It’s Not the Night King or Cersei, But Ambition That is Game of Thrones’ Greatest Threat

Pop Culture

It’s Not the Night King or Cersei, But Ambition That is Game of Thrones’ Greatest Threat

Illustration: Arati Gujar

To borrow from another pop culture monolith, Game of Thrones has now reached its endgame. Today’s episode, “The Last of the Starks”, places us in the second half of the show’s final season, with the eight-year-long struggle for the Iron Throne poised to come to an end. And despite the fact that we’ve spent most of that time dreading the arrival of the Night King, his White Walkers, and the endless winter that they would bring with them, the show’s ultimate battle will be waged not over the fate of humanity, but the unbridled ambition and egos of the two queens, Cersei and Danaerys.

That might seem like a step down in terms of stakes, but Thrones has always been better at depicting nuanced politics and morally dubious scheming than at telling a straightforward fantasy story. The show’s most memorable moments have been brought about by its exploration of the darker aspects of human nature, especially the thirst for power. And now, with the Night King defeated in the previous episode, and his looming existential threat no longer influencing the plot, Game of Thrones reveals that the greatest threat to humankind wasn’t external. Rather, we’re more than capable of tearing ourselves apart in our pursuit of power, even without the threat of an impending apocalypse.

The scenario was best summed up by Tyrion Lannister, who says, “We may have defeated them, but we still have us to contend with,” at the feast celebrating the victory of the living over the Night King’s Army of the Dead. And indeed, the victory soon proves to be bittersweet, as it leads to several beloved characters seemingly departing from the show’s narrative (farewell Ghost, run free!) and cracks forming in the alliances of those who remain. Danaerys learns that she doesn’t enjoy the unconditional support of her allies, especially now that Jon Snow also has a claim to the throne. And with her position as conquering hero under threat, we begin to see glimpses of her father, the Mad King Aerys.

If Danaerys turns out to be as bad, or worse, than Cersei, perhaps Jon will be the only remaining option as a ruler.

The dark paths that Danaerys’ obsession with claiming the Iron Throne could lead her down are yet unknown, but for now, she is still a few rungs below Cersei on the ladder of evil megalomaniacs. Ready to protect her reign at all costs, the Lannister queen fills up the Red Keep with the frightened citizens of King’s Landing, making sure Danaerys will have to slaughter hundreds of innocents just to get at her.

The people in the Red Keep have lives of their own, as Varys points out during the episode, and the fact that both queens are ready to treat them as expendable suggests that despite being on opposite ends of the battlefield, Cersei and Danaerys might not be so different after all. One is willing to use ordinary folk as hostages to retain power, while the other doesn’t care if they live or die in her quest for vengeance.

“The Last of the Starks” is the first episode of this season that touches upon the implications that Jon Snow’s true parentage might have. If Danaerys turns out to be as bad, or worse, than Cersei, perhaps he will be the only remaining option as a ruler. And Varys, who seems to back in his element now that the show has returned to its scheming ways, astutely points out to Tyrion that perhaps the best rulers are those who don’t wish to rule. Like Jon Snow. It’s in this episode that Thrones raises the question that it has been covertly trying to ask all these years – even if we survive the end of the world, can we survive each other?