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Dead Tree Alert: The Westeros Wing; or, Why Game of Thrones is the Best Show About Politics

Today's donkeys and elephants could learn a lot from that show with the lions, direwolves and dragons.

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There’s no new Game of Thrones this Sunday; HBO is running the Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra (and you can find Richard Corliss’ review of the movie from Cannes here). In the meantime, you can read my column in the print TIME magazine this week (subscription required) on why Game of Thrones is TV’s best current show about politics.

One reason GoT is so bracingly different from other pop-culture fantasy stories is how it combines the fantastical with the realistic—in this case, realistic attention to the way power is gained, maintained, and exercised. Rather than fall into simple idealism or cheap cynicism, the show is bluntly practical: one big theme of the Ned Stark story in season one, for instance, is that Ned’s rigid morality and sense of integrity was both his great strength and the reason he finally failed.

By season three, many of the show’s storylines, not just the ones in King’s Landing, are about politics and leadership. The clash between the libertarian attitudes of the Wildlings and the rigid social structure of the southerners. Dany’s journey through the East, which has been a series of lessons on how to earn, rather than simply command, a loyal following. The travails of the Night’s Watch, a nonaligned group meant to fend off a worldwide threat, which has been neglected through generations of political infighting and myopic leadership. The management of King’s Landing and its looming problem of foreign debt. The destabilizing forces of populism and religious fervor. And the non-military, non-magical sources of power, whether they be rich farmland or a useful intelligence network.

In the column, I break down Game of Thrones’ story arcs and ideas into seven—of course—political lessons. The column is behind the paywall, so I can’t reprint it here, but I can list the bullet points, can’t I? Of course I can!

  • Hope Isn’t Enough.
  • Alliances Are Tricky.
  • Loyalty Beats Fear.
  • Don’t Skimp on Infrastructure.
  • Religion Is a Tinderbox.
  • Sovereign Debt Is a Killer.
  • Watch Out for the 99%!

I could have gone on, but I only had a page. So I’ll let you take it from here: what could a political leader today learn from Tyrion, Varys, and Daenerys? And who do you think is the best (and worst) politician in Game of Thrones?

13 comments
JeffDimaano
JeffDimaano

If we could learn anything from Tyrion Lannister at all, it's that the people with the best ideas, track record, and potentials for ruling sometimes are also the ones who are most unpopular. People from Westeros don't call him the Imp for nothing. They even blame him for the bankruptcy of the royal coffers, when in fact, it was the previous more popular king, Robert Baratheon, who did so.

JeffDimaano
JeffDimaano

Robert Baratheon was a good man, he even had the potential to become a good king. His Council, and the people surrounding him (Lannisters, Petyr Baelish, Maester Pycelle, and the lot) are to blame for the Kingdom's woes. A good character can only do so much when surrounded by corrupted minds filled with personal agenda.

Lucelucy
Lucelucy

Question on this paywall thing - I guess your column is in Time Online???  Because I had a friend stop to pick up a Time Magazine for this week (only if it had your piece in it) and she said it wasn't.  So - can I pay to read *one* issue, or do I have to subscribe to the whole thing? 

hotandbothered
hotandbothered

I doubt Joffrey would even be considered a politician at this point in time. He's a mad dog sitting on the throne with only his scary grandfather pulling him back from making the entire realm pure chaos.

_haye_
_haye_

However much we want to speculate about the others, the clear leader was certainly Tywin Lannister, though having read the books, the answer - on the best leader - will have to be a different one in the next few weeks. 

I guess the best lesson was leaders need to know where they wanna go. Having dragons wil always help, too. 

Lucelucy
Lucelucy like.author.displayName 1 Like

My favorite is Varys - his line about doing it "for the good of the realm."  Whatever "it" is.  He knows that perpetual war will be bad for the people at large, that people need peace and security to provide for themselves and others.  I think he is the most civilized of all of them, and that civilization itself (which is still extremely nascent in Westeros and has become decadent in most of the rest of the world) is a value worth encouraging.

hotandbothered
hotandbothered

@Lucelucy They don't call Varys "the spider" for nothing. If you think keeping the man who castrated him in a pit in his bedroom makes Varys 'civilized' then I must have missed that day at school.

Lucelucy
Lucelucy

@hotandbothered @Lucelucy What do you have against spiders, anyway?  I think Varys is actually a very civilized man.  But we all have our little weaknesses. 

EtienneKoekemoer
EtienneKoekemoer

Little Finger is the most best and most dangerous leader of them all. He came from nothing and now is in charge of 2 of the most powerful kingdoms in Westeros. He is also friends with almost everyone and only has a few enemies.

The only problem is that he cares only about himself and would do anything to get what he wants.

EtienneKoekemoer
EtienneKoekemoer

Little Finger is the best and worst leader of them all. He came from nothing and now is in charge of 2 of the most powerful kingdoms in Westeros. He is also friends with almost everyone and only has a few enemies.

Duvisited
Duvisited like.author.displayName 1 Like

The best politician in Westeros is Mance Rayder, and it's not close.  He created a source of political and military authority where none existed before, and is using it to try to save his people from an existential threat.

anon76
anon76 like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 3 Like

Best politician (but also in the running for 'worst father'):  Tywin Lannister.  He's outmaneuvered everyone at King's landing (including Tyrion, Olenna Tyrell, Varis, and Littlefinger), shifted the war against Robb away from to the battlefield to a place where he can win, and brought his little sh*t of a grandson/King to heel.  One assumes that if Westeros had trains, he'd have them running on time.  He gets stuff done!

Worst politician:  Viserys Targaryen. In the politics of Game of Thrones you win or you die, and he died earlier than almost anyone else.  He went from finally having a shot at a return to Westeros, to alienating his Dothraki allies and pushing away his sister, before making a power-play that ensured his own destruction.  D'oh!

buffalo.barnes102
buffalo.barnes102

@anon76 

Tywin would get my vote, too. He definitely has the best grasp of the "big picture" and also knows where the right bodies are buried. I loved the scene with him and Joffrey in the throne room recently. Slapping Joffrey down while still making him believe he has any clue whatsoever as to how the machine of real power operates. Chilling.