HBO’s tv series Game of Thrones, followed by millions of people during its eight seasons, has ended. Its fantasy story was full of the political themes of war, rivalry between the nobility’s houses, and betrayal. It’s last season was criticized strongly by many fans for having been rushed. And surprisingly, the last episode presented a story which included dialogue, compromise, and peacemaking.
The message running through the seven previous seasons often seemed to be that good people either get killed or betrayed, or have to sacrifice someone or some of their cherished principles to survive. Daenarys Targaryen, a character liberating slaves and promising to ‘break the wheel’ of the violent struggle between the houses for the Iron Throne, in the last season became so focused on defeating tyrants in order to build a ‘good world’ under her own rule that in the end she was willing to use extreme means to that end – including executing prisoners of war and destroying an entire city full of innocent men, women and children. Her lover and ally Jon Snow confronts her notion of ‘a good world’ under her rule because she says she alone knows what is good, with his notion of ‘a world of mercy’, an end which is only achieved if the means to that end are also merciful: “The world we need is a world of mercy, it has to be!” Jon ends up killing Daenarys to prevent the death of more innocents at her hands, and the dragon Drogon melts to the ground the Iron Throne, for which the houses had waged war continuously. In the end, the remaining noble lords and ladies of Westeros gather to find a solution to the wars, while Jon Snow and Tyrion Lannister are prisoners of the elite army of the Unsullied, who demand justice and threaten to continue the armed conflict.
The parties agree to abandon the hereditary monarchy and choose a ruler who will guarantee peace through a compromise, which includes Jon Snow being released by the Unsullied but punished by exile. The ruler chosen is Bran Stark, a man who has no interest in power and cannot father children and thus will not cause new conflicts over heirs to the throne and their claims. Interestingly, Bran is also ‘the three-eyed raven’, a visionary seer – a sort of a supernatural human figure. Tyrion Lannister presides over a reconstituted ‘small council’ which begins to repair and build up the country so that the common people can return to daily life, now that the times of war have ended. It proves to be a continuous give and take of disagreement and cooperation.
This solution to the story has been quickly criticized by some commentators: the strength of Game of Thrones was considered to be its political realism, with self-interest,opportunism, ideology, family allegiance, hereditary claims to the throne, betrayal and revenge all discouraging compromise, unmasking good intentions, and continually leading to war. The critics did not only call the solution to the story rushed and unrealistic, but also asked how long such a situation of peace and compromise could last untill one of the parties would grow ambitious or would develop conflicting interests that would again lead to war.
Jess Joho in her article ‘Why Game of Thrones will end in peace, not war’ did get it right in some sense. The series did end with peace through compromise. However, her morally relativistic interpretation (based on statements of George R. R. Martin, author of the books on which the series are based), mistakenly made her predict a compromise and peace between the humans of Westeros on one side and the evil Night King, commander of the armies of the dead, on the other. No, evil was real in the world of HBO’s Game of Thrones, not simply relativistically based on perspective, and it did get defeated by good – that is, by the living (even though I agree with critics that this part of the story has been disappointing because the solution was rushed in a simplistic way after a seven-series-long buildup). The compromise leading to peace was between the different human factions. But what about the critics of this last episode: was this compromise realistic, and will these reconciled factions not return to conflict and war within a short time, for a variety of possible reasons?
Game of Thrones’ story of war and betrayal has been seen as political realism. But in the reality of our world, there is not only the logic of conflict, interests, and power, but also the ‘realism of peace’ and the successes of diplomacy and peacemaking, which can achieve much better results than costly military interventions. Yes, the last episode of GoT was quite rushed and the quick agreement somewhat unrealistic, but in the real world, encounter, dialogue, interest in the common good, seeking that which unites us and not that which divides, and taking the time to work out solutions that transcend party or personal interests, do really lead to peace agreements and the end of wars. Examples of this are the peace negotiations of Mozambique, and more recently, of the Central African Republic (peace negotiations which have been mediated by the Community of Sant’Egidio, right here around the corner in my neighbourhood of Trastevere in Rome). Yes, soldiers, mercenaries, guerillas or rebels can be reintegrated in society. Yes, formerly violent men can learn the art of peaceful deliberation and cooperation. A peace agreement like that between the noble lords and ladies of GoT is in itself realistic; the only unrealistic aspect of it was that they forged the agreement in only one short meeting based only on a speech of Tyrion. In reality, it takes more time, and never depends on a single speech but on extensive deliberation – but it does work.
Another question of GoT critics is: how long does this last? The army of the Unsullied agree to end the war when Jon Snow is sent into exile, and the small council begins the peaceful bickering of daily politics to build up the country – but how long will it be until one of them finds a reason again or feels constrained to return to conflict, causing the lands of Westeros to descend into war once more? Well, in reality, stable and prosperous long-term political order is possible. The key is, however, that every generation has to continue to make the choice for peace. New violent conflicts can be avoided. The stable peace of Mozambique, but also the European Union, are striking examples. It cannot be guaranteed, though, by a single outstanding ruler (whether a Game of Thrones’ Bran Stark, or a South Africa’s Nelson Mandela), nor be secured only through reliable institutions (state of law, constitutional democracy, social welfare, freedom and rights). In the end, it depends upon the skills of dialogue and cooperation of all the people in a society. Peace is fragile – but also very realistic. I think that can be taken from the still quite open ending of Game of Thrones. To paraphrase and adapt a well-known line from the series: our last watch has not ended.