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Daenerys Was Always A Narcissistic, Power-Hungry Colonizer

Dany’s descent into genocidal horror was an undeveloped turn of events, not an undeserved one.

By Nylah Burton

This essay contains spoilers for HBO’s “Game of Thrones” and discussion of r/pe

On the latest episode of HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” Daenerys Targaryen, also called Dany, shocked viewers by laying waste to King’s Landing via dragonfire despite hearing the bells of surrender, quickly transforming her from a fan-favorite and a feminist icon into a bloodthirsty war criminal. This enraged many viewers, many of whom have viewed her as an inherently kind, benevolent, and feminist ruler who fell victim to misogynistic writing.

While cramming its final season into only six episodes has made it feel rushed, despite the show runners being offered more money for a longer, more well-rounded season, this bloodbath was consistent with what has always been Dany’s creed: entitlement, imperialism, and colonization. The misogynistic and racist nature of the show hasn’t imbued Dany with murderous tendencies without cause, but has obfuscated or justified her worst traits. This intentional choice by the writers exacerbates the betrayal many viewers are feeling. It also reveals a cognitive dissonance among both the show’s viewers and writers, who support or accept Dany’s colonial interests when her subjects are non-white representations of indigenity, but will shudder in horror and disbelief when her victims are white.

Dany’s destiny as a murderous colonizer is first explored Season 1, when she experiences “betrayal” at the hands of Mirri Maz Duur, a brown medicine woman who is raped by the bloodriders of Dany’s husband, Khal Drogo, while her friends and family were slaughtered so the Dothraki could pillage resources for Dany’s war to capture the Iron Throne. Dany “saves” Mirri Maz Duur and the other women from further sexual violence by making them her personal servants, bringing them firmly under her rule. Her saving these women is not mercy, but another form of brutality. She never suggests calling off the war or returning what they have stolen, fully prepared to benefit from the murder and rape of an entire village. Even her decision to save the women from being assaulted stems from her ongoing power struggle with both Khal Drogo and his bloodriders, which she predicates on the contrast between her Westorosi “civility,” and their “barbarism.” Mirri Maz Duur directly challenges Dany’s brand of interventionism as functionally useless, saying, “Saved me? Three of those riders had already raped me before you saved me, girl. I saw my god’s house burn… In the streets I saw piles of heads… So… tell me again exactly what it was that you saved?

As revenge, Mirri Maz Duur puts Khal Drogo in a vegetative state and causes a pregnant Dany to miscarry. In retaliation, Dany burns her alive, using the flames to birth three dragons who will become the source of Dany’s power. The writers chose to present Mirri Maz Duur as an evil woman who killed Dany’s true love, even though Khal Drogo repeatedly violated her. Following these deaths, Dany becomes a messianic figure who makes brown people bow to her in awe. Mirri Maz Duur’s losses, rape, and murder were Dany’s first acts of cruelty, and yet they are portrayed as the genesis of her heroic story-arc, even though she had refused to heed Dothraki warnings about how harm might befall Khal Drogo at the hands of Mirri Maz Duur, exhibiting her disregard for indigenous knowledge and practices as well as her need to bend others to her will regardless of the consequences.

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Her actions encapsulate the essence of white saviorism, and she continues this pattern as she travels through Valyria, “freeing” slaves, and even though she is portrayed by the writers as a liberatory figure, she is nothing more than a colonial power. In Astapor, she attempts to buy Unsullied slave soldiers. She kills the slavemaster and weaponizes her moral superiority to acquire a massive army for free, gaining unconditional loyalty from former slaves, who almost worship her. Dany used her “empathy” and white saviorism to grow her following. It was never about benevolence. Her “kind heart,” as Jorah refers to it, is ultimately self-serving.

Mirri Maz Duur’s murder is a prime example of Dany’s narcissism, which propels most of her decisions for the entirety of the show. Instead of honoring her self-proclaimed values of autonomy, Dany crushes any rebellion against her, and uses morality as a justification. She must be repeatedly dissuaded from using extreme violence, but her restraint is mostly motivated by her desire to conquer Westeros, which requires maintaining her moral superiority so she can be a better option than the evil Queen Cersei. After burning all the Dothraki warlords to death, her companion tells her that she is a conqueror, not a ruler. This is a sobering message and a dire warning regarding her ability to be a good leader. Instead of exploring that angle, however, the writers choose to turn this moment into an inspirational, rousing scene.

