This article contains spoilers.
The third episode of the final season of Game of Thrones starts with some typically cool stuff. Melisandre, now helping the good guys instead of burning children at the stake, lights the swords of the Dothraki army on fire just before they rush into battle against the Walking Dead. We watch as the Dothraki’s swords – and the warriors themselves – are gradually extinguished. Then the Unsullied get their turn to be massacred and within minutes, almost all of the people of colour on this show are exterminated.
These were the “savages” that Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) civilised, the slaves she liberated, all of whom “chose” to believe her claims to queendom and die for her.
And just like that, Daenerys turns from white saviour to white sacrificer – and she remains one of the small handful of white people that might end up on the Iron Throne when the game is over. In fact, she appears to be hurtling towards a showdown with Cersei Lannister, who is a smart survivor and a ruthless psychopath.
But I’ll take the psychopath, thanks - or, if necessary, the boy scout with zero personality and a nice beard – Jon Snow aka Aegon Targaryen (who is Vegas’ pick).
I'll take anyone but Daenerys, who long ago went full “Mighty Whitey” on us and still doesn’t have a sense of humour about herself. And yet, bizarrely, there are plenty of people who actually want her to have the Iron Throne. Some even seem surprised and hurt by the idea that the show is setting her up to fail.
But just as the North remembers, so do I remember. And in a year when Green Book won best picture at the Oscars, I'm not sure I can take much more evidence that people still love a white saviour story.
I haven’t let my issue with this character dampen my enthusiasm for Game of Thrones, which remains a silly and gross but very entertaining (and progressive in some ways) soap opera that changed TV in a variety of important ways. But it's also really white. Which is fine! Lots of shows are. George RR Martin wanted to tell a fantasy story based on Medieval English history, which is full of white people.
But from the beginning, the Daenerys plot has been causing problems. A portrait of a well-meaning white queen overcoming life with the Dothraki, a set of nasty stereotypes of brown people randomly fighting and fornicating their way through life and never saying "thank you" (they don't have a word for it!). Then she starts "liberating" town after town, freeing legions of faceless slaves and crucifying their barbaric masters. Because she genuinely wants to make a difference in this non-white part of the world? Sort of. It’s mainly because she wants an army to help take the Iron Throne. And guess what? All those freed slaves want her to have that Iron Throne too. In fact, they call her “Mother” and, for reasons that have never been clear to me, prepare to lay down their lives for her.
The only people of colour characters to get anything close to development are Grey Worm (Jacob Anderson) and Missandei (Nathalie Emmanuel), two former slaves who worship their liberator. Every now and again, they are allowed to tell each other jokes and talk about their grim pasts (when they're not interrupted because Daenerys has an army to amass). But for the most part, they talk about how great Daenerys is, which does not pass a Bechdel test for race.
(I am not counting the darker-skinned characters from Dorne because it's a stand-in for Spain - but some of those roles are played by POCs.)
So I don’t care how many romantic, Neverending Story–style dragon rides she takes with her nephew Jon Snow, it's hard to forget that Daenerys’ power is built on the backs of brown slaves. Sure, she freed them - a fact that she reminds us of over and over again - but she didn't do it so they could live their own lives. She freed them so they can “choose” to be in her army to fight people they’ve never met. Maybe some of those slaves wanted to stay home and start careers as blacksmiths or farmers or whatever. “I will take what is mine,” she says, threatening to burn cities to the ground. “With fire and blood I will take it.”
And we’re supposed to root for her to become queen because she’s got the flying lizards and has the ability to pull off an impressive dress-over-pants combo? I don’t think so.
There’s some speculation that the awful end of season three, when a smiling Daenerys ends up crowd surfing on the freed slaves calling her “Mother”, is intentionally negative and uncomfortable. That it sets up some sort of fall for Daenerys at the end of the show. Apparently there’s some evidence in the books for this – that the Daenerys plot is a critique of the white saviour complex, not an endorsement of it.
But unless Daenerys, on her deathbed, confesses that being a white saviour was the wrong way to go AND admits that she should have handled all that liberation differently AND somehow the show comes up with a bunch of interesting black and brown characters, it’ll be too little too late.
In the meantime, I accept that, like a lot of great entertainment throughout history, Game of Thrones is about white people. But I refuse to bend the knee.
And if we have to put a white lady in charge at the end of all this, the clear choice is Arya Stark.
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