What went wrong with Game of Thrones

Long back, during Doordarshan’s golden era, I watched an episode of a TV series, one those where every episode was a short story. This particular episode told the story  of a novelist who was getting his novel serialized in a magazine. A fan of the novelist comes to meet him and begins discussions about turning this novel into a TV series (or movie, I don’t remember which). As the discussion progresses, it turns out that she is particularly interested in the fate of one particular character and is distraught to learn from the novelist that she was going to die. She pleads with the novelist, asking for the character’s life to be saved, but the novelist refuses, saying “It is not I who is killing her. It’s the logic of the story that is!” The fan and the novelist have more meetings where she continues to implore him to change the course of his story, till finally the novelist relents. He tells her that he had found a way to save his character’s life, but the story would have to be crafted in a particular way and that the producers of the show would have to promise not to deviate from the script. She gladly accedes to the request. The twist at the end was that it turned out that the TV series was just a ruse. In reality, the fan was so interested in the character arc because the character’s story was magically getting turned into the story of her own life, and she naturally did not want to die. 

I remember being fascinated by the idea that the story of a novel is not something that the novelist creates or controls, but something that has a life of its own. I remembered this story in the context of Game of Thrones because it struck me that the essential problem with the series was that there was really no way to end it in a  satisfactory way. 

Game of Thrones is the Mahabharata of Kali Yuga. It is said that the Mahabharata, unlike the Ramayana, prefers realism to idealism. Characters have grey areas, make and morally ambiguous choices. In the Ramayana, Good triumphs over Evil and the story ends in Rama Rajya. The Mahabharata culminates in a great war and the end of the epic marks the beginning of the Age of Kali. This denouement is logical, because unlike in a simple story where good triumphs over evil, in the real world, it is difficult to tie up all the loose ends and come to a tidy conclusion.  There are actually no endings in the real world. A victory in one battle leads to a reaction from someone somewhere. Kill one person and someone from his clan is out there plotting revenge. Get all people in a room and agree on something, and at least one person goes out from the room intending to break the agreement as soon soon as he is in a position to do so. 

Game of Thrones exceeds the Mahabharata in its realism, as befits an epic set in Kali Yuga. It is morally ambiguous. Good people die because of their goodness. Ned Stark got killed because he did the honourable thing. Rob Stark got killed because he married for love. These morally ambiguous events added to the complexity of the story, which branched off in many different directions, making it tougher and tougher to bring them all together. But if Game of Thrones is the Mahabharata of our age, the end of the story must also end Kali Yuga. After the cycle of four yugas is complete, Krta (or Satya) Yuga, the first yuga where righteousness prevails must begin again. The complete inability of the showrunners (and I suspect, Martin as well) to direct the arc of the story towards this ending where Kali Yuga ends and Truth and Righteousness prevails at the end leads me to suspect that the end of Kali Yuga is still far away. 

While the series had many themes and failed to bring any of them to a satisfactory conclusion, the one theme that was of most interest to me was Danerys’ desire to “break the wheel”.  I am not sure how many people noticed the parallel between her desire and Joffrey’s outburst back in season 2 or 3, where, in a conversation with his mother, he expressed frustration that he had to work on the painstaking task of building alliances with all the lords of Westeros if he wanted to assemble an army. It was all so primitive, he exclaimed. Why couldn’t he have an army of his own, answerable only to him? 

The answer to Joffrey’s question is that the medieval economy did not allow such a setup. A medieval monarch faced two choices about where to maintain his army. Should he keep it close, in the capital, or should it be distributed throughout the kingdom? If he opted for the former, maintaining control over the periphery would be difficult. If he chose the latter, given the tyranny of distance in medieval times, maintaining effective central command over the army was difficult. He would have to distribute command by giving autonomy to local leaders. But the latter option meant that the soldiers would be loyal to the local leaders, not to him. 

Modern states maintain large standing armies. A medieval state that tried to maintain a large standing army would face famine because moving young men off farm to the army meant that the fields lay fallow – this would be especially true if it kept this standing army concentrated at some place for purposes of control. A modern state needs a much smaller proportion of its population in agriculture . It can also, because of modern weaponry, maintain a monopoly on use of force with a much smaller and more centralized army.  

For a medieval state, maintaining effective monopoly on use of force was pretty much impossible.  Other than the limit on size of the army, entry barriers to someone else raising an army were non-existent. Raising a modern army requires sophisticated machine guns, tanks and other artillery. In modern day India, if someone began to acquire such weaponry, the state would notice pretty quickly. In a medieval state, if someone decided to acquire spears, bows and arrows and cannon, there’s a good chance that they’d be able to do it without the state noticing.  

If medieval states did not have monopoly on the use of force, how did they maintain political stability? For most part, they did not. There was always palace intrigue, rebellion brewing in the peripheral regions or a foreign invasion going on. To the extent that stability existed, it was built and maintained by the king negotiating coalitions with the various lords and satraps throughout the kingdom. It was the need to do this that so frustrated Joffrey. The need to maintain these coalitions constrained the medieval monarch, preventing him from turning into an absolute ruler.

