Monday, May 20, 2019

Game of Thrones and the Nazi Punching Problem

More than 100,000 people have signed an online petition demanding that the last season of Game of Thrones be remade. I am not really sure what they are mad about. Yes, it was badly rushed and some parts felt phoned it, but at least Weiss and Benioff managed to finish this gigantic story, which is more than George Martin will ever do.

I suspect that people are really just mad that the ending didn't come out like they wanted. Case in point is how many people are furious about the treatment of the dragon queen Daenerys Targaryen. The end of the series revealed her as a dangerous, violent megalomaniac, and thousands complained that this was simply not justified by her character arc. "You don't get to do this!" someone wailed on Slate. "You didn't do the work!"

Every time I read this I think, you obviously don't know what dangerous, violent megalomania looks like.

It does not look – most of the time, anyway – like people storming around being bad for the sake of badness. It looks like people fooling themselves into believing that all of their actions are justified, all of their enemies are evil, and all of their victims deserve it.

Like, in other words, Daenerys Targaryen. Daenerys kills thousands over the course of her rise to power. Most of them, it is true, are either bad people or soldiers in the pay of bad people. But really no person with a conscience should revel in killing, and you should be intensely suspicious of anybody who does. In one famous scene, Daenerys makes a deal with a slave master, trading one of her dragons for an army of slave soldiers. Then she has her new army kill the slaver's men and orders the dragon – which, despite being sold, is still loyal to her – to burn him alive. Cue cheering.

This brings me to what I call the Nazi Punching Problem. Millions of Americans cheered when some guy walked up to Richard Spencer on the street and punched him in the face, then laughed when establishment fuddy-duddies like me said, you know, there are reasons why we don't encourage punching our political opponents in the face. But there are. Civilization doesn't depend everybody being good all the time; that's impossible, Civilization depends on people following the rules. Because if we throw the rules out, it won't be the good people who win, it will be the powerful, the rich, and the ones with the biggest guns.

There are reasons why we don't encourage people who have made deals with wicked people to then double cross them and burn them alive.

This is of course a very broad problem with our popular culture and has been for thousands of years. We love stories in which the good guys throw out the rules and gun down the bad guys in cold blood, in which bold rebels smash the system so the world can be rebuilt in a more pure and beautiful way.

But George Martin, devotee of sado-masochism at a disturbing level, is a deep student of the darkness that lurks in all of our hearts. He constructed Daenerys as a modern revolutionary messiah: a survivor of horrible abuse, a hater of injustice, a liberator of slaves, a slayer of tyrants. He well understands how these things tug at our hears. But for the very reason they appeal to us so strongly, they are supremely dangerous.

Game of Thrones ends with a parable about violence and utopia like the ones written by so many liberals in 1945. If you believe that you are working for paradise, then surely it is worth burning a few cities to get there? Daenerys believes she is fated to lead the world to paradise. That makes her the most dangerous kind of person, but also in a certain way the most appealing. If we had faith, would we not follow her? If we do not believe in the future she promises, what do we believe in? If we do not believe that burning cities may somehow  lead us to a better future, then why do cities keep burning?

Contrast her with the story's other transcendent star, singled out by fate for greatness: Jon Snow. Jon has been mocked for years by fans (including me) for his constant brooding, his reluctance to find joy in life, and his indecision at crucial moments. But really this is because he, unlike Daenerys, cannot escape the consequences of what he does. Born into an aristocratic family in the violent borderlands of a violent age, he cannot escape becoming a soldier. Indeed he has a natural gift for it and is soon celebrated as both a great warrior and a great leader of men. But he cannot forget all those he kills, and all his followers who die. Eventually he ends up in a sort of civil war and has to kill many of his former friends. This wounds him nearly to death. And this makes him, as the story shows, a questionable choice for leadership in violent times. He at least is convinced that he would be a terrible king. But if the Jon Snows of the world are too sad and indecisive for leadership, and the Daenerys Targaryens are too dangerous, where does that leave us?

Mired in the ordinary. Where life, outside stories, is lived.

It the problem were just a few street brawls with Nazis, then our fondness for bold rule breaking would hardly be a big deal. But the desire to "break the wheel," as Game of Thrones puts it, is close to universal and has led to far, far worse. It has been the battle cry of every modern revolutionary. It inspired George W. Bush and the people around him to invade Iraq, sure that if they overthrew Saddam something far better would rise from the rubble. At the dark end it inspired Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge to genocide.

From the wreckage of World War II and the terror of the Cold War we should have learned this: killing and burning are not the way to a better future. Smashing our enemies, either with bombs or our fists, is not the way. If the modern dream is true, if our science and our machines and our devotion to freedom can truly make a better world for us, then it will come gradually and painfully, or it will not come at all. If a messiah arises who promises to smash the wicked and create a better world all at once, walk swiftly in the other direction.


