What Game of Thrones taught us about political ambition

Courtesy of HBO

In reality, Game of Thrones ended where it truly began: The mad monarch has been assassinated; the (queen)-slayer, who had vowed to defend that mad monarch with his life, takes on the iniquities of the polity as a holy, royal scapegoat , both prince and pariah at once; a pair of siblings, whose main claim to power is that they already have power, endeavor to rule a disjointed and unstable continent; dragons and magic fade into the background, important but not enough to truly change anything; a potential Targaryen heir to the throne has been dispatched to the celibate quasi-warrior-monks of the Night’s Watch; a king with little interest in the day-to-day governance of the realm entrusts his affairs to a markedly inefficient council whose members cannot decide whether to prioritize feeding the starved, building up the royal navy or constructing new brothels; and, of course, as always seems to be in Westeros, the common people suffer in common graves.

In my opinion, the drama’s climax comes at the moment when the Mad Queen reveals that she is, and possibly always has been, the only person of any consequence in the “great game” who actually understands the nature of politics and power, insisting that her will is no longer something that she will “hide behind small mercies.” She will do whatever it takes to make the world a better place, even if that means burning whole cities to the ground.

Her advisers and underlings offer nothing other than a wish list of small mercies: for their conquered enemies to be spared, for the hungry to be fed, for the unsuspecting people of the world next on the list to be “liberated” to be saved from the fate faced by those in King’s Landing. The Mad Queen rejects this counsel and ends her time in power as a Leninist, convinced that the only relevant question in politics is “Who, whom?” She is convinced of the righteousness of her messianic charge, to break the chains of injustice, and dismisses those who would question her wisdom — or offer their own visions of justice and good government — as though she were a kind of unstoppable force of nature.

“They don’t get to choose.” No, I guess they don’t. How very statist.

Lenin himself, who certainly would have fawned over late-GOT Khaleesi, had no time for “small mercies” and was driven and remorseless in his embrace of terror in the service of achieving his utopia. So it was with the Mad Queen. These monsters may have seemed delusional to those around them — and to us, one would hope — but in a sense, they are the ones who are free from delusions about power. These aren’t Francis Underwood’s, grasping at some fleeting personal grandeur void of meaning or substance that will waste away when they’re dead and long gone. Delusions, as it turns out, are what make politics humane, if it ever really could be humane. The delusion that peace can be had through terror, that charity can be cultivated at the point of a gun, that brutality and blood are the means to justice sometimes has the effect of causing those with power to limit themselves, rather than to pursue their visions to their logical, merciless ends. The belief in “small mercies” often is the only thing keeping political power in check.

For the truly liberated politician — the one without real opposition, with a clear shot at utopia — politics is only a matter of cold calculation, with “small mercies” accounting for barely anything at all. In Game of Thrones, that calculation is massacring a city — men, women, children— in order to set an example for those who would resist liberation, sacrificing a few to save many; in The Watchmen, it’s described as “killing millions to save billions,” a classic philosophical conundrum; in the real world of modern human history, it is the socialist rationalization that one must break a few eggs to make an omelet. And, aside from George Orwell, who doesn’t love a good omelet?

This leads to some odd political thinking, and not only for murderous dictators. Barack Obama once confessed that he would prefer to see punitive tax measures enacted even if they hurt the overall economy and did nothing to help the poor because such measures were necessary to satisfy some greater good. I would be hard-pressed to argue Obama was a bad man. But the “no small mercies” logic is there. Donald Trump and his crew of minions are at the moment wreaking havoc on America farmers and crushing other sectors of the economy because they believe that it is morally necessary for them to stand between willing buyers and willing sellers to restore some kind of glorious non-existent, protectionist-crafted foregone era of American prosperity. Some activists have justified lying about every social issue under the sun in the service of some ambiguous greater truth; progressives have made apologies for all manner of abuse and mayhem in [insert literally any Communist state ever] in the belief that all that blood and hunger — somebody else’s blood and hunger, mind you — is worth it if only to stick a thumb in the eye of big, bad capitalism.

There is nothing more dangerous than vision in a politician, nothing as existentially dooming to the peace and prosperity of the general population as grand ambitions. The state, as George Washington knew and as all of human history has strongly suggested, is at best a necessary evil, and it trends away from necessity and toward evil the less it concerns itself with “small mercies” and the more it sets its ugly face on grandeur and dreams of crafting perfect humans in a perfect world. People are difficult (read, impossible) to perfect, which is why utopians have murdered so many of them. They believe they are “on the right side of History.” But they most assuredly are not.

If there’s nothing else I took from Game of Thrones, it is this. And while the show’s final two seasons may have been disappointing, they did speak to the truth at the heart of our political, and human, reality.

Follower of Jesus and the Detroit Red Wings