Spoilers for S8E01 ahead.
I wasn’t as excited as some were going into the final series of Game of Thrones, because I wasn’t completely optimistic about the creators’ ability to end the show successfully. After seeing the season opener, I now am.
In seasons 6 and 7 the revenge against Walder Frey felt rushed, the Arya and Sansa v Littlefinger plot wasn’t well-handled (though it had a fantastic concluding scene) and even something as basic as the travel time between areas of Westeros shrinking made the previously large nation feel smaller. But my main objection is that over the years I’ve not been sure that the show realises that Daenerys is a villain. After S8E01, I’m confident that they do.
It’s not unusual for a work of fiction to have a ‘designated hero’. This is a person who behaves horribly but who exists in a story whose framing makes clear that we’re supposed to root for them and agree with their point of view. 24’s Jack Bauer and Star Trek: Voyager’s Captain Janeway are two notable examples of this, while TV Tropes also lists Daenerys as an example.
The ‘designated hero’ trope is by definition a symptom of bad storytelling. The point is that the audience are expected to admire a character, but their actions and statements are not necessarily admirable – to at least some of the audience. Daenerys is a slightly awkward fit into this trope – as someone who’s suffered, I believe that from the beginning her intent was to prevent others from suffering, and she shows a dedication to ending slavery, even when there’s no tactical benefit for her.
Many fans would see Daenerys as a flawed but strong leader rather than a villain, but the same arguably applies to Stannis Baratheon (which I’ll come back to in a bit). First of all I’ll make the case against Daenerys Targaryen.
After capturing Meereen in season 5 (the third slave-owning city on Slavers Bay that she overthrew) Daenerys orders all the ‘Great Masters’ to be executed, on the grounds that their society was a cruel one. On the surface this is a fair idea – slavery is bad, obviously. But good people exist inside of bad systems, sometimes making those bad systems less unjust. A well-treated slave, Fennesz, later tells Daenerys that he felt loved and cared for by his previous owner, as if he were one of the family. According to Fennesz, the executions also had the consequence of causing chaos across the city, as too many skilled people had been lost at once.
This has a parallel to the Ba’ath Party in Iraq. Following the 2003 war, Coalition forces introduced a policy outlawing members of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party from government jobs. However, Iraq under Hussein had a policy that a person had to be a party member in order to hold a high-ranking government job, so the new policy punished those who were not evil but pragmatic. The same seems to be true for Fennesz’s ex-owner – a good man by the standards of his society, but who fell foul of Dany’s broadly applied decree.
During her rule in Meereen Tyrion and Jorah encourage Daenerys to be merciful when she is inclined to be cruel – Jorah when she wanted to give the order to retake the city of Yunkai and kill all the ruling Wise Masters; Tyrion when, during a war with the slave-owning cities of Astapor, Yunkai and Volantis she vows to “return their cities to the dirt”. After arriving in Westeros one point she even suggests flying to the Red Keep – the castle at the centre of King’s Landing – and burning it to the ground. Apparently she hadn’t learned from the chaos caused by the executions at Meereen – or she didn’t care.
Game of Thrones has a wide range of villains. Walder Frey, Caster, Ramsay Bolton and Joffrey Baratheon were the most grotesque, but not necessarily the most destructive. Stannis Baratheon was more sympathetic than any of that quartet, but, in his religious zealotry, still clearly a villain. Being less bad doesn’t make a person good. Daenerys certainly started out with noble intentions – to use her growing power to ensure that no-one else suffered as she had. Sent to marry Khal Drogo by her brother as an asset to be traded for a Dothraki army, her development was one of the most compelling and sympathetic plotlines in the early seasons of the show. But that doesn’t make her a wise ruler.
We are told that Stannis first made contact with Melisandre, a priestess of the Lord of Light, in order to seek a cure for his daughter’s disease. He comes to agree with her belief that he is a prophesied ruler, and believes in this so completely that he is willing to burn his daughter alive in pursuit of the goal. Likewise Daenerys took long detours away from her path home to free the enslaved citizens of Astapor, Yunkai, and Meereen. But she has also shown a willingness to use overwhelming force rather than show mercy to her defeated enemies. In both cases a once admirable leader has become hardened by experience, more certain that their way is the right way, more certain that other people should compromise rather than them. The difference is that we have been with Daenerys for the entirety of her journey, but we haven’t seen the loving father Stannis once was. As a result we’re more likely to forgive her excesses as deviations from the good person we ‘know’ that she is, and more likely to condemn Stannis for his actions.
