The Korea Herald


[Kim Seong-kon] From liberator to tyrant in ‘Game of Thrones’

By Kim Seong-kon

Published : Nov. 19, 2019 - 16:55

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Movies and television dramas are excellent social documents in that they faithfully reflect societal change and the alteration of consciousness throughout history. Sometimes they illuminate us with profound insights into and powerful criticisms of contemporary society. Since films and TV shows enjoy enormous popularity, their impact is huge, more widespread and more powerful than traditional literature. The celebrated HBO series “Game of Thrones” is a good example.

In the eighth and final season, the allied armies of Queen Daenerys Targaryen and her lover Jon Snow decide to attack King’s Landing, ruled by the evil Queen Cersei Lannister, in order to liberate its people and claim the Iron Throne within. When Cersei’s ally, the Iron Fleet led by Euron, kills one of Daenerys’ two remaining beloved dragons with ship-mounted ballista, Daenerys is grief-stricken and enraged. 

To make matters worse, Cersei captures and executes Missandei, Daenerys’ closest aide and translator, in front of her lover, Grey Worm, commander of the Unsullied that guards Daenerys religiously. Both Daenerys and Grey Worm are infuriated and vow revenge.

Tyrion Lannister pleaded to Daenerys, “The people who live there, they’re not your enemies. They are innocent. Thousands of children will die if the city burns.” Yet, she would not listen. Riding her dragon, Daenerys completely annihilates King’s Landing in retaliation, massacring not only enemy soldiers but also numerous innocent civilians, including women and children. Grey Worm, too, brutally executes surrendering enemy officers simply because they have served their queen, Cersei. Although Daenerys calls herself a liberator, she quickly turns into another tyrant and oppressor who makes the people equally miserable.

Jon and Tyrion -- Daenerys’ adviser although he is Cersei’s younger brother -- are both appalled at the atrocity and cruelty of Daenerys’ cold-blooded revenge. Tyrion warns Jon of the grave situation they are now facing, “She will go on liberating until the people of the world are free.” Then he cynically adds, “And she rules them all.” Indeed, surrounded and protected by her indomitable guards, the Unsullied, Daenerys can easily become a ruthless tyrant herself, even though she believes she is the liberator.

Tyrion aptly points out that Daenerys’ self-righteousness and her sense of moral superiority will eventually ruin the kingdom. He says, “When she murdered the slavers of Astapor, I am 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.” Tyrion continues, “And she grows more powerful and more sure that she is good and right. She believes that her destiny is to build a better world for everyone.” Then he concludes his admonition, “If you believe that, if you truly believed, wouldn’t you kill whoever stood between you and paradise? Who is the greatest threat to the people now?”

Jon, too, knows that Daenerys has now become a serious threat to the people because she is obsessed with vengeance, hatred and grudges, and because she has an unswerving conviction that she is morally superior to others. Indeed, Daenerys firmly believes she is the only person who can judge and choose between good and evil. Thus, she orders the Unsullied to execute all those who have served Cersei, convinced they are evil and that only she, the new queen, represents social justice. Thus, she is not reluctant to eliminate anyone who is in her way if it means she can build a better world.

Agonized, Jon pleads with Daenerys to be flexible, generous and forgiving, saying, “You can forgive all of them; make them see they made a mistake, make them understand.” Yet Daenerys is obstinate and callous. She replies, “We can’t hide by small mercies.” Then she invites Jon to join her in building a better world that the people have not seen yet. She tells Jon, “It is not easy to see something that’s never been before. A good world.”

Jon becomes skeptical about Daenerys’ conviction and asks her, “How do you know it’ll be good?” Daenerys answers, “Because I know what is good.” To Jon who asks, “What about everyone else? All the other people who think they know what’s good?” Daenerys replies arrogantly and heartlessly, “They don’t get to choose.” That is, only she can choose and decide what is good. Finally, she compels Jon to join her, “Be with me. Build a new world with me.”

Instead of joining her self-righteous ambition, Jon stabs her to death in order to save the kingdom and the people from another reign of tyranny. Killing the woman he loves so much, Jon silently cries, heartbroken. However, he decides to do the right thing and thus saves the otherwise grim future of King’s Landing.

The grand finale of “Game of Thrones” illuminates us that even a liberator can turn into a tyrant if he or she is obsessed with unswerving self-righteousness, moral superiority and personal vendetta.

By Kim Seong-kon

Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University. -- Ed.