Daenerys of the House Targaryen, the First of Her Name, The Unburnt, Breaker of Chains, Mother of Dragons, and Queen of, etc., etc., was wrong.
Near the end of season eight, the “Mad” Queen sacks the capital of King’s Landing with her mighty dragons. She storms the gates and tries to conquer the Iron Throne through cruel and violent means and kills thousands of people in the process.
She was also a hero who freed tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of slaves from captivity. She destroyed imperialist lineages everywhere she went and made a concerted effort to listen to those “beneath” her. The populace of the Medieval continent of Westeros — although indeed not its nobility — might have been better off if she had succeeded in her conquest.
So was she a hero, or was she a villain?
There has been a lot of ink spilled on why the series finale from the hit TV show Game of Thrones (2011–2019) was so terrible. Some have argued that it was sexist to depict one of the most powerful women in media as a genocidal monster. Others have asserted that her characterization makes no sense in the context of her arc and the larger story. These are all excellent points that have been written about extensively and merit wider discussion.
In focusing on how the show failed her, however, we ignore what making her into a villain says about the state of entertainment. Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) wanted to change the world, and the quickest way she saw to do that was to kill countless people.
That framing says something about how the privileged view progress: you either bend to the worldview of your oppressor in favor of incrementalism, or you light the match that causes it all to burn down.
For the privileged, there is no in-between.
For many, talking about the Game of Thrones (GoT) finale is an emotionally charged ordeal — even almost a year after it aired. Many people were invested in how the show would end, and not just because the HBO network released a ubiquitous ad campaign across the country. GoT was one of the most-watched shows in the world at the time. It averaged over 40 million views per episode in season eight (a number that doesn’t include illegal streams).
This attention had as much to do with its characters as it did with the notorious twists and turns in the narrative. Daenerys, or Dani, as she became affectionately called by fans, earned so much attention that many named their children after her. As one fan told the Ringer about their decision to name their daughter Khaleesi (the Dothraki word for Queen):
“What I liked about [Game of Thrones’] Khaleesi is that she was strong. No matter what happened to her, she always found a way to survive and come out on top.”
This love often had to do with what she stood for. She not only assembled an army to assert her claim to the Iron Throne but attempted to right injustices wherever she saw them. She dismantled slavery and uplifted former slaves as advisers to her court.
In a world full of men (and a couple of women) monologuing about power and honor, she was one of the very few who unapologetically wanted to undo the status quo. As she remarked to Tyrion Lannister about the Westerosian nobility in Episode 8 of Season 5, Hardhome:
DAENERYS: Lannister, Targaryen, Baratheon, Stark, Tyrell: they’re all just spokes on a wheel. This one’s on top, then that one’s on top, and on and on it spins, crushing those on the ground.
TYRION: It’s a beautiful dream, stopping the wheel. You’re not the first person who’s ever dreamt it.
DAENERYS: I’m not going to stop the wheel, I’m going to break the wheel.
Daenerys wanted to change the world, and she wasn’t afraid to do so through steel and flames.
The decision to make one of the few characters fighting for social justice an insane tyrant seemed like a betrayal of the type of change Game of Thrones implied was possible. People like Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) and Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon) may be the ones who hold actual power in the system of Westeros (and ours as well), but for a fleeting moment in time, we were led to believe that dissidents like Daenerys and Jon Snow (Kit Harington) could organize for the greater good. They built a coalition to combat the White Walkers (i.e., the evil, zombie-like horde threatening the world) and coordinated many of the Kingdoms against the leadership of the much-hated Cersei.
In the penultimate episode The Bells, however, all of this hope came crashing down. The writer’s decided Daenerys would have a “mental” breakdown during the battle, and she turned her dragons on the citizenry of King’s Landing. She incinerated men, women, and children alike, and the show implies that this was the inevitable outcome of her worldview. As Tyrion said to Jon Snow shortly before the latter stabbed her to death:
TYRION: When she murdered the slavers of Astapor, I’m sure no one but the slavers complained. After all, they were evil men. When she crucified hundreds of Meereenese nobles, who could argue? They were evil men. The Dothraki khals she burned alive? They would have done worse to her. Everywhere she goes, evil men die and we cheer her for it.
This monologue is remarkably similar to the Holocaust speech “First They Came…” by Martin Niemöller. In the speech, Niemöller talks about how he accepted the Nazis as long as they didn’t target his preferred group, but by the time they went after him, there was no one left to speak up on his behalf.
First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out — because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.
It’s a famous and well-studied speech about the dangers of ignoring the early warning signs of totalitarianism, and I guarantee you that many Americans had to read it in school. The prolific nature of this framing means that Daenerys is not-so-subtly being compared to Adolf Hitler in this scene. Her efforts to undo the status quo of slavery and aristocracy are consequently flattened to be no better than the Third Reich targeting marginalized groups such as the Jews.
This flattening has a name — “moral equivalency,” or the concept that one stance is just as bad as another. We see this type of argument a lot in pop culture whenever a protagonist or group dares to take up arms to challenge the status quo, and it has some real-world parallels as well.
