SPOILERS, obviously, if you’re not caught up on season 7.
So something’s been bothering me over the last few episodes of Game of Thrones.
After losing allies Olenna Tyrell and Elliara Sand to Cersei’s machinations, Dany attacks the Lannister’s supply convoy as it returns to Westeros. The result is one of the most epic battles in Game of Thrones history. The Lannister soldiers would have been decimated by Dany’s Dothraki army alone. But when you throw in being torched by a freakin’ dragon, the result is…pretty amazing. (Seriously. If you haven’t watched it, you need to do so immediately. And if you have watched it, you need to go back and watch it again.)
That’s not why I’m upset.
In the next episode, Dany tells the surviving Lannister soldiers that they must pledge their allegiance to her, or they will be killed. Most submit. A few refuse. Two of them are Randyll and (the unfortunately named) Dickon Tarly, better known as Samwell’s assholish father and brother. Randyll, in a speech laced with xenophobia and racism, says that he will never submit to a foreign queen with an army of savages. Dickon is less certain than his father, but he’s a daddy’s boy. So they both get torched.
The rest of the Lannister army, not surprisingly, decides to bend the knee.
Tyrion spends the next two episodes fretting about this. Dany was supposed to be different than this, right? She’s not supposed to be violent. Maybe she’s going crazy like her father, Mad King Aerys, who burned his subjects to death willy-nilly.
How quickly Tyrion forget that last season, he watched while Dany burned an entire hut full of Dothraki khals to the ground, gaining herself a Dothraki horde in the process. And unlike Randyll and Dickon Tarly, the khals never got the choice to bend the knee. But Tyrion never worried about that.
But I guess I can understand Tyrion’s angst. For better or worse, he grew up among the great families of Westeros. He probably had dinners and play dates with a Tarly or two, and Dickon Tarly looks an awful lot like Tyrion’s own brother, Jaime (who almost died in the flames of Dany’s dragon.) But what irritated me is that we, the viewers, are supposed to wonder whether Dany’s going crazy and/or abusing her power, too. When Tyrion talks to Varys–usually the voice of reason for putting entitled lords in their place–he tries to downplay his concerns by saying he can’t make Dany’s decisions for her. Varys’s response: “That’s what I used to tell myself about her father when he was burning everyone alive.”
But the truth is, Dany has always been judicious in her use of violence. If she’d wanted to take Westeros by force, she could have flown her dragons in and torched the Red Keep a long time ago. She hasn’t done that, because she wants to minimize the loss of innocent lives. And in killing Randyll and Dickon Tarly, she gains an asset she was sorely lacking before: a Westerosi army loyal to her.
But I don’t think the real problem is Tyrion, or Varys…it’s the show itself. The racial optics of Game of Thrones have always been troubling, especially Dany’s story. One scene in particular has always stuck out to me. In the season 3 finale, after Dany frees the slaves in Yunkai, they lift her up on their shoulders and call her “mhysa”–Ghiscari for “mother.” You can still see Dany’s blonde hair and pale skin as the camera pans out, the lone white savior among a sea of brown people. (Fast forward to about 3:55 in the video and then watch until the credits roll.)
For the first several seasons, the show didn’t even have any leading non-white characters. The only ones it has on the show now, Missandei and Grey Worm, are both former slaves who were, surprise surprise, freed by Dany.
Let’s not forget that the show’s creators, David Benioff and D. B. Weiss, are also in the process of creating an alternate history series, Confederate, in which the south wins the Civil War–and they were shocked, shocked I tell you, to realize that people might not think it was such a great idea. (For the record…I think it could be an interesting concept, if executed correctly. I just don’t think Benioff and Weiss are the ones to do it.)
Dany’s behavior–particularly, her use of violence–hasn’t changed much in the last few seasons. Hell, she showed herself willing to burn people alive all the way back in season 1. If it’s a problem now, it was a problem before. But the show never called it out, because it assumes we will care about white people more.