Game of Thrones and the Truth About Class (Spoiler Warning)

In the penultimate episode of Game of Thrones the city of King’s Landing is sacked and razed by Daenarys Targaryen and her armies. Viewers were as stunned as Jon Snow as they watched the story’s supposed heroine rain destruction upon the Lannister soldiers and the innocent from above while her forces did so from the more modest vantage point of the city streets. Like a fever-dream version of Dresden’s infamous destruction during WW2, the Breaker of Chains used Drogon to fire-bomb the city not unlike a fleet of B-29’s. The shock of the city’s destruction and the supposed heel-turn from one of the show’s most beloved characters has left in its wake a substantial number of people who dislike the narrative arc of Season 8 and see it as either poor writing or a betrayal of character development and, of course, the emotional investment of nearly a decade. Daenerys’ actions, however, should point us to another conclusion: Game of Thrones is a brilliant study of the structural constraints and pressures in a particular type of class society but more generally about the limitations of politics in any class society.

Understanding that there are structural paths built into a socio-economic system for its class actors can be difficult when we view a show like Game of Thrones through the eyes of mostly high-born protagonists. We believe Cersei, Dany, Jon, Sansa and the parade of would-be kings could have chosen differently and “broken the wheel.” On an interpersonal level this is true; Stannis didn’t have to burn his daughter to death any more than Joffrey or Ramsay Bolton had to engage in elaborate schemes of torture. But when we talk about structural paths and limitations, we cannot mean those small personal choices. Yet this also means far more than examining the character’s backstory for hints that they have always been this way or that. Dany is not this way because she is Dany – she is Dany because of the class position, privileges, and imperatives of being a member of the aristocracy.

Embedded into aristocratic society are the class and social relations that produce deference and domination, hierarchy and control. Medieval feudalism was defined by social class determined by birth (except in rare instances where commoners like Ser Bronn were knighted), and the ruling class was made up of warriors who depended on their relationship with the uppermost nobility on the one hand, and their enfeoffed peasantry on the other. Absolute monarchy, however stable it was in certain territories and eras, was at heart a brutal system of control and obedience. Where modern wars under capitalism tend to be fought for control over markets, feudal conflicts were over land and rank. Earlier this season Ser Bronn of the Blackwater explained this to Jaime and Tyrion when he said all the ancestors of the highborn aristocrats had been brigands and cutthroats in order to conquer and acquire the land, power, and wealth required to be a member of the nobility. The show has even displayed a sense of this with social climbers like the Boltons and Freys; if they had been successful they would have been the first – brutal – generation that achieved enough success to produce a highborn line.

It is in this sense that we must view Dany’s actions at King’s Landing. We may find them appalling war crimes – which indeed they are – but they are not out of place in medieval warfare or more importantly the demands of a struggle for the crown. Sacked cities were usually victims of an orgy of pillaging and wanton destruction. Dany had been successful, first in Essos and then Westeros, when she was willing to engage in brutal acts of conquest. She quite literally lost when advisors counselled restraint, because restraint is only possible within the confines of an absolutist system when there is an unequal power relationship. To be an absolute monarch means destruction of all your enemies; hence why Dany told Tyrion her mercy was towards future generations. Her actions in Essos as the “Breaker of Chains” presage this: the populations of slaves she freed were still subjects of her absolute rule, and she burned alive Khals and rebellious aristocrats. The utter destruction of King’s Landing makes perfect sense to a foreign monarch who feels she must destroy the physical manifestation of her enemy’s strength and force the remaining lords and commoners to submit to her rule.

It is also why only Olenna Tyrell, of all her advisors, gave her sound advice: Be A Dragon. Tyrion and Varys staggered from bad plan to worse over the last two seasons because they refused to admit that Dany’s quest to topple the old order could only come via apocalyptic force and the painful substitution of one hierarchical rule for another. The ties that bound would be ruptured and forged anew. Advice from the Imp and the Eunuch was far more suited for a time when absolute monarchy was established, stable, and could afford to act with mercy and restraint. One need look no further than this to realize why Tyrion and Varys seemed so lost as advisors to Dany once she crossed the Narrow Sea to Westeros.

Whatever happens in the series finale, Game of Thrones has done a service to fantasy storytelling by presenting a world bound by the strictures of class and having its characters play by those rules. There will be no democracy in Westeros, because the preconditions for large-scale representative government require first the development of an economic system (capitalism) that erodes the power of the nobility and empowers a class of commoners known as capitalists to come into direct conflict with aristocrats like the Lannisters, Starks, and Targaryens. At best, if Dany is defeated, we might see a constitutional monarchy under Jon Snow (Aegon Targaryen) bound by a Westerosi Magna Charta. But I wouldn’t hold my breath; Game of Thrones, like its real-world feudal counterpart, is likely to end in fire and ice, blood and battle.

Peter LaVenia received a PhD in Political Theory from the University at Albany, SUNY. He has been an activist and organizer for over 15 years and has worked for Ralph Nader in that capacity. He is currently the co-chair of the Green Party of New York, and can be reached on Twitter: @votelavenia.