How Game of Thrones Lost Its Way as a Political Drama

In its later seasons, the show started relying on heavy-handed historical references to do the difficult work of character-building.


When Game of Thrones ended its eight-year run on Sunday, the series finale, titled “The Iron Throne,” received a largely negative critical response. Many writers pointed out that the show’s last season had given up on the careful character-building of Thrones’ early days—a problem that, in truth, had started a few years back. The result was a seemingly rushed conclusion where multiple characters made poorly justified decisions and important story lines felt only halfway developed.

The show made plenty of mistakes in its final episode, but among the most significant was Thrones’ abrupt and uncharacteristic turn to moralizing—and its use of heavy-handed allusions to 20th-century history to do so. Characters who were once morally complicated, whose actions fit within well-developed personal motivations and fueled the show’s gripping political drama, became mechanisms to bring the story to a hasty, unearned conclusion. Characters like Daenerys Targaryen and Tyrion Lannister—previously complex and fully formed—became, in “The Iron Throne,” mere tools in the service of a plodding message about the dangers of totalitarianism.

The reliance on contemporary historical allegory pervades the entire first half of the final episode, but the most glaring instance comes about 10 minutes in, after characters have walked through rubble-strewn streets and debated the ethics of summarily executing prisoners of war. Daenerys enters the scene upon her dragon, descending from the darkened sky. It’s a visceral case study in dramatizing evil as authority, which is to say it’s cribbed from Triumph of the Will. Daenerys’s appearance mimics Adolf Hitler’s entry in Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 propaganda film. The queen arrives on dragonback, he on an airplane. Both come from above, seemingly higher and mightier than the mortals watching. Daenerys dismounts and walks through the blasted hulk of the Red Keep’s gates, directly toward the camera. When the wings of her last living dragon spread out behind her as if they were her own, the message is clear: The dragon has awoken. Dany gazes upon serried ranks of soldiers, fires still burning over miles of city and ash falling from the sky. Somewhere on the way to becoming the dragon, she has left behind the medieval machinations of earlier seasons and adopted the manicured totalitarianism of 20th-century dictators as her own.

The dragon queen begins to speak of liberation and renewal and bloodshed in front of a cheering crowd of uniformed soldiers, standing at attention, the blood of innocents still on their spears. Her zealous defense of war crimes in the name of ideology could be a Nazi’s speech, or perhaps a leftist authoritarian’s. There’s certainly something of Joseph Stalin and Vladimir Lenin in her idea that people ought to be liberated, by force if necessary, even if it means death for thousands. “Women, men, and children have suffered too long beneath the wheel,” Daenerys proclaims. Over the heads of her soldiers, viewers see what liberation means: the wreck of King’s Landing, Daenerys with her dragon sigil on one side and the flesh-and-blood reptile on the other. Hitler’s banners were the same red and black with a circle in the center, containing an odd, swirled insignia. The sieg heils are replaced by the thudding of spears, the brownshirts by men in helmets and leather, but the effect is identical.


The parallels are in some ways fitting. Daenerys’s rhetoric has always had a brutal streak—she’s had no problem promising the death of enemies to her followers. But her guarantees of violent revolution had previously been couched in the character’s personal kindness and her repeated efforts not to become a reborn version of her pyromaniacal father. Perhaps unable to make her sudden moral downfall in Season 8 seem wholly organic, Game of Thrones opted to lean on dramatic visual cues. If the show could not sell viewers on Daenerys’s embrace of unambiguous villainy, it could at least tie her directly to Hitler, to Stalin, to dictators whose reigns are within living memory.

In earlier seasons, tyranny did not always look like tyranny. Few moments capture how elegantly Game of Thrones used to work like the ones in Season 2 when Tywin Lannister, one of television’s great villains, interacts with Arya Stark, who’s disguised as a servant. Tywin comes off as human, as a man concerned with his family and his legacy. He shows generosity, asks about his servant’s family, and treats her more gently than many of the series’s purported heroes might have. Such nuance extended to other characters, too: The often ruthless Stannis Baratheon practices a harsh but evenhanded form of justice. His late brother Robert, a drunkard and philanderer, still strove to act as a king and friend should, despite his constant failures. Even the murderous Roose Bolton’s and Walder Frey’s behavior was motivated by fundamentally human desires to improve their families’ lots. Viewers didn’t need fascist or Stalinist symbols to know when an action was vile, even if it came from a character who didn’t seem fully evil.

