We’re roughly at the midpoint of this saga, now. While George R.R. Martin is still talking like he’ll write seven books, this is the man who once promised his editors a trilogy of Ice and Fire. With last-book splits in Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games, I think we can safely expect Game of Thrones to last eight years.
When we last left for the real world, the social order of Westeros had frayed like never before. Tywin Lannister, Hand to three of the past four kings, lies dead, murdered by his son Tyrion, the latter fled into exile. Cersei, Queen Regent and now the sole backer of her son, King Tommen, descends into paranoia as she recoils from the loss of her father and son. Two powerful pretenders remain, Stannis Baratheon and Daenerys Targaryen, and both gather foreign forces to claim a land which does not crave their rule; Stannis mortgages the realm to the Iron Bank of Braavos, and Dany leads monsters and mercenaries across the sea.
Violence, chaos, and power dynamics herald the start of the fifth season.
Ahead of the premiere, the past week saw a pair of articles dueling over a Marxist interpretation of the series—from the center-left Guardian and the properly left-wing Jacobin magazine. Both articles attempt to square the history of Westeros with Marxist historiography—the inevitable decline of feudalism and the rise of capitalism—in order to ask why feudalism is so appealing to us.
Both look to Tolkien for answers: Middle-earth was an explicit reaction to 20th century modernization, and given the horrors wrought by the world wars, the appeal of Shire life is obvious. Yes, there’s that pesky Sauron to deal with, but he’s an intruder, a unique threat which must be defeated so that life can get back to normal.
The Guardian puts Westeros in close comparison to Middle-earth: in contrast to the present, we crave “the values of heroism and mercy associated with the face-to-face combat of yesteryear.” More grandly, “Trapped in a system based on economic rationality, we all want the power to be something bigger than our credit card limit, or our job function… are invited to fantasise that we are one of the characters with agency—Daenerys Targaryen, a beautiful woman with tame dragons, or the unkillable stubbly hunk that is Jon Snow.”
But Westeros is so deeply unpleasant, Jacobin makes the better case: if what we want is kings, why dream of a world where “kings aren’t just cruel and stupid but powerless, trying to bat away rapacious financiers and ghoulish monsters with both flapping, ineffectual hands.” The problem in the Seven Kingdoms isn’t a sorcerous intruder, its feudalism as usual: the last three kings are all murdered by conventional means, and each of them was cruel in his own right. The Lannisters, now in power, hold on to the Iron came with the sworn fealty of knights, strategic marriages, and private wealth. With them, Westeros is ruled as it always was, and it’s awful. Meanwhile, Daenerys brings dragons and a professional army, and Stannis arrives with the Red God and a foreclosure warrant from the Iron Bank. For these pretenders, potential heroes both, their power is simultaneously magical and modern, while the cruel villains of House Lannister represent traditional feudalism. So then, as the season begins with things deeply in flux, does Game of Thrones ask us to hope for progress or a return?
This season starts in King’s Landing, as Cersei attends her father’s funeral. Her mind is on a childhood visit to a witch, who told her her future. The prophecy is grim, and it shows how narrow Cersei’s universe will be. Husbands, children, romantic rivals: these are the things of feudalism and monarchy at its most pure. In the present, she remains locked in this world. If she has power, it is with knights sworn to the crown, or with family gold. Her threats, as she perceives them, are equally feudal: Margaery threatens her influence because she has all the same cards in her hand, and Lancel portents the rising strength of religious authorities. Both have happened hundreds of times before, and Cersei, despite being deeply trapped by feudal life, can see no alternatives to playing the game as it has always been played.
Daenerys really is something new, as we watch the rise of her rule in Meereen. Locally, her loyalists pull down a statue of a harpy, the symbol of old Meereen. While there is much to cheer in Dany’s rise over the old slaveholding elite, the imagery is ominously familiar.
Dany came to Meereen hoping to win hearts and minds, thus building for herself a power base to conquer Westeros. With overwhelming military force, Operation: Meereenese Freedom is successful in days. But now she must govern, and when the shock and awe fades, things turn sour for Daenerys W. Targaryen. We see a solider assassinated in a brothel, marking the beginning of an insurgency against her rule. Her Unsullied warriors take over police duties, instantly transforming liberation to occupation, while she stubbornly refuses any attempts at negotiation. Dany swears that she is a queen, not a politician, and she intends her rule to be absolute. This is the liberator who promised to rule with a mother’s love? Dany is told that she is not the mother of Meereen, she is the mother of dragons. While she holds off for the moment, her strategy for unruly brown people comes into focus: surge.
With obvious irony, the increasing tyranny is matched by an impassioned appeal from Varys to Tyrion, begging the half-man to back Daenerys for the Iron Throne. Varys laments the struggles of feudal rule, and promises a future utopia under the kind rule of a Targaryen queen with the absolute or near-absolute power. Tyrion replies:
Tyrion’s right. Varys envisions a queen with such overwhelming power, she would be beholden to no one. This is an utterly un-medieval concept. Feudal kings were infinitely bound in a net of social and legal obligations: they had no other way to secure their rule. Even though her ideals are noble, the Mother of Dragons is distanced from her subjects, and she is vulnerable to the exact extent she is unwilling to use overwhelming force—the same force that will alienate her further and foment dissent.
Cersei lives in a world of cruelty, as violence and treachery dominate over myths of the Age of Chivalry. But Dany, who promises to burn that world to the ground, offers a glimpse of a future which may be equally terrible.
Behind door number three is Stannis, now at the Wall with Jon Snow and Melisandre, priestess of the Red God. For a moment, he offers balance: his claim is legitimate, and he is nestled within the feudal hierarchy while able to offer advancement via religious reformation and the mercantile wealth of the Iron Bank. Even Karl Marx saw capitalism as a step up over feudalism.
But ultimately, he is only able to promise violence. Stannis attempts to impress the Wildlings into his service, demanding that the Free Folk kneel to him. No dice—Mance Rayder refuses to pledge the Wildlings to King Stannis, and burns at the stake for it. There is no freedom under this man; his rule may be evolved from traditional Westerosi feudalism, but offers no refuge from barbarity.
Other players are still on the board—Sansa and Littlefinger deal in intrigue in the Vale, Dorne plots revenge, and Arya’s wrath is sure to be unleashed soon. But so far, Game of Thrones is not yet ready to decisively pick a side in this war. We’ve been shown the depth of corruption that is feudalism, trashing any idealism about the days of knights and ladies. But the revolution is not yet coming, and in the premiere, we see nothing but the flaws in whatever offers to replace feudal life.