The authoritarian heroes of "Game of Thrones"

Thrones is primarily concerned with Westeros’s elite, a tiny aristocracy unconnected from the only occasionally seen peasantry. Those of humbler origin rarely hold positions of power, and even then they never rise beyond the status of adviser or soldier. The circumstances of the “smallfolk,” to use Martin’s term, are steered by those like Daenerys, who seek to rule with the justification of birth alone, usually masked in pretensions to moral standing. That Cersei Lannister, Daenerys’s main rival to the Iron Throne, takes more pleasure in her chosen methods of torture or execution—such as chaining a mother to a wall to watch the drawn-out death of her daughter and (it is implied) having a zombie bodyguard rape an adversary in a jail cell—is little comfort to those who have no meaningful influence over the future of their own country.

Martin’s characters occasionally depart from the traditions of their respective societies. Daenerys frees slaves; Jon lets his former enemies, the wildlings, through the ice wall he has been charged with defending. But in both cases, it was someone else’s tradition that they breached. Daenerys came from a family that had for three centuries ruled over a slave-free kingdom. Jon’s family had worked with the wildlings before, and had even taken one into their employ; it was no Stark tradition he broke, but one rather of his adopted brothers, the Night’s Watch. To their own familial traditions, both hold true.