May 20, 2024

Five Years Later: A Lesson From Game of Thrones on Unchecked Power

By: Rafa Oliveira

While many fans of Game of Thrones were disappointed with the ending of the final season when it aired 5 years ago this spring, it contains a valuable illustration about the necessity of the separation of powers. 

When Daenerys Targaryen set sail for Westeros, with a fleet full of Dothraki hordes, armies of unsullied soldiers, and three fully grown dragons, she seemed destined to bring justice and peace to the realm from the Iron Throne by the final season of the show. 

However, by the end of the show, Daenerys’s legacy becomes drenched with blood, like that of her father, the Mad King. 

Daenerys is initially adamant about eliminating injustice towards the vulnerable, restoring order to the realm, and “breaking the wheel” of successive tyrannical rulers in Westeros. Yet, as she amasses a following and power during the show, viewers begin to realize that she is incapable of appropriately exercising that power and simultaneously reforming the system, like many rulers throughout history.  

In the final season, when King’s Landing is all but secured, her forces make their way to the Red Keep, where Cirsei Lannister still sits on the Iron Throne. The city bells ring in surrender as the camera pans to a distressed Daenerys, mounted upon one of her dragons, surveying the carnage of the battle she had just won. 

Rather than accept the city’s surrender, she circles the city, torching the streets, burning civilians and soldiers alike with dragon fire. After the dust settles, the capital is blanketed with ash and snow as her soldiers begin clearing the streets. 

The new queen exerts a despotic “rule of will” over submitting to any kind of rule of law or wartime ethic. 

Famously, Lord Acton discussed this same principle. After he declares that power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, he adds in his letter to Archbishop Creighton: 

“Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it. That is the point at which . . . the end learns to justify the means.” 

In the absence of safeguards on her power, Daenerys’ hunger for the throne cost millions of innocent lives.  

Fast forward to the series finale, and we come across Brandon Stark, who is the opposite of Daenerys. Bran resembles a monk more than a king, and this once-unassuming boy is elected Westeros’s new monarch in the wake of Daenerys’ murder. 

Sansa Stark, his sister, observes Bran is unable to have children, and Tyrion Lannister, Daenerys’s second in command, remarked: “Good! That is the wheel our queen wanted to break. [now] rulers will be chosen on this spot, by the lords and ladies of Westeros, to serve the realm.”  

By instituting this electoral council, Tyrion sparks a decentralization of Westerosi politics, and the council begins to make more deliberative choices. One person no longer makes centralized, arbitrary decisions. Those, the council knew, could easily lead to tyranny. 

In a similar vein, in his second treatise on government, John Locke defined tyranny as the power to which nobody has a right, as when a ruler pursues his own ends rather than those of the governed.  

The Framers of our Constitution understood these things as well. Hence, the Constitution vests different powers from the people in the states to three separate branches of government to prevent and check another branch’s misuse of power.  

Daenerys’s descent into despotism becomes blatant when she exercises arbitrary power and neglects the lives of her new subjects on the avenues of King’s Landing. 

Her good intentions from the beginning of her journey crumbled, and fans could hear an ironic echo of an earlier statement of hers: “I am not here to be queen of the ashes.” 

Amid the ashes, the newly established council proves its worth in the compromise of Jon Snow’s punishment for killing Daenerys. While Grey Worm (Daenerys’s general) demands Jon’s death, Sansa Stark (the newly named Queen in the North) fights for his asylum in Winterfell. Instead, Jon is sent to man the Wall that separates Westeros from the unruly North. 

Tyrion points out that it’s not something either side is necessarily happy about, which, he believes, makes it a decent compromise. Likewise, modern law making requires compromise.  

Our Constitution’s separation of powers ensures deliberation, debate, compromise, and often means that decision making takes time. While it may be more efficient for a centralized authority to make all the decisions, the rule of one can quickly become arbitrary and unjust. 

Daenerys’s despotic downfall serves as a vivid example of the dangers of unchecked power, and the need for institutional safeguards against an abuse of power, no matter how benevolent a leader may seem. Deliberation in lawmaking is a basic yet vital necessity in the fight to ensure liberty and justice for all.