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Why I think Game of Thrones will make Daenerys the villain, not the hero

The budding villain.
The budding villain.
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.

Andrew Prokop: Matt, I'm glad you brought up your doubts about why Dany deserves to rule, because it gives me the chance to restate one of my favorite Game of Thrones theories: that Dany will not end up being the hero we root for to conquer Westeros. Instead, she'll become a villain — maybe even the villain.

I made this case early last season, and developments on the show since then have only further convinced me that an antagonist role for Dany is where George R.R. Martin and the larger story arc are headed.

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 Dany's morality is exactly why a turn to the dark side would be so shocking for her — indeed, it would be an instantly classic George R.R. Martin Shocking Twist. And it would also be completely earned, because I believe both the books and the show have been laying the groundwork for it for some time.

First, it makes sense from a character perspective. Dany has been struggling with moral dilemmas about violence and the use of force going all the way back to season one, when she tried to convince Khal Drogo's Dothraki to stop raping and killing random villagers. The latest such dilemma was stretched out for much of seasons four and five, as she struggled to build a durable peace in her conquered city, Meereen.

However, these attempts at mercy and peacemaking have been repeatedly slapped down by the world, and in the end, Dany has typically been forced to resolve these failures by pure violence. Usually, these resolutions are cheered by the audience, because the characters Dany is murdering — like the Unsullied's slave masters in season three, and the Dothraki leaders this week — are themselves extremely unsympathetic and villainous.

Frequently, though, there's been a disquieting undertone to Dany's bloody triumphs. "As the sphere of her empathy widens, the sphere of her cruelty widens as well," Game of Thrones showrunner D.B. Weiss once said.

For instance, when Dany took over Meereen at the beginning of season four, she was so angered by the Meereenese nobles' crucifixion of slave children that she ordered an equivalent number of captured nobles crucified. What started as a joyous, happy scene of liberation quickly swerved, with even the music turning dark and twisted, as Dany disregarded Barristan Selmy's urgings to take a more merciful path and instead pursued violent revenge — or, as she put it, "justice." (Watch the scene here, I think it's a microcosm of where her story arc is headed)

Then there's the not-small fact that, when Dany does burn her enemies to death, she often seems to enjoy it. In season five, in revenge for Barristan's murder by the Sons of the Harpy, Dany had her dragon roast a Meereenese noble chosen at random who she fully admitted might be innocent — and gazed at the spectacle with fascination.

HBO

Most recently in "Book of the Stranger," she smiled with satisfaction as she watched her Dothraki captors burn to death:

HBO

Another person who loved burning his enemies to death was Dany's father, the Mad King. Indeed, she's repeatedly been warned about following in his footsteps, in what reads to me as clear foreshadowing of a tragedy yet to come. And, unlike her father, she has three fire-breathing superweapons with the power to create immense destruction.

Additionally, when Dany finally makes it to Westeros and brings her newly acquired Dothraki horde with her, she'll lose the moral high ground that her anti-slave crusade currently gives her in the east. As Matt says, "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."

None of this is to say that Dany will suddenly become a one-dimensional villain — she won't turn into Ramsay Bolton overnight. My point is that her eventual invasion of Westeros will turn out not to be good news for the continent but very bad news for a whole lot of its people.

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 Game of Thrones' larger story would be a lot more interesting if it doesn't end with Dany's rise to an inspiring and inevitable victory. And for Martin, who loves bucking readers' expectations, it seems just too easy and obvious for the only character with three fire-breathing beasts to beat some (conspicuously underdrawn) ice zombies, conquer Westeros, and save the world.

Turning a likable and sympathetic character into an antagonist who must be defeated is a much crueler twist, and one that's fit for the creator of the Red Wedding.

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