Misunderstanding Totalitarianism, or: What Game of Thrones Actually Got Wrong

Warning: Game of Thrones spoilers. GTFO if you haven’t seen the whole thing through.

 Many people have made much ado about the eighth and final season of Game of Thrones, which aired its final episode last Sunday, March 19th.  Nobody that I have spoken to or seen commenting online has said, “Golly gee, that was exactly the ending I was hoping for! I’m sure not pissed off about wasting a decade of my life getting emotionally involved in people who aren’t real!” Frankly, it seems like everyone thought it sucked. And it did.

 The pacing was terrible. I cannot possibly overstate this. The pacing killed season eight. It was DOA. But beyond that, there was an awful lot of disregard for character arcs, plot holes so big you could fly a dragon through them, and so much rushing and shoving aside important development points that it felt like the TV equivalent of Black Friday. Even the military strategy was just… I mean, it fucking sucked, and I’m hardly some great commander, but even I know that you don’t rush a light cavalry blind at an unknown enemy. Don’t even get me started about how stupid the “air war” with those damn dragons was.

 I watched the first and second seasons of GoT not long after they aired, but I read all of the books first. When everyone was screaming at their TVs in abject horror over the infamous Red Wedding, I was laughing at them for not reading the books and for being too emotionally overinvolved in a TV program. I never watched GoT as it aired until season eight, and it was a really dumb decision. I admit it.

 Having had a few days to mull it all over though, the biggest issue I have with Game of Thrones is not the laundry list I made above or the countless other things that I could have added to it. My biggest bone to pick is with the treatment of everyone’s favorite psychopath, Daenarys Targaryen.

 I hated Daenarys from day one for the very reason that we were supposed to hate her by episode eight: She was a tyrant convinced of her right to a specific destiny. She was supposed to rule. She knew what was best for everyone. And even in the first season, it was clear that she was an over-idealistic child with delusions of grandeur. I have a lot of female friends who thought she was great because she was a strong woman, but whenever I pointed out the atrocities she committed in the name of knowing what was best, they pooh poohed me and said that she was doing good things, killing bad people.

 And then she went crazy.

 But should she have?

 People commonly and mistakenly believe that great tyrants and the successful generals from opposing armies are insane. This is, in most cases, completely erroneous, and it prevents us from truly understanding tyranny and what lies at its heart. Insanity is hardly a prerequisite for humans to commit horrible atrocities against others.

 Some may want to argue, “Well, Hitler was crazy!” Perhaps he was. I couldn’t say. I have read much to suggest he was. I suspect he was simply an angry, neurotic ex-soldier, failed artist, and skilled orator who bought into an ideology that he was extraordinarily good at convincing others to follow. But I couldn’t say that for sure.

 What I can say for sure is that the German soldiers who carried out his orders were not insane. Oh sure, I’m sure there were some legitimate psychopaths who delighted in the torture and murder, but most people are not psychopaths. Yet these people perpetrated horrors against others that would lead one to believe them insane. Mass gassings. Shootings. Experiments in radiation and infectious diseases. My grandfather liberated one camp where the prisoners were all women and children, the victims of radiation experiments. He said it was like nothing you can imagine, if you haven’t seen it for yourself.

 The Japanese were the same. The atrocities of Nanking and their infamous treatment of POWs will make your stomach turn. The Russian rape of Berlin after the German surrender is the stuff of nightmares. And yet… These were ordinary men.

 Game of Thrones operated much the same way, and in fact, throughout most of its run, it did an admirable job of showing how unbelievably cruel, hateful, and full of spite these ordinary men and women could be. Robert Baratheon loved killing – and whoring and drinking and hunting – but he was not a madman. Cersei was a hateful bitch who did terrible things to her enemies, but I don’t know that anyone could comfortably label her a crazy woman. Stannis burns his own daughter at the stake. The Dothraki rape, pillage, and plunder like it’s going out of style.

 Throughout the series, in truth, we are only confronted with two main characters who seem genuinely to delight in the suffering of others, Ramsay Bolton and Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane. We understand from their unstable behavior and obvious enjoyment of the suffering of others that they are quite probably insane. And to be certain, they are both fearsome characters – Ramsay especially.

