With only 13 episodes left for the show, Game of Thrones needed to wrap a lot of subplots in order to have enough time to deal with the impending White Walker invasion. “The Winds of Winter” did that, and then some. The episode killed off most supporting characters in a few dramatic scenes. As I’ve argued elsewhere, this downsizing was absolutely necessary. Game of Thrones had gotten too unwieldy; Season 5 seemed so intent on tracking the various subplots that it forgot to tell a story. “The Winds of Winter” violently confirmed that, at its core, Game of Thrones is, has been, and always will be about the three primary factions we met back in Season 1: the Starks, Lannisters, and Targaryens.
*** SPOILER WARNING FOR EPISODE 10 ***
The bulk of “The Winds of Winter” was dedicated to clearing out the deck. In the first half-hour, Cersei’s defeated the High Sparrow and the Tyrells by blowing up them all up with wildfire. She also had Maester Pycelle killed off. Tommen, grieving for Margaery, then commits suicide by jumping out a window (easily the quietest death in Game of Thrones). Later in the episode, Arya Stark assassinates Walder Frey using her new Faceless Man powers. Benjen Stark leaves Bran and Meera by the Wall and goes off to fight White Walkers on his own. Anybody not named Stark, Lannister, or Targaryen is either serving one of those houses or dead (except for the Hound, who is with the Brotherhood Without Banners).
Amidst all the chaos and death, this episode provides an effective contrast between the leadership styles of the three main houses. The question of political leadership is at the core of George R.R. Martin’s intellectual enterprise in Game of Thrones. Before Martin, most fantasy divided political elites into “good rulers” and “evil rulers.” Martin famously criticized Lord of the Rings for having a very medieval philosophy: “that if the king was a good man, the land would prosper.” Martin rejects that framework. None of the Starks, Lannisters, or Targaryens are unambiguously “wise and good” political leaders. Each has important strengths and flaws.
For his part, Jon Snow retains the Stark concept of honor, despite the revelation that Ned Stark is not actually his father (he must have gotten his Starkness through his mother Lyanna). While Jon has no problem punishing traitors (he even executed little Olly), his tends towards mercy. He refuses to execute Melissandre for murder and he forgives the houses that refused to come to his aid. The scene in which the houses swear fealty to the King of the North is very reminiscent of an earlier scene in Season 3 in which the houses swore fealty to Robb Stark. Yet, like Robb, Jon still isn’t much of a strategist. He seems oblivious to the tension between Sansa and Littlefinger, unaware of the threat the latter poses. In addition, his performance during the battle last week showed that, like Robb, he’s entirely too emotional to be an effective leader.
On the other hand, Cersei has proven effective at playing the game and defeating her enemies. Yet, in doing so, she has veered ever closer to madness. If Jon is too merciful, Cersei is too vengeful. As she told Septa Unella, imagining the pain of her enemies gives her great joy. There are clearly echoes of “mad king” Aerys II Targaryen. Like Aerys, Cersei finds herself isolated and tries to maintain power through violence. Cersei even uses Aerys’ wildfire to kill her enemies (earlier in the season, Bran had a vision of King Aerys shouting, “Burn them all”). However, the tighter Cersei’s grip, the more she risks losing everything. Cersei’s actions push Tommen to commit suicide, ironically fulfilling the prophecy that she had so hoped to avoid. During Cersei’s coronation, Jamie looks on with a troubled expression. It seems the show is setting up a confrontation between Cersei and Jamie, which might eventually lead to Jamie to kill the “mad queen,s” just as he killed the “mad king” so many years before.
The Starks are proof that just having good intentions doesn’t make one a good king, whereas the Lannisters show that just having political skills doesn’t make one a wise king (or queen). It might be tempting then to conclude then that Daenerys Targaryen represents happy medium, the Goldilocks middle between the Stark and Lannister extremes. However, Daenerys is much more complicated. At different points in the show, she exhibits both Stark idealism and Lannister bloodlust. In Season 3, Dany launched an idealist crusade to free slaves and help the poor. Yet, in true Jon Snow fashion, she failed to predict the backlash from Meereen’s political elite. At the same time, when faced with opposition, Daenerys’ instinct has been to respond with overwhelming violence. She coolly massacred the Dothraki leadership earlier in this season. When the Masters of Slaver’s Bay attacked Meereen, her initial inclination was to utterly destroy their cities. In short, Daenerys possesses both the strengths and weaknesses of the Starks and Lannisters.
Daenerys manages to rise above the Starks and Lannisters not because of her innate superiority, but because she surrounds herself with strong advisors and listens to their advice. The Starks have loyal retainers and advisors, but none who regularly challenges Jon’s decisions. As the war council scene in “Battle of the Bastards” demonstrated, Jon is too bound to his notions of honor to listen to contradictory advice, even from Sansa. By contrast, Cersei surrounds herself with sycophants. Her most loyal servant, Ser Gregor, is literally a mindless zombie.
Daenerys is the only ruler who consistently keeps a coterie of strong advisors in her court. It’s telling that the members of Dany’s court, from Jorah to Tyrion to the Greyjoys, are major characters in their own right. These are not background or even secondary characters; they are characters who can credibly stand up to Daenerys or even leave her service if they disagree with her. They don’t depend on Dany the same way Tormund depends on Jon or Qyburn depends on Cersei. Dany showed how much she values her advisors when she promoted Tyrion to Hand of the Queen. Daenerys’ advisors aren’t exactly a system of institutional checks and balances, but they have prevented Dany from giving in to her worst impulses. It was Tyrion after all who convinced her to find a less violent solution to the siege of Slaver’s Bay.
Daenerys leadership style seems like a response to Martin’s critique of “good” leaders in fantasy literature. The lesson seems to be not so much that Dany is a wiser or better ruler than her competitors, but rather than no individual acting alone can be a wise and effective ruler. Rulers are at their strongest when they have a court composed of strong advisors willing to challenge or correct them. I think the next major step in Daenerys’ arc is to see how strong her court becomes. Past kings of Westeros had the Small Council, but the council was less an institutional check and more a way for rulers to consult with advisors. It seems like Dany could go further than simply reforming the Small Council more seriously. She has already hinted at major decentralization or devolution of power once she becomes queen; she even promised the Greyjoys independence. Could we see Daenerys adopt “democratic” institutions that give her advisors a more formal role in governance? Perhaps some sort of nascent parliament to give representatives from the major houses a seat at the table? Maybe that is how Daenerys will “break the wheel” of power; not by assuming the throne herself, but by getting rid of the throne entirely.
Dom Nardi is a Contributing Writer at Legendarium Media. He has worked as a political scientist and as a consultant throughout Southeast Asia. In addition, he has published academic articles about politics in Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. You can find more of his writing at NardiViews.