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In Defense Of “Game of Thrones”


One wonders at times whether critics of the acclaimed HBO series “Game of Thrones“ have actually seen the show, but that may say more about the show than it does its detractors.

I wondered myself as I read a strong GoT critique from The Federalist’s own Robert Tracinski last week. He drew so many generalizations that seemed so at odds with the show (and books) that I know and love that I couldn’t help but wonder whether he’d actually seen the tremendously violent and crude scenes he so deplores. Indeed, while Tracinski says he has read articles about the show and seen clips of it on YouTube, it is not clear from his piece that he has actually seen it.

That would certainly explain some of his more egregious mischaracterizations, such as this one: “the real giveaway is the absence of heroes, the lack of conspicuous private or public virtue, the way all of the show’s characters are compromised and besmirched.”

The show does lack heroes in the Tolkienian sense. While there is an overarching duality of light vs. darkness, it is not yet clear – even in the books – which side is “good” and which “evil,” or even if they fit neatly into that duality. Game of Thrones is not a tale of good guys and bad guys, righteousness against evil, the divine vs. the satanic.

But to say that it has no heroes – let alone displays of virtue – is simply to ignore wide swaths of the story, and large numbers of its most central characters.

As we currently stand on HBO, Ned Stark’s bastard son Jon Snow has twice relinquished everything he holds dear in the name of a higher purpose, first leaving behind the family he loved – despite a conspicuous lack of reciprocation on his adopted mother’s part – to defend the realm of men; then foreswearing his oath and murdering his “brother” in the hope of averting a massacre at Castle Black.

Daenerys Targaryen, rather than march her army of Unsullied and trio of fire-spitting dragons directly to the Red Keep, is at present moving from slave city to slave city liberating tens of thousands from bondage, who subsequently dub her “mhysa” – mother, in their native tongue.

As for acts of public virtue, take your pick. Jamie Lannister rescues Brienne of Tarth from slavers who pit against a ferocious bear armed with only a wooden sword. Sansa Stark saves the life of Ser Dontos Hollard, who earned King Joffrey’s wrath by showing up to a tournament too drunk to fight. Tyrion Lannister shields Sansa from the more sadistic tendencies of the king. Samwell Tarly rescues a teenage mother, at great personal risk, before Craster can sacrifice her infant son to the White Walkers. Even Arya Stark’s quest for vengeance is an effort to right misdeeds perpetrated against her friends and family.

Tracinski is correct that virtually all of these characters are “compromised” in some way. But that makes their heroic deeds all the more amazing.

Tolkien’s characters play a prescribed role. Aragorn is expected to be heroic, chivalrous, and good with a sword. We don’t have to wonder about Sauron’s motives. Gandalf’s deeds are amazing, sure, but “he’s a wizard after all,” as one of Bilbo Baggins’ dwarf companions put it.

Middle Earth has heroes and villains, and they do good and bad things, respectively. Westeros has people. They do both good and bad things, making it all the more interesting – and heroic – when they embrace the better angels of their nature.

To the extent that the show is overly graphic and crude, then, it does a service to this narrative. Heroics truly are heroics in a world so plagued by misfortune, violence, and amorality.

“The question isn’t whether there is talent behind these shows, but why that talent is employed on such a brutal, bloodthirsty subject matter,” Tracinski writes. “Is there nothing else in the world interesting enough to make a television show about?”

But it is just that brutal, bloodthirsty subject matter that makes the story so interesting. “Heroes doing heroic things” has formed the basis of many highly entertaining, well-written novels, movies, and television shows. But great deeds in a fallen world are more interesting – and arguably more inspiring – than those carried out simply because doing so is in a character’s literary DNA.

Tracinski’s assessment of the underlying political message of the show fails to account for that dynamic.

“The people who inhabit the fictional world of ‘Game of Thrones’ are not fit for self-government,” he writes. “You could not build a free society out of that rabble. And perhaps that’s why this world holds a special fascination for the left. If the natural state of humanity is a brutal war of all against all, then we need Leviathan to come in and repress our natural wickedness.”

That analysis seems wholly at odds with his view of GoT characters as compromised, untrustworthy, predominately wicked. Such characterizations undergird conservative ideas, not progressive ones. And while some Westerosis do great things, they are indeed compromised. What better reason to withhold the power of the state from anyone, even the most seemingly virtuous?

A complete inability of the citizens of Westeros to act in anything approaching a virtuous manner would seem to support not the left’s calls for centralized government control, but rather the conservative premise that men are too corrupt, or too corruptible, to be entrusted with too much power.

Interplay between the various regimes vying for the throne is not an endorsement of a particular political ideology. On the contrary, the chaotic and multifaceted story is best seen as a tale of numerous competing ideologies, with no clear winner, frontrunner, or preferable outcome.

Indeed, Andrew Peek, a former advisor to top U.S. and NATO officials in Afghanistan who teaches at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, has mapped out the various theories of international relations at play in Westeros.

Stannis Baratheon, with his legitimate legal claim as successor to his younger brother, is a liberal institutionalist. Lannisters, the classical realists, think might makes right and won’t hesitate to seize your kingdom because they can. Daenerys, parading around the eastern city-states liberating the downtrodden from their despotic overlords, no matter the cost, is the quintessential neoconservative.

If Martin does not display favoritism in the seemingly unending conflict between these and other theories of international relations, one central political message is quite clear: kings are dangerous.

“Martin asks the most serious questions about the nature of power: Who governs? By what right? To what end?” writes conservative columnist Matthew Continetti. “A dispassionate analyst of the cruelty of princes, he reveals the unstable ground of absolutist rule. He is exploring, through his characters and situations, whether enlightened despotism is possible in a broken world. This isn’t fantasy; it’s a crash course in political realism.”

Hereditary monarchy can have disastrous, violent consequences. What Jefferson-loving American conservative could disagree with that?

Now all of that said, Tracinski is voicing a common complaint: many Game of Thrones viewers have a hard time seeing past the show’s gratuitous violence and over-the-top sexuality.

The critics have a point: HBO, presumably in an effort to attract viewers, added a number of scenes of sex and violence that did not appear in Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels. While there are incredibly deep and interesting themes at play in Game of Thrones, many viewers will find themselves preoccupied with details that HBO writers chose to insert, whether to draw more eyes or to take the shortcuts necessary in adapting such a massive literary undertaking to a more viewer-friendly format.

I loathe phrases such as “if you’d read the book, you’d know X,” but in this instance, it appears that HBO may have done itself a disservice by filling what is, I believe, an inspiring and fascinating story with scenes and plot lines that turn off casual viewers. So while I take issue with Tracinski’s characterization of Game of Thrones, the fault may lie with those responsible for bringing it to televisions nationwide.