Thomas said...

What I don't believe is the show set up was that Dany thinks she is leading the world to paradise. I didn't get that impression at all - her language was all about her right to the throne, nothing about paradise.

She had a clearer goal in the east, of delivering the world from slavery. That gave her a reason for fervor, and a focus of her ire.

George Lucas faced a similar problem in the Star Wars prequels: how to tell the story of Anakin's change to Darth Vader in a way that felt reasonable and yet in the tone of the whole. In that case, Lucas's storytelling was totally overmatched by the challenge.

It feels like if Emelia Clarke had better preparation in the penultimate season for where her character ends, and if the scripts had given us a few more indications that she was starting to think this way, it might have made sense. But instead, we had people who did not know her warning about her, but the viewers have followed her for so long.

David said...


As I have said before, I have not watched the series. But my understanding from reading about the finale is that Snow murders Dany because she is so dangerous. How is this not punching a Nazi? And if there is pleasure in seeing a Nazi get punched, then surely for some of us that expresses a measure of relief, rather than some sort of dangerous revolutionary anticipation.

Or should one, for example, have voted for McClellan in 1864?

John said...

@David - When Jon kills Dany, it seems like a good idea to me. But it makes him miserable, and one suspects he will spend the rest of his life bemoaning the loss of both his one true love and his chance to be part of a great dream for the future. It is in no way shown as fun or glorious. Nobody says life will get better for the people of Westeros; the best they are hoping for is that it might get back to where it was before the war within a few decades.

As you know, I think violence is often necessary, but I do not think it generally makes things a lot better. If it does, then the road is going to be long and painful. And the result will certainly not be radically better any time soon, viz. the elderly ex-slaves interviewed around 1900 who said life was better under slavery. Progress is always hard and always slow. World War II is perhaps the great exception but then the cost of that victory was very high.

The model of "break the wheel" thinking I have in mind is the second Gulf War. Bush's people thought the root cause of terrorism was the political mess in the Middle East and the way to fix the problem was a dramatic military victory/political revolution. Oops.

This is partly me self-lecturing; I have a weakness for heroism and the victory of the forces of good and so on and have learned to always be on my guard against it.

John said...

@Thomas - the thing is, I thought Dany was on her way to evil megalomania from the moment she walked out of the burning funeral pyre. But most readers/watchers seem to have found her victories just kind of awesome; that is what motivated me to make this connection. Sure, she ordered a thousand people crucified without trial, but they were bad people! Etc. Wasn't anyone else creeped out by her talk of breaking the wheel and freeing the common people from misery? Sorry, but without birth control and chemical fertilizers that's crazy talk.

My hope at the end of the fifth book was that Tyrion would somehow teach her some moderation and political wisdom, but that certainly didn't happen in the show.

There were two possibilities for her after she invaded Westeros: either she would somehow be dramatically transformed by love and magic -- Bran? -- or she would continue on her path to tyranny. That she would turn out to be a great and just ruler of an aristocratic realm like Westeros was completely impossible.

Shadow said...

I thought the ending said, All That for This? Point taken.

David said...


But surely, if death was meet for Dany, then a punch in the nose is meet for Richard Spencer. Great violence against great dangers, small violence against small ones, no? I suspect it humiliated him in the eyes of his fellow trolls, and took him down a peg, and how is that not something to rejoice at? How can satisfaction at a righteous blow well struck for the greater health of our body politic, and to the confusion of its enemies, be bad? And if some leftist nutjobs--including, as may be, the person who did the hitting--think this is a the opening bell of the revolution, what's that to me? They'll get their noses punched, too.

If Jon Snow and others want to play the Man of Sorrows, fine. But it's not strictly necessary, because revolutionary fanaticism isn't the only alternative.

szopen said...


"Wasn't anyone else creeped out by her talk of breaking the wheel and freeing the common people from misery? "

I was! For a long time, I had really ambivalent feelings towards her. Her story was cool: a story of downtrodden poor women, underestimated underdog who goes on challenging the rich and winning. Plus dragons and boobs. BUT, on the other hand, she seemed a fanatical revolutionist and by the end of season 7 I decided I hated her. I thought though that given the current political leanings of hollywood, the show will end with some utopian kumbaya with her and Snow leading the world towards bright future - while to me, more realistic would be her turning into tyrant killing more and more people because they would be bad. The fact that the writers actually decided to pursue realistic option and made her follow her path towards logical conclusion was both surprising and delightful, one of the few bright points in the final season. For that reason alone I think episode 5 was the best in the season

Anyway, I cheered when she was finally killed (even if the ending was anti-climactic as hell).