Game of Thrones finale: The Broken King

Spoilers for the series finale of Game of Thrones.

Image result for bran sansa game of thrones great council

So, Sansa Stark just dismantled Westeros and the showrunners seem to think that's a good thing.

But that's because David Benioff and D.B. Weiss regard anything that weakens the monarchy as a good thing. They even go so far as to melt the Iron Throne, an unmistakable sign of where their sympathies lie. They present the symbolic destruction of the monarchy and the actual breakup of the seven kingdoms as a positive development that moves Westeros a little closer to our modern democratic sensibilities. But they've actually done just the opposite.

This series left history behind long ago--probably around the time the first ice zombie showed up--but it's worth looking back at the Wars of the Roses, which served as George R.R. Martin's very loose inspiration for A Song of Ice and Fire. Those wars ended with weakened lords and a much more powerful monarchy. That sounds anathema to us, but centralized monarchies arose when feudalism collapsed under its own weight; the internal stability they brought fostered the rise of the middle classes and the development of democratic institutions. The English Parliament took its modern form under the powerful Tudor monarchs--and then decided to depose a couple of Stuart ones.

Benioff and Weiss go in a different direction. Instead of installing a new hereditary monarchy, Tyrion creates an elective monarchy in which the lords of Westeros select their ruler. This solution might seem like an adept way of ending the fighting, and perhaps it is in the short term (although--minor question--what the fuck happened to all those Dothraki?), but in the long term Tyrion has made the monarchy even weaker and thus less able to keep peace among its lords, less able to prevent Westeros from sliding backwards into war. Game of Thrones doesn't end with Westeros as contemporary America, or even Tudor England; it turns Westeros into eighteenth century Poland, where powerful lords could buy elections, foreign interference was common, and the threat of civil war was constant. (Okay, so maybe it is a bit like contemporary America.)

Hereditary monarchies are supposed to minimize the difficulty of transitioning between rulers, although clearly that system has broken down in Westeros of late. The novels and the television series are filled with examples of primogeniture gone wrong, from lords who can't produce healthy heirs (Jon Arryn) to lords who produce too many heirs and refuse to go away (Walder Frey). But installing an elective monarchy doesn't erase this problem, it compounds it. Tyrion has just guaranteed that Westeros will face a succession struggle every generation or so (assuming they last that long between wars, which I sincerely doubt).

And then there's Tyrion's choice of monarch. Crowning Bran isn't just narratively unsatsifying (a character who wants nothing is boring; a character who wants nothing and does nothing is pointless), it reveals a fundamental error in the way the showrunners understand politics. Benioff and Weiss operate under the impression that the best ruler is the person who doesn't want the job. Varys said this about Jon a couple of episodes ago and Tyrion said it of Bran in the finale. It's a popular notion, one that appeals to people's disdain for the political process, and it plays into every populist candidate who promises they will only take political office to destroy that office. It's why we reject competent but ambitious leaders in favor of unqualified blowhards. (Also, because they don't have Y chromosomes.) In other words, it's a terrible idea, but that's the principle Benioff and Weiss used to choose the next king of Westeros.

Who would be a better choice to sit on the now strictly figurative Iron Throne? As much as some fans berated him once Dany's heel turn became apparent, Jon Snow is one of the better choices for the job--not because of his bloodline, which no one in Westeros seems to respect, but because his political instincts are actually pretty good.

Not his battlefield instincts; they're terrible. But his larger political and strategic instincts are spot on. He was one of the first characters to recognize the existential threat to Westeros posed by the Night's King and he successfully convinced others to do so as well. He recognizes the importance of building alliances, and his bastard upbringing means that he's not invested in titles or ranks--this, not lack of ambition, is what makes him a good leader. He's willing to humble himself (by bending the knee to Daenerys) or forgive longstanding rivalries (by welcoming the Free Folk south of the Wall) when doing so furthers his goals. He'd better pick a damned good Master of Wars, but otherwise he'd make a pretty good king.

Except the circumstances of the throne's vacancy make that unacceptable. Not because the Unsullied would refuse to accept him--personally, I wonder why anybody in Westeros cares what a bunch of war criminals from Essos think, especially when they're about to shove off to the Summer Isles anyway--but because it would mean he took power by murdering his lover. I get why neither the showrunners nor the lords of Westeros want to reward him for that.

So given the available options, who would make the best ruler? Easily Sansa Stark, who has shown exceptional survival instincts and who correctly understood both the threat posed by Jon's true parentage and the best way to handle it. She also has a strong power base in the North, a deep alliance with the knights of the Vale, and blood relations to two other Lords Paramount in the Riverlands and the Vale. Why is she seceding from Westeros? She should be running it.

As I mentioned yesterday, the historical precedent from the Wars of the Roses would be to arrange Sansa's marriage to a southron lord to seal the peace and unify the seven kingdoms. As the last surviving Lannister, Tyrion would be the obvious choice, but that might be too much of a bad flashback for Sansa--and honestly, Sansa's hand is strong enough that she should be able to reject any suitor she doesn't want. I suppose some other lord can be found, maybe from the Reach, ideally one who was allied with the Lannisters... nope. Nope nope nope.

I hear Gendry's available.

At any rate, the best path forward for Westeros is not the sham democracy of an elective monarchy, but a strong centralized monarchy that can rebuild civic institutions, prevent factional violence, and lead the kingdom out of its failed feudal system.

Unfortunately, the two people in the best position to do that--Tyrion Lannister and Sansa Stark--just decided to blow up the country because the showrunners think that politics is best left to people who think they're too good for politics.

Could be worse. They could've elected Craster.

Marc Singer teaches English at Howard University in Washington, DC. He is the author of Breaking the Frames: Populism and Prestige in Comics Studies and Grant Morrison: Combining the Worlds of Contemporary Comics.
Game of Thrones finale: The Broken King Game of Thrones finale: The Broken King Reviewed by Marc Singer on Tuesday, May 21, 2019 Rating: 5
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