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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?