The more successful states embedded these constraints into customs and traditions that carried on over generations – Game of Thrones was at its best when it depicted this delicate balance in Westeros. The formalization of these customs and traditions, the codification of them in writing (for example, via the Magna Carta), was one of the ways in which democracy began.   

But while medieval kings were not absolute rulers, the economic and social conditions of those times did not actually permit an evolution to real democracy. In a parliamentary system, we know the challenges of having to build coalitions and and governing with the support of many small parties. Imagine having to do that, but with the difference that those parties are not accountable to the people and have armies of their own.  Your attempt to govern for the benefit of the people will be hampered by the fact that your coalition partners want absolute rule over their own jagirs and may want you to run the government for their benefit rather than their subjects’. Your attempt to bring about the rule of law will be stymied by the fact that the government is constrained, not by laws, but by balance of power, and as the balance changes, your coalition partners will want to renegotiate the rules. 

 So here is the paradox. The journey towards democracy may begin with the codification of customs and traditions that constrained kings, but to actually achieve a modern democracy, you need a centralized army with the ability to exercise monopoly over power. One way to achieve democracy is to evolve towards it, slowly changing the rules towards greater and greater participation of the people. The other way, which was Danerys’ preferred way, was to break the wheel – to bring about revolutionary change that blows away the existing power structures in the kingdom. It did help that she had access to the three dragons that, through their awesome firepower, would be able to subdue any opposition to their monopoly. But if you seize power by destroying the existing power structures, you have also destroyed the customary constraints on the autocrat’s power, and now what will stop the military monopoly from sliding into tyranny? 

It is clear that Game of Thrones wanted to conclude the series by coming out in favour of evolutionary over revolutionary social change, but because of the incompetence of the writers and because the showrunners were in a hurry to end the series, they went about it in the dumbest way possible. The worst scene of the worst episode of the worst season of the series is the one that takes place at the dragon pit after Jon Snow has killed Danerys Targaryen. There, the lords and ladies  have gathered to elect the new monarch, and Sam Tarly rather timidly suggests broadening the franchise to include commoners. His suggestion is scoffed at, with the gathered lords arguing that they might as well include dogs in the vote. Quite clearly, this was meant to signal that the socio-techno-economic conditions of the time did not permit a drastic transition to full liberal democracy. 

But the point about evolutionary change is that each step in the evolution needs to be sustainable, possibly over many generations till conditions are ripe for the next steps. The finale of Thrones was a masterclass in papering over the obvious cracks. The surviving dragon, has for some reason, flown away to an unknown location, conveniently doing away with the problem of civilian control of dragonry. But how is this new setup supposed to maintain political stability in its absence? The capital has been destroyed, most of the army has been killed, the military force that conquered the kingdom has been pensioned off, and the one person who is a competent military commander has been sent off to guard against a non-existent threat. Worst of all, the kingdom has installed as ruler a philosopher king who is more philosopher than king, and the philosophy in question being more of the mystic variety than of the kind that will provide guidance in this world. At least, if at the end it had been revealed that Bran the broken intended to use his warging abilities to exercise surveillance over the entire kingdom and use his information asymmetry as power, the series would have been slightly salvaged, but this ending is an unmitigated disaster. 

It’s quite clear that the producers of the series knew that the ending was stupid and that they were airbrushing visuals of loose ends from the picture – Yara Greyjoy, for example, makes some noises about she being still loyal to her old queen, and before she could set out to lead a rebellion to extract vengeance, she is asked to shut up, presumably because the producers were in a hurry to end the series.  This hurry has been visible right from season 6, when they started using their their various dei ex machina to eliminate the complexities in the story. Till that season, all the unexpected twists – the death of Ned Stark, the Red Wedding or the poisoning of Joffrey – had increased the complexity in the story. But when Cersei blew up the Great Sept using wildfire – yes, it led to Olenna Tyrell plotting revenge and joining Danerys, but you have to wonder about the High Sparrow and the Faith Militant. Was there no fallout from eliminating them? Did they not have a following in Kings Landing? Did killing them all not cause any kind of unrest?  In the same season, Dany uses her dragons to burn the slavers’ ships and destroys their fleet. No fallout from that? No one left to plot revenge?  

Evidently, the showrunners were incompetent at plotting the course of the series when unmoored from George R R Martin’s guidance. But Martin himself has been unable to finish writing his books, and while he is good at fleshing out the complexity of the real world, I don’t see any evidence that he has the ability to resolve the complexity and bring the series to a satisfactory conclusion. Which is just as well. A satisfactory conclusion to the series will bring about the end of the cycle of the four yugas, result in Pralaya, and the start of a new cycle. I don’t think we are ready for that yet.  

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