There are countless examples in media about freedom fighters and revolutionaries descending into terrifying authoritarianism. The famous video game BioShock Infinite (2013), which has sold over 11 million copies, has a notorious example in the way of minor antagonist Daisy Fitzroy (Kimberly Brooks). She is a black, anti-racism advocate who leads a revolution against the violent, white supremacist state of Columbia only to be depicted as going mad with power.
“Cut ’em down, and they just grow back,” Fitzroy said as she held a terrified white child in her arms, pointing at his head with a gun. “If you wanna get rid of the weed, you gotta pull it up from the root.” The NPC character Elizabeth (Courtnee Draper) then guns Fitzroy down several seconds later.
We find another example in the Star Wars film Rogue One (2016). Protagonist Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) has to track down former Rebel General, and father figure Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) — a not so subtle nod to controversial Cuban revolutionary Ernesto Guevara de la Serna or Che Guevara — because he is holding a critical person hostage. Saw Gerrera, at this point, has been kicked out of The Rebellion because his tactics are considered too extreme. As Senator Mom Mothma (Genevieve O’Reilly) describes him to Jyn:
MON MOTHMA: Saw Gerrera’s an extremist. He’s been fighting on his own since he broke with the Rebellion. His militancy has caused the Alliance a great many problems. We have no choice now but to try to mend that broken trust.
In story after story about revolutionary movements or dissidents, we see the “good guys” distinguish themselves from the “bad guys” not only through their ideals but through their nonviolent methods as well (see The Dark Knight Rises (2012), Brazil (1985), etc.). Protagonists may take the law into their own hands, but at least they don’t kill innocent people — that is “bad guy” territory.
When violence does come out, it is either the product of lawless mobs or reserved in the narrative to a morally justified individual or small group fighting against an entity that doesn’t respect the same code of nonviolence towards innocents. The line between good and evil in our media is often drawn by who is willing to inflict “unjustified” harm on others: Batman doesn’t kill civilians, but the Joker does; the Star Wars Rebels always keep collateral damage to a minimum, and the X-Men only ever target evil mutants.
In real-life, this aversion to violence manifests in a norm that emphasizes peaceful disobedience at all costs. We uplift idealized versions of nonviolent political activists such as Martin Luther King Jr. or Mahatma Gandhi because that is seen as the “right way” to do things. You can see this outlook in the wake of the recent Black Lives Matter protests incited by the murders of black Americans such as George Floyd at the hands of the police. As Governor Jay Inslee said of the protests:
“I applaud every Washingtonian standing for what they believe in, but we must do so in a way that allows space for these important and necessary discussions, not in a way that inspires fear. If you choose to protest today, please be safe and peaceful. These are important issues that deserve our full attention, without distraction from violence and destruction.”
This caution arguably comes from the horrors of our past. We have seen through history how promises of freedom and equality can spiral quickly into Trails of Tears, Killing Fields, Gulags, and Plantations. Not every revolutionary figure keeps or even intends to keep their promises. We should not automatically accept revolutionaries such as Daenerys without holding them accountable to the ideals they claim to fight for.
The problem with hyper-focusing on how revolutionary movements can spiral into mass killings and despotism, however, means that we have a dearth of media explaining how movements can successfully use violence to achieve their goals. This tunnel vision has us look at the massacres committed by Daenerys as acts of inevitable insanity, which consequently ignores the political reality upon which they were built.
Let us get one thing clear: violence is and has always been a successful tactic in politics.
If you are reading this article right now within a democracy, then chances are your past is one of a people violently overthrowing an imperialist aristocracy, or imposing one, or both. Britain required a significant amount of force to transition from an Absolute Monarchy to one where Parliament was calling the shots. The violence surrounding the French Revolution is infamous the world over. The United States did not peacefully secede from the British, and its territorial expansion westward was not one of peaceful acquisition from Indian Country.
To decry violence committed by groups as extremism, especially marginalized groups, is paternalistic. It ignores the history of violence the powerful have used to get their way. Figures like Martin Luther King Jr., although firm believers in their nonviolent tactics, were operating within a system that actively squashed all armed dissent. There have been at least 250 attempted slave uprisings throughout the United States’ history, and even today, Black groups deemed to be too “militant” have actively been spied upon and infiltrated (note: this has included entities as innocuous as black-owned bookstores).
It seems naive to assume that violent oppression has not played a role in what types of dissent we consider to be possible in America, and by extension, in American pop culture. As King himself said when describing the riots of ’67 to a mostly white audience at the American Psychological Association’s (APA’s) annual dinner in Washington, DC:
“The policy makers of the white society have caused the darkness; they created discrimination; they created slums; they perpetuate unemployment, ignorance and poverty. It is incontestable and deplorable that Negroes have committed crimes; but they are derivative crimes. They are born of the greater crimes of the white society…Let us say it boldly that if the total slum violations of law by the white man over the years were calculated and were compared with the lawbreaking of a few days of riots, the hardened criminal would be the white man.”