 Daenarys is a different story, though. Throughout the series, the writers imply at various points that sanity tends to be somewhat lacking among the Targaryens, who have a penchant for marrying brothers to sisters. “When a Targaryen is born, the gods flip a coin.” Although we receive these less-than-subtle hints throughout the books and the TV series, Daenarys’ last-minute descent into madness seems rather out-of-character for her. Indeed, it feels cheap.

 It is a testament to the sloppy writing of the entire season that David Benioff and D.B. Weiss managed to get this so very wrong. I personally never liked the character of Daenarys for the reasons mentioned above, but she was an interesting, well-developed character who deserved better treatment than she received. More importantly, the fans deserved a plot that adequately fleshed out the true danger of Daenarys, which was simply that she was a horrible tyrant with good intentions and a serious lust for power.

 I have been unable to decide if this writing decision was the result of needing to finish the series off as quickly as possible, if the writers were lazy and overrated to begin with, or if they themselves have a poor grasp of tyranny. It seems to be a sign of the times that they would deliver unto a slavish fan base such a ham-fisted ending, an ending where, rather than strive to understand why a person would behave and feel such as they do, that we should portray them as criminally insane.

 In the times we live in, it is common practice to paint one’s enemy as a crazy person with tyrannical intentions. The truth is, most humans have a strong desire to see their own standards applied to others. But to believe that this makes a person insane is like the proverbial Get Out of Jail Free card. By calling someone insane, it gives one license to stop thinking, to stop trying to understand why they are doing what they are doing.

 Broadly, this has manifested across the West, with two larger groups, left and right (in the American sense) pointing fingers at one another, calling the other side crazy, and letting that be the reason why further engagement with the actual ideas and motivations of the opposing team is completely unnecessary. Instead, we can call for violence against them without ever engaging with them on a personal level to understand why they think and feel the way they do. We see the results of this when Antifa calls for people to “punch Nazis,” for example.

But it leads to a direct misunderstanding of both tyranny and differing opinions, and that comes with dire consequences. By equating tyranny with insanity, and opposing views with insanity, we creating two false equivalencies that are, at this moment in time, being used interchangeably. All tyrants are evil and also insane. Everyone that doesn’t agree with me is evil. Therefore all people that disagree with me are evil, insane tyrants. It escalates rather quickly.

 Initially, I sort of cheered when Dany went nuts simply because of the dislike I bore for the character. After some consideration though, I realized that the writers, in a rather fitting tribute to the age we live in, took the easy out and decided it would be easier to just call her crazy than to deal with her character flaws in an interesting, well thought out way. In my mind, it just fuels a strong, preexisting penchant among us right now to dismiss people as crazy and call it a day.

 We all have character flaws. Those flaws lead us to behave in certain ways. Sometimes those flaws lead us to genuinely evil actions. It doesn’t suffice, however, to simply state that equating evil and insanity is lazy. No, such an equivalence is flat out dangerous.

 To the credit of the fans, I think, many of them didn’t buy into this sudden change of character for Daenarys. Many people howled at how quickly she veered into insanity. It was to the point of being unbelievable. For most, I’m sure the rushed plot and lack of development in that direction was the driving force behind their discontent. I like to give people some credit though, and I would like to believe that they also sensed that it would have been more challenging and more fitting to have Daenarys commit this great crime against the citizens of King’s Landing and retain her sanity than to have her relegated to the annals of TV history as the Mad Targaryen Queen.

 It is true that some tyrants throughout history have been crazy as a shithouse rat. The vast majority have been perfectly sane humans who were secure in the idea that they knew what was best or, conversely, that they wanted something and were going to get it, regardless of the price to others. This does not make a person insane, but it sure as hell makes them dangerous. It was disappointing to see a show that so successfully brought this feature of mankind to life cop out at the very last, giving us the ending that we knew would come but without so much as a hint of any true motivation.

 Game of Thrones will still go down in history as one of the most successful shows to ever hit the small screen. Its fan base was nearly unrivaled in its commitment to showing up on time, crying, gasping, overanalyzing, and cheering on the characters as they wove their way towards what was for many their ultimate doom. It is a shame that the writers couldn’t muster the wherewithal to deliver a fitting finish to the fans. The show that defied convention, shocked and surprised, and gave us a hard look into the brutality and selfishness of everyman, decided to dismiss it all and say that, indeed, the bad guys and gals really are just pitiful nutcases, after all.