Many viewers were disappointed by the final episode of HBO’s fantasy behemoth Game of Thrones, but I was not one of them. While invested in the story to some extent, for a long time, I’ve valued the series as a pop-culture phenomenon rather than a narrative, and in that sense, it’s never disappointed me. Even when I wasn’t interested in what Daenerys, Cersei and Tyrion were doing, it was always intriguing to see other people trying to justify how these quasi-medieval characters’ actions could be consistent with 21st-centruy political ideologies. Sometimes this took the form of heartfelt, insightful critique; other times, incredibly energetic mental gymnastics. It was entertaining either way, arguably more entertaining than the show itself, and certainly more entertaining than most other television.
That all came to end with the series finale, “The Iron Throne.” With this episode, fans could no longer pretend that the series was addressing their pet political grievances, and that was a bitter pill to swallow—especially for intersectional feminists, who had long held that Queen Daenerys Targaryen’s penchant for freeing slaves would lead to the end of systems of oppression in this particular fantasy world. For Daenerys’ hard-core fans, the hope was always that the end of the series would chronicle the birth of a feminist, egalitarian utopia—or at least, something clearly on its way to that. Not only did this not come to pass, but the series had the chutzpah to present a solution that was only a slight variation on the status quo, which must have read as not just a disappointment, but a slap in the face.
To be fair, most of the disappointment with the finale was likely nonpolitical in nature. Fans complained about the shortened series (the final two seasons were both shorter than the series’ standard 10-episode season), leading to insufficient character development, and plot twists that seemed rushed even when they made sense in theory. The staff’s decision to take an extra year to create Season 8, leaving all of 2018 sadly Thrones-less, played a big role; with a whole extra year to anticipate the ending, fans had ample time to build gargantuan expectations that could never be met by any TV drama, even a stellar one.
There’s also the disappointment of book readers, something which, if not unique to this show, was nevertheless another source of friction. Readers of the A Song of Ice and Fire novels hoped that some of the elements that had been seemingly trimmed from the TV series might make a last-minute appearance in the finale. When it turned out that popular characters from the books like Lady Stoneheart and Young Griff were well and truly excluded from the TV canon, that was just another nail in the coffin.
In fact, most of the criticisms of the finale were focused on pacing and production issues, essentially apolitical factors. Still, a small, but extremely vocal minority wants us to know that Game of Thrones failed them because it failed their politics, and that reveals some interesting things: Both the extent to which politically-motivated viewers were watching the series through a distorted lens all along, and the desperation to fit the story into paradigms that it doesn’t get along with. To some extent, these people were watching a different show altogether.
One of the reasons why this phenomenon is so significant is because the show was a big enough cultural phenomenon to attract high-profile politicians, who used it unabashedly in their campaigns. Both Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren lamented Queen Daenerys’ dark turn at the end, implying that this development was anti-feminist, if not in quite so many words.
“We were getting so close to having this ending with just women running the world, and then the last two episodes, it’s like, “Oh, they are too emotional.” The end,” said Ocasio-Cortez. Not only does Ocasio-Cortez seem to treat it as a given that “just women” ruling the world would be a good thing, she also misrepresents Daenerys’ story. As fans well know, Daenerys was the product of a powerful family that practiced incest for hundreds of years, spawning many emotionally volatile people, most of whom were male. To characterize Daenerys’ turn to madness as something viewers were supposed to interpret as the fault of her gender, rather than her (incredibly loaded) family history, would require ignoring the entire backstory of Game of Thrones.
Warren, who changed her allegiance to Sansa Stark after Daenerys’ homicidal turn, expressed disappointment that her woman of choice didn’t end up on the Iron Throne.
“She walks away saying, “I’ll still be Queen in the North.” Come on Sansa! Go for the big one!” said Warren. Her enthusiasm for a Sansa-led monarchy is endearing, but seems blind to one of the main points of the series: seeking power leads to destruction, almost inevitably. In fact, everyone who set out to rule the Seven Kingdoms ends up dead; the only one who survives is Sansa, and that’s arguably because she limited her ambitions to the North instead of the entire continent. As a fan of Sansa, Warren should be pleased that the flame-haired Lady of Winterfell essentially dodged a bullet there. If Warren had any inkling that her desire to see a woman gain the power of the highest level of monarchy was inconsistent with the show’s thoroughly anti-monarchy message, she has yet to discuss it.
