There are few shows in television history that can match the magnitude of HBO’s Game of Thrones. Based on George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, this fantastical story broke boundaries with its world-building, character development, shocking plot twists and magical scenes.
During its runtime, GOT received many accolades, including 47 Emmys, seven Screen Actor Guild awards, eight American Film Institute awards and five Art Director Guild awards, among many others. Despite the success of the show, many fans were upset with its season finale, which they said was rushed and lacked crucial plot development. Even so, there are many aspects of the show as a whole which have cemented the story in pop culture for generations to come.
Here are some of the most impactful lessons Game of Thrones taught us:
1. You have to know a culture to help it
When we hear the name “Daenerys Targaryen,” we think, “power,” “conqueror” and, of course, “dragons.” But she wasn’t always known as such. In the beginning of her story, Daenerys is a young woman, sold off by her brother to a warlord in hopes of receiving money and aid to retake the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. It was there, among horses and tents, that Daenerys had to learn to be a good ruler and stand up for herself. Her first step in doing that was adopting the Dothraki culture.
Like them, she rides horses, braids her hair, wears Dothraki clothes and learns the Dothraki language. This leads to her acceptance as their true khaleesi, or “queen.” But her brother, Viserys, refuses to adopt the culture, even when Daenerys has clothes made for him. By looking down upon the Dothraki culture, Viserys cements their belief that he is an outsider, unworthy of leadership.
This is also why Daenerys is able to build a reputation as a capable leader and liberator: everywhere she goes, she adopts the culture, learns from it and helps the oppressed people of that group to rise up to be and do greater things than they ever imagined they could. She does not tell people what to do, but provides them the means to do it themselves.
This is proven later on in season eight when Daenerys cannot garner the respect and love from the people of Westeros. She dresses like them, talks like them and acts like them, but she cannot understand their mindset. She does not respect their culture the way she does for other cultures she comes into contact with, and this leads to her ultimate demise.
The takeaway is that in order to help people, one must understand people. To try to alter a culture without being a part of that culture is bad, as Viserys demonstrates with the Dothraki, and as Daenerys demonstrates with the northern lords and ladies of Westeros. To try to change a group’s ways can be oppressive and is doomed to fail; but, if approached in the right light with good intentions, adopting a culture can be a good example of anthropology and can ultimately benefit all.
2. Barriers can hurt people
Among the most interesting group of characters on GOT are the Free Folk, otherwise known as Wildlings. The Free Folk live north of The Wall, which is a giant ice wall that prevents them from moving into Westerosi lands. The Wall is guarded by men of the Night’s Watch, similar to how border patrol officers guard the borders of a nation. The Free Folk are looked down upon by Westerosi nobles, despite sharing the same ancestry as many people from the north, including lords and ladies.
In one of the most memorable scenes of the show, Ygritte, a Wildling, is captured by Jon Snow, a man of the Nights Watch and a bastard of one of the most famous houses in the Seven Kingdoms, Winterfell. Ygritte argues with Jon, stating that her people are “free” while his are oppressed by the systems they enforce. What follows is a heated argument over The Wall and issues of immigration.
“Wildlings invade our lands all the time,” Jon says. “Some of them tried to kill my little brother, a crippled boy!”
Ygritte says the lands south of the wall have always belonged to the Free Folk. “We’ve been here the whole time! You lot came around and just put up a big wall and said it was yours.” When Jon states that he has the same ancestry she does, and that the lands belong to him just as much as to her, she continues, “Then why are you fighting us?”
This exchange reminds the viewers of real life events that lead to oppression. Like the Westerosi, we believe we need borders like The Wall to keep us safe, but the people on the other side of that wall are oppressed with less innovative development, less resources, and an encroaching danger they are trying to flee from, as demonstrated in the White Walkers.
It is only later, when Jon lets the Free Folk through the border, that the two groups are able to work together to defeat their common enemy and prosper together. The takeaway seems to be that while some border control may be necessary, the prejudices that keep everyone out can lead to massive destruction and oppression for people not lucky enough to be born at the right place at the right time.
3. Politics require humanity
One of the most famous scenes of GOT came in season one, when Cersei Lannister explained her view of politics. She said, “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground.” This statement, built on absolutes, framed the entire course of the show’s eight seasons. It was what lead to massacres and wars. But Cersei is not always right, and the show’s finale seems to propose an opposite idea.
After Cersei and Daenerys die, the next logical step would be for Jon Snow to become king of Westeros, but this does not happen. Instead, Bran Stark — who wanted nothing to do with leadership — becomes king, and it is implied that the new small council will be more just than any of the previous ones. The council itself is different. It is made of people who spent the course of the show helping others at the risk of great personal costs.
Many members of the council disobeyed the previous rulers because they did not agree with them. Samwell Tarly, for instance, becomes grand maester, despite never being approved for the role on screen. He stole from the citadel and from his father, directly disobeyed the maesters of the citadel to heal a man with a disease and broke his vows to The Night’s Watch for love. Samwell acted selflessly throughout the story and helped many people.
His presence on the council, similar to the other members, is a testament that politics that exist as ultimatums are not effective and can lead to rebellion. Furthermore, we see through the presence of characters like him that Cersei’s initial statement about politics is not right. Supporting a dog-eat-dog society benefits no one but those on top, and it is only through showing humanity and acting kindly that people are able to live under just leadership.
4. Absolute power corrupts absolutely
The small council is meant to help and advise the ruler of Westeros. They provide a small assurance of checks and balances to the monarchy, though the monarchy doesn’t always listen. It is telling, then, that Cersei’s descent into evil occurs shortly after disassembling the small council.
After the death of her first son, Joffrey, Cersei begins to take control of the Seven Kingdoms, and dismantles the small council by giving everyone different jobs or firing them from their current jobs. She later says that the small council “isn’t small enough,” proving that she does not want to have a system of checks and balances and does not like receiving advice from others.
Daenerys acts as a foil to Cersei throughout the course of the show. Unlike Cersei, Daenerys values the advice of others and actively seeks to have a secure, small council around her at all times to guide her through her conquests. The final season, however, changed this dynamic, allowing Cersei to rely on others for the first time in the course of the show, and takes away all of Daenerys’ closest advisers.
It is in this way that we see Daenerys’ power go unchecked. Like Cersei, Daenerys quickly begins to spiral towards a dark path which eventually leads to the destruction of the capital and the death of thousands of innocent people.
The takeaway message the show leaves us with is that absolute power corrupts absolutely. If a better system of checks and balances had been in place from the start, neither queen would have committed such atrocities as they did. Although the show ends with a monarch, the system is changed. Instead of inheriting the role, monarchs will be voted in — the show’s first step towards democracy.