Opinions, Column

To Which Victor Goes the Iron Throne? Lessons on Game of Thrones from Research on Civil Wars

Editor’s Note: The column below was written before the airing of the series’ two finale episodes.

At the heart of Game of Thrones lies a two-part question: Who will win on the battlefield, and who will then sit on the Iron Throne? Each aspect is both interesting and challenging to predict in its own right, but it is the tension between them that drives the drama and dynamics of the show. For it is the uncertainty over who will ultimately ascend the throne that makes for love-hate relationships among family members and paramours and uneasy alliances among foreign militaries which thus imperils the very battlefield victory necessary for taking the throne in the first place.

I recently published a book explaining when and why rebels succeed in overthrowing regimes to establish new states, and with the support of my Project Team on National Movements and Political Violence, we are in the process of building a dataset and writing a sequel that explains which of the rebel factions comes to power “the day after” the regime falls. The same tensions between collective and individual success that lie at the heart of Game of Thrones have driven the dynamics and outcomes of rebellions and insurgencies across the globe for centuries, and these provide insight into how each actor will fight, who will seize power, and what Westeros will look like after the show ends.

How the Dual Struggle for Power Drives Behavior and Outcomes

Although it will be determined in the future, all characters and their families are currently obsessed with what the next regime will look like, as that drives whom they want to fight with, fight against, or whether they want to fight at all. Leaders of the strongest factions are most eager to make war because they are in the best position to inherit the Iron Throne after victory (such as Daenerys Targaryen and Cersei Lannister), while their weaker allies are a bit more hesitant to spend their blood and treasure for uncertain personal and familial benefit. Instead, they are tempted to stay home (e.g. the Umbers in Season Six and Sansa Stark this season) or turn against their leader to improve their relative position (e.g. the Boltons in Season Three).

These same leaders find it difficult to assuage weaker allies and credibly commit to a plan to divide the spoils of victory ex ante, especially because the Iron Throne—like most monarchies—is a winner-take-all system. Weaker rebels know that they are at risk of being ignored, disbanded, or even killed after victory by a then even stronger ally. This could occur with a Daenerys Targaryen-Jon Snow split, similar to how insurgent groups in Algeria and Israel purgered or disbanded rebel rivals after independence was achieved.

Add to this that fragmented, allied movements—like that of Daenerys and Jon Snow—lack a dominant hegemonic faction to clearly ascend the throne and therefore often experience civil wars after they successfully overthrow the regime. Indeed, this is what the entire Game of Thrones show has depicted to this point: a Westeros ravaged by civil war largely among former allies who won Robert’s Rebellion. After defeating the Night King (whose army was far larger than that of the Daenerys-Jon Snow alliance), Tyrion showed a deep appreciation for these dynamics in episode four when he warned that, “We may have defeated them, but we still have us to contend with.”

Breaking or Turning the Wheel? How Insurgencies (and Game of Thrones) End

Who will win the Iron Throne? Our analysis of over 100 modern insurgencies finds that the most powerful rebel faction leads the new government about 75 percent of the time after victory. That said, Westeros is tough to predict at the moment using our model, because we measure strength using a combination of membership numbers, wealth, and popular support. Ironically, the three strongest actors each led in one of those categories: the Night King (numbers), Cersei (wealth), and Daenerys/Jon (popular support). With the Night King and his army now gone due to the most effective decapitation strike in history, we now have two sides with roughly equal sized forces—Cersei with greater wealth (used to hire foreign fighters and build new war machines) and Daenerys and Jon with greater support and legitimacy (both from their personal selectorates of Westeros elites and the television audience).

Daenerys and Jon also face a version of what I call the “conqueror’s dilemma,” described by budding political scientist and future co-author Tyrion: “The objective here is to remove Cersei without destroying King’s Landing.” This is a challenge, as it’s easier to defeat Cersei and take the throne if they can simply raze King’s Landing to the ground (with dragon fire or otherwise), but they also want to have a legitimate, stable rule in a prosperous city after victory. The would-be conquerors would be smart to consider Tyrion’s counsel, as my research shows that taking power is different than consolidating it (see Daenerys in Essos, Theon Greyjoy and then Ramsey Bolton in Winterfell, and Robert Baratheon in King’s Landing).

In Episode Four, Daenerys talked about an all-or-nothing fight for the Iron Throne, but she also spoke of this being the “last war” and earlier about “breaking the wheel” of one family/leader simply taking power from the next. The decision that she and others make regarding the nature of the next regime can have the greatest impact on who wins the final battle and captures the spoils. A new system could take the form of a ruling council of different families or an oligarchy (melting down the Iron Throne?) with regional autonomy for the North and true regime type change, not just regime change. This would more equitably share spoils and thus motivate multiple actors to fight for and stabilize the new regime.

Unfortunately, even if Daenerys or Jon—with his mixed bloodlines and unique resistance to taking power—attempt to “break the wheel” and establish a new system, the history of Game of Thrones (and our world) shows that, although the rulers and even the rules of the game may change, the struggle for power with enemies and allies alike will likely remain, as actors exchange roles in a recurring play with a familiar finale.

Peter Krause is an Associate Professor, Samuel Biasi is a PhD Student, and Gabriella Haedelt, Caitlin Vasington, Andrew Wilson, and Allison Witt are undergraduates at Boston College. They are all members of the Project Team on National Movements and Political Violence.

May 29, 2019