clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Game of Thrones’ final season told flattering lies about wanting power

Does wanting something somehow corrupt your desires? The biggest show on TV sure thought so.

Daenerys Targaryen seated on a horse in the HBO show “Game of Thrones.”
Nobody in Game of Thrones wanted power more than Daenerys Targaryen. Or so the show wanted you to think.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

In its fourth episode, the final season of Game of Thrones took an unusual turn. Daenerys Targaryen had just helped the forces of humanity turn back the army of the dead, her dragons blasting fire at the ice zombies. But now that the war against the White Walkers was over, the series abruptly shifted from its long-held “Dany might have problems, but she’s pretty cool” position to a “Dany must be stopped at any costs” stance. The shift was jarring, especially in such a compressed final run of episodes (only six, compared to 10 in most previous seasons).

The argument the show tried to advance throughout its run was that Dany’s desire for the Iron Throne had caused her to lose sight of her larger goals — that the truest way to determine who should gain power was looking for someone who didn’t actually want to sit on the Throne. Lord Varys came right out and said this in the aforementioned fourth episode, telling Tyrion Lannister, Dany’s hand of the queen, “Have you considered the best ruler might be someone who doesn’t want to rule?”

I found myself pushing back more against this idea than I would have in previous seasons. Dany had problems, yes, but she also genuinely wanted to create something new and better for the people of the Seven Kingdoms. What did the other claimants to the throne have to offer? I had personal reasons for this pushback (about which, more in a second) but also political ones.

High-minded and noble though it may be, the idea that wanting a thing makes you someone who perhaps shouldn’t have it is too often a pretty fiction designed to prop up an unjust status quo. Those who want to change the status quo, who long for power to make sure that things shift and are altered, well, they’re the ones we can’t trust, right? Isn’t everything just fine the way it is?

The final season of Game of Thrones was one of the biggest culture stories of 2019. But the more I think back on it, the less I think about its many problems and the more I consider how this single line of dialogue displayed something hollow at its core — and hollow at the core of how we too often think about the intersections of power and identity.

Game of Thrones’ final season peddles the idea that not wanting something is better than wanting something, and honestly, no

Game of Thrones
Tyrion’s argument becomes that wanting power makes you unworthy of holding it.
Macall B. Polay/HBO

For his part, Tyrion gets drawn into conversations about how maybe the most important criterion when allocating power is bestowing it upon someone who doesn’t want that power at several points in Game of Thrones’ final season. Tyrion is the closest thing the show has to an audience surrogate character (i.e., he’s thinking and feeling what viewers are meant to be thinking and feeling in a best-case scenario), so it’s clear Game of Thrones wants us to pay attention to this particular point. In other words, the ideal ruler is someone who doesn’t want to be ruler at all.

These conversations are mostly part of Lord Varys’s full-court press to convince Tyrion to turn on Daenerys Targaryen and, instead, back Jon Snow’s claim to the Iron Throne, despite Jon’s constant insistence that he couldn’t care less about having power. Jon’s refusal is portrayed as deeply noble; it implies that what’s important to a hero’s journey is the “refusal of the call,” the part when the hero is told what he must do and says, “Nah, it’s not for me.” Then, after deliberation, he realizes that only he can save the world, and the story is off. (And I’m using those he pronouns deliberately.)

This concept is, frankly, nonsense. A job you are forced to do for the good of anything — even your own family — is a job that too often eventually embitters you against both it and the people you serve. But it’s one that has a huge amount of currency in our society. No one less than Donald J. Trump used variations on this idea for much of his public life. (This is a man who, in 1987, famously said that he’d never want to be president.) It was only when he felt as if only he could make America great again that he ran, the gray champion who refuses and refuses and refuses the call until it’s almost too late, and he rides in from the east to save the republic.

But regardless of this particular idea about longing for political power’s rightness or wrongness, it holds a powerful sway over us because, on some level, it feels right. We’re suspicious of power, and we’re suspicious of those who want too much of it, and the role of president (or King of the Seven Kingdoms) requires somebody who really, really wants lots of power. They might long for that power to achieve noble ends — Dany says she wants to end slavery, after all! — but the pursuit of power inevitably comes to dominate their thinking. It’s easy to lose sight of the ends when the means are so all-consuming. Shouldn’t we be skeptical of these people? Shouldn’t we want someone who’s only taking on such an important job as a last resort?

I don’t think so, but I do think that the consternation over the desire of power within Game of Thrones reduced much of the storytelling in the final season to hash. In that season, the primary argument against Daenerys taking the Throne is that she wants to be queen too much. But this directly contradicts much of the rest of the show’s run, when it’s clear that Dany really wants to be queen, but also has specific ways she wants to use that power to change the social order of the country she rules, to give those without power more agency and tear down the existing structures of government.

