcissist, Tyrion shows his lack of morality. The years of being humiliated by his family finally lead him to his breaking point – or do they finally reveal his true, evil character? In order to seek personal vindication, he ushers in the destruction of the city that never loved him. Naturally, he will partner up with the other murderer in the show. Tyrion, too late, realizes he has been playing the Goebbels to Daenarys’ Hitler.

And Jon Snow, he indeed knows nothing. He is the idiotic Siegfried character, duped by Burgundians (by political power), having abandoned his Brünnhild (Ygritte), lusting after Gutrune / Kriemhild / Daenerys, manipulated somehow by Hagen (now there’s a reason for Tyrion as a dwarf!). Enough Wagner, but it’s certainly fun to cross-read these texts. Jon is hopelessly in love, being seduced by Daenerys, and once he realizes the difference between right and wrong, it is rather late. In his very original defense, he indeed did die, and was raised from the dead, so he might just as well be dead inside.

IV.

In all of their defense, if such a defense should be justified, this is the story of a world gone mad. It is not easy to maintain your morality under such circumstances. But this is precisely when it counts. Morality in good times is meaningless if it is not challenged. Morality shows up when it matters most, when you have to decide in favor not of your own selfish survival or comfort, but in support of the greater good. It matters whether you give in to the seduction of a violent quick fix, or whether you seek the path that is complicated, painful, laborious, and time-intensive. Put differently, do you save yourself, or do you save your soul?

Difficult times are no excuse. This is not about surviving a concentration camp, or some other liminal experience, this is about the point where you choose to become a perpetrator to avoid being a victim. You may not have a choice when you are ordered to shoot somebody. But you can always aim to miss. Historical evidence shows that most soldiers in battles actually do everything that keeps them from killing. Ironically, Star Wars was right all along: Most stormtroopers fail to hit their target, and it may just be deliberately. Human beings tend to know what is right and what is wrong.

There has to be a caveat here: We ourselves cannot know how we would act in these circumstances. For good reason, we are talking about exceptional situations. It should not be ours to judge too facetiously, lest we be judged also. We all make mistakes, we are all fallible, we are all human. What I am talking about here are deliberate and coherent patterns of cruelty, displayed by the protagonists of a keystone television show. This is not about characters under momentary duress, this is about characters deliberately and knowingly committing or condoning violence. It’s the difference between self-defense and murder.

V.

The show has always been a historical allegory, initially seemingly about the Fall of Rome, but additionally now about World War II.

The gravity of history is unforgiving. Tragedy is when characters end up doing the wrong thing despite having tried everything to avoid doing it. No matter how much they may have wanted to change, they cannot change their nature. Jamie Lannister realizes this. Daenerys Targaryen realizes this. They give in, because that was always their destiny.

Daenerys has always been violent, but not just violent, but outright cruel, sadistic, indulgent in violence, almost a mirror image of Ramsay Bolton. We were warned time and again. She has always been nothing but a combined version of Julius Caesar, Attila the Hun, Napoleon, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot, all in one package. She is all dictators. She is all deluded violent revolutionaries. What brilliance to make her into an attractive young girl to allow the audience to fall for her. She has taken all the tragedy of her life and turned it not to wisdom, kindness or compassion, but into a weapon. Once she has the chance to release it, she does.

Like Ahab, she is mad in her pursuit to break the wheel. The wheel of history cannot be broken. This has always been the truth of the show. It had to be revealed eventually, and shockingly, and the audience had to be punished for believing otherwise.

The business of dictators is seduction, and Daenerys has certainly seduced us into (false) hope, just as the show and its producers have seduced us, almost soma-laden, into believing that the wheel of history can be broken, that violent and unprincipled psychopaths shalt lead the way to the revolution, and that everything will be all right.

No, it won’t. It never will be.

#20: Exiled

I grew up in former East Germany, lived through the 1989 Revolution, saw the fall of the wall, transitioned to life in West, or rather, United Germany, fell in love, moved to the US, enjoying a freedom I never thought I would ever be able to enjoy pre-1989.

My transatlantic life was based on the assumption that I would always be able to be present on both continents, keep doing work on both continents, travel, visit family and friends. This very liberating mobility was a dream come true.

Enter Coronavirus. We saw it coming in December, where it was some “mysterious” pneumonia in Wuhan, PRC. I still traveled over Christmas, back and forth. Then, in January, it became clear something serious was happening, and by February, international travel was becoming increasingly not kosher, and by early March, we entered a new reality.

This tiny virus has turned my transatlantic life into an unintended exile. How quickly, life can change, and distances that used to be traversable become impossible to overcome.

Life has gotten smaller, the world has become something much more abstract, less concrete, unreachable. I am sitting in my house, my home away from home, but my original home is out of reach.

I’m doing well otherwise, and I am well aware there are worst fates. But the feeling that you cannot just drive or walk or even fly to go over there is numbing.

