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On Game of Thrones, it's rare — and extraordinary — when rulers put their people first

Jon has a big task ahead of him in convincing the Night's Watch to partner with the wildlings.
Jon has a big task ahead of him in convincing the Night's Watch to partner with the wildlings.
HBO

Every week, three of Vox's writers will discuss the latest episode of Game of Thrones. Check out the recap for this episode here, and follow the whole discussion here. This week, deputy culture editor Jen Trolio is joined by executive editor Matthew Yglesias and politics writer Andrew Prokop. Come back throughout the week for entries.

Andrew Prokop: Jen, greyscale is one of the increasing number of topics about which those who've read George R. R. Martin's books don't know much more than those who haven't. It could be hugely important going forward, or its main purpose on the show could just be to make Jorah Mormont miserable.

But while I share your concerns that an increased focus on magical monsters could eventually overshadow the more interesting political scheming, I think "Kill the Boy" did a great job of drilling into the challenges of ruling — particularly for Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen, as they both resolved to try to broker peace.

Dany wants to heal the wounds of Meereen, which is divided between freed slaves and former masters seeking to regain power. Similarly, Jon wants to end the distrust between the wildlings and the Night's Watch. Both have pragmatic reasons for what they're doing — Dany can't hope to stay in power for long if violence in Meereen remains so high, and Jon argues that dead wildlings north of the Wall will only strengthen the White Walkers' army.

However, both Jon and Dany are motivated, primarily, by trying to do the right thing for a group of disadvantaged people — the wildlings for Jon, and the former slaves for Dany. Their virtuous ambitions actually mark a bit of a shift from previous seasons, when you think about it. Whether it was the Starks, the Baratheons, or the Lannisters, everyone seemed myopically focused on quarrels that really only affected a few noble families. Thoughts about helping the people they ruled were few and far between — even for sympathetic characters.

Take Ned Stark. When he was Hand of the King in season one, he was doing perfectly reasonable-seeming things — trying to solve the murder of the previous Hand and, eventually, exposing the truth of Prince Joffrey's parentage. Yet these matters were really only important to a few noble families — Westeros and its people were basically doing fine back then. It was the ensuing war to try to depose Joffrey that devastated the continent and killed thousands.

Stannis Baratheon, as he frequently reminded us, was obsessed with the fact that the Iron Throne was his "by right," with little regard for the innocent people who would have to die for him to secure this right. Tyrion Lannister, too, was perfectly decent during his tenure as Hand — but his formidable talents and intellect were mainly devoted to keeping himself, his family, and the monstrous Joffrey in power.

Then there was Robb Stark, who raised an army to free his father before eventually tacking on a new cause of independence for the North. But it's not as if the Iron Throne were oppressing the North's people. Indeed, Robb's risky decision to go to war actually opened the doors to such oppression, giving the awful Boltons — known for flaying the skin off people who don't pay their taxes — a chance to seize power.

So the approach that Jon and Dany are taking, and the challenges they're facing, are truly unusual for Game of Thrones — as they were in A Dance with Dragons, a book that many readers found frustrating, but that I viewed as fascinating. Rather than just fighting for honor or decency like Ned or Robb, Jon and Dany were genuinely trying to put the interests of less fortunate people before their own.

And they're learning that ruling this way is incredibly difficult. When Jon announced his plan to let the wildlings pass south of the Wall, he was met with an enormous backlash from some of his closest Night's Watch allies, who've had people close to them murdered by the wildlings. Dany, meanwhile, has had the slaveholding families she deposed strike back brutally against her and her allies.

For now, though, they're pressing onward with peacemaking. Jon has decided to risk his own life by traveling north with Tormund Giantsbane to retrieve the wildling refugees, while Dany — after indulging herself by torching one former slavemaster with dragonfire — is planning to marry a Meereenese noble to unite the city.

But many obstacles lie ahead for them. And Game of Thrones hasn't been kind to idealists so far.

Read the recap. Come back for Matt's thoughts soon.

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