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Game of Thrones’ final showdown comes down to what it means to be a good ruler

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To win the Iron Throne, is it better to be loved... or feared?

HBO

What makes a good ruler? The question has haunted Game of Thrones for years, and with just one episode left, it seems the writers are determined to reach an answer. Or, as Niccolò Machiavelli phrases the problem, Game of Thrones wants to know whether it’s better for a ruler to “be loved more than feared, or feared more than loved?”

Spoilers ahead for Game of Thrones in general, but especially season 8, episode 5, “The Bells.”

The two sides here are easy to see — Game of Thrones hasn’t been subtle in arranging the chessboard for the final conflict. On the one hand, there’s Jon Snow, who we’ve been told time and again is beloved by the people who serve him, even though he’s basically never made a smart decision. And on the other, there’s Daenerys Targaryen, who has been told for years that she is the rightful heir, and has fought and conquered her way to where she is now.

In retrospect, the conflict between rulership types has been set up since the beginning, but it was particularly highlighted during Jon and Daenerys’ first meeting back in season 7, episode 3.

Image: HBO

Compare their introductions: Daenerys is introduced as “Daenerys Stormborn of House Targaryen, Rightful Heir to the Iron Throne, rightful Queen of the Andals and the First Men, Protector of the Seven Kingdoms, the Mother of Dragons, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, The Unburnt, the Breaker of Chains.” It’s a litany of titles and achievements that emphasizes her right to rule: her lineage, her conquests, her armies, and her dragons. All these things give her power, and the implication is that power makes her a good queen.

Davos Seaworth, never much of a hype man, introduces Jon Snow with the far more lackluster title “King in the North.” Davos does elaborate: Jon earned his title by “making allies of wildings and Northmen… All those hard sons of bitches choose him as their leader because they believed in him.” He emphasizes that Jon has fought for his people, risked his life for his people, even died for them.

That perspective comes up again after the Battle of Winterfell, when Tormund drunkenly boasts of Jon’s leadership prowess: “That’s why we all agreed to follow him. That’s the kind of man he is… Strong enough to befriend an enemy and get murdered for it!” Tormund continues: “He climbed on a fucking dragon and fought. What kind of person climbs on a fucking dragon? A madman! Or a king!” That scene ends with the camera on Daenerys, who has done the same and did it first, and isn’t being recognized for it at all. The look on her face is dangerous.

Daenerys’ fall from grace is a recent thing. For the past seven seasons, she’s tried to do things the “right” way, offering her enemies peace and mercy, freeing slaves, stopping her war against Cersei to save the realm. She’s done everything to try to get her people to love her, and it hasn’t worked. She’s been upfront about this: back in season 7, Olenna Tyrell encourages Daenerys to just burn down King’s Landing: “They won’t obey you unless they fear you.” Daenerys refuses, though, explaining, “I am not here to be queen of the ashes.”

But when the attack on King’s Landing comes, Daenerys is completely alone. Her Hand has failed her, her Master of Whisperers openly rebelled against her, her lover Jon has abandoned her, her adviser Missandei was murdered in front of her eyes, and Jorah — who always believed in and supported Dany, no matter what — died at Winterfell, defending his queen. As Maester Aemon told us back in season 5: “A Targaryen, alone in the world... is a terrible thing.”

Her attempts to get the people to accept her as queen through love has failed, and all she has left is a single dragon. If no one will love and respect her for her mercy, she’ll will earn her throne the other way. Aegon the Conqueror didn’t forge the Seven Kingdoms with kindness, and Daenerys seems to have decided to walk his path.

Photo: HBO

Of course, the two sides are each their own self-fulfilling prophecy. Jon is beloved by the people, but he doesn’t want power, which only makes him more beloved. The more people clamor for him to take the throne, the less he wants it. Daenerys is hated and feared, but she desperately wants power, which she uses to only make the people hate her more.

Making the lines so clear-cut cheapens the moment. Daenerys’ heel-turn is so great that she suddenly slaughters thousands of innocent civilians out of spite, an act so monstrous that despite fully understanding why she might do it, it’s tough to imagine any possible redemptive arc for her, especially with one episode to go.

The show wants a referendum on the definition of true and just power, but writers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have reduced it to a cartoonish caricature of the two sides of the debate. Daenerys has to be so evil that it’s acceptable for power-averse Jon to reject her and fight her for the throne. He can’t look like he’s lusting after power. His wish to avoid power is essentially all he has going for him. And there’s basically nothing left for Daenerys to do but to keep burning anyone who gets in her way, which will only make her more and more hated in the process.

Image: HBO

The irony here is that Machiavelli’s answer tries to split the difference: “one ought to be both feared and loved.” Series author George R.R. Martin seems to be hinting at that solution in his original title for the books that inspired Game of Thrones: it’s A Song of Ice and Fire, not just one or the other. Varys and Tyrion even debate trying to pair up Jon and Daenerys earlier in this season, recognizing that the two would be stronger together than they would be apart.

Unfortunately, that’s not where The Prince leaves things. “As it is difficult for the two to go together, it is much safer to be feared than loved,” Machiavelli writes. That seems to be the path Daenerys has taken. We’ll find out in the finale whether Machiavelli was right, at least in the world of Westeros.