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What Makes a Good Ruler on ‘Game of Thrones’?

Varys has a vision of how the Seven Kingdoms ought to be ruled. Is it the right one?

(HBO/Ringer illustration)
(HBO/Ringer illustration)

Game of Thrones is concerned with describing how politics operates, not prescribing how it should. David Benioff, D.B. Weiss, and their bard, George R.R. Martin, have built their reputations on unflinchingly pragmatic observations of how individuals accrue power (by force, usually), how they use that power (with force, usually), and how they lose it (by being insufficiently forceful, usually). That tell-it-like-it-is quality is Game of Thrones’ primary corrective to other forms of fantasy fiction, and the root source of its appeal to fans burned out on genre tropes. Where other fantasies often deal with human nature as they would like it to be, dreaming up chivalric codes alongside magical creatures, Thrones depicts the world as it is — but with dragons and ice zombies for good measure. That hard-nosed realism is what hooked us on the series all those years ago when Ned Stark lost his head, and it’s what’s kept us around for seven seasons and counting.

By now, we’re intimately acquainted with how Westeros works — harshly, violently, and in a way that strongly favors the savvy over the righteous — but we’ve gotten very little sense of how Martin, Benioff, and Weiss would like it to. For the vast majority of Thrones’ run, that lack of clarity hasn’t been a problem; if we wanted a vision of ideal governance force-fed down our throats, we could always marathon The West Wing. But as Thrones approaches its conclusion and its endgame drifts into focus, the question of how the Seven Kingdoms ought to be ruled — not just how they will be — is becoming increasingly hard to avoid.

In the opening scene of Sunday night’s "Stormborn," Daenerys Targaryen and her advisers debate how to conquer Westeros and question each other’s motives for supporting Dany’s bid for the Iron Throne. It’s a crucial moment for Dany, who’s presented with multiple mutually exclusive possibilities for the kind of ruler she wants to be (take-no-prisoners conqueror or judicious governor?) and several allies of dubious loyalty, chief among them secretive eunuch Varys. If his public actions are any judge, Varys is arguably the most apolitical of any Thrones character, feeding intelligence to Targaryen and Baratheon and Lannister-via-Baratheon-patsy alike with few, if any, qualms. When Dany presses him, however, Varys expresses what might be the most purely idealistic vision of any character on the show. First off, his worldview is meritocratic: "Incompetence should not be rewarded with blind loyalty. As long as I have my eyes, I’ll use them." Second and more surprisingly, it’s populist: "You wish to know where my true loyalties lie? Not with any king or queen, but with the people … [and] I know the people have no better chance than you."

You can choose whether or not to take Varys at his word; our own Maester has noted that his interpretation of the people’s needs is at best "nakedly self-serving." But at least the man is consistent. Way back in Season 1, in reply to a similar line of inquiry from Ned Stark, Varys claimed that he served the realm, because "someone must." While that explanation doesn’t quite justify backing the patently unqualified Viserys Targaryen for years, Varys’s views still stand out as the only model of Westerosi governance not determined by power, inheritance, or some combination of the three. Throughout Thrones’ history, various monarchs’ and would-be monarchs’ rationales for holding the Iron Throne have essentially boiled down to "because I took it" (Robert), "because I want it" (Renly), or "because it’s mine by legal right" (Stannis). Varys is offering a comparatively radical alternative for Dany, by now an experienced(ish) ruler with a developed sense of both justice and the might required to enforce it. Daenerys should rule, Varys says, because she deserves it, as should everyone who takes on the awesome responsibility of stewarding millions of lives.

But since this is Thrones, there are some complications in Varys’s unusual vision. One is that Varys’s proposal is basically enlightened despotism. The key word there is still "despotism": Dany isn’t chosen by the people; she’s imposing herself on them in the hopes they’ll eventually realize what’s best for them, and that path is a slippery slope that can easily end in dictatorship. Another, which somewhat mitigates the first issue, is that Dany cannot establish a traditional hereditary monarchy. Thanks to Mirri Maz Duur, it’s unclear whether Dany can still bear children; therefore, even if Dany succeeds in bringing the Seven Kingdoms back under unified rule, she’ll immediately be faced with the question of whom to groom as her successor. What happens then? Some sort of hypercompetitive political training program? Democracy?

This sounds like nitpicking, but if we can agree that the series-long trajectory of Thrones has been training Dany for seizing and wielding power, then Varys’s politics start to look a lot like the show’s own. If Daenerys is Martin, Benioff, and Weiss’s preferred contender, then Varys is presumably their mouthpiece for articulating why. There is always room for surprises and gut-wrenching upsets on this show; several Ringer staffers are partial to the theory that Dany is a Mad Queen in the making, to be unseated by someone like Jon Snow. (Or in a real bit of nihilism, the White Walkers could simply win it all and wipe out humanity.) But part of the dilemma Thrones faces is that an ending encourages many tendencies that the show has practically defined itself in opposition to: neat resolutions, fulfilling fan expectations instead of upending them, having an ideology instead of negating an old one. It’s relatively easy to kill supposed heroes like Ned and Robb Stark before Game of Thrones was even halfway through its run, and significantly harder to undo seven seasons’ worth of momentum by knocking Dany out of the running at the last minute.

One of the qualities that distinguishes Dany from her competitors is her ability to inspire faith and devotion even in lifelong cynics. That’s why the single most emotional moment of the series has been Tyrion telling Dany he believes in her. Here is a moment when a masterful and tragically underappreciated public servant finally finds someone he wants to serve — and someone who appreciates his service. Tyrion’s trajectory is starting to look like Thrones’ own. After more than half a decade of being almost contemptuous toward idealism, whether it’s Sansa’s songs or the Stark men’s rigid moral code, the show is inching its way toward expressing a belief system of its own. It’s an uncomfortable position, and one that exposes Thrones to some of the very skepticism it’s expressed toward other worldviews. But if the series wants to transcend pure Hobbesian brutality, it has to offer something more than "might is right."

Disclaimer: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.