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Daenerys was right: King’s Landing had to burn

Westeros would’ve been better off with her on the Iron Throne.

Daenerys Targaryen in the series finale of Game of Thrones.
Daenerys Targaryen in the series finale of Game of Thrones.
Helen Sloan/HBO

Game of Thrones’ Daenerys Targaryen was not a “mad queen” (and, indeed, it’s somewhat unclear how mad her supposedly insane father ever was), Jon Snow was wrong to stab her to death in the series finale, and the new elective monarchy set up by a hastily assembled Great Council of the Lords of Westeros represents a step back in terms of political development.

Her death was a tragedy that reflects, on some level, the very same Stark family naiveté about politics that was such a heavy point of emphasis on the beginning of the series.

And despite the Starks’ seemingly good-natured instincts on a personal level, their approach to leadership is going to accomplish nothing useful for the long-suffering ordinary people of Westeros. Some form of actual democratic governance — as proposed by Grand Maester Samwell Tarly — would have been an enormous step forward. But it was laughed out of bounds by the high lords of the Seven Kingdoms who proceeded to set up a form of government that serves their narrow interests, while doing nothing to address the many serious problems afflicting the continent.

Daenerys isn’t crazy

The underlying presumption of the actions undertaken by Varys, Tyrion, and Jon over the course of Game of Thrones’ final few episodes is that Daenerys is in some sense unstable, as reflected by her willingness to harm the civilian population of King’s Landing.

But this simply isn’t true.

Daenerys has an objective — to induce the Lords of Westeros to bend the knee and acknowledge her supremacy — and her attack on King’s Landing in “The Bells” was well-calibrated to achieve that objective. She had previously offered Queen Cersei the opportunity surrender, and Cersei refused — packing the city with civilians and ringing it with air defenses that pose a lethal threat to Drogon, Daenerys’s one remaining dragon. A combination of skilled piloting and poor marksmanship allowed Daenerys to overcome the city’s air defenses, destroy the Golden Company, and induce the Lannisters to attempt to surrender.

If Daenerys had simply allowed King’s Landing to surrender without consequences only after she evaded its air defenses, then every other recalcitrant lord in the Seven Kingdoms would have incentive to resist her. After all, it only takes a lucky shot or two to bring down the dragon — and the Queen riding him — and if she manages to burn your scorpions, you can always just surrender.

The Breaker of Chains can be legitimately faulted for not explaining the strategic logic of her actions to key subordinates before the battle began. But in her defense, those same key subordinates had spent the previous days spreading treasonous talk about Jon Snow being the rightful heir to the Iron Throne, so she can perhaps be forgiven for not fully taking them into her confidence.

Making an example of King’s Landing was a harsh decision. It was a cruel decision. And it’s certainly a decision whose morality one could question. But it wasn’t a “crazy” decision or the act of a Mad Queen — it was a rational calculation based on a clear-eyed assessment of the strategic situation.

One should further note that while Daenerys’s critics were obsessed with rumors that Jon was the trueborn son of Rhaegar Targaryen, they missed the fact that his newly revealed heritage implies that the Baratheon/Stark rebellion against the crown was based largely on fake news about Lyanna Stark. That, in turn, raises the question of whether the entire “Mad King” narrative — and thus the supposed genetic infirmity that makes Daenerys so suspect — isn’t itself a bit of propaganda.

The only real consistent through-line in all of this is that Westeros’s great houses oppose the creation of an effective central government.

The nobility likes a weak king

Many fans have observed that there was no real reason for the participants in the Great Council to believe that Bran would be a good king, and that Tyrion’s arguments in Bran’s favor seemed extremely weak.

But that’s simply a matter of perspective. If what you mean by a “good king” is a king who will rule in the interests of the broad mass of people, then something like the Tarly proposal for a democratic election would make sense. But they of course rejected that out of hand. What they want is a king who will be good for the upper ranks of the nobility, which actually means a weak and ineffective king.

Bran’s basic indifference to governance means that the likes of Edmure, Bronn, Gendry, and whoever is now running Dorne will have a free hand to rule their domains as they see fit. That’s nice for them, and fine for the smallfolk who happen to luck into competent and moral masters, but it’s potentially a disaster for others. In a practical sense, ordinary Westerosi are shown to be much more vulnerable to the problems with weak central governance than to tyranny from King’s Landing.

“The maesters will tell you that King Jaehaerys abolished the lord’s right to the first night to appease his shrewish queen,” Roose Bolton told Theon Greyjoy in the books, describing the practice of noblemen raping brides under their jurisdiction on the occasion of their wedding day.But where the old gods rule, old customs linger. The Umbers keep the first night too, deny it as they may. Certain of the mountain clans as well, and on Skagos ... well, only heart trees ever see half of what they do on Skagos.”

These rapes were happening despite the generally well-meaning Stark rule in Winterfell simply because, in a practical sense, the Starks exerted little control over their bannermen. The Great Council is now setting up a system of government in which the King’s Justice will be weaker than ever, with rulers deliberately picked by the high nobility to be weak and nonconfrontational.

Daenerys, by contrast, was a real threat to lordly prerogative since Drogon’s ability to travel long distances quickly and attack fortified positions meant that nobles would have to take her commands seriously. Yes, her war of conquest was bloody. And killing her before she landed on Westeros with three dragons and a foreign-born army arguably would have been a humane move by Varys and Tyrion. But by the time Tyrion started whispering treason to Jon, the worst of the bloodshed may have been behind her. And in her place, he’s set up a system that only guarantees more bloodshed.

Elective monarchy doesn’t work

Many countries over the years have walked the path from hereditary dictatorship to constitutional monarchy. It starts with establishing a popular elective assembly (the House of Commons in the UK) and proceeds over time by both broadening voting rights and expanding the power of that assembly.

What you don’t see happening is countries following a path whereby the hereditary monarch is replaced by an elected one and that evolves into democracy.

Which is not to say that elective monarchies are unheard of in history. What happens instead is that they collapse. In many cases, like the Holy Roman Empire, the nature of the collapse is that one monarch uses his authority to ensure the election of his son, and then after a few rounds of this, the elective monarchy becomes a dynastic one. To avoid this possibility on Game of Thrones, the assembled Lords of Westeros select the disabled Bran, who Sansa assures us is impotent.

This puts us in the case of a state like the old Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which really did have openly contested elections for its kingship. The problem with this approach is that each moment of succession becomes a crisis, with the various major stakeholders clashing for office. Halina Lerski, author of the Historical Dictionary of Poland, tells us that these elections “generated political conflicts in the seventeenth century and foreign intervention in the eighteenth century. They became a symbol of anarchy and corruption,” and were abolished in 1791. Imagine Ser Bronn’s successor squandering the agricultural wealth of the Reach on bribing other nobles to elect him king, while the Iron Bank makes under-the-table financial commitments to supporters of a rival faction that will promise to pay off the crown’s long delinquent deaths.

The elective monarchy is a recipe not only for weak governance while the monarch is on the throne, but for rounds of civil war, foreign intervention, and possible secession in the period immediately before and after the monarch’s death. Game of Thrones’ new world order is going to lead, in the long term, to much more killing than a proper Targaryen Restoration featuring a healthy dose of law and order and centralized control.

The idea of government by fire and blood cuts against our modern sensibilities — and rightly so — but no option of a modern constitutional regime was on the table at any point during the series, and that’s not what the Great Council settled on. Of the available options, Daenerys’s plan to break the wheel was the best one, and the clique of aristocrats that overthrew her has done nothing but condemn Westeros to anarchy and misgovernment.