A flawed protagonist is a good thing of course, but my feeling had been that the creators aren’t aware of how flawed she is as a ruler, aren’t aware that they’re presenting us with a short-tempered, violent zealot and describing her as wise.
Jon Snow has had a similar problem. He has a history of making bad decisions. It was his decision to take all of his army’s dragonglass weapons to the Battle of Hardhome, where the vital weapon was lost. Jon’s plan to capture a wight to convince Queen Cersei to join the defence against the White Walkers resulted in one of the three dragons being turned to the enemy side. And during the Battle of the Bastards, after Rickon’s death he makes the monumentally stupid decision to charge against the enemy army alone.
The opener to season eight reassured me on that point – criticism of Daenerys’ and Jon’s moral and intellectual flaws was a theme running right through the episode. Most notable was the cold tone Daenerys takes when informing Sam Tarly that she killed his father and brother for refusing to pledge allegiance to her when defeated. It’s one thing to argue that she was right to kill them, but if so it would be a dark, horrible necessity. Jon mentions in the episode that he ordered the deaths of the dissidents in the Black Watch who killed him and took his place. But his sense of guilt at this choice has always been clear. An early scene in the first episode had Ned Stark executing a man who had deserted his post. Ned took responsibility to swing the sword himself, so he remains fully aware of the context of what he’s ordering. Jon Snow has many flaws, but he always seems aware of the darkness of his dark choices, in a way Daenerys doesn’t.
Jon ceded his right to declare himself King in the North, allowing Daenerys to claim the lands he had fought for. Sam Tarly asks Jon whether, if the power balance was reversed, Daenerys would bend the knee to him, and he seems to acknowledge that this would be unlikely. Sansa Stark criticised Jon for agreeing to allow Daenerys’ armies to march to Winterfell without thinking of the practicalities of how the larger army will be fed. With the revelation that Jon has more of a claim to the Iron Throne than Daenerys, and that many of the lords who had pledged support to him will not fight for Daenerys, there’s likely to be a confrontation of some sort as to which of them should lead.
Game of Thrones has a well-deserved reputation for playing with audience expectations. Robb Stark and Renly Baratheon were both more or less traditional heroes – young, dynamic and in Renly’s case cocky. Both were killed abruptly. But my feeling had been that the other characters were always meant to be red herrings, and the plan from here on would be for Daenerys and Jon to settle in for a traditional happy ending, one that doesn’t acknowledge the flaws in its protagonists. I’m feeling more positive about season 8 after seeing the opener.
An oft-quoted scene has Varys and Tyrion discussing power, with the former concluding that “Power resides where men believe it resides.” At its best Game of Thrones is a fun action-adventure, but also an exploration of the nature of power – who deserves to hold it, and how to hold them to account.
In a legal sense, Jon Snow should have been the next in line for the throne after the Mad King Aerys was killed. As his aunt, Daenerys would have been in line after him (with her brother Viserys preceeding her). In their absence the crown has been passed down to Robert, Joffrey, Tommen and Cersei. Given that Joffrey and Tommen were not Robert’s children, the crown should have passed to his bastard son Gendry on Robert’s death. The legal argument is…complicated.
In a practical sense, who can count on the loyalty of enough soldiers to maintain their power? Daenerys has the Unsullied, the Dothraki and her dragons, Jon has the loyalty of the armies of the North. In an idealistic sense, who has the wisdom and temperament to make the correct choices? It’s a complicated argument, and there are plenty of characters who are likely to have divided loyalties in a dispute between Jon and Daenerys. Tyrion Lannister, Davos Seaworth, Varys, and Melisandre could all plausibly pledge loyalty to either one of the pair. As in real life, while conflicts are sometimes about facing down a repulsive evil, often they can be about choosing between two imperfect options.
The looming conflict between Jon and Daenerys – probably inspired or worsened by food shortages – is the kind of thing that engages me most about Game of Thrones. Questions about who should hold power, who gets to decide, and how to hold them to account. Where should power reside?