The Deeper Dilemma for Daenerys in Game of Thrones

The heroes on the show talk about saving common lives. The show itself has been cavalier with such lives.

Dany’s side wants to save the marginal: all the men and women who aren’t kissed by destiny. But accomplishing that mission may take the mass death of those exact people. (HBO)

This article contains spoilers for Game of Thrones Season 8, Episode 4.

As Tyrion and Varys debated whether to turn on the queen they serve in the most recent episode of Game of Thrones, one of them made clear that Daenerys Targaryen is not his ultimate boss. Something more abstract is.

“You know where my loyalty stands,” Varys told Tyrion. “You know I will never betray the realm.”

“What is the realm?” Tyrion replied. “A vast continent home to millions of people, most of whom don’t care who sits on the Iron Throne.”

“Millions of people, many of whom will die if the wrong person sits on that throne,” Varys said. “We don’t know their names, but they’re just as real as you and I. They deserve to live. They deserve food for their children. I will act in their interest, no matter the personal cost.”

His response had the ring of a presidential stump speech rallying for a stronger social safety net. But it drew on even broader political philosophies. We don’t know their names, but they’re just as real as you and I is a simple reality with not-so-simple historical implications. Thou shalt not kill; all men are created equal; liberté, égalité, fraternité—each phrase is a way of codifying a universal right to life. Just about every great social conflict comes down to enforcing, expanding, or limiting such codes. American anti-racism activists have recently put the implied tension in stark new terms, asking: Whose lives really matter?

As Thrones enters its final sprint, this question is also emerging as a central one in the story. The societies of the show had long tolerated regular folks getting crushed under the “wheel” of noble-house intrigue, smashed like so many of Orson Lannister’s beetles. In Westeros, men of power—Joffrey, Ramsay—tortured and killed for pleasure and personal gain; in Essos, oligarchs enslaved vast populations. But the heroes of the show, in their various ways, fought for human value and agency. Arya avenged the unjustly killed. The Hound recanted his murderous past and swore to follow a new, more empathetic code. Jon Snow rallied against the dead in the name of protecting all who live. Dany says her destiny is to end tyranny—to liberate commoners from cruel rulers.

Her coalition has a perfect foil in Cersei Lannister, who talks openly of using her subjects as human shields and has surrounded herself with similar misanthropes. The best scene of this week’s episode may have been when Tyrion attempted to negotiate with Cersei’s adviser Qyburn. Trying to persuade the former maester to swing negotiations toward peace, Tyrion says that he doesn’t “want to hear the screams of children burning alive.” Qyburn’s reply is all too muted: “No, it is not a pleasant sound.” A look of bafflement comes over Tyrion’s face, followed by resignation. He’s realizing that the two sides of the war are not separated merely in loyalty, but also in morality.

Dany knows this fact all too well. Referring to her drive to King’s Landing as “the last war,” she has the same optimism as thwarted idealists who talked about the “war to end all wars” in 1914. Yet the conflict is not as simple as a battle between those who value life versus those who are fine with mass death (that was last week’s battle). Maximizing the common good is a fine goal, but what does that mean in practice? Dany appears to believe that eliminating a horrible tyrant at the cost of a city’s population will be an acceptable trade-off. Varys sees her call on that count as a troubling sign: More compromises involving mass murder may come to pass under a Queen Daenerys. Fans are speculating that Dany is going “mad” like her father, who enjoyed burning his perceived enemies alive. What’s happening more explicitly is a clash of calculations about which ends justify which means, and Thrones has so far been coy about how that math should play out.

In fact, it feels strange to have such a high-minded ethical dilemma unfolding in this particular show’s brutal universe. Thrones has made a mockery of traditional ideas about “goodness” and “heroism”; some of the most outwardly noble characters—Ned, Robb—brought on their spectacular demise by sticking to codes of honesty and selflessness. But perhaps what’s been going on the whole time is a delineation between honor and goodness. Following a restrictive oath and insisting on telling the truth may serve some abstract notion of what’s right, but it doesn’t always save lives. On this show, it can do quite the opposite.

