TV + Movies

What Dany And ‘Game Of Thrones’ Can Teach Us About Imperialism

Don’t get me wrong, Dany is a fascinating character and Emilia Clarke absolutely brought her to life with brilliance and almost majestic intrigue. But, separating Dany from her on screen dazzle, there is much to be gleaned from this narrative about conquerors, imperialism, and the sway of captivating characters and nation states (in both history and real life). People are not one action or one choice; people are not summed up by one moment. People can be many things all at the same time; that’s, surely, a real human being. With Game of Thrones having come to an end, Daenerys has not been shown to simply have a rotten core, but rather, have a complex and fallible human character overtaken in her final chapter by the pitfall of hubris. The importance here is not that she is overtly “evil” – the important message here is that we, as an audience, did not fully see her actions objectively separated from her pleasant packaging, and moreso, that any character or nation or collective can succumb to its own worst impulses if not properly checked or viewed beyond its shiny veneer.

Daenerys (especially by the end) had a pretty hard and fast line on who was “good” or “bad”. She had her own moral code; her own justifications of what injustice deserves as retribution in her mind. In fact, she has even come to believe that her moral code has made her profoundly superior to others. And she has always, fundamentally seen herself and her life story as a result of having been “wronged” by the rulers of King’s Landing in her own personal mythology. It seems too, by the time we get to the end of the season, that she also has difficulty separating the people of King’s Landing from their leaders. She is “othering” these citizens and not viewing them as innocents, but as a faction “against her” or “in her way”. In this way, her endgame actions seem in further in line with her “character”.

She didn’t see the people of Kings Landing as innocent. She dehumanized them as an “other” that was inextricably linked to everything that has been taken from her – all of her pain and abuse. She conflated her rage at Cersei and her rage at all she and her family had lost with everyone around her. The key here is that she “others” these people. Every other people she had liberated worshipped her and called her mother. Here it’s notable that what really makes her lose her footing is that she’s ‘liberating’ these people and they don’t love her, they are simply scared of her. She can feel it. She is told she is a foreigner, an “other” and thusly, “others” them back. They aren’t happy she’s here and she decides they aren’t innocents – they are something in her way towards creating a group of civilians that will love her in the future.

She never cared about the traditions or cultures of the city-states she conquered in Essos. It was established as far back as Meereen that she was not a good queen. She didn’t listen to the people, her advisors, etc. and she was almost killed then. She didn’t care about the traditions of the Dothraki in Vas Dothrak because she wasn’t staying in that city, instead, she burned them all and took over their society. She always had no trouble destroying her enemies or those who wronged her without a flinch, so if she doesn’t view the people of King’s Landing as ‘innocents’ or ‘with her’ then it goes in line very well with her history and personality.

In her mind, revenge is always justified. And the ends justify the means. Therefore, crucifying all the leaders of a slave society doesn’t make her just as bad as them, it makes her righteous. But that’s not necessarily true. And that morally grey area is what Game of Thrones was all about. She doesn’t know the citizens of King’s Landing; she doesn’t humanize them; she doesn’t look at them as anything other than a disembodied part and parcel of something “taken” from her or “against her”. This attitude is narrow-minded yet not unlike other attitudes historically, even in recent history. She’s okay when things are black and white but as soon as things get complicated she has a hard time sussing things out. And she has a really hard time as seeing the “other” as anything other than a pawn for her own journey towards the domination she is “owed”.

Identity politics is crucial in shaping the audience experience here. If Dany looked like her brother (or even someone even less aesthetically pleasing), people might not have ever bought into her self-righteous personal mythology – viewers and the citizens of Westeros and Essos alike. But her packaging was dreamy and visionary and therefore it seems people never really looked at her actions with the same critical eye it was easy to give middle-aged males that obsessed over their own destiny and carried out merciless acts, or even females that elicit the “witchy” or even “crone” image of women like Cersei or Melisandre (whose seeming malice is more recognizably overt). Dany harkens instead to the image of the maiden, and her beauty and ‘innocence’ paints so many of her actions with a virtuous brush, from a viewer’s perspective. I don’t think this is meant to be sexist as much as illustrative of things not being exactly the way they seem, and the effectiveness of propaganda or packaging to sway our minds. She continuously over and over throughout the series chose to do and say veritably entitled, impatient and merciless things. And she never quite grasps the ignorance in the idea that “liberating” people in the manner you and only you as destined ruler sees fit doesn’t always bear the best results for the populace. Even beyond the burning people alive aspect – punting the hard lessons of learning how to actually care for a population of people and how to rule them is not so great.

And even more importantly, there’s an aspect of her actions rooted in classism. There’s a lack of care for the seemingly “lesser” civilizations that she overtakes. There’s a categorization and hierarchy of which parts of the world are meaningful and which are “undesirable”. Which places are only seen as a place to mine for resources as fuel towards accomplishing Dany’s more (notably) eurocentric ambitions? This is incredibly prescient and valuable storytelling – especially in this endgame reveal; in how we have not recognized it as an audience until finally, we see that perhaps the savior is not who we think they are. That we have not truly cared, up to this point, that she profoundly messed up, if not wholly ruined, the ecology of several other civilizations up to this point. She overturns slave-based economies with no plan on how to govern in the aftermath, not actually about taking care of them or transitioning them in a coherent way, then just bounces for the next place to ” liberate”. It’s a vitally important story, especially in America.

