Monday, April 2, 2012

The Politics of Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones Title DVD

Last night HBO's Game of Thrones returned with a dragon's roar for Season Two. Based on the epic (and yet unfinished) series by George RR Martin, Game of Thrones takes us to the seat of power in the imaginary world of Westeros where factions vie with blood and steel for control over the land. Produced for HBO, GOT is able to give us sex and blood that network television could never manage.

It is rich, violent, and smart. There is a tapestry of interwoven stories that the team handles deftly. The narrative itself feels real, organic, and without the nod to expectations that we have for the genre. Where there are stand out performances (such as show-stealer Peter Dinklage) they are backed up by a sprawling cast that uses the few minutes each actor has on screen to draw powerful and distinctive characters.

Game of Thrones is a monumental achievement. It stands along with Lord of the Rings as an example of what fantasy can be outside of the realm of text. It sets a bar so high as to be almost unbelievable for most television. In short: watch it.

Let's do the politics.

What Are Game of Throne's Politics?
Don't worry: although there will be plenty of spoilers, I'm not just going to recap the story line. I'm also not just going to draw facile comparisons between our current candidates and the GOT characters (although I will do that--how could I not--Romney is totally a Lannister, isn't he! Amirite?). Looking at the narrative through a political lens can be (if only slightly) a little more interesting than that.

What are the rules that GOT gives us? What are the foundational laws that shape its narrative--and do those laws apply to our own politics? Let's see.

1. You Win or You Die
"When you play the game of thrones," we are told, "you win or you die." That's pretty obvious. The key here is that no one in power wants challengers so if they can kill you? They will. That includes your heirs. The entire story, in fact, hinges on the need to kill off challengers or potential challengers by birthright (a never-engaged plot in Season one, for example, hinges on a baby being born to the Horse-clan tribes that would have rights to the throne). The entire story is set in motion because of an issue with heritage.

When you understand this, you get the second level of meaning: the death isn't just you--it's your family. If you can't marry into the winning side not only you--but your children (and wife) will need to be killed. Thus the entire narrative is wrapped around the law that any enemy--not just horrendous ones--will kill your family--will have to kill your family--you immediately start asking the question: what would you do to win?

Answer: anything.

Applicability  To Modern Politics: Almost none. Thankfully.

2. Trust No One But Family
For the reasons stated above it's clear that the only people you can really trust--at all--are those related to you. Why? Because they're pretty much in the line of fire too (at least from an external threat). All the key alliances are either done with the expectation that at some point you will be betrayed or married together. The only natural alliances are based on family (and that trust does not apply if you are warring within your family--but, as we see, the stakes there are not necessarily death).

Applicability To Modern Politics: The obvious place to look is the joining of House Santorum and House Gingrich. Although Santorum's moral code precludes inter-marriage (and Gingrich, already having done it three times, seems unlikely to marry Rick Santorum anyway--hah!) we can see that it is to their advantage to join forces--but they can't quite seem to. Each has a claim to the Iron Throne in Tampa. They can't relinquish it--so they're forced to skirmish (to a degree) even while their common enemy (Mitt Lannister) amasses his army.

Ron Paul, exiled across the narrow sea, leads his army of hippies and libertarians but mostly just in circles. They won't cross over to the mainstream and, again, not being family, he can't trust anyone. He seems to have an undeclared alliance with Lannister though. So there's that. But mainly he's ignorable.

3. Stature is Important
Tyron Lannister is probably the most dangerous political operator on the Westeros battlefield. While he is certainly unrivaled in intellect, even moreso, he avoids the messy personal attachments that hobble everyone else (especially the Lannisters). He understands people and uses his great personal wealth every chance he gets. But he's a midget--so he's nowhere in line for a throne (this is also a strength: he is a threat to no one).

The leaders of Westeros are, with one exception, big men. This is partly because they must lead on the battlefield but also because historically we expect our leaders to stand tall. The exception are the dragon riders who are lithe. The lesson: when you're on a fire-breathing flying siege engine you have a stature all your own. Dragons are like elevator shoes.

Applicability To Modern Politics: A lot. As this article put it: 'Short men don't get to rule.' They're right too: height isn't just important on the battlefield. It's a matter of "Presidential Stature." Take a look at our candidates from the perspective of ... a basketball team:
  1. Mitt Romney – 6’ 2”
  2. Rick Santorum – 6’ 4’’
  3. Newt Gingrich – 6’0"
  4. Ron Paul – 5’ 10”
  5. President Obama – 6’ 1”
You can see why Santorum thinks he's still got a chance, huh?

4. Women Are Your Backstop
In Westeros there is no deficit of strong women but, to be sure, they are almost never the front-line rulers (the one exception is the dragon rider who starts as a naif, becomes a concubine, and then manages to claw her way to a position of power until she can materialize actual magic in the form of dragons). But the fact of the matter is: the major players all have a strong driven woman behind them.

Applicability To Modern Politics: The link here is that the candidates rely on their wives to soften their sharp edges. Ann Romney is far more popular than Mitt. Callista shores up Gingrich's weaknesses and reputation as a hound-dog. Santorum's family is a selling point and Michelle Obama is a fund-raiser.

Game of Thrones doesn't give us computer generated armies clashing. It doesn't (yet) give us dragon-rider special effects. What it does give us fairly smart, intense politics. It's a fantasy setting but the appeal is the same as every historical story ever told--which, it turns out? Can be gripping.

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