Absent Justice: Game of Thrones Season 4

“If you have come for justice, you have come to the wrong place,” cries Tyrion Lannister, sitting in a dungeon, accused of a murder that his judges, who include his father, know he did not commit.  Tyrion makes this comment to a noble who offers to be his champion in a single combat against a fearsome warrior—a combat that will resolve Tyrion’s case. By killing the warrior, the noble aims to avenge the rape and murder of his sister.  But, as Tyrion’s champion, the noble has his skull crushed for his effort.

Tyrion’s comment could serve as an epigram for the entire season. It is not only the intrigued filled capital of King’s Landing but the entire world which appears to be the wrong place to find justice.

Indeed, this season is best seen as a meditation on the absence of justice in that world and perhaps on the limitations of justice in ours.  Being just is a very dangerous personal stance to take in a pervasively unjust society.  A virtuous circle of good behavior cannot begin when injustice is tolerated, let alone rewarded. Tywin Lannister, Tyrion’s cynical father as well as the Hand (or prime minister), instructs his fledgling king that justice does not mark a good ruler because others may exploit strict adherence to the norms of justice to take advantage of him.  Instead, the salient characteristic of a good king is wisdom, by which Tywin means a kind of situational expediency unconstrained by hard and fast rules.

Outside the capital, the story is much the same. A poor family takes in a wandering knight and his charge only to be robbed by the knight the next morning.  The knight justifies his departure from his code of honor by observing (correctly) that the trusting family will likely soon be robbed and killed by brigands.  His point is that being just in an unjust world simply means someone even less worthy will get the money.

Another character, Daenerys Targaryen, an exiled claimant to throne, attempts to create a just regime that might give rise to a virtuous circle.  She has conquered several distant lands, largely by getting slaves to rise up against their masters but also with the help of a few magical dragons.  She is continually depicted as dispensing justice from her throne to her petitioners.  But some of the slaves do not like freedom and want to sell themselves back, creating a kind of libertarian paradox for justice, because they choose their own bondage.  Moreover, in her new society, the former masters and slaves are different classes with different interests that are unsettling her domain and threatening an outbreak of violence.  And her dragons, the best weapons to reconquer her family’s ancestral lands and regain her throne, are beginning to prey on her own subjects.  Imperial expansion can indeed create tensions with justice.

The Game of Thrones can be interpreted as an encomium to the liberal democratic state.  Without institutions that transcend their officers and custodians, justice cannot get a foothold because people will follow their own personal interests without taking account of the interests of others.  To be sure, institutions themselves never work perfectly, because the moment they are established, interests begin to undermine them, like barnacles on a ship.  Nevertheless, the overriding political lesson of this season of The Game of Thrones is that justice can be secured only by institutions and traditions that give people confidence in a virtuous cycle of reciprocal benefits that comes from playing by the rules.  Without this confidence, even Tyrion, who most closely approximated a hero in previous seasons, ends this one by brutally murdering his father.

John O. McGinnis

John O. McGinnis is the George C. Dix Professor in Constitutional Law at Northwestern University. His book Accelerating Democracy was published by Princeton University Press in 2012. McGinnis is also the coauthor with Mike Rappaport of Originalism and the Good Constitution published by Harvard University Press in 2013 . He is a graduate of Harvard College, Balliol College, Oxford, and Harvard Law School. He has published in leading law reviews, including the Harvard, Chicago, and Stanford Law Reviews and the Yale Law Journal, and in journals of opinion, including National Affairs and National Review.

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  1. R Richard Schweitzer says

    And why has our part of Western Civilization withdrawn (right word?) into fascination with, and “contemplation” of, the modern fables of “Narna,” Tolkein, “Star Wars,” and now these latter day diversions?

  2. says

    I am not sure it is an encomium to liberal democracy. It may be an argument that there is no such thing–because individual life depends on collective life & collective life is based on shared evil.
    At the same time, individuals do not see this sufficiently clearly–not even the ones who do evil routinely–& no character is really aware of himself. As a consequence, the story plays out more like a farce or comedy than history or tragedy.

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