Film & TV

No More ‘Small Mercies’ in Game of Thrones

Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) in the final episode of Game of Thrones. (HBO)
Game of Thrones ends where it began.

Game of Thrones ends where it began: The mad monarch has been assassinated; the king-slayer, who had vowed to defend that mad monarch with his life, takes on the sins of the polity as a holy, royal scapegoat, simultaneously prince and pariah; a pair of siblings, whose main claim to power is that they already have power, endeavor to rule a disunited and unstable continent; dragons and magic fade into the background; a potential Targaryen heir to the throne has been dispatched to the celibate warrior-monks of the Night’s Watch; a king with little interest in the day-to-day government of the kingdom entrusts his affairs to a council whose members cannot decide whether to prioritize feeding the hungry, building up the navy, or constructing new brothels; the common people molder in common graves.

The drama’s climax comes at the moment when the Mad Queen reveals that she is in fact the only person of any consequence in the great game who actually understands the nature of politics and political power, insisting that her will is no longer something that she will “hide behind small mercies.”

Her advisers and underlings offer nothing other than a wish list of small mercies: for the conquered enemies, for the hungry, for the unsuspecting people of the world next on the list to be “liberated.” The Mad Queen rejects this counsel and ends her time in power as a Leninist, convinced that the only relevant question in politics is “Who, whom?” She is convinced of the rightness and necessity of her messianic charge, and dismisses those who would question her wisdom — or offer their own visions of justice and good government — as though she were a force of nature: “They don’t get to choose.”

Lenin had no time for “small mercies” and was frank and remorseless in his embrace of terror in the service of achieving his paradise. The Mad Queen, too. These monsters may have seemed delusional to those around them — and to us — but in a sense they are the ones who are free from delusions about power. Delusions, as it turns out, are what make politics humane, to the extent that it is humane. The delusion that peace can be had through terror, that charity can be cultivated at the point of a bayonet, that brutality is the means to justice sometimes has the effect of causing those with power to limit themselves rather than to pursue their visions to their logical, merciless conclusions. The belief in “small mercies” often is the only thing keeping unified political power in check.

For the truly liberated politician — for the politician without real opposition, with a clear shot at his utopia — politics is only a matter of calculation, with “small mercies” accounting for not very much at all. In Game of Thrones, that calculation is massacring a city — men, women, children, prisoners, those attempting to surrender — in order to set an example for those who would resist liberation, sacrificing a few to save many; in The Watchmen, it is “killing millions to save billions”; in the real world of human history, it is the socialist rationalization that one must break a few eggs to make an omelet.

(“Where’s the omelet?” George Orwell asked.)

This leads to some odd political thinking, and not only for epaulet-wearing dictators. Barack Obama confessed that he would prefer to see punitive tax measures enacted even if they hurt the overall economy and did nothing to help the poor, because such measures were necessary to satisfy his moral sense, which apparently consisted of nothing more than an enemies’ list. Donald Trump et al. are at the moment wreaking havoc on the lives of farmers and hobbling other sectors of the economy because they believe that it is morally necessary for them to stand between willing buyers and willing sellers; activists have justified lying about everything from rape to global warming in the service of a “greater truth,” whatever that may hope to mean; progressives have made apologies for all manner of abuse and mayhem in Venezuela in the belief that all that blood and hunger — somebody else’s blood and hunger — is worth it if only to stick a thumb in the eye of capitalism.

There is nothing more dangerous than “vision” in a politician, nothing as hateful to the peace and prosperity of the realm as grand ambitions. The state, as George Washington knew, is at best a necessary evil, and it tends away from necessity and toward evil the less it attends small mercies and the more it attends grandeur and dreams of perfected men in a perfected world. Men are difficult to perfect, which is why utopians have murdered so many of them. They believe they are “on the right side of History.”

That is a story that, like Game of Thrones, always ends where it began.

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