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Has ‘Game of Thrones’ Forgotten About Breaking the Wheel?

The battle between the living and the dead has ceded the final hours to the show’s political machinations, but as viewers wait to see who wins the Iron Throne, they’re left wondering something crucial: What would any of the would-be rulers do if they got it?

Ringer illustration

Game of Thrones—it’s just like the real world. (And not only because of a universal coffee cup presence.) As debates about electability, policy, and vision roil the early days of the 2020 presidential campaigns, the same themes ported to Westeros on Sunday night, as central characters spent much of the third-to-last episode of the series talking about whom they wish to see lead.

Those conversations fretted about Daenerys’s “Mad Queen” tendencies and analyzed Jon’s ambitions; they pitted the two lovers and unwitting relatives in direct opposition via the central question: Which of the two Targaryens will rule if (when) Cersei is defeated?

The two sides were, for the most part, remarkably sophomoric, even when expressed by Westeros’s ostensible intelligentsia. In a pair of crucial tête-à-têtes between Tyrion and Varys, for instance, the former’s case for Dany boils down to: People who know her like her. The latter’s case for Jon, meanwhile, boils down to: People who know him like him, plus he has a penis. Neither adviser points to policies the potential rulers might enact once in power or why their rule might benefit citizens of Westeros. They discuss, instead, authority to rule in and of itself.

In the world of the show, perhaps, this brand of politicking makes some sense. Power is power, Thrones famously taught us, and Westeros is not a democracy in which candidates for the crown need to convince the common people to support their cause. Aegon the Conqueror won the continent because he had dragons; Robert Baratheon took the Iron Throne because he won a war; Cersei Lannister wrested control after killing her opponents, essentially, in one wildfire-aided coup.

Yet from a storytelling perspective, two broad problems exist with this kind of portrayal. First, narratively, articulation of a ruling vision is imperative to allow viewers to fully invest. The Jon-vs.-Daenerys friction has built throughout the season and seems poised to dominate the endgame, but viewers need to understand the wider reverberations that would result from the impending transfer of power. Second, George R.R. Martin’s broader story is rooted in nuanced questions about power—how it functions, who wields it, who wields it best and why. Yet with just two remaining episodes of Game of Thrones, these questions might well go unanswered before the series concludes. If so, showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss might miss the story’s message entirely.

As viewers, we have been conditioned for years to hope for Jon or Daenerys to take the throne. Despite their separation by thousands of miles, they filled the two most classical hero archetypes among the main characters: Jon, the cautious leader with a secret past, maturing on the geographical outskirts of the story; Daenerys, the orphaned refugee, doing the same.

But now that the throne is actually within their grasp, what would their victory look like for Westeros? What, for instance, does Daenerys want, beyond a restoration of Targaryen rule and the Iron Throne she believes to be her birthright? As she broadened her base in Essos, Daenerys’s chief policy goal was the eradication of slavery, but Westeros is already free of the practice. (Jorah, remember, was exiled before the timeline of the show because he was caught selling poachers into slavery.) Her quotes last episode offer only generic messaging. She tells the war council, “In all Seven Kingdoms, men will live without fear and cruelty under their rightful queen,” and she later says, “I’m here to free the world from tyrants. That is my destiny.”

A vast chasm exists between “tyrant” and successful ruler, though. Robert wasn’t a tyrant, but he also wasn’t a good king. For Daenerys, it’s one thing to voice a desire to end cruelty and fear; it’s quite another to enact policies designed to prevent those negative outcomes, and she hasn’t seen fit to put thought into that part of the job. When pressed to do so, she tends to take a wait-and-see approach, and tells her advisers that she’ll consider those implications once the throne is hers—even though those answers should help determine whether she even deserves it. Those advisers, for their part, don’t seem to know, either. The best Tyrion can summon when talking to Sansa about Daenerys’s strengths is, “She wants to make the world a better place.” What, again, does this vague assertion actually mean?

Her famed “break the wheel” declaration offers little insight. It sounds compelling, certainly, and it’s popular enough among viewers to appear on mugs and such for purchase online. But it’s not entirely clear what Daenerys means by it or how she intends to translate that proclamation into reality. “Lannister, Targaryen, Baratheon, Stark, Tyrell,” she tells Tyrion in Meereen, “they’re all just spokes on a wheel. This one’s on top, then that one’s on top, and on and on it spins, crushing those on the ground.” She concludes with determination: “I’m not going to stop the wheel. I’m going to break the wheel.”