Thrones’ supernatural side also throws kinks in quests to save “the realm.” After all, the show’s gods regularly intervene in mortal affairs, designating some lives as more significant than others. Jon Snow rose from the dead once; Beric Dondarrion did so multiple times. But in both cases, a logic is being followed: Save one life to save the many. Beric rescued Arya, who rescued humankind. That they were confronting the Night King at all is thanks to Jon. “Chosen one” types, Thrones insists, are saviors in the literal sense of the word. Dany believes that she is one such savior—that she’s serving “destiny”—and she may be right. As Tyrion points out when Varys is complaining about the khaleesi’s destiny obsession, she really did walk out of a blazing fire with three hatched dragons. Some god is on her side.

Which, it must be remembered, is a way of saying that the showrunners have been on her side. Fiction authors are gods of sorts, and certain characters inevitably matter more to the story. One of the discomfiting things about this season has been how plainly the calculations about such worthiness have been made. In the run-up to the Battle of Winterfell, a bevy of farewell scenes telegraphed one of the most famous themes of Thrones: Anyone can die. Yet when the battle came, more characters survived than were expected, and there was no rational explanation for why they did. Rather, a call clearly had been made by the showrunners about who was most expendable in the cast, and who they still needed for the plots they’d planned for later in the season.

With each death, too, comes the question of whether the character gets the “proper” send-off—a way of dying, and a post-death mourning, that feels proportional to the value he or she provided to the show. The funereal opening of this latest episode served that purpose while also underscoring the life-matters philosophy held on one side of the Last War. Jon’s speech placed particular emphasis on the weight of each person lost. “We’re here to say goodbye to our brothers and sisters, to our fathers and mothers, to our friends,” he said, in the sternest voice he’s ever used. “Our fellow men and women who set aside their differences to fight together and die together so that others might live. Everyone in this world owes them a debt that can never be repaid.”

Yet on the pyres were the Dothraki, the Essos fighters whose fate on Thrones has generated a wave of criticism from viewers. The Dothraki riders represented a large portion of a society that had pledged fealty to Daenerys. At the Battle of Winterfell, they were sent out in front of the rest of the army, and then quickly, quietly snuffed out. The only mention of them on Sunday was when Tyrion, in passing, said that “the bulk of the remaining Dothraki” would ride south. But they did not get  a memorial moment other than a brief shot in the funeral scene. If the Dothrakis’ entire arc involved racist tropes—noble savages, white saviors—it may have now ended with one final one. Their lives, from the point of view of Thrones as a TV show, didn’t matter very much.

With that precedent set, the public beheading of Daenerys’s adviser Missandei seems particularly cruel. It’s not that she, the only woman of color in the regular cast, didn’t matter: Dany and Grey Worm were defined, in part, by how much they loved her. As a kidnapped and enslaved citizen of a peaceful island nation, Missandei most exemplified the importance of Dany’s breaker-of-chains mission. For a tyrant to execute her just to taunt a would-be liberator has, thus, great symbolic weight. But that’s the problem—she served mostly as a symbol and a means through which other characters were developed. She was captured offscreen by the Lannisters and given one final (though powerful) word at the moment of her death: an ending that reflected how marginal Missandei was made to be all along.

In a way, her death—which has the feel of happening mostly to spur action in Dany—reflects the grim paradox of the Dragon Queen’s mission as she pushes forward into King’s Landing. Dany’s side wants to save the marginal: all the men and women who aren’t kissed by destiny. But accomplishing that mission may take the mass death of those exact people. Dany is taking it upon herself to make the call on who gets to enjoy their inherent right to existence and whose rights will have to be suspended for the greater good. In this, she is just another hierarchical ruler—someone whose life ends up mattering more because she makes the call on which other lives matter at all. If she really wants to “break the wheel” that imparts power to such rulers, she’ll have to overcome doubters like Varys, who want a gentler emperor rather than her sitting on the same old throne.