Dany is obsessed with claiming her ‘‘rightful’’ inheritance to Westeros, but her family are colonizers. Originally from Valyria, not Westeros, the Targaryens conquered the Seven Kingdoms with dragonfire.

Jorah: Forgive me, Khaleesi, but your ancestor – Aegon the Conqueror – didn’t seize six of the kingdoms because they were his right, he had no right to them. He seized them because he could.

Daenerys: And because he had dragons.

Dany’s heritage also forces us to examine another deliberate choice by the writers: to portray Dany as a white woman when her ancestral homeland, Valyria, is a region with mostly brown people. Her whiteness is a conscious choice that informs both how the audience interprets Dany and what transgressions the audience permits of her. What’s worse, while making her adversaries violent, sexist, brown men, the writers show her quest as some kind of feminist victory. It’s telling, the extent to which colonialism can be justified, especially when the colonizers themselves are valorized in the narrative.

Despite Westeros not being her true homeland and her never having even seen it, despite the fact that the people had overthrown her father and killed her entire family, Dany still clings to a stunningly entitled belief that the people of Westeros should welcome her rule and comply with her commands. Only when Dany finally reaches Westeros and comes in contact with representations of white indigeneity in the North do the writers explicitly ask us to question the validity of Dany’s right to rule every group of people she encounters. When Sansa remains dedicated to the North retaining their sovereignty despite Dany’s expansive aspirations, the show allows us to see her as a hero standing up to a bully, but every non-white society Dany conquered was forced to give up their sovereignty in service of her moral superiority. The implicit message here is that brown indigeneity is purpose-less and morally depraved, but white representations of indigenity are bold,  honorable, ungovernable, and possessing the right of self-determination.

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Part of Dany’s appeal to the audience is her status as foil to Queen Cersei, even though they both are ruthless in their quest for power. While Cersei is portrayed as almost cartoonishly lacking in empathy, Dany is meant to be read as saturated with it, and the audience seems willing to justify colonialism if it comes with an appealing and charming colonizer. When Dany executes the Tarlys because they won’t comply with her rule, viewers sees it as justified. When Cersei threatens to do the same to Ned Stark, audiences hiss in anger. When Cersei sleeps with her brother and proclaims her love for him, the audience is disgusted. When Daenerys does the same with her nephew, people root for them to get married. People excuse or demonize behavior according to who is enacting them.

Dany’s decision to burn King’s Landing is portrayed as a direct result of her nephew/subject/boyfriend Jon Snow/Aegon Targaryen rejecting her romantic advances after learning their familial connection. This, along with Jon disobeying her orders to keep his parentage a secret, enrages her and she sees it as a betrayal. But this is not a sudden change in character or a knee-jerk reaction to romantic rejection, because Dany is a ruler who has solicited fanatic loyalty from her subjects, who believes herself to be a messianic figure with an intrinsic right to all-reaching power. She has always reacted violently when someone rejects her rule and has only practiced restraint as a means to an end. Jon’s “betrayal” shows her that the people of Westeros will never see her in the same worshipful light as her conquered subjects in Valyria. When the possibility of that kind of loyalty dissipates, the citizens of King’s Landing lose their purpose, and the fear she instills by decimating the population serves to solidify her claim to the Iron Throne.

Dany’s descent into genocidal horror was an undeveloped turn of events, not an undeserved one — writers refused to interrogate her colonial nature when she imposed colonial rule on brown people, forcing the audience to reckon with it only when she turns her eye towards white people. In some ways, the audience’s refusal to see Dany as an inherently violent character, whose colonial aspirations make her irredeemable, is reflective of our inability to see our own society in this light, even when we cause similar destruction in non-white countries. Dany has always been a narcissistic colonizer, and genocide is the inevitable consequence of colonialism.

Nylah Burton is Denver-based writer with bylines in New York Magazine, ESSENCE, Bustle, and The Nation. You can follow her on Twitter, at @yumcoconutmilk

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