Every week, Todd VanDerWerff will be joined by two of Vox's other writers to discuss the latest episode of Game of Thrones. Check out the recap for this episode here, and follow the whole discussion here. This week, Todd is joined by foreign policy writer Zack Beauchamp and politics writer Andrew Prokop. Come back throughout the week for entries.
Andrew Prokop: Todd, you mused last week that despite Game of Thrones' increasing emphasis on Dany as the potential savior of Westeros, you think she might be "a feint on [George R. R.] Martin's part." I would take that a step further — I've long believed the next big twist ahead could be that Dany will become, effectively, the villain of the story.
It's difficult for many to imagine Dany breaking bad because she's been one of the series' most moral figures. Where most other characters have ignored the exploitation and abuse of the least powerful, Dany has actually tried to do something about it. She's been on a multi-season quest to end slavery!
But it's actually Dany's status as a moral and sympathetic person that could make her possible fall the most compelling and tragic. Because in the end, Dany still wants to conquer Westeros — and since season one, Game of Thrones has been presenting her with dilemmas about how far she'd be willing to go to get what she wants. These dilemmas are particularly acute because Dany, as the only character with three fire-breathing superweapons, has the capacity to do quite a bit more physical damage than anyone else.
Even before she had her dragons, Dany struggled with moral quandaries about the appropriateness of using violence and force. In season one, when Khal Drogo's Dothraki horde seemed headed toward Westeros, she saw the way they were rampaging through the villages in their path and ordered them to stop raping and pillaging. But this attempt at reform quickly led to her downfall — an angry Dothraki fought Drogo, leaving him with a wound that soon festered and killed him.
In season three, when Dany first visited Slaver's Bay, she was faced with a similar predicament, about whether to buy an army of slaves to aid her conquest. Again, she couldn't stomach the exploitation of the weak — so she freed the slaves and violently executed the slavemasters of Astapor. But after she had moved on and freed two more slave cities, she learned that a coup had taken place and deposed the new rulers she had installed. So even though it would have been more convenient for her to stampede on to Westeros, she decided to stay behind in the now-freed city of Meereen, to prevent it from falling apart in her absence — again, discarding expediency in an attempt to do the right thing.
But it's in Meereen that Dany has faced her toughest challenges yet. When her dragon killed a young girl at the end of season four, she was horrified — and responded by locking up her dragons because she feared what their destructive power could do to innocent life. Yet with the dragons in chains, the Sons of the Harpy insurgency is running amok, and has now killed Dany's most important adviser. Will Dany keep trying to build a new peace — or will she give in to her desire for revenge and let the dragons loose?
Surely, few viewers will shed tears if Dany torches the Sons of the Harpy. But if she brings this fiery new approach to Westeros, viewers' sympathies might shift. We've basically had to root for Dany for the past few years, since her opponents have been evil slavemasters. But there's a whole host of characters we already like whom Dany may eventually come into conflict with — and it may not be so clear that her victory will be the best outcome, particularly if she decides that some brutal dragon violence is the only way for her to win.
What if Cersei is out of the picture by the time Dany arrives in King's Landing, and it's Margaery Tyrell and the docile King Tommen who are ruling? Margaery is no cruel dictator, and she certainly has a strong case for caring about the common people of Westeros, even if her charitable behavior is partly driven by political gain. Or what about Stannis Baratheon, who's heading for Winterfell before what he hopes will be an eventual reprise of his attack on King's Landing? At this point, Stannis seems wiser and more seasoned by his past failures — perhaps he, not Dany, is the leader Westeros needs. And then, of course, there's the possible heritage of Jon Snow...
Of course, the best argument that Dany will fulfill her expected role as a protagonist in a fantasy climax is the existence of the White Walkers. Game of Thrones' very first scene introduced them as an undead horde of ice zombies who apparently want to wipe out all life. It seems inevitable that Dany will fight them eventually, and that we'll be cheering for her and her dragons to come out on top.
But frankly, I think the story would be a lot more interesting if it wasn't about Dany's rise to an inspiring and inevitable victory. For Martin, who loves bucking readers' expectations, it's just too easy and obvious for the only character with three fire-breathing beasts to conquer the continent of Westeros and save the world. Turning a likable and sympathetic character into a villain who must be defeated is a much crueler twist, and one that's fit for the creator of the Red Wedding.
What do you think, Zack? Do you think we'll stay on Team Dany? Or will we eventually find ourselves rooting for her downfall?
Read the recap. Come back for Zack's thoughts tomorrow.