Corona takes the crown for reducing this beautiful world to a cruel memory and abstraction. There are now advertisements on television saying that it is ok to be depressed. Really? Street signs, for when I do get out to just look around, from the care, tell me to go home. I understand that there is a new virus out there, that we understand too little, and that far too many people have died already, and more will be dying. We are afraid for a very good reason, and need to be cautious. Certainly.

I can do this. I grew up not being allowed to travel to the “West”, to other continents. This exile may well be temporary, but my time, and that of friends and family is not endless. This is a cruel virus. Make it stop. Certainly, I am not alone in this wish.

This sucks.

#11: Authoritarian Governments Must Lie, and Democracies are Grown-Up Systems

Allegedly, Russia has no Coronavirus, but a rise in pneumonia cases. You certainly know what means. We know China lied about the outbreak, and it is safe to assume they will continue to lie, and they certainly are making sure no journalist is telling the truth. Iran and China try to pin the outbreak to the US, a blatant lie. As to what’s happening in North Korea is anybody’s guess.

Authoritarian regimes have to lie about these things, it’s in their nature. This is because there can be only one argument for authoritarianism, and it is as old as Plato: it allegedly works better than the rule of the people. It’s a simple deal. The state, through its leader(s), says that it knows what is best for you, and that they listen to the people (overtly and, well, covertly) and then channel their thoughts into their decision-making. L’état, c’est moi – I am the state, as Louis XIV is quoted so famously.

But this is not how human beings work. We are not perfect. This is not how life works either. Something always gets in the way of perfection. Nobody, probably, wants a global virus outbreak to happen, at least no sane human being. The planet and all the other life forms on it might want to cull the human herd, but human beings typically want to preserve themselves, and an uncontrollable outbreak of an unknown pathogen is low on the list of deviousness designed by diabolical human minds for their warfare. The typical Bond movie villain does not exist. Even Daesh (the so-called “Islamic State”) has warned its assassins not to travel to Europe for fear of contagion. Extremists might be mad, but not that mad. China may have researched the virus in its Wuhan lab, but it probably did not engineer it. The regime may be mad, but not that mad.

It’s called a mistake, and mistakes happen. Now it depends on how you handle it. If you are an authoritarian regime, you must seem all-competent and almighty in order to convince your hapless subjects to continue to tolerate their evil grasp. As soon as that grasp seems less competent and less mighty, a revolution might occur, and it will occur much more quickly than you might think. Dictatorships are systems on the edge, and they can turn instantaneously. I know, I grew up in one. One day, Mr. and Mrs. Honecker seem on top of the world. The next day, the evil couple is on the run. One day, Mr. and Mrs. Ceaușescu are praising the victory of socialism, and the next day they are lying dead in a ditch. One day the Soviet Union is the scary evil empire (no sarcasm intended), the next day it is on the path to becoming a pitiful petro-state with delusions of grandeur. One day you are the much-celebrated stereotypical “Oriental” despot written about so adoringly in your own orientalist romance novel, the other you’re dragged out from an Earthen hole by American troops. One day you are running the African Union, the next day you are gunned down by protestors in the street like an animal. A dictator must have all the power, because the alternative is extremely punitive. All or nothing, whatever the cost.

This is not strength, it is weakness masquerading as strength. If you feel the need to pose with naked upper body on horseback like a dime novel James Bond, you are not demonstrating real strength; but you are demonstrating that as ridiculous as you may look, no one better laugh at you, for you’ll be out to get them. When otherwise comical things are becoming serious, this is where the authoritarian spirit lives.

Now, contrast this with the West. For all the authoritarian-ish posing that you may see in someone like a Macron, a Trump, even at times a Merkel, this is always a pathos that can easily be decried as pathetic by a functioning press. Western-style democracy is a cacophony of voices, a shrill spectacle of different interest groups in a tug-of-war, of upper and lower chambers of parliament screaming or grandstanding at each other, of judges deciding against judges, of hapless leaders, angry protesters, angry commentators, angry commentators angry at other angry commentators, etc. It’s a spectacle, every single day.

But this is not weakness; this is true strength. Democracy is more than just the “rule of the people”, as that simplistic definition says. Sure, somehow that is important. But more than that, democracy is a grown-up system for consensus creation by listening to all voices, somehow finding a way to navigate through them, making a decision, criticizing that decision to the maximum extent, hoping for the best, and if it does not work out, at the next higher level you may change or veto things, and at the next election, you can throw the inept leaders out and try anew. Repeat.

We’ll make mistakes, we’ll certainly, certainly, certainly know about the makes, if not sooner than definitely later, and we’ll have to grow around our mistakes, but the system will not collapse, and the hapless leaders, if they have not been found guilty of a crime, can retire in peace and be brought out once and again as an example of an elder statesperson that survived this hellish circle of life and can tell the tale.

I’ll take a grown-up system any day over one that treats everyone like a child.