Haven’t had enough of female politicians being mad that HBO did not fulfill their feminist fantasies through Queen Daenerys or Queen Sansa? You’re in luck, because New York Senator (and Warren’s fellow Presidential hopeful) Kirsten Gillibrand was also on board.
“She’s (Daenerys) somebody who made sure the lowest income, the least empowered could have a voice and that was who she was. And why did the writers have to turn her into a Mad Queen? That was not part of who she was,” said Gillibrand.
While Senator Gillibrand is correct that Daenerys was concerned with the fate of the poor (at least as far as delivering them from slavery; it seems unlikely she would have given poor people a voice in her government, had her reign in Westeros lasted for more than ten minutes), saying that the Mad Queen was not “part of who she was” requires ignoring a pile of foreshadowing bigger than a sleeping dragon. As early as the first season, Daenerys spoke of making her enemies die screaming and showed no remorse when subjecting people to painful deaths. This tendency toward violence only increased as the show continued, and while some of her victims were truly evil and likely deserved their fates, others did not. In order to think that Daenerys’ turn toward madness in the penultimate episode came out of nowhere, either Gillibrand missed several key episodes, or she simply ignored anything that didn’t jibe with her personal view of Daenerys as a good-hearted champion of the downtrodden.
All three politicians appear to have viewed Daenerys primarily through the lens of modern feminism. The fact that her story was a cautionary tale about the corrupting nature of power—a problem that knows no gender—was either lost on them, or ignored by virtue of being politically useless to them. What’s concerning is not that they brought their own ideas with them to the show (we all do that); it’s that the feminist lens seems to have rendered certain parts of the story blurry, even impenetrable. None of these women are stupid, yet either all three of them missed (or forgot) crucial elements of the story, or they selectively ignored what they didn’t want to see.
Politicians were far from the only ones trying to fit a square peg into a round hole in this regard, however. Naturally, TV critics were each viewing Daenerys’ storyline through their own questionable lenses.
“Now, the worst thing for me was the subtext of this last story because Dany saw herself as this freedom fighter who was liberating the oppressed in their kingdoms,” said NPR TV critic Eric Deggans.“And in a show with almost no characters of color, her followers, some of them who were former slaves, were the closest thing to that. She was killed by a son of the people who originally ran things.”
So despite being a platinum-blonde princess, descendant of the god-like Dragon Lords of Valyria with magical powers, according to Deggans, Daenerys’ real role in the story was as a proxy for under-privileged people of color. From this perspective, Jon’s murder of Daenerys was not a reluctant hero putting down a genocidal tyrant, but the status quo triumphing over progressive change. That makes a certain amount of sense if you buy into Daenerys’ rhetoric as a liberator of slaves (though she did very little liberating in the final seasons, and a whole lot of murdering), but seeing Jon Snow as a symbol for ingrained power structures is a stretch. You mean, the guy who was denigrated for supposedly being illegitimate his whole life, ran off to the edges of civilization because that was the only place he could find acceptance, was literally murdered because he choose to give illegal immigrants a chance, functions as a stand-in for the white, male patriarchy? If Jon was supposed to represent entrenched, institutional power, he was amazingly bad at it (which, to be fair, is very in character. Jon Snow is bad at most things, which is what makes him so lovable. Or maybe it’s just that pouty face.)
So the “subtext” that Deggans objects to is apparently that an advocate for oppressed people of color (sort of) was killed by a white man with extensive privilege, which is hard to reconcile with anything we know about these two characters. Granted, subtext is subjective, but I like to think I have seen enough event television to be a proud graduate of Subtext Boot Camp, and I’m having a really hard time seeing Deggan’s political reading as anything other than a desire to twist the narrative into a privilege-themed pretzel, having little or nothing to do with what actually transpired on screen.
