Daenerys Targaryen Was Never a Liberator

Reactions were mixed in tone but almost universally negative after Sunday night’s penultimate episode of “Game of Thrones” delivered what some believe was an inevitable plot twist: Daenerys Stormborn, First of Her Name, Breaker of Chains, etc., slipped into full-on “mad queen” mode and more or less incinerated King’s Landing.

Many argued that this was a betrayal of Dany’s extended arc, which had painted her as a liberator who was staunchly averse to harming the innocent. After all, Daenerys built her army by first freeing slaves and then inviting them to pledge their loyalty to her cause, with the stated goal of “breaking the wheel” and ending tyranny in the Seven Kingdoms. Others pointed to the numerous characters Daenerys has set ablaze over the course of eight seasons, and argued that her willingness to burn people alive had already escalated from a disdainful response to human bondage to a cold, punitive reaction to those who refused to bend to her will. In truth, there were indications over the years that Dany was capable of yielding to her worst impulses. Even Tyrion, who believed Dany would “make the world a better place,” argued in Season 7 that Dany’s potential was shored up by her willingness to allow her advisers to check those impulses.

Valid critiques of Daenerys as a liberator have also long existed, but the show has fumbled the ball on just about every storyline this season, and this was no exception. What is most troubling about Dany’s descent into wanton violence is not that it occurred, or even that it was delivered in a ham-fisted manner, but that it was not an effective critique of any of the character’s actual flaws. Instead, it reflected a conservative worldview of efforts to transform oppressive societies.

As evidenced by just about every post-show recap with the show’s writers, the minds behind the televised incarnation of “Game of Thrones” do not have the intellectual range to interrogate Dany’s role as a white savior — or as a representation of white feminism. Her transformation into a “mad” arsonist monarch does not drive home any thorough understanding of her story as having always been a fraudulent hero’s journey.

The enslaved people Dany purchased, then freed (or armed so that they might kill their masters themselves), did not pursue their own freedom dreams upon breaking loose of their chains, and thus, the dragon queen’s arc was never a story about liberation. Her interventions led to broken chains, but those chains quickly gave way to a militaristic devotion born of a cult of personality. Rather than living as freed people on their own terms, the supposedly liberated masses signed on as pawns in a white woman’s war of conquest. The dragons she commanded, to the delight of fans, were devastating weapons of war that were deployed almost whimsically. Dany’s crowd surfing moment in Season 3 — when a fancy, pasty white woman was uplifted adoringly by countless brown hands — was called out by numerous critics as emblematic of white saviorism. All of this is, of course, worthy of critique, and could have credibly informed Dany’s tragic spiral into depraved violence, but alas, these factors did not drive the outcome that shocked so many on Sunday night.

What drove Sunday’s horrifying twist in Daenerys’s arc, as much as anything, was the unprogressive nature of the show’s underlying politics. The showrunners have not demonstrated the political or self-awareness that interrogating the nature of Dany as a liberation figure would have demanded. What they have put on display is a conservative vision of what it means to overthrow entrenched power. It’s an old refrain: the idea that, while a tyrant with contempt for their people is bad, letting the people destabilize the system is worse, and no one who would lead a charge for change should be trusted.

As people involved in liberation efforts the world over are well aware, the knee-jerk conservative depiction of those who would disrupt power in the face of injustice is that would-be change makers are either well-intentioned people who don’t understand the way the world works or glory-seeking, self-consumed disasters waiting to happen. Dany, a privileged self-promoter who charges into oppressive situations in order to further her own banner, solidly represents the conservative view of those who push for the overthrow, or even the large-scale reform, of oppressive systems. And while there is no doubt that the destabilization of governments can (and at times has) led to still more abuse and atrocity, the notion that such events justify the maintenance of the oppression that preceded such outcomes is a reactionary one that takes a dim view of liberation efforts in general.

Dany’s dissent into all-out villainy had potential. It could have served to thoughtfully collapse the tropes that had propped her up as a “liberator.” Instead, we were given a reductive, cynical depiction of a woman overcome by loss, loneliness — and most offensively, by romantic rejection.

While many have clung to the idea that “Game of Thrones” is a metaphor for climate change (a fan theory that the author has inconclusively stated has “a certain parallel”), that idea seemed poorly represented, at best, in the horribly lit Battle of Winterfell. Still others insist that Dany is a reflection of U.S. interventionism — an idea that simply gives the show too much credit. If anything has become clear in the show’s final season, it’s that “Game of Thrones,” as a television phenomenon, has no underlying wisdom to offer. It flails about, inconsistent in its message but constant in its cynicism — and whatever value the messaging of the books may have offered dissipated when the source material ran out at the end of the show’s fifth season.

Indeed, the show has had little thematic cohesion in recent seasons, but it has become evident that the supposed climate change metaphor has been nothing but a comforting bit of ideological wrapping paper for the carnage and sexual violence that we as viewers have so avidly consumed. Truthout contributor Tim Malone recently interrogated the show’s reactionary politics, arguing that “Game of Thrones” is reflective of the paranoia and fantasies of white supremacists under late capitalism, and in truth, it’s about time we examine this show as a vehicle for reactionary ideas. As Malone noted, the show’s non-white characters only maintain a role so long as they are committed to following the leadership of powerful white people. That is a narrative choice. While some will say that “it’s just a TV show,” it would be folly to argue that art is not reflective of the political dynamics of the world in which it is created. “Game of Thrones,” even in its most poorly delivered moments, has something to teach us about what holds back social progress in the real world — even if it’s not the lesson that the show’s stumbling writers intended to deliver.