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Game of Thrones as Theory

It’s Not as Realist as It Seems -- And That’s Good

Commentary by foreign policy analysts on the first season of HBO's Game of Thrones stressed its supposed underlying theme of political realism. Thus one writer claimed that the TV show and the George R.R. Martin novels on which it is based "clearly demonstrate the power of might over right," and another agreed: "In this kind of harsh relative gains world, realpolitik should be the expected pattern of behavior." But a closer look of Game of Thrones suggests a different take.

To be sure, life in Westeros is poor, nasty, brutish and short, and Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series and David Benioff and D.B. Weiss' television program are laced with Hobbesian metaphors, Machiavellian intrigues, and Carr-like calculations of power. But the deeper message is that realism alone is unsatisfying and unsuccessful -- that leaders disregard ethical norms, the needs of their small-folk, and the natural world at their own peril. Jockeying for power by self-interested actors produces not a stable balance but suboptimal chaos; gamesmanship and the pursuit of short-term objectives distracts players from the truly pressing issues of human survival and stability.

On the surface, ethical norms and honor receive short shrift in the series. Norms -- collective beliefs about the proper behavior of actors -- are sometimes invoked, but usually only to foreshadow or bemoan their violation. [Spoiler Alert] Thus the first book, and season, begins with Ned Stark explaining to his son the proper rules governing executions -- and ends with Stark being executed improperly for his naiveté. But much of the characters' behavior is in fact rule-bound: Catelyn could not have captured Tyrion without her father's banner-men following norms of fealty, and Tyrion could not have escaped her grasp had norms of the "kings' justice" not trumped Lysa's desire for an execution (and Catelyn's desire to retain a hostage). Even powerful characters sometimes follow rules to their own short-term detriment and frustration.

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