Season 6 of Game of Thrones has been an improvement over the previous season in all ways but one: Meereen. To be fair, Meereen is far from becoming the new Dorne, but the plot thread isn’t quite working as effectively as I’d hoped. Tyrion’s time in Meereen had the potential to be a fascinating story about political compromise, but the writers seem unsure how to adapt such a story to the show’s format.
At the end of Season 5, the Sons of the Harpy forced Daenerys to flee Meereen. It seemed like a firm rejection of Daenerys’ heavy-handed reliance on military force to impose a social and political revolution. Daenerys abolished slavery overnight and left many dispossessed elites bitter and angry. She proved unable to govern effectively without the support – or at least acquiescence – of those elites.
Season 6 starts with Tyrion and Varys nominally ruling on behalf of Daenerys. They conclude that Daenerys’ approach failed and opt instead for compromise with the slavers. In episode 4 (“Book of the Stranger”), Tyrion invites the Masters of Slaver’s Bay and offers to leave them in peace if they agree to end slavery within seven years. The Masters seem to assent, but Grey Worm and Missandei, two of Daenerys’ most faithful acolytes, object to any compromise with the slavers. They accuse Tyrion of selling out because he never suffered the indignities of slavery. Tyrion responds that perfection is the enemy of good, and that permitting slavery is an acceptable price for peace.
Meereen could – and perhaps should – have been the most interesting plot thread throughout the season. It engages with complicated ethical and political questions about the appropriateness of compromising on rights and values. It’s also extremely relevant to our current political situation. One of the most important differences between the various presidential candidates was the extent to which they accepted compromise as a means to achieve policy goals. Both Senators Bernie Sanders (D-VT) and Ted Cruz (R-TX) nearly succeeded in winning their parties’ nominations by attacking their opponents for compromising with the other party. By contrast, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have touted their experience as equipping them with the skills to forge effective compromises and get stuff done.
Compromise is inherently about shades of grey, but the Meereen storyline has been about black and white. The Masters of Slaver’s Bay never come across as anything other than moustache-twirling villains. Granted, it’s hard to sympathize with anybody who advocates human slavery, but the show never really tries. We don’t get to know any of them as characters, so we never see their humanity. All of the Masters we meet exude sleaziness and dishonesty. Tyrion’s negotiations even end with the Masters leering at a group of scantily clad women. What’s not to hate about them?
“No One” at least upended the status quo by having the Masters attack Meereen. But it also shows the limitations of the entire Meereen subplot. The Masters break their promise just four episodes after their agreement with Tyrion. We never got a sense of the repercussions of Tyrion’s compromise for the people of Meereen. Tyrion made this deal to secure peace, yet we only hear about that “peace” through dialogue between Tyrion and Varys. It’s hard to invest in Tyrion’s political gamble if we don’t even see or care about the people he’s trying to save.
Moreover, the attack undercuts any discourse about the morality of compromise. The story is no longer about living with a morally questionable compromise so much as it is about the stupidity of appeasing untrustworthy villains. It would have been far more interesting to see how Daenerys responded if the agreement with the agreement had succeeded. After all, it’s easy in retrospect to criticize the Munich Pact after World War II, but it would have been far more difficult had the agreement actually averted war.
I’d be a bit more forgiving of this arc if I felt like it was pushing Tyrion’s character in interesting new directions. Unfortunately, Tyrion is all over the place this season. We’ve already seen that Tyrion can be a competent ruler. As Hand of the King in Season 2, he protected King’s Landing from Stannis Baratheon’s army. He always came across as a hands-on leader, the type of man who would go into the trenches and talk to the soldiers to see how things were going. As such, it is particularly troubling that Tyrion seems to spend more time drinking and making jokes than governing. “No One” is the second episode this season to feature a scene of Tyrion teasing Grey Worm and Missandei for not drinking wine.
Truth be told, I can’t entirely blame the show or the writers for the problems in Meereen this season. Ultimately, I think the story just doesn’t fit well with the type of condensed serialized storytelling Game of Thrones has been using this season. The show is rushing towards the endgame, meaning that it can’t commit the time needed to tell this type of complicated political story. Doing Meereen justice would have meant introducing new point of view characters both amongst the commoners of Meereen and the Masters of Slaver’s Bay. We’d need to really see the consequences – both good and bad – of Tyrion’s decision. And it would help if the agreement didn’t unravel in a matter of days. In short, this is exactly the type of story that seems better suited to a novel as opposed to television. I’ll cross my fingers that George R.R. Martin gives Tyrion and Meereen their due in his next novel in the series, Winds of Winter.
* Ramsay Bolton not in this episode, but will be in next week’s episode.
Originally posted on Legendarium Media…