How Game of Thrones Made Monsters of Us All

How Game of Thrones Made Monsters of Us All

In its final episodes, Game of Thrones achieves something truly worthy of note: it forces its audience to reckon with the reality that we all too easily indulge in the worst aspects of human nature.

Yet while Daenerys’ ascent to power is an inspiring tale for many, there are dark hints of what was to come. Early on, Daenerys reaches a region known as Slaver’s Bay, named such because its various city-states serve as the central hubs for the global slave trade. Initially, she arrives with her small-ish band of followers to the first of these cities, Astapor, as a potential buyer. She eventually strikes a bargain with an exceedingly rude slaver to buy his entire army of exceedingly efficient eunuch slave soldiers, called the Unsullied, in exchange for one of her dragons. But moments after the exchange is complete and the loyalty of the Unsullied is secure, Daenerys turns the tables on the entirety of Astapor. In the television show, she orders the Unsullied to “Slay the masters, slay the soldiers, slay every man who holds a whip, but harm no child. Strike the chains off of every slave you see!”

The sacking of Astapor is a thing to behold on television. The Unsullied kill the surprised and defenseless slave masters of Astapor, whose own guards are helpless to stop the slaughter (and are themselves quickly killed). One of Daenerys’ young dragons flies around, torching the city’s ramparts in a manner akin to a U.S. jet fighter on a bombing run in Vietnam. It is quite the cinematic moment, and you can scarcely blame the show’s audience for enjoying it. The Guardian’s reviewer of the show, Sarah Hughes, probably spoke for many (including myself, I must confess) when she wrote that Daenerys’ “speech to the Masters of Astapor literally had me cheering out loud. […] there was something undeniably thrilling about watching the young dragon queen lead her now freed army out of the ransacked city of Astapor as her dragons circled overhead.”

This event marked the beginning of Daenerys’ crusade to liberate the entirety of Slaver’s Bay. And, as one might guess, it also turned her into a cultural icon—both within the world Game of Thrones and outside of it. Within it, slaves and freedmen across Slaver’s Bay begin to call Daenerys “the Breaker of Chains,” referring to her dedication to freeing the enslaved peoples of the region. In our world, she began to be regarded as something of a role model, a feminist icon, and an exemplar (if rather ruthless) abolitionist. Mothers have taken to naming children after the character. Data provided by the Social Security Administration in 2018, for example, revealed that 560 baby girls in that year were named “Khaleesi,” in reference to one of Daenerys’ titles.

Perhaps those parents should have been a bit more cautious. After all, although Daenerys freed the slaves of Astapor, this does not change the fact that she sacked an entire city, killing thousands in the process (though they were guilty or complicit in the slave trade).

Yet there was more to come. Filled with a newfound sense of purpose, Daenerys then set upon Yunkai, the next slaver city-state, and swiftly liberated its slaves. She then marched on the final slaver city-state of Meereen, which, as a warning against her, crucified 163 slave children along the road. In response, Daenerys incites the city’s slaves to rebel and open the gates (in the books, she proceeds to sack Meereen as well). Then, in what probably should have been another sign of things to come, Daenerys decides to exact eye-for-eye vengeance upon Meereen’s slave masters by crucifying 163 of them along the city’s streets.

Television show audiences did not seem too upset at this though. After all, who could possibly dislike Daenerys’ instantly classic line of “I will answer injustice with justice,” particularly in our contemporary modern era, where calling for some form of “justice” or another is all the rage? And once again, how could you possibly feel sympathy for slaver scum?

At this point, Daenerys is making it quite clearly that impudent challenges to her well-meaning rule will be met with swift, ruthless punishment. Her thought process is on full display during her occupation of Meereen. In a conversation with her knight, Ser Jorah Mormont, concerning what should be done about the slave masters of Yunkai (who reinstitute slavery after her departure), Daenerys elaborates on what she believes is the proper course of action:

Jorah: Without you there to rule, Khaleesi, I fear the masters will simply bide their time, wait for the invaders to leave and reassert control.

Daenerys: That is why I've ordered Daario to execute every master in Yunkai. The masters tear babies from their mothers’ arms. They mutilate little boys by the thousands. They train little girls in the art of pleasuring old men. They treat men like beasts, as you said yourself.

Jorah: Herding the masters into pens and slaughtering them by the thousands is also treating men like beasts. The slaves you freed, brutality is all they've ever known. If you want them to know something else, you’ll have to show it to them.

Daenerys: And repay the slavers with what? Kindness? A fine? A stern warning?

Jorah: It’s tempting to see your enemies as evil, all of them, but there’s good and evil on both sides in every war ever fought.

Daenerys: Let the priests argue over good and evil! Slavery is real. I can end it. I will end it. And I will end those behind it.

Jorah: I sold men into slavery, Khaleesi.

Daenerys: And now you are helping me show them to freedom.

Jorah: I wouldn't be here to help you if Ned Stark had done to me what you want to do to the masters of Yunkai.

Jorah’s point is crucial: a world without compassion, mercy, and absolution to those who do wrong and commit evil has nary a chance to be a better one than the one we live in. By treating the slavers the same way that they treat their slaves, Daenerys perpetuates the kind of oppressive brutality she seeks to destroy. The only lesson that the former slaves of Astapor, Yunkai, and Meereen would learn is that power alone is the only thing that matters in this world—freedom is granted by the sword, and merely a desire for it does not. As for the masters of Slaver’s Bay, all they’ve ever known is their own traditional way of life. They can scarcely conceive of a different way of living, particularly one that outright demands the end of their existing privileges. If their only choices are submission, death, or fighting back, why would they not fight back?

In short, Jorah is suggesting to Daenerys that if her true goal is an ending to slavery, oppression, and tyranny, then she must conceive of an entirely new social system. One where either those above and below can govern together, or one where such distinctions do not exist. Merely trading one set of rulers for another will not suffice.

It is both a lesson and problem that Daenerys only partially absorbs. After contemplating Jorah’s words for a moment, she orders that a cooperating Meereenese nobleman and former slaver, Hizdahr zo Loraq, accompany her men to Yunkai, stating that: “He will tell the masters what has happened in Meereen. He will explain the choice they have before them. They can live in my new world or they can die in their old one.”

With this, Daenerys inadvertently revealed something crucial about herself: she does not have a solution to the dilemma Jorah raised. While she genuinely means well and aspires to build a better world for all, she hasn’t been able to conceive of a truly different form of society where that can work. She is pursuing a modified version of the status quo—one with herself at the helm. And like others who sit at the pinnacle of power, she demands loyalty, with death being the price of noncompliance. It is a form of coercion rather than true mercy, born out of a self-assurance that only she knows what is right and just. It is this pride, that most ancient enemy of mankind, that sets Daenerys on her path.

Subverting Expectations?

The climax and ending of Game of Thrones has been less than well received. Daenerys ends up putting King’s Landing to the sword, ruthlessly exterminating most of the city’s population. Men, women, and children are all incinerated as she rides her dragon across the city, whilst her armies fight down below, cutting down anyone who dares raise a hand against them. All those who defied her are crushed; the dead are rendered silent.

Viewers of the show, at first jubilant and triumphant, enjoying the sight of Daenerys destroying the city’s defenses and quickly pushing Cersei Lannister’s forces into unilaterally surrendering, were shocked and appalled when Daenerys proceeded to scorch the entire city, street by street. For almost an hour, they are forced to watch the highly-graphic and gruesomely detailed massacre and sacking of King’s Landing from multiple on-the-ground perspectives.

It was, to put it in socially polite and politically neutral terms, a “controversial” and “divisive” decision.