Daenerys Targaryen, first of her name, victim of Westerosi bias?
SPOILER, and I cannot stress this enough, WARNING!
The season eight premiere of Game of Thrones was last night, and while there was a bit of a mixed response to the episode, ranging from boring and predictable (for people who have been nonstop theorizing for the past 20 months) to people seeing it as a make good on the unbelievable hype that has been building since the teaser trailer dropped in January. One narrative that did come out of the premiere was one that I wasn’t expecting at all, an idea that all at once seemed sacrilegious yet obvious and managed to set me to thinking about it for so long that here I am writing this. This idea was based around a simple yet profound question; does Dany kind of suck?
Now I know there are enough Daenerys Stormborn stans in the world for this question to be nothing but schlocky blaspheme but that’s precisely why seeing that discourse pop up was a bit shocking. Even during my first watch of this latest episode, the person I was watching it with (a noted Sansa-head) was side-eyeing my Khaleesi. There’s been plenty of questions about potential Targaryen madness (flip a coin, amirite) and the ever present threat of Fire (burn them all) but it always seemed contained by the kind heart Jorah is always talking about.
So where’s the flip? What happened over the course of one hour that either made real the inklings some of the fan base has had or was enough of a galvanizing force to embolden the haters of the Unburnt to spew forth their heresy? My guess is our lovable boy Samwell Tarly.
Sweet Sam, plugging along in the library as he’s want to do is set upon by the self proclaimed Protector of the Realm and literal embodiment of the color white, along with her ever present shadow. Dany and Jorah introduce themselves and after the type of dialogue that you’d expect would end with Sam adding the Silver Lady to his BFF Rolodex, the hammer drops. Sam learning that his (admittedly) terrible father and pretty okay brother have been burned alive by his new Queen is all too much. So what does Sammy-Sam do? Runs to tell old Jonny boy that he’s sleeping with his aunt. Not exactly, but you get it.
In show world, it makes narrative sense for us to get the culmination of the show world’s best researched fan theory in Jon Snow’s true parentage to come right after Sam’s inner turmoil. It makes even more sense for Dany to not have kept the burning a secret. Placing these scenes so close together allows them to be read in a few ways. Sam is totally tattling. He’s also doing his stewardly duties, informing his friend and Lord of pertinent information. But ultimately, just like always, he’s Jon’s number one hype man. MY DUDE, YOU’VE ALWAYS BEEN THE KING. He might as well have clapped between every word, this was as close to a Twitter reply as GoT has ever gotten.
Ultimately, however you decided to read it, Sam choosing to share this bombshell directly after being horrified at the news of how the Mother of Dragons chooses to conduct business is meaningful. Remember that as early as season one, the duality of Dany’s approach to conquest has been on full display. On one hand, you’ve got her ordering the Dothraki to cease the rape and enslavement of the Lhazareen but ultimately ending the season by burning a woman who wronged her alive (to be fair Mirri deserved it, but she wasn’t totally in the wrong). You’ve got her freeing slaves and liberating cities, while enacting justice in the form of crucifixion and wanton murder. Fire and Blood.
This was all primer and a great story telling technique, as much as murder can be. It lent itself to having our Mhysa stay in Essos much longer than I think anyone in the audience was hoping for but it allowed for a more natural character progression than almost any other player got to experience. Having Dany go through the numerous steps to a throne, failing as often as she succeeded was integral to her being able to attempt the same in the West. And all the while her council, whether it be Jorah and Barristan, or Missandei and Tyrion, has preached patience and pardon. And for the most part, Dany has been kind and just. Only occasional murder and never in ways that felt unwarranted.
This has been easier for fans to stomach in Essos. The acts that the slavers see as part their legacy and cultural heritage (child theft, rape, fighting pits) were easier to despise. These are all miserable examples of a barbarity that a just ruler wouldn’t allow to happen and so any means are justified by those ends. It was in these arenas that the Breaker of Chains formed her style, and clearly this is a style that’s worked, undeniably so. This style has garnered her just as many followers and supporter inside the show as outside it, and it doesn’t hurt that she’s an incredibly likable character.
The problem that presents itself now is that so much of this style was forged in Essos. Essos where almost every character we’ve been introduced to is either a villain to destroy or an obstacle to overcome. Essos, where almost the entirety of Dany’s small council is made of exiled Westerosi. All of this to say that in GoT, particularly in show world, Essos is a location, Westeros is a character.
Westeros is filled with plenty of characters we loathe, plenty of characters whose debts we would love to see paid in dragon fire justice. To act as if Westeros is somehow holier than Essos because they don’t have a tri-cities area referred to as Slaver’s Bay is an act of willful ignorance. But Westeros is GoT. Westeros, Winterfell in particular, is the heart of this show, and almost all of the fan faves fall into those same particulars.
So we have Sam, who despite despising his father is still choked up at the idea of being the last male Tarly. The logic of basic representative democracy can’t be lost on Sam but honor, I suppose, dictates he be opposed to this invading Queen. After telling Jon about his parents he immediately asks if Dany would give up the crown for her people. As show watchers, eight seasons in, this question doesn’t have an obvious answer, which is how it should be. She’s already sacrificed so much but it was all, ultimately, for the crown.
We have a country, more specifically a region that is so focused on family name and legacy that they go to war over it like every other week. We know the names, we know the sigils, we know the words, we know the oaths. We understand this all so deeply, have been so trained by this show in the ways and means that what should essentially seem like a town hall meeting where local officials are on the verge of recalling Jon Snow, reads like high drama.
This means nothing to Dany.
That’s an idea bridge folks, a hammer line, and only meant to illustrate the idea that there’s a gulf between the reality of Westeros and Dany’s role as a conqueror. A singularly driven individual that is as motivated to protect a kingdom she hopes to rule, as opposed to a frozen land of zombies, as she is obliterating any enemies that oppose her along the way. At the most basic level, joining Jon and the Northmen is an enemy of my enemy situation, a battle tested method of army building in GoT if ever there was one. This however is a tough pill to swallow, particularly in the North which, I don’t know if you heard, remembers.
You can’t expect a Targaryen queen that burns those who won’t kneel to get the warmest of welcomes. Clearly, three entire conversations in the premiere were about who did and didn’t like each other. Targaryens have a lot of history here. Westerosi takes hostages, imprison folks, send people to the Wall (I know it’s got a hole in it now but not back then!) but that’s not how the Silver Lady works. Not yet anyways. She’s been counciled (extremely Tywin voice) she’s been steered and she’s relented on occasion but she obviously feels the need to display her hard won power. You might think someone with three er… two dragons still needing to flex might be overcompensating for something but I doubt that’s the case.
Now, of course, this is the first episode of the last season. We’ve had a lot of character development for so many of theses characters across the first six season but every timeline has been put into overdrive. It’s gotta end, and so spending another three years in the North, learning Westerosi culture and political language may not noticeably occur with the Night King hurtling towards Winterfell. As such, the ripples of the Queen’s arrival may be dealt with at a quicker pace than we’re used to. Everyone that took issue with the fast travel aspect of season seven, myself included, should be prepared for this to happen with the host of new interactions as well.
We don’t have seaons to build a relationship with Dany and Sansa, or to let the audience held knowledge of Jon’s true parentage simmer. Whatever is going to happen is going to happen fast, so whatever grace period, whatever honey moon or awestruck wonder that may have been granted to Dany is already gone. It may not matter because war may make fast friends of whoever remains. But it’s interesting to think that the same characterization that made Dany such a hero, such a fan favorite and undeniable force, may also be what sours her for people. Maybe that’s just the difference between Essos and Westeros.