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Does the "winner" of Game of Thrones truly matter?

Sansa Stark.
Sansa Stark.
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Every week, Todd VanDerWerff will be joined by two of Vox's other writers to discuss the latest episode of Game of Thrones. Check out the recap for this episode here, and follow the whole discussion here. This week, Todd is joined by foreign policy writer Zack Beauchamp and politics writer Andrew Prokop. Come back throughout the week for entries.

Zack Beauchamp: Andrew, the notion that Daenerys is being set up as the well-intentioned villain of the series is fascinating. I'll just note, apropos of nothing, that my first-ever piece for Vox was about how Daenerys is secretly George W. Bush.

Whether or not you're right about Daenerys, the fact that the theory is plausible points to something deeper about Game of Thrones — and suggests that we might all be watching it a bit wrong.

It's easy to forget, as we root for super-likable badasses like Arya and Tyrion, that George R. R. Martin's books were designed as takedowns of the kind of stylized violence you see in the dominant, Lord of the Rings–inspired type of fantasy novel. Martin, a conscientious objector of the Vietnam War, despises war and violence — and wanted his work to reflect that.

"The Tolkien model led generations of fantasy writers to produce these endless series of dark lords and their evil minions who are all very ugly and wear black clothes. But the vast majority of wars throughout history are not like that," he told Rolling Stone. "World War I is much more typical of the wars of history than World War II — the kind of war you look back afterward and say, 'What the hell were we fighting for?'"

But as viewers, we love Game of Thrones as a violent spectacle. We cheer the huge battles at Blackwater and Castle Black, and marvel at the show's beautifully staged duels. We get grumpy when episodes are slow and talky. We cheer when Daenerys torches the slavers and when, for a few fleeting moments, it looks like Oberyn is going to dismember the Mountain. This is all key to Game of Thrones' appeal.

And that's fine. It's not a problem like the "bad fans" who kept rooting for Breaking Bad's Walter White even as he became a monster. But I wonder if when we cheer for our favorite Game of Thrones characters to win battles and wars, we're being subtly blinded to show's underlying message: war is terrible, and all of this is pointless.

Think about it: do we have any reason to believe any of these people would be good leaders? The only two characters who actually seem suited to running countries, Varys and Tyrion, are by their own admission consigned to the shadows. We care who wins, because we want our favorite characters to come out on top. But from the point of view of your average Westerosi peasant, I doubt it really matters.

And that shouldn't really be surprising. Monarchy is a really terrible form of government, after all; even if one king or queen turns out well, incompetents (Robert) and sociopaths (Joffrey) almost inevitably end up in charge at one point. There aren't any democrats in the world of Game of Thrones, so it seems like an awful lot of people are dying in a struggle over which rich and powerful family gets to be in charge of sticking it to the poors.

The show can't foreground this point, because the already dark series would end up unbearably bleak. Emphasizing the total hopelessness of the situation is part of what made the fourth book, A Feast for Crows, such a disaster.

Game of Thrones was wise to lighten things up a little. But it's hard to understand what's really going on screen, I think, without remembering that the series is adapted from a story about the horror and pointlessness of war. No matter what happens with the main characters, Game of Thrones is a tragedy.

Read the recap. Come back tomorrow for thoughts on episode five, "Kill the Boy."

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