You win or die when you play the game of thrones. Cersei Lannister, Game of Thrones
A few weeks ago we had to improvise a red wine bottle for the Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott’s demise. This is tradition in our household. When a new Prime Minister, Premier or Mayor takes the reigns, we buy a bottle of wine, stick on the best image of him or her, and save the bottle to savour when they are catapulted out of their seat of power, whether by election or leadership challenge.
It happened so fast. Malcolm Turnbull rallied enough supporters to challenge the leadership of sitting PM, Mr Abbott. It was high stakes. Mr Turnbull had tried before and it seemed he might not survive this time if he lost. In this short drama breaking news was quickly stale with only three Abbot supporters saying roughly the same thing, played over and over again and commentary and experts disecting the same, limited facts in the studio. Ah, it bored me so.
So I turned away from real life to follow another drama in the imaginary land of Westeros. Yes I binged some more on the five seasons of George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. To begin with I was not at all sure I would like it, but it really pulled me into its characters and its fantasy world that, at its heart, probably is not too distant from the ‘real’ world. It is very much about power and politics – the overarching plot is the question of who will be the absolute ruler of the seven kingdoms and claim the Iron Throne.
Unlike the leadership battle of democracy, the claim to the throne in Westeros is underpinned by the principle of primogeniture according to which the claim is inherited by royal blood. This principle gives birth to a great number of sub-plots. The sitting royals, Queen Cercei’s children have a dubious claim, given they are the fruit of an incestuous relationship with her own brother, Jamie Lannister and hence have no royal blood, just a wealthy family. When Cercei’s husband, king Robert won the throne by overthrowing the mad king Targaryen, he had to legitimise his claim by relying on his mother’s pinch of royal blood. The young and idealistic Daenerys seeks to reclaim the throne for the house of Targaryen with her army of unsullied and teenaged dragons across the narrow sea. King Robert’s brother Stannis kills their other brother and stakes his claim. The northerners have always been a bit different and pronounce their own king, Robb Stark, until they are brought back under the Iron Throne. Meanwhile, the public servant eunik, Varys, seeks to serve the sitting monarch and has a network of effective spies across the seven kingdoms. In the end, even Varys seeks to take matters in his own hands, in the interest of the realm, the public interest.
The game of the throne of Westeros is a game of honour and revenge, power and money, trust and betrayal. Battles rage, sharp swords take off the head in one foul sweep, blood spurts, enemies are tortured, skinned and burnt; there is enough violence to last a lifetime. Political power games are played, backstabbing have become an art and seeds to promote revenge of political opponents are planted. It is brutal, it is bleak, it is sexist in its portrayal of women as sex toys or chattels. But it is also briliantly captivating.
It is classic story telling, but with a twist. We never truly know who are good and who are bad. We despise the handsome Jamie Lannister when he pushes young Brandon Stark from the side of a building when the boy discovers Jamie fornicating with his sister. Yet we pity him when he is held captive and looses his swordfighting hand and warm to him when he proves gentlemanliness to save the tireless Brienne Tarth and his height-challenged brother Tyriel from execution by their father. Tyriel, in alliance with Varys, is the unlikely star of the show, with wit, drunkenness and leadership potential that exceeds all of the other snivelling, self-serving politicians. The evil Queen Cercei is caught in her own net of revenge, and it suddenly becomes hard not to feel sorry for her. She has, after all, lost one son and one daughter and now to be penalised also by religious fanatics is almost too much.
It is more political drama than fantasy, though fantasy elements exist, aside from the dragons. There are seven old gods and one new god, the fire god, who can bring dead people back to life. The zombie white wanderers absorb all corpses that are not burnt into their army and they are coming from across the wall in the North like a menazing threat of evil. The tall, long wall that keeps the giants and the wildlings out from the ‘civilisation’ south of the wall is showing signs of weakness. Only a lame boy with magical talents and some dragon glass can save Westeros from the external threat of the white wanderers. Nothing seems to be able to save Westeros from itself.
Call me a nerd, but I am quite looking forward to season 6 of Game of Thrones. Season 5 ended with a great cliff hanger and nothing resolved, rather like real life. Maybe Mr Abbott is also looking forward to the next season of Australian politics, so he can see his enemies crushed: With power comes the eventual fall and with the fall comes hankering for revenge. With revenge comes more bad blood and counter revenge. It has spiralled out of control in Westeros. It is currently contained in Australia.