By what right does someone rule? What gives someone the power to decide life and death over others? Several ideas were put forth in this latest episode of “Game of Thrones” over what gives a particular person authority to do what they seek to do. Whether that is to rule, to lead, to defend, to save or to kill, everyone has a particular reason that they believe gives them the right, if not the ability, to act. We all may think we have the answer to someone’s problem, but that does not mean we have such authority. Not that this has ever stopped some of the characters in Westeros.
For Daenerys Stormborn of House Targaryen, her authority is drawn from her family heritage as the conquerors of the Seven Kingdoms. Her ancestor, Aegon, flew on a dragon and took six of the Seven Kingdoms in his war and then forged his throne out of the swords of his conquered foes. She’s the heir to him and to the Targaryen dynasty that ruled the Seven Kingdoms through periods of conflict as well as periods of peace. More importantly, the army that follows her does so out of loyalty, not fear. She freed the Unsullied and they fight for her. She put her trust in Missandei and Tyrion and they counsel her truly. She gave birth to dragons and they obey her. Denying her authority is denying the power she wields and the heritage she carries.
However, for Jon Snow, the King in the North, it is not enough. He did not want to be in charge but he has constantly been elected to do so. He was chosen by the Sworn Brothers of the Night’s Watch to be Lord Commander. Then, he was chosen by the lords of the North to be their King. His authority is drawn from being elected by others to his position and not inheritance. As a bastard, he was meant to inherit nothing. But his qualities and his abilities have outshone his status and made him ruler. It’s why the wildlings have come to trust him. It’s why the Northern lords chose him despite aligning himself with widlings, their ancient enemy. His authority is drawn from the trust bestowed upon him by the entire North.
So when these two people come face to face at long last, it shouldn’t be a surprise that neither sees in the other someone to follow. Dany is looking at a potential traitor. Jon is looking at a potential jailer. Having their weapons and boat taken, Jon, Davos and his entourage are now trapped on Dragonstone at the Dragon Queen’s pleasure. Jon is there to try and convince her to side with him in the fight against the White Walkers — a task admittedly difficult given their legendary status. Meanwhile Dany is hearing talk of distant and fantastical threats while her very real and very near enemy — Cersei Lannister — is turning her setbacks into triumphs. It takes the work of Tyrion Lannister, the only one who knows them well enough to see they can help one another, to bridge the gap and help convince Dany to give Jon permission to mine the dragonglass he desperately covets. Maybe out of that can come the start of an alliance.
While Jon ponders his situation, back in Winterfell, Sansa is using her knowledge of the North as a source of authority over the people around her. Yes, she is a Stark, but she’s thinking like a leader. She counsels Lord Royce of the Vale that their armor needs leather to ensure the soldiers won’t freeze. She decrees that all the grain for winter will be kept in the Winterfell storehouses — since, when the White Walkers come, it is there that everyone will run for shelter. She is impressing even Littlefinger with her capacity for decision-making and command. As well she should since she knows what Winterfell is and how the Northerners think. Which is why she thinks Bran will be taking over when he shows up at the gates of Winterfell.
The Stark siblings, long thought lost to one another, bond over their journeys and travails. But Bran explains that he cannot be Lord of Winterfell or anything like his parents or he may have wanted him to be before his journey north of The Wall. His mission is greater now and he gives Sansa a small demonstration of his power by detailing her demeanor the night of her wedding to Ramsay Bolton. For Bran, his authority is drawn from his abilities to see things and know things like no one else in the Seven Kingdoms. But he’s not interested in using it to lead or rule. He, like Jon, knows what is really coming.
Someone else who knows that truth is Samwell Tarly, currently in The Citadel at Oldtown. Sam has never been one to wield authority. If anything, he’s been the antithesis of it, bullied and scared by everyone around him. However, when duty has called, Sam has managed to rise to the occasion time and again. And when Ser Jorah Mormont was dying of greyscale and he knew of a possible cure, Sam’s sense of duty gave him all the authority he needed to try the procedure despite the direct commands of Archmaester Ebrose that he not do so. Sam did it and cured Jorah of his greyscale following the direct instructions he had found. Archmaester Ebrose had no recourse but to excuse the knight, commend Sam for his work and then set him on another thankless task. His reward for his triumph is not being expelled by the Order for disobeying orders.
