‘Game Of Thrones’ Fourth Season Takes On The Burdens Of Leadership


While I was liveblogging the Golden Globes, HBO dropped the first trailer for the forthcoming season of Game Of Thrones, which looks typically impressive:

There’s an enormous amount going on in these clips–I’ve read the books multiple times and I was still racing to try to place everything. But one thing that strikes me about the overall theme of the trailer is that the season will be about the consequences of having the leadership you badly want come to you and finding out that your vision isn’t so easy to execute.

In Westeros, because it’s a hereditary monarchy, and because a war is slowly decimating the ranks of adult leadership, many of the people who are rising to power are very young, flush with optimism and faith in their own abilities and judgement that hasn’t been tempered by experience. The most extreme example of this tendency is Joffrey, the sadistic boy king who’s so removed from the reality of his kingdom that he’s unaware that the war he believes he’s won is actually still raging, and is confused by why people don’t love him for winning it. A less damaged personality might learn humility from the experience. Joffrey is likely to choose to rage against his perceived enemies instead of seeing himself more clearly for it.

Daenerys Targaryen has more formal power than Joffrey does, because she doesn’t have an experienced bureaucratic leadership corps she can rely on during her rule in exile, but her resources are less substantial and the demands on her more pressing. Dany’s kingdom largely consists of freed slaves, who she has to integrate with the citizens of conquered city states who hate their former property and Dany for restoring those formerly subjected people to their humanity. She’s economically isolated, and she has three hungry dragons to feed. Not to mention, she feels drawn to Westeros, meaning her commitment to her patchwork kingdom in Slaver’s Bay is always going to be at risk. Dany’s far more knowledgeable about the problems of her kingdom than Joffrey is, but she shares a problem with him, a sense of her own entitlement to the Iron Throne, which means her decisions will always be tinged with a certain amount of arrogance.

Jon Snow has vastly less power than Dany or Joffrey, and without his authority confirmed, he’s forced to mobilize the tattered Night’s Watch to meet the immediate threat of a wildling invasion, and the less-immediate-but-vastly-more-deadly problem of the horde of ice zombies who are chasing the Free Folk south. The only authority he can muster is that he earns from the men he’s fighting with, which is exceptionally hard work, and also means balancing competing incentives and prejudices, not all of them aligned to produce a superior outcome. It’s a reminder that democracy isn’t an easy alternative to absolutism when the night is dark and full of terrors, and the days are full of hungry dragons stalking increasingly starved landscapes.