No show captures the pain of political decline better than “Game of Thrones.” Since season one, Westeros has been unravelling. Audiences join the decay in medias res. We meet the main characters during the reign of Robert Baratheon, who usurped the Iron Throne from Aerys II Targaryen, known colloquially as the Mad King. Westeros enjoys an uneasy peace.
Five seasons later, Westeros is riven by a series of interconnected squabbles, feuds, and wars. In the capital of King’s Landing, a petty dispute between the new queen and queen mother inadvertently unleashes a theological-political crisis: the king and city is now subservient to an ascetic religious sect.
Outside the capital, the remaining noble families jockey for control, each plotting their own path to the Iron Throne. Across the Narrow Sea, a civil war in Meereen threatens to derail Daenerys Targaryen’s quest to reclaim the Iron Throne: If she can’t govern a city, how can she rule seven kingdoms? Beyond the Wall, mythical creatures known as White Walkers lead a zombie army against the living. They are an existential threat to mankind, and no one has a political or military solution to handle them.
As a self-governing people, Americans ought to watch “Game of Thrones” with keen attention to how regimes decline — and perhaps whether they can be saved. The fictional world of Westeros yields three key truths about political decline.
1. Decline Reopens Once-Settled Political Questions
In the words of another pop cultural phenomenon, the fundamental political question is “whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.” Stable political orders rarely reflect on the basis, or justification, of a particular rule. But political orders in crisis must answer the question to survive.
While Robert Baratheon took the Iron Throne by force, he assumed that thereafter bloodline rather than conquest would determine succession. The Targaryen family had ruled Westeros for three centuries by this logic. But Robert’s untimely death and Joffrey’s uncertain parentage launches a constitutional crisis in Westeros about the basis of rule.
The various would-be kings battling for the Iron Throne each have competing claims: Stannis and Renly Baratheon claim the throne because they share Robert’s blood. The Lannisters think their wealth gives them the right to rule; the Starks, their honor. Despite being the only known living Targaryen, Daenerys’s claim to rule is not bloodline but consent. Force may win her the Iron Throne, but popular support will retain it.
2. Political Decline Coarsens Relationships
Political decline upends our social relationships. Last season’s most outrageous moments were violations of intimate family bonds: between a husband and wife and between a father and his child. Sansa’s wedding night should have been a joyous occasion: she had finally returned to Winterfell as the lady of the house. She should have felt at home during the loving, private consummation of a public vow. But Ramsey Bolton rapes Sansa to subjugate her, strip her of identity as a Stark, and to torment his other captive, Theon Greyjoy.
Stannis Baratheon’s filicide is simultaneously a failure of fatherhood and statesmanship. Shireen had felt assured of her father’s unfailing devotion: Stannis, after all, had refused to expose the infant Shireen when she became infected with a deadly disease and instead sought out healers to save her. He violated that trust for a minor military victory. Rather than cinching victory from the Boltons, sacrificing Shireen guaranteed Stannis’s defeat. Immolating her in front to the camp alienates his previously loyal army, causing them to abandon him before the battle.
Social bonds beyond the hearth coarsen, as well. The Red Wedding transgressed civilized norms of hospitality. Walder Frey welcomed the Starks into his home as allies and guests only to execute them (let’s not forget Frey’s own indifference to the murder of his young wife). Members of the Night’s Watch violated their oath by murdering Jon Snow, their brother and Lord Commander. No oath, no custom, and no family bond is sacred in a decaying political order.
3. Decline Challenges Our Assumptions about Progress
Everything can always get worse. Viewers spent the first two seasons hating the Lannisters. The Lannisters are brutal, but try to remain a step removed from the blood. Joffrey favors the crossbow to slay prostitutes and relies on the King’s Guard to punish his enemies.
The Boltons perform a cinematic miracle of making the Lannisters sympathetic. The sigil for House Bolton—a flayed man—advertises the family’s bloodthirstiness. Roose Bolton helps orchestrate the Red Wedding and slits Rob Stark’s throat. Ramsey Bolton (nee Snow) is literally the bastardized version of his vicious father. Ramsey creates elaborate schemes to torture Theon Greyjoy physically and psychologically.
Yet the Boltons fall short of being the worst characters. In committing fratricide, filicide, and (functionally) uxoricide, Stannis Barathoen surpasses both the Lannisters and Boltons in viciousness.
The theme is constant: If you thought Joffrey Baratheon was a sociopath, wait until you meet Ramsey Bolton. Catelyn Stark treats Jon Snow poorly, but see how Cersei Lannister dispatches her husband’s bastards. Stannis Baratheon may sacrifice his entire family for the Iron Throne, but Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish would sacrifice the country. Walder Frey’s a reprobate, but look beyond the wall at Craster’s Keep. Think dragons are unbelievable, watch out for the White Walkers commanding a zombie army. Something worse is always lingering.
The ending to “Game of Thrones” has not been written, but the trajectory of Westeros is bleak. It is not difficult to envision the effect of countless cvil wars, White Walkers, zombies, dragons, and whatever other mythical creatures still lurk beyond the Wall. Maybe when the smoke clears and the ice melts a handful of people will survive—not necessarily the best people or even decent people, just people.
Sure, “Game of Thrones” has good deeds and noble actors: Ned Stark tries to protect Cersei Lannister from public disgrace over her children’s true parentage, Tyrion Lannister’s unexpected statesmanship at the Battle of Blackwater Bay saves King’s Landing; Daenerys Targaryan is committed to helping slaves become self-governing citizens. But these moments are a flicker of light against the darkness—like Sansa’s little candle faintly burning in Winterfell’s dilapidated tower.
“Game of Thrones” is a significant political show for our time. It reveals that important political questions emerge when we are least prepared to solve them; that political decline begets familial and social decay; and that “progress” is never inevitable. Starting this Sunday, millions of Americans will visit this crumbling regime. While we don’t live there, we should recognize that we very well could. Ronald Reagan once remarked that “freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction.” Let’s hope that winter never comes.