The “break the wheel” idea, when coupled with a reference to “those on the ground” being crushed, seems more democratic than Westeros’s custom. As Dany follows up in Season 7, “All I want to destroy is the wheel that has rolled over rich and poor to the benefit of no one but the Cersei Lannisters of the world.” But analyzing the totality of her words yields a different sort of conclusion: Daenerys doesn’t necessarily seek a new sort of power structure to better the lives of everyone in Westeros. She just wants to remain in control without any other family replacing her at the top—or any other family member doing so either, given Jon’s newly revealed claim.

When Tyrion broaches the topic later in Season 7, she doesn’t entertain his suggestion to think about the future, and she has yet to discuss—or even learn about, it seems—the kind of quasi-democratic structures in some places in Westeros, like the Night’s Watch elections and Iron Islands kingsmoots.

Jon, meanwhile, doesn’t even want the throne, which as Varys rightly notes might make him a better leader because he’s not lusting after power for power’s sake. But this means that he too lacks a vision of the future if he were to rule, and his brief time in charge of the North supplies few clues about the direction he’d take the country. It’s hard to know who to root for without knowing what effects the winner would wreak.

Beyond Thrones’ internal world, this lack of attention to governing specifics runs counter to the very nature of the story. One of Martin’s most telling quotes about his series came in a 2014 interview with Rolling Stone, when he said that A Song of Ice and Fire’s treatment of power was “maybe my answer to [J.R.R.] Tolkien, whom, as much as I admire him, I do quibble with.” Martin expressed this difference of opinion as:

Lord of the Rings had a very medieval philosophy: that if the king was a good man, the land would prosper. We look at real history and it’s not that simple. Tolkien can say that Aragorn became king and reigned for a hundred years, and he was wise and good. But Tolkien doesn’t ask the question: What was Aragorn’s tax policy? Did he maintain a standing army? What did he do in times of flood and famine? And what about all these orcs? By the end of the war, Sauron is gone but all of the orcs aren’t gone—they’re in the mountains. Did Aragorn pursue a policy of systematic genocide and kill them? Even the little baby orcs, in their little orc cradles?

Martin’s story begins in a post-revolution period when Robert Baratheon has already answered some of those philosophical questions. Robert was a formidable warrior, but the land didn’t prosper under his rule. His monetary policies thrust the crown into great debt; he sought a policy of systematic genocide of Targaryens, even little baby Targaryens in their little Targaryen cradles.

That outcome is mere prologue to the broader Thrones tale, however; it’s the status quo with which the story begins. The far more interesting questions, it would seem, should arise with the next ruler; that’s when the “if the king was a good man, the land would prosper” theory would receive the truest test, as viewers would have watched that king (or queen!) develop for eight seasons before gaining control.

Thrones has toyed with this idea in previous seasons. Narratively, Daenerys’s Meereenese mission existed to teach her (and the audience) the difficulty of ruling after conquest, and back in Westeros, a thematically inclined exchange occurs after Joffrey’s assassination in Season 4. As Tommen stands over his dead brother’s body, Tywin asks the young king-to-be what trait is most necessary for a good king. Tommen first guesses holiness (a fun bit of foreshadowing for his ill-fated alliance with the High Sparrow), then justice, then strength, but Tywin negates all these ideas with examples of past kings who failed despite possessing those qualities. Finally, Tommen stumbles upon the answer his grandfather deems right: wisdom.

Is this the story’s ultimate message about ruling, though? If so, make Tyrion king. (Or don’t; as Sansa rightly notes in the Season 8 premiere, recent choices have sullied his reputation on that front.) But that doesn’t seem to be the ultimate message, because Tywin isn’t a fully reliable narrator. Instead, he uses this educational exercise to try to bend the pliable Tommen to his will by stressing the need to heed his advisers (namely Tywin himself), and of course, Tywin himself is no stranger to poor rulers: He was the hand and best friend to the Mad King, and the hand and grandfather to the “vicious idiot” King Joffrey.