Dany’s savior complex got out of touch, as one would imagine it would – logically following all the experiences Dany had as the result of her dragons. From the first thrilling feeling of being worshipped and praised as a breaker of chains, through all the moments that confirmed that she was morally right and deserved the almost mythic levels of worship and success she achieved. These journeys will naturally make you even more deeply rooted in the sense that you alone are right, and know what is right. And moreso, it will drive you towards chasing that high of being worshipped – which can never quite be achieved in the same way again. Yet the lust for it surely compounds with each new group of followers attained. Eventually, it seemed as though she wanted to be loved and worshipped more than she actually wanted to learn how to actually help people. Actually governing is quite complex and she didn’t show a huge interest in really learning and listening about how to understand the people she wanted to rule. There’s even the fascinating conversation with Hizdahr in the fighting pits of Meereen where this precise topic is discussed, even back in season 5, about what she presumes to know is best for another culture. And because she has ‘built’ her success herself, it’s even easier to believe in her own singular power and truth. She also says in season 7 that she doesn’t believe in Gods, she quite literally only believes in herself; in her own mythology. Over time she has come to truly believe that she is the greater good, and that she is ‘liberating’ people in a way they themselves cannot foresee and cannot be trusted to choose for themselves. She loses grip on the larger picture because she believes herself to be the entire picture; she sees only herself as right – all others are either with her or against her. Rather than respecting, observing or listening to her people; they must either follow her, or they are in the way of her achieving her agenda that she alone knows is best for everyone. This tribalistic attitude is obviously dangerous, and even more so, not too distant some of our current, modern societal viewpoints. It’s important too, that this trait of Dany’s grows and gets more and more out of control as she has more ‘righteous’ success and fewer checks and balances. We have an implicit trust of her, based on our first perception of her, and have a hard time seeing the change in her actions and words objectively removed from the mythological image that she builds of herself, and that we too, as an audience, feed.

It’s important to note that what truly tips the scales for Dany towards her worst impulses is feeling the people turn away from her and not worship her. Whether it be Jon, or those in her service, or the people of King’s Landing which she never bothered to get to know or understand (seemingly lumping them in with Cersei); she feels the loss of worship, adoration and love and seems to feel devastatingly let down by this. She needs worship and validation, not the right thing at any cost. On the contrary, Jon’s men murder him and turn on him even after he did great things for other people and still he has the moral compass enough to keep doing the right thing no matter what. And far from claiming that she is simply evil, this is an understandable path and reasonable; if you have any temptation inside of yourself towards ego at all.

She’s also an elitist. She’s obsessed with her name and title and what that “entitles” her to just through birthright? Which is classically ridiculous monarchy nonsense – the type of which we feel is tyrannical coming from the Lannisters – but from her mouth, we don’t seem to hear it the same way. Importantly, Jon is innately without name (for most of his life, at least) and renounces titles and consistently turns down offers for power, lands, names. This elitism of Dany’s is seen in how she rules people without really understanding them or their culture of their needs whereas Jon is inherently the opposite – genuinely getting inside of cultures he doesn’t know and humbling himself to them and then helping them at great cost to himself and for no discernable reward.

If we want to see a new world, we have to change the meaning systems by which we measure value altogether. Start valuing new traits, new meanings, and you will see a new world. Dany still holds the old world’s value system in her hand – birthright, namesake, force of will, dominion through violence, singularly minded self-righteousness, revenge, and the ends justifying the means. I don’t believe any of this was lost on the writers of Game of Thrones or George RR Martin. I believe we are supposed to watch the corrupting nature of greed, lust for power, and the futility of trusting in elitism in and of itself. The clear dictatorial harkening at the end of Season 8 should make us aware that we often don’t see conquerors for what they are (until it is too late) – especially not when wrapped in a pleasant package. Far from this ending being “not earned” – perhaps as an audience we, in fact, should feel taken aback, only to truly look backwards on her words and actions and see her conquering in a different light. This proves to be a functional story with a truly an important lesson.

There’s a case to be made that the crux of Game of Thrones is about the futility of ego, glory and dominion – and corrupting nature of the quest for power. Dany originally serves the story to provide the narrative counterpart; to show how silly the elites of Westeros are in their petty squabbles with each other when they underestimate and don’t even know the perceived “lesser” people and threats above and below them. Then as she moves towards taking that power she has always provided a counter to, she now completes the point by showing once again the futility and inescapable corrupting power of the lust for power and dominion. She demonstrates how faulty it is to presume you alone know what’s best for another country, assert dominion through force and then try to reign over (or ‘fix’) a foreign people you don’t understand for your own agenda. How absolute power corrupts absolutely. And how the lust for dominion, power and hubris always prove to be the tragic folly of humanity. How the reach towards self above others can never truly free humanity from it’s lesser nature – as it is part of our lesser nature. And just because you are ‘good’ at one point in time, does not mean that you will not be corrupted by your own sense of self-righteousness. To presume the package of the ‘good guy’ is ‘good’ simply because it seems that way without truly analyzing its character and actions is dangerous. The ‘good guy’ presuming to know what’s best for a nation by raining fire down on its people to rid it of its tyrants; this couldn’t be a more prescient story to tell. This story is prescient both to our historical past as well as our contemporary present and future, and we would do well to look to Dany, her impulses, and our own fallibility, as an audience, to not have noticed her shortcomings sooner, as a cautionary tale.

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Lauren Suchenski is on Twitter @laurensuchenski. Follow Lauren on Instagram or read more articles from Lauren on Thought Catalog.