Things are simpler when viewers do not have to think about the people behind the evil. Game of Thrones used to ask its audience to think about those people, though. One episode in the show’s second season began with a seemingly random conversation between two soldiers guarding the Lannister army’s horses. They aren’t significant to the plot, but they get almost two minutes of screen time. They’re normal people who joke around—farting is involved—and laugh. And then they’re killed. The show often forced viewers to question its heroes not through cruelty and violence but through peace and humor. It was not the sudden death of the Lannister men that gave the scene its emotional heft but the ordinariness of what came before it.

That sort of nuance disappeared in later seasons. Even when the opposing side became sympathetic victims, they were not fleshed out with the same care as the Lannister soldiers were in the second season. The unsubtle imagery in Game of Thrones’ later seasons was aided by the show’s use of the Unsullied, Daenerys’s army of erstwhile slaves. Though they never really took on individual identities, the Unsullied had a story, and their very presence on the show made a point about who Daenerys was. But in Season 8, the Unsullied became an entity to be neatly organized and casually discarded. Their lack of individuality served the show’s thudding metaphors in “The Iron Throne.” The Unsullied’s faceless helms display no emotion but suggest total loyalty. The men slam their spears into the dirt in unison when Daenerys speaks. They are an authoritarian’s dream.

“The Iron Throne” doesn’t stop with the imagery of totalitarianism. Apparently concerned that some viewers might miss the parallels to 20th-century dictators, the show has Jon Snow, its morally upstanding and politically inept co-lead, join the now-imprisoned adviser Tyrion Lannister in his cell to fully explicate Daenerys’s transition to fascism. Tyrion asks Jon: “When you heard her talking to her soldiers, did she sound like someone who is done fighting?” Of course she didn’t, because dictators always need enemies. But in the past, Game of Thrones didn’t need to explain to viewers exactly what was happening. It presented well-shaded characters and morally unclear choices, then asked the audience to come to its own conclusions.

Tyrion continues: “When she murdered the slavers of Astapor, I’m sure no one but the slavers complained. After all, they were evil men. When she crucified hundreds of Meereenese nobles, who could argue? They were evil men. The Dothraki khals she burned alive? They would have done worse to her.” It’s impressive, really, that a character in a premodern fantasy reality is so well versed in postwar German confessional poetry: Tyrion’s words echo the Lutheran minister Martin Niemöller’s “First they came …” almost exactly. “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out— / Because I was not a socialist,” Niemöller said. First she came for the slavers of Astapor.

Niemöller’s words are famous for good reason; they tell simply and concisely how evil results from inaction. But Game of Thrones viewers were watching a 73-episode television series that had the luxury of showing exactly how horrifying bloodshed can result from the intention to make society better. Thrones once had faith that its depiction of a kingdom torn apart by petty squabbles and the indifference of wealthy autocrats resonated with viewers. Until the last season, the show didn’t feel the need to tell viewers how it resonated.

Of course, since its inception, Game of Thrones has referenced real-life history. The central conflict is inspired by the Wars of the Roses, the notorious Red Wedding was based on a 15th-century event called the “Black Dinner”—the list goes on. But such references have usually been to things outside of living memory. They’ve been to medieval or ancient events, and usually they were mined more for plot points or invented history, not to set up obvious ethical comparisons.

The show’s final act didn’t trust viewers the way the early seasons did. The audience didn’t need a fable about power to be wrapped in a bow and delivered in the form of 20th-century historical analogies. (Or maybe we did—maybe some of us have “become inured to the shoddy writing and plotting.”) In its first half, and perhaps even for a season or two after leaving Martin’s books behind, the show trusted its audience enough to avoid allegory and the simplistic morality that comes with it. It trusted that the audience knew right from wrong, and knew that both could coexist within a character. It asked viewers to find their own messages in a series about a faux-medieval world of dragons and ice zombies—and take them or leave them as they saw fit. It would have been better if the show had ended that way.