Speaking of privilege, Laura Hudson of Wired* was so committed to the tenets of intersectionality that she perhaps missed the point the show was making about the nature of violence as a solution. When Tyrion Lannister spells out for the audience that Dany’s repeated acts of violence only made her more confident that violence was the answer, no matter how justified she was the first few times she did it, Hudson characterizes this as Tyrion advocating a complete abnegation of moral judgement.
“…Tyrion laments enabling her and makes a very bad argument about Dany’s use of force, which essentially begins, “First she came for the slavers of Astapor and I said nothing…” Ah yes, it’s too bad she didn’t just sit back and decide to see if the slaves could free themselves by winning against their masters in the marketplace of ideas! It’s a facile analysis of force that conveniently erases all power structures from the equation, that imagines there is no moral difference between Dany rising up to kill slave masters and murdering thousands of innocent children.”
Yes, it would be foolish to suggest that Dany could have defeated slavery non-violently in the marketplace of ideas, if Tyrion had said any such thing. Of course, Tyrion’s argument is not that there’s no moral difference between killing the slavers of Astapor and killing innocent people; it’s that after killing enough slavers of Astapor, and others of their ilk, it gradually becomes easier to kill in general. When you have a big enough hammer, everything begins to look like a nail; Tyrion is smart enough to realize that Daenerys’ had come to see the whole world as a bed of nails. That’s a problem for viewers on the far left, because the distinction between Punching Up and Punching Down in social justice ideology is supposed to be a clean one; the idea that doing a lot of Punching Up might eventually make you more prone to acts of excessive Punching Down is an uncomfortable subject.
“While it’s hard to resist the pithy moral absolutism and easy applause line of “violence is always wrong,” it’s also worth noting that despite its superficial patina of fairness, this argument invariably benefits the powerful; not only do they get to pretend that there’s no difference between punching up and punching down, they get to robe themselves in self-righteousness and claim the moral high ground while they do it. Who’s the real Nazi—the Nazi or the person who punches a Nazi, hmmm?” Hudson continues.
In truth, I’m not sure if the setting of Game of Thrones really gels with this modern conception of Punching Up versus Punching Down, regardless of the evergreen punching-Nazis hypothetical. It works in the most general sense (doing something bad to evil people is more justifiable than doing something bad to good people) but once you get any more specific than that, it’s hard to reconcile. Most of the people in the fictional world of Westeros are peasants who have no role in the decision-making process, and they’re the ones who suffer no matter which direction the people in power like to think they’re punching. That’s a problem to a certain extent even in the modern era (which is frankly why I’m personally skeptical of this whole Punching Up vs. Punching Down concept in general), but especially true when the society you’re dealing with still practices feudalism.
More importantly, advocates of Punching Up like to seem to ignore the “if you have a big enough hammer” problem entirely; to them, presumably, when you partake of political violence (but only against despicable targets who totally deserve it), your hammer always remains just the right size; big enough to hurt your enemy, not big enough that the strain of carrying it takes a toll on you. Sadly, Tyrion Lannister is not real, so I will never have the joy of explaining this Magic Hammer idea to him and seeing what kind of incredulous expression he would make.
In Game of Thrones, using violence as a solution is a problem not because there are no deserving targets of violence, but because of what it does to the mind of the user. In Game of Thrones, a woman can be a power-mad tyrant, and a world ruled by women is not necessarily a peaceful one. Good motives can decay, and the most righteous causes (like eradicating slavery) can provide the best cover for tyranny. For people who are heavily invested in the idea that political violence can be used surgically against the right targets, or invested in the idea that loudly advocating for egalitarian policies surely inoculates one from corruption, Daenerys and her messy, punching-mostly-sideways world are more than just a little disappointing; they’re threatening. It’s a lot easier to accuse the show of delivering a bad ending than to grapple with the possibility that it reveals bad ideology.
*I have disagreed with Hudson before. I’m not a fan of her work, but I do appreciate that she points out arguments that I disagree with more clearly than other people I disagree with, if that makes any sense.