Episode 5 of the final season of Game of Thrones showed us a vengeful fallen angle, Daenerys Targaryen, after whom thousands of children in the real world have been named. Even though her enemies had been defeated and surrendered, she nevertheless used her massive weapon, a fire-spewing dragon, to kill hundreds of thousands of civilians. We get to experience this from the point of view of the victims who are incinerated: men, women, and children.
I see this episode as the crowning moment of George Martin’s career. He wrote the books and scenarios on which the tv-series is based. He has shown us and told us about the cruel side of humanity time and time again, but many of us did not take this personally. To worm his way into our minds, he gave us a heroine who overcame sexual abuse and umpteenth set-backs to become a powerful ruler who did many good things.
Daenerys liberated the slaves of an entire region. She helped defeat an army of ice zombies who otherwise would have killed everyone on the continent of Westeros and turned it into a zombie wasteland, thus saving all the generations to come. She hence saved hundreds of millions of lives, losing many of her best friends and allies in the process, risks she knowingly took. Those are good deeds of the highest order. She was and to some extent will remain, on balance, a heroine.
But throughout her on-screen struggles these last 10 years she was ruthless, not blinking an eye when her brother was killed by having molten gold poured over him, crucifying hundreds of ‘slave masters’ as punishment for their actions. The noble side of her character was fanned by adulation of freed slaves and warm relationships with her closest friends, Melisandre and Jorah. Their influence tempered her continuous preparedness to use her children, three fully grown fire-spewing dragons, to lay waste to the bastions of her enemies.
When her closest friends died, two of her dragons were killed, and her role in saving the whole of humanity on Westeros did not bring her the adulation and love she so desired, Daenerys did exactly what she had promised to do and was foretold to do in all previous seasons. She broke the game of power in Westeros and turned its biggest city to ashes. She did it partly out of revenge, partly in order to instill fear and thus loyalty, and partly out of a ruthless bloodlust that ran in her family and in herself.
Letting us, the audience, get so close to Daenerys and all her emotional ups and downs throughout the years, has made many of us feel we have partly done all the good things she did. George RR Martin trapped us in her story by letting us see her develop and gain what we also crave: connection, appreciation, redemption, love, lust, and, above all, power. Many of us excused her excesses and coldness, ignoring all the warnings and prophesies, not because we did not recognise this potential in her or even ourselves, but because she was the symbol of how we want to see ourselves. We were made to trust that she would never give in to seeing everyone as expendable in her drive to rule.
Now George RR Martin has sprung his trap and confronted us with what I think he believes is the truth about humanity: in our desire for power we are prepared to do anything to anyone. All the rationalisations and moralising about who we are and why we do things ultimately will make way for our drive to power when the opportunity for power comes. Power blinds us and, particularly when the drive to it costs us emotionally, it estranges us from others and makes us do things we initially never imagine we would be capable of.
It is this shattering of the image of ourselves that is so unsettling. We are made to realise who was always behind the mirror.
There has been mass disappointment among fans. In their bewilderment at being told that this is not merely how their hero is, but how they themselves all are, they go through the phases of grief: denial, anger, bargaining.
The disappointment of the fans shows you how successful George has been in springing his trap (and in the amazing ability of HBO to have kept it a secret so long). The fans latch on to accusations of how the tv-makers have cheated them by rushing the story, not flagging enough that this was coming, betraying the essential character, or something else. The reason for this denial and rationalisation is obvious: they wanted to be allowed to distance themselves from Daenerys and hence not experience what they have just experienced – the momentary realisation that what she did is in all of us. The horror of war is the horror of what we are all prepared to do to others in our lust for power. We suffer when others do this to us and we inflict the suffering when we do it. Just for a moment George RR Martin has truly managed to drive home the message he has told us ever since the first episode some 10 years ago: power blinds all of us and corrupts most of us, except a few fools who get themselves and others killed by their naivete (Ned and John).
Well done George, you have spent your artistic life well. You have managed to engender a realisation amongst millions, however temporary, that humans in modern societies have not often had and that they quickly forget after their brief glimpses of it.
Just after World War I was another such moment. We knew that Great War was due to human stupidity. It was recognised as being a stupidity that belonged to all of us, not merely the elites who decided. We knew the leaders were stupid in sleepwalking into that war. We knew the soldiers were stupid for enthusiastically walking to their deaths and empowering their leaders by their obedience. We knew whole populations were stupid for being so full of themselves and so hell-bent in imposing their collective will on other people that they cheered on both leaders and soldiers, giving neither of them a choice but to follow-up on the collective stupidity. Power lust blinded whole populations and lead them to gas, bomb, maim, and shoot each other in unimaginable orgies of destruction. For a brief moment afterwards, surrounded by cripples and widows, we knew. In that moment, we vowed never to forget.
Yet, we forgot quickly. The truth was replaced by parades of glorious soldiers professing how noble their cause was, organised by elites that wanted the population to keep empowering and obeying them, egged on by populations that wanted to believe in their collective glory and infallibility. The window for truth was short because humans in modern societies are trained to be blind to their own powerlust. That blindness is part and parcel of a society where we are nicer to others within our society than we need to be prepared to be towards enemies outside that society. That duality is solved by having most people believe they would not be violent and ruthless unless it is for a just cause. The lie that we are all fluffy bunnies to some degree ceases to be a lie when it comes to our behaviour inside our group. Yet, we normally do not really look closely at whether the cause is just when we murder the enemies outside. We behave like feral beasts to outsiders, but we try not to know.
Yet, our power lust remains undiminished. We are not fluffy bunnies. Our desire for power is what makes us cheer on and identify with powerful rulers on screen, no matter what they do. When we see films about him, we forgive Alexander the Great his great cruelty, which included the burning and rape of entire cities, because we imagine ourselves to be him and have that power. We fawn over stories of Henry VIII with his many wives because we revel in the idea that we are also so powerful and adulated, conveniently blotting out the fact that he was a genocidal murderer on whose orders the North of England was pillaged. We cheer on ‘our leaders’ when we look at war films, choosing not to remember things like the bombing of Cambodia or the genocide of the Khoisan. We cheer on butchers because, in the end, the power attracts us more than the butchering repels us. That doesn’t make us evil, it is just who we are. It is the job of artists to remind us. It is the job of those who devise the institutions of society to keep that truth in the front of their minds.
George Martin for a moment shattered our collective illusions. Thank you to George and to the thousands who helped him spring his trap. You reminded us of who we really are and of the human costs of what the game of power does to us. Lest we forget.