What qualities and goals define a good sovereign in Thrones, then? We haven’t seen one yet, as all of Aerys, Robert, Joffrey, Tommen, and Cersei exhibited numerous flaws. The ruling riddle should continue to fascinate, in a show suffused with nuance, but that complexity has been streamlined as the show approaches its finale. The closest the show has come this season to nodding at a post-war vision of governance came on Sunday, when Daenerys rewarded Gendry with a new, legitimized family name and a lordship in the Stormlands. It’s a bad sign that the show handled this moment so sloppily. The script strangely mangled Gendry’s pre-Baratheon last name, calling him “Rivers” when Crownlands bastards receive the surname “Waters” (and when Gendry specifically never had a pre-Baratheon surname anyway), and the scene’s inclusion implicitly acknowledged that Storm’s End, one of the continent’s most important strategic castles, had been unoccupied for several seasons with no apparent care from the rest of the kingdom. (Later, too, the episode offhandedly mentions a “new prince of Dorne” without so much as naming the ruler.)

The last time I mentioned Martin’s relationship with Tolkien’s work, it concerned GRRM’s heterodox views of villains. “The whole concept of the Dark Lord, and good guys battling bad guys, good versus evil, while brilliantly handled in Tolkien, in the hands of many Tolkien successors, it has become kind of a cartoon,” he once said. “We don’t need any more Dark Lords, we don’t need any more, ‘Here are the good guys, they’re in white, there are the bad guys, they’re in black. And also, they’re really ugly, the bad guys.’”

Yet that stated purpose didn’t prevent the show from treating the army of the dead as a force of really ugly bad guys commanded by a kind of Dark Lord. In both that case and the case of endgame governance, the show seems to be simplifying a complicated, driving force behind the story.

Perhaps that assessment is premature. Maybe Sansa will end up on the Iron Throne and help answer these broader questions, as she has displayed the most dexterity with understanding a ruler’s role in caring for her subjects. In the most recent episode, she asks for her soldiers to receive some rest after winning the Battle of Winterfell, and she looks like a caring and compassionate ruler compared with other contenders (even granting that that’s a rather low bar to clear). She also understands the disconnect between qualities as a person and qualities as a ruler. When Tyrion tries to appeal to her by noting that Daenerys loves Jon, Sansa, unmoved, responds, “That doesn’t mean she’ll be a good queen.” This line nearly matches another quote Martin gave in that Rolling Stone interview, about the same topic: “Just having good intentions doesn’t make you a wise king.”

Thinking about Thrones on a week-to-week basis can flummox some analytical instincts. Complaints about a lack of shocking deaths in one episode seem more premature after a dragon dies out of nowhere the following week, and the same might result with complaints about treatment of power. But as Season 8 has progressed, these questions have grown more pressing every week—particularly now that the great northern threat has been extinguished. They now suffocate the story, as so many conversations revolve around notions of governance but don’t directly consider the actual effects that ooze from the throne room into every corner of the continent. It’s possible the show will thoroughly address such concerns before the end, but next week looks like another battle, and just one admittedly supersize episode remains thereafter.

“The common people pray for rain, health, and a summer that never ends,” Jorah tells Daenerys in Season 1. “They don’t care what games the high lords play.” This notion could absolve Dany and the other royals from having to even care about tax policies; a ruler’s choices won’t often help or hurt a commoner’s health or crop yield. (The same is true in real life, like with U.S. presidents and the economy.) If pursued further, that direction could generate an entirely different message about the importance of the titular game of thrones. But when Tyrion offers a similar thought last episode, telling Varys, “What is the realm? A vast continent home to millions of people, most of whom don’t care who sits on the Iron Throne,” the Master of Whisperers retorts that rulers do matter, their choices do affect people, and their actions do yield life-or-death consequences for their people.

“Millions of people,” Varys responds, “many of whom will die if the wrong person sits on that throne. We don’t know their names, but they’re just as real as you and I. They deserve to live. They deserve food for their children.” That line is a hammer in the episode; clearly, the script means to impress upon viewers that Varys, in this conversation, is in the right.

If only the rest of the show were so devoted to exploring those concerns; if only the very person expressing them had anything to offer about policy specifics beyond saying the realm should choose a ruler who fits his idea of worthiness. At this point, the hope is less about which of Jon or Daenerys (or Sansa, or anyone else) assumes power, but rather that the show makes clear why that person matters.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.