Disobeying the men of power is how Ellaria Sand and Olenna Tyrell rose to power. For the former paramour of Prince Oberyn Martell, she took her need for revenge and that of his daughters, the Sand Snakes, as a clarion call to rebel against the inaction of Prince Doran Martell of Dorne. Ellaria staged a coup where she killed him, the Sand Snakes killed their cousin and she took vengeance for Oberyn’s death by poisoning Princess Myrcella Baratheon, the nearest Lannister to her. For her part, Lady Olenna had taken the death of her son and grandchildren to heart and used her need for revenge to take House Tyrell and the Reach into war against the Iron Throne. United in purpose, they had thrown their lot against Cersei Lannister.
But Cersei knows all too well that authority is drawn from power. It’s a lesson she learned from her father — the most ruthless and cunning man in Westeros — and from her husband — wh
o took the Iron Throne from the Targaryens. Cersei has learned that it doesn’t matter what the laws say or duty demands. Family, knowledge, justice, trust. These are mere words to her. Power is power, she once said. As Queen of the Seven Kingdoms, she has the authority to do as she pleases and no one can say a thing. So if she wants to fuck her brother, Ser Jaime, she’ll do so and no one will bat an eye. If she wants to force Ellaria Sand to watch her last living daughter to die from the same poison Myrcella died from, she’ll chain both and order that the torches never go out so Ellaria can see it happen.
Cersei even entertains the Iron Bank’s envoy, promising that the Iron Throne’s many debts to them will be paid in full within two weeks. How can she be so confident when so many are rebelling against her? That’s because despite Dany’s Unsullied taking Casterly Rock, their ancient seat of power, away from them, Jaime and Cersei had set a two-pronged trapped for the Dragon Queen and her forces. On one hand, they used Euron Greyjoy’s Iron Fleet to burn the ships that had ferried the Unsullied to the Rock, trapping them on the wrong end of Westeros. On the other, Jaime took the bulk of the Lannister army and conquered Highgarden, House Tyrell’s stronghold. In so doing, he removes another ally of Dany’s away.
It falls to Jaime then to see to the death of Lady Olenna. And while his sister sought all manners of angry retribution, Jaime convinced her to simply poison her and let her die. Olenna takes this momentary lapse of mercy from the Kingslayer to reveal herself as the architect of Joffrey’s death at his wedding. Certain she’ll escape their wrath, she revels in the moment, detailing the gruesome manner in which Joffrey perished. Then she dies and, with her, House Tyrell dies. All her scheming and plotting, all her and Margaery’s maneuvers for power, die at that moment having done nothing but ensured that a monster sits the Iron Throne. Her biggest move was to kill one possible monster for the love she bore her granddaughter. Thanks to that, one far worse ascended into power and took all she held dear from her.
The idea that one can gain the authority to rule, to command, to lead is a fanciful one. It is one that is often carried only by those who live above a certain sphere in their world. Most of the characters in the world of ice and fire carry no fancy notions of being in charge of an army or of commanding the loyalty of the crowds or of sitting on a throne to rule a nation. The problem becomes when one thinks that this is preordained or incapable of changing. In the six seasons of Game of Thrones, we have seen four people sit the Iron Throne of Westeros, five different Hands of the King/Queen and countless other rulers of various lands and masters of mighty cities deposed. We have also witnessed the end of five of the major houses in Westeros: Baratheon, Bolton, Martell, Frey and Tyrell. Those that are left are weak or finding their own feet after a long and arduous journey. Authority is meaningless without the ability to use it for something. Each of the players in the game of thrones has thought that they were moving towards triumph but most of them have been cast aside into nothingness.
Ser Davos Seaworth entreats Daenerys that, without uniting their forces, it won’t matter whose skeleton finally manages to win the game and sits the Iron Throne. For the final players that remain, that may end up being the final lesson: when to concede that you do not have the power, the authority, to destroy it all for the sake of beating your enemy. Interestingly, only one man has come face to face with that reality; only one man has had to see a ruler so set in denying his foes a victory that he decided to destroy it all and kill thousands: Ser Jaime Lannister, the Kingslayer. In the moment the Mad King decided to burn all of King’s Landing with wildfire, Jaime decided that Aerys no longer had the authority to rule.
What will he do if he finds himself in a similar spot again?