Friday, July 19, 2013

Strong Female Character Friday: Daenerys from Game of Thrones

I recently rewatched season one of Game of Thrones, that marvelous show that reminds us exactly what we keep HBO around for, and I realized something simple and yet devastatingly important.

Daenerys has changed a lot since season one.

This sounds like an incredibly simple idea, because isn’t it the job of characters to change, after all? Well, yes and no. On the one hand, good characters are defined by their ability to change in the face of evolving circumstances. But on the other, it’s very easy to be pulled away from that by the demands of a fanbase – demands that make it hard to significantly change an established character. Just look at House.

So when I say that Daenerys has changed a lot since season one, what I really mean is more complicated than that. What I actually mean is that Daenerys has grown, learned, advanced as a person, and this makes me happy. It also makes her one of the best characters on that show.

Here’s why.

If you don’t know it, Game of Thrones is the kind of show that cable television was invented to bring to us. Based on the improbably successful book series by George R. R. Martin, the show is like Lord of the Rings on steroids, with literally hundreds of characters, dozens of noble families, and arguably ten different protagonists, following each story as the citizens of Westeros fight and die trying to claim the Iron Throne.

It’s kind of amazing. The story is vast and yet personal enough for you to care deeply about it. The families and characters are both broadly characterized, like the Starks and their inherent honor and decency, and also individualized, as seen in the difference between Ned Stark’s “honor before everything” and Arya Stark’s “honor is good but so is murder” philosophies.

The general plot follows the kingdom of Westeros as it descends into civil war with the death of its king. This king, Robert (played by Mark Addy from A Knight’s Tale), was the first of his dynasty, having taken the throne by brutal force seventeen years earlier when he deposed the old king, Aerys Targaryen.

For the record, a lot of the show involves exposition like that and for some reason it remains eminently watchable, and also freaking amazing. I think the writers might be wizards.

Anyway, Robert dies and the whole kingdom erupts into chaos as five kings compete for the throne and argue over who is the true heir.

But all of that is nothing compared to the story happening just across the ocean with little Daenerys Targaryen, daughter of the deposed king. Because while the men are fighting and dying over a throne that will probably just lead to their deaths even if they get it, Daenerys is doing something no one else on the show seems capable of doing: she’s learning from her freaking mistakes and becoming a better ruler.

It’s weird how rare that is.

In season one, we meet Daenerys as she’s being sold in marriage to a Dothraki warlord. The Dothraki are sort of like the Mongols, and the warlord she’s being sold to is kind of like Genghis Khan. Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) is understandably nonplussed about the idea of spending the rest of her life living in a tent with Khal Drogo (Jason Momoa), and she spends the first few episodes kind of reeling from the turn her life has taken.

And then she decides that sitting around peacefully is boring, and if she’s going to be queen (Khaleesi) of the horse people, then she’s going to be the best damn Khaleesi they’ve ever seen.

This is the moment where most of the viewing audience sat up and took notice. But it got even better from there.

Daenerys gets pregnant in short order, and naturally she and Drogo are thrilled to learn that she’s going to have a son. Dany believes that her son will be a great conqueror, and dreams of the Iron Throne that he will take back, reclaiming Westeros in the name of her family. As their little family grows, Drogo attacks neighboring peoples and gathers an army to go storm his wife’s country, and help bring his unborn son closer to victory.

In the process of this pregnancy and warpath, the Dothraki army attacks some peaceful shepherding people, and takes them as slaves. Daenerys, thinking she’s doing them a great favor, takes them under her wing as her personal slaves, to serve her, and commands that no one rape or harm them. Good for her, right?

Well, kind of. Except not.

It’s really painful to accept, as you’re watching Dany rise in power and influence, and getting excited about her future prospects, but she actually makes a bunch of stupid and kind of terrible choices. The biggest of which is this: she assumes that everyone she sees is the same as her.

I know that might not sound as dramatic as I want it to, so I urge you to fully consider what that means. Daenerys isn’t guilty of a huge crime in season one, just a little one, but it’s a little one that will reshape her whole life as she becomes aware of it.

She’s so wrapped up in herself, her own ambition, and her future son, that she misses the injustice around her. She fails to see that the people she’s “saved” are understandably pissed off, and that they don’t see her as some merciful queen. To them, she’s the bitch who burned their home, slaughtered their families, and intervened too late to stop the worst of the rapes. It’s hard to think about a character that way, especially a character you love, but it’s true.

And more than being true, it’s actually kind of good. Because Daenerys, once she’s aware of this, changes.

She sees that her actions were wrong. She sees that she has made a grave error. And instead of cursing the sky or weeping or seeking restitution for her wrongs, Daenerys does the single hardest thing a person can do. She accepts her responsibility, and learns from her mistake.

That’s it.

It’s not until season three that you really see it, to be fair, but once you do, it’s hard to look away from. Daenerys didn’t just learn her lesson in a simple way, that if you’re going to be a warlord you should probably stop expecting the people you conquer to love you for it, she learned it in a complex and deeply thoughtful way. She learned how to rule.

Game of Thrones is a good show full of good, complex characters. But none of them really holds a candle to Daenerys (except maybe Sansa Stark, who I love). Dany is the only one who really learns from her past, not just seeing a way to change basic circumstances, but taking in the whole meaning and the full implications of a situation.

After she realized that taking slaves wasn’t just morally wrong but also counter-productive, she instituted a new policy: free all the slaves then invite them into her army. And when that worked she expanded it. Give the slaves the option of freedom and ask them if they want to take it or not. Give them their agency back, and see what they do.

It’s so freaking refreshing to see. A character who grows. A character who changes. A character who, honestly, screws up. But then a character who makes it right.

It would be so easy for her to be badly written too, or even just more conventionally written. The daughter of a deposed king sold in marriage to a brutal warlord? It sounds like a bad romance novel plot. And Daenerys herself, well we could easily expect her to be just a little girl, spoiled, illogical, and unaware of the world around her. A teenager. And she is. At the beginning.

Tyrion Lannister might be a better politician, and Jon Snow has that whole epic thing going on for him, but for my money, Daenerys Targaryen is the most intriguing character on the show, because when she screws up she learns from it. And then she rocks your world.

This was the best "drop the mic" scene I've ever seen.

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