This history is what makes the extremist label in media so frustrating because it’s a decision to ignore power dynamics. When we insist on nonviolence at all costs, it has the effect of silencing the immediate violence being inflicted upon more disprivileged groups. This can manifest in the form of the slums King was describing above or outright shootings, but the effect is the same — people die.
It would be easy to remove the sacking of King’s Landing from its greater historical context, and to just focus on the awfulness of the deaths Daenerys caused in battle. She killed a lot of people, and under the norms of the “good guy” code, killing innocents is bad. Tyrion tries to bring this point home by claiming that you could “pile up all the bodies of all the people [his sister and father] ever killed, there still won’t be half as many as our beautiful queen slaughtered in a single day.”
Yet, the world Daneyrs lived in was one where a cruel aristocracy regularly killed those beneath them through both armed violence and neglect. While the various Houses were fighting “The War of Five Kings” to see who would succeed Robert Baratheon, it’s speculated that thousands died due to food shortages and increased instability.
Later, Cersei Lannister blew up a holy building within her own capital called the Great Sept of Baelor to squash a populist religious movement. She brutally suppressed all rivals and refused to send troops up north to fight the White Walkers, even though they threatened the stability of the world.
Tyrion may be brilliant, but he occupies a privileged perspective that prevents him from seeing the indirect harm those in his class have caused to literally everyone else on the continent. He has had the privilege to be emotionally uninvested in the turmoil his sister and family have caused. It is telling that the crossed line for him was the sacking of his home, and not that of Winterfell, Highgarden, or any other destroyed town or city in the series.
Daenerys, on the other hand, is a character who is aware of the power dynamics at play here because she is one of the few characters who has bothered to listen to the counsel of everyday people. She has appointed former slaves as advisers and listened to the petitions of ordinary citizens, and yet, somehow, she is the one pushed into the villain role.
In the final episode (The Iron Throne) Daenerys rationalizes to Jon Snow her recent slaughter of innocent civilians by arguing that she is doing so to build a better world, saying:
“We can’t hide behind small mercies. The world we need won’t be built by men loyal to the world we have…It’s not easy to see something that’s never been before. A good world.”
This reasoning is the all too familiar “the ends justify the means” argument that we have seen used everywhere in pop culture (and history) from wizarding eugenist Grindelwald in Harry Potter to Thanos in the MCU. This is “bad guy” logic. We are meant to think that she has become a cold, heartless person who is willing to break the world to achieve her vision of utopia.
She has become a Daisey Fitzroy, a Saw Gerrera, or worse.
Stories are not recorded histories, however, but choices made by the story-teller. The person the viewer is being asked to hate here is the social justice warrior, and the person we are meant to empathize with, as he walks through the charred streets of King’s Landing, is Tyrion Lannister.
We have a story that makes the wealthy aristocrat the victim.
This fixation on Tyrion’s privileged perspective says something about whose voices we prioritize in our stories, and because art is an imagining of what’s possible, it’s a fixation that has real-world implications as well.
Later in the final episode, after Jon Snow kills Daenerys and her armies are assuaged, the remaining nobility of Westeros is deciding how they will rule themselves. Character Samwell Tarly (John Bradley) meekly suggests to the council that the people should govern themselves, and all the main characters laugh in his face.
The mere idea of equality is laughable to them.
The nobles take Sam’s idea of elections and apply it only for themselves. The aristocracy will nominate their ruler democratically while keeping titles and serfdom very much intact. Judging by the history of the world’s lore, this is an unstable system likely to implode the next time a new ruler has to be appointed, taking the lives of thousands of people ground beneath the still-spinning wheel.
And so, who is worse here? Who is right? The tyrant who wants to genocide the nobility and doesn’t care who gets in her way to do it, or the nobility willing to continue the suffering of untold millions to preserve its privilege?
I don’t think this answer is supposed to be easy, and I never hope it is because that would imply an utter lack of empathy for all those involved. We can talk about how Daenerys was wrong to willfully incinerate civilians (and she was). Still, there is something deeply unsettling to me about portraying the oppressive aristocracy as “the good guys.” We can label the character Daenerys’ actions wrong, while still decrying the broader trend of depicting all revolutionary movements as inherently extremist and volatile.
We live in an inequitable world. Some people are so steeped in their own privilege and power that they are not capable of seeing how said positions of privilege harm others. It would be nice if all we would need to change their minds were a kind word, but more often than not, powerful people are more likely to laugh in the face of progress than accept it.
History has shown us that force is sometimes necessary to push for change, even if it’s only the implied force from that of legislation and greater organization. We need media that shows us how to actually hold those above us accountable, but right now, we are hindered by stories that fixate on the privileged at the expense of everyone else.
We need stories that don’t make us feel crazy for wanting to change the status quo, or otherwise, the feudal world of Westeros will quickly become more than a mere fantasy.