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Game of Thrones needs a theory of leadership beyond setting people on fire

The show is leaving out key details of Dany’s motives, and it’s weakening her storyline.

HBO

Every week throughout season six, a handful of Vox's writers will discuss the latest episode of Game of Thrones. Before you dig in, check out our recap of Sunday's episode, as well the archive of our entire discussion to date. This week, we'll be hearing from culture editor Todd VanDerWerff, culture writer Alex Abad-Santos, executive editor Matt Yglesias, and politics writer Andrew Prokop. Come back throughout the week for more entries.

Matt Yglesias: Granting that Daenerys's ability to repeatedly sucker her enemies into situations where she is well-positioned to burn them alive is impressive, the big question I have about this plot line is why, exactly, is her presumably forthcoming conquest of Westeros something we're supposed to root for?

Dany's leadership of Meereen was clearly well-intentioned, but it doesn't seem to have worked out especially well in a practical sense. Sailing across the Narrow Sea to have her dragons burn a few political leaders while unleashing a horde of nomadic horsemen to ransack the realm seems like potentially very bad news for the smallfolk. Game of Thrones' successful transformation of the Lannisters into very humanized, well-realized characters has the downside of making it look less obvious that an Anyone But Cersei ticket is a winner.

The books give us another would-be Targaryen invader from the east to serve as a kind of object lesson in the idea of schooling someone for effective leadership.

With that plot line apparently excised from the show, we're a little bit at sea as to what the writers want us to think makes for a good king or queen. There has to be more to it than setting people on fire, right?

I don't want to complain too much about an episode that really did seem to have us recovering narrative momentum and dramatic stakes, but I feel like this basic theme of political leaders without political ideas kept popping up throughout "Book of the Stranger." There was something inspiring, after all she's been through, about the arrival at Castle Black of the newly take-charge Sansa Stark ready to stiffen Jon's spine.

But her argument, rendered in her oddly Southron accent, that they had to take the fight to the Boltons because "Winterfell is our home" is kind of unsatisfying.

Game of Thrones has persuaded us all at tedious length that Roose Bolton is a really bad man. But it would be nice to see the newly commanding Sansa, or the tested Brienne, or Davos or Podrick or somebody come up with some sense of larger stakes beyond personal feuds.

Theon redeems himself with an apology and a statement that he thinks his sister should rule the Iron Islands, but ... why?

And, of course, down in King's Landing we have the Lannisters and the Tyrells deciding to stop trying to use the High Sparrow as leverage in their feud against each other, in order to pursue their various personal vendettas against the Faith instead. And there's some kind of Dornish revenge squad coming soon, I think.

Would it be so hard, given all this, to finally introduce some means of communication between the storyline up at the Wall and Dany and her dragons? Stepping outside the text, the logic of the narrative seems to be that Dany is a hero not because she sets tribal leaders on fire, but because she will use magical fire powers to save the world from the White Walkers and their army of undead wights. It's already been established, after all, that you need to burn the reanimated corpses — and my guess is that we'll see dragon fire melt ice zombies, too.

But this notion that she's on a mission to save the world is entirely absent from the actual text of Game of Thrones' story. Neither she herself nor any of the people in her orbit have remotely suggested that her quest consists of anything beyond redemption of the Targaryen family birthright.

The return of real narrative momentum and dramatic stakes in "Book of the Stranger" was entirely welcome, and I feel a little bad complaining about a genuinely good episode that's making me feel optimistic about the rest of season six. But especially with the stakes ratcheting up, I think Game of Thrones needs to return to the sense we had last season that these conflicts are about something weightier than a mere game of thrones.

Read the recap. Come back tomorrow for more discussion.

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