We see throughout the series how her attempts to upend the social order don’t always go the way she wants them to. But the only time Game of Thrones argued her longing for power was a sign of her unfitness as a ruler was when it needed to retroactively create a situation where Dany would end up as the worst possible ruler for the Seven Kingdoms.

It’s generally accepted that Benioff and Weiss inherited the idea of Dany’s turn toward the dark side from Martin, who gave the duo his plans for the rest of the book series (which remains in progress). But if the reason Dany is meant to be an unfit ruler is that she wants it too much, the show barely bothered to flesh out that argument before dropping it in viewers’ laps with just three episodes of the series to go. Martin, who seems to be going to the same place in the books by very different pathways, will have ample opportunity to get into Daenerys’s head in his final books and explore her inner monologue to better show her disintegrating rationale. Benioff and Weiss were left with, “She just went crazy, and you can tell she did because she wanted this too much.”

The supposed fallibility of desire serves as the organizing thesis of the final season of Game of Thrones, but a core rule of traditional dramatic storytelling is that characters who want things are almost always more interesting than those who don’t, because they have to take steps to achieve their goals. But Benioff and Weiss’s apparent disdain for this meant the final season became a long series of moments where characters refused to act, surrounded by massive spectacle. It was ungainly.

I hesitate to attribute too much of this ungainliness to Benioff and Weiss. After all, all evidence we have suggests the two were handed an outline of this particular plot by Martin and asked to make sense of it. But in October, the two spoke at length about the show for the first time since it ended at the Austin Film Festival and seemed vaguely dismissive both of the show and their accomplishments. It was as if after Game of Thrones handed them immense power within the entertainment industry, they were loath to seem eager to embrace that power, despite having signed a massive deal with Netflix.

But maybe there’s a reason I’m so defensive of desire. Wanting things can be good, even when it’s scary. I should know.

On wanting things and the impossibility of having them

Seated “Game of Thrones” characters in the final season.
Macall B. Polay/HBO

I watched the final season of Game of Thrones right in the middle of hormone replacement therapy’s wholesale restructuring of my brain. The pieces of myself that I had dedicated to propping up my masculinity came crashing down as I slowly but surely accepted my essential womanhood.

It was freeing and wonderful. It was the best, most important thing I have ever done for myself. But it also made me acutely aware of how much of my prior persona had been built around just what Varys kept talking about: the pursuit of power and success by the means of pretending that I wasn’t pursuing power and success.

Now that I am out and living my life as a trans woman, it’s easier for me to admit just how many things I really do want, the TV shows I want to create, and the books I want to write, and the experiences I want to have. I want to be a mother, and I want to build a better world for other trans people, and I want to tear down the structures that hold too many of us humans in bonds of inequity.

But when I try to talk about these things with people now, I can see the way their eyes glaze over, even when they don’t mean to. When living as a woman, I know how to ask for what I want and sometimes to demand it. But as a man, I often only had to say, “You know, it would be nice if ...” and I would have the world handed to me on a platter.

I am not naive enough to think that this was entirely about gender. My race plays into this, as does the fact that I grew up rather comfortably. And I have continued to achieve personal and professional success as an out trans woman, historically not a category of people handed tons of power. I am lucky in so, so many ways.

But there’s still the persistent thought that wanting something isn’t as cool as not wanting it. The idea of wanting, of striving, of hoping for something better is too often coded in a way that benefits rich, white, straight, cisgender men, who can sit back and act as if they don’t want the power they’ve been born into, because they’re conditioned to act like reaching for the cup they’ve been offered is gauche. Better to have someone spill it in your lap.

At the Austin Film Festival, Benioff and Weiss said they were extremely nervous to pitch Game of Thrones to HBO, something that makes clear that they really, really, really wanted to make this show. It’s clear from how eager they’ve been to soak up the acclaim attached to the show that they’re more than happy to enjoy the spoils. But it’s also clear that they were all too ready to leave the show in their pasts the longer it ran. At one time, Benioff and Weiss really, really wanted the thing they got. But somewhere along the way — at least to my casual observation — that shifted.

Wanting something is inherently a vulnerable action, even if you think you stand to get it. Indeed, having a dream is almost a guarantee that it won’t come true; those who see all of their dreams come true are few and far between. And if there’s one thing we ask men to never do in our society, it’s be vulnerable.

The ultimate ruler of the Seven Kingdoms at the end of Game of Thrones is Bran, a young man who says in the final season that he’s evolved beyond concepts like “want.” This is supposed to be an argument for his ultimate rule, but it instead plays as a kind of big lie told to the audience. To want something, it says, is to show weakness. To act like you deserve power, no matter the unlikelihood of you receiving it, is to prove you are not worthy of having it. The world is the way it is because that’s how it’s supposed to be. If you disagree, well, you just want things too badly to ever be trusted.