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Why Daenerys Targaryen could be Game of Thrones’ ultimate villain

This series has proved lust for power is all-corrupting. So about the Mother of Dragons ...

Daenerys Targaryen seated on a horse in the HBO show “Game of Thrones.”
To be fair, that’s a nice cloak thing she’s wearing.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Here’s an image you might have seen floating around Twitter the last couple of days, taken from “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms,” the latest episode of Game of Thrones:

The image captures Daenerys in a moment when she’s trying to win over the support of Sansa Stark, the Lady of the North and currently the biggest skeptic of what Dany could represent to the Seven Kingdoms. While she’s all too happy to have Dany and her two dragons on the side of the living in the battle against the White Walkers, it’s also clear that Sansa isn’t going to bend her knee to Dany particularly easily, should the living win that battle.

What’s interesting is that Game of Thrones is very clearly positioning Sansa as a voice of reason. In the season premiere, there were frequent comments on Sansa’s intelligence, and the most notable of them came from Sansa’s sister Arya, who hasn’t always been the biggest fan of Sansa. This kind of character growth — where a character we trust is shown to have changed their mind about a different character — usually means we, in the audience, are supposed to at least somewhat seriously consider what caused them to change their mind.

Yes, there are other scenes where other characters we trust (notably Tyrion and Davos) talk about how perhaps the marriage of Jon Snow and Dany would solve the Seven Kingdoms’ problems by giving it a wise queen and just king. But those characters don’t know such a marriage would be incestuous, thereby dumping the Seven Kingdoms right back into the predicament it was in when the Targaryens ruled in the first place.

But my point is this: The safe money is still on this season’s ultimate bad guy being the Night King or Cersei. But what if it’s actually Dany?

The case against Daenerys

Game of Thrones
“How dare you make a case against me?

Meghan O’Keefe of Decider appears to be having some of the same thoughts as me. In a super smart post pivoting off the above Twitter meme, she writes:

So Daenerys is one of those dreaded “guys’ girls” who excludes the challenging company of women. So what? Well, the scene also highlights Daenerys’s biggest blind spot: she doesn’t understand the country she wants to rule, nor does she seem to want to do the work to stop, listen, and learn. She feels so entitled to the Iron Throne, she hasn’t given thought to what ruling the Seven Kingdoms, with their diverse cultures and landscapes and heritages, really means. When Sansa asks her point blank what happens next, Daenerys says, “I take the Iron Throne.” It’s about her, not the fate of her people.

In a weird way, Game of Thrones’ somewhat broken racial politics might have been foreshadowing this all along. In the show’s third season, Daenerys conquers the city of Yunkai as part of her march across the continent of Essos, and she’s greeted as a liberator and “mother” by the city’s many slaves. The demographic makeup of the large crowd of extras — mostly people of color exalting a white woman — caused controversy at the time. But that controversial moment was also arguably the only one real moment of triumph Dany has experienced.

Since then, Dany’s found that ruling is much more difficult than conquering, and after getting bogged down in politics in the middle of her holdings in Essos, she decamped for Westeros, where she expected an easy push to take the Iron Throne. She had three dragons, after all. But she’s made tactical blunders, cut down entire royal houses, and just generally acted like someone who no longer wants to “break the wheel,” but instead find a way to make the wheel be a better ergonomic fit for her to sit upon.

Now, if we’re looking at pure villains on this show, Dany comes nowhere near someone like Ramsay Bolton or Cersei Lannister. She’s actually done some good things for plenty of people, and when you look at everything she’s done that you could call “bad” through a certain lens, they’re at least defensible. (Of course she would eliminate houses not loyal to her; that’s what you do!)

But Game of Thrones is generally careful to show that where Cersei, especially, has a great deal of self-awareness about the awful things she does, Daenerys just doesn’t. She still thinks of herself as a great liberator who will overthrow the unjust rulers of Westeros and install the rightful family to its throne. That family, of course, would be hers, and when she finds out that Jon is also part of her family (and has a more legitimate claim to the throne, no less), the way she freaks out makes clear that this is so much more about her own desire to sit on the throne than anything else.

And you know what? I don’t blame her. The Seven Kingdoms didn’t allow women to rule until Cersei just decided, hey, she should be the queen, because why not? And over the course of the series, Dany has gone from a refugee forced into an arranged marriage as her brother’s political pawn to one of the most powerful women in the world. It totally makes sense that she would become so fixated on the Iron Throne that she could think of nothing else.

But people who become so fixated on power that they can think of nothing else tend to be those who ultimately become the greatest villains on Game of Thrones. It still seems unlikely that the final episodes of this show will have Jon and Dany — each controlling one dragon — going up against each other, what with the Night King and Cersei still out there, waiting to be dealt with.

But maybe Dany’s desire to break the wheel will end up being ironically fulfilled when she and Jon, the two people with the most legitimate claim to the throne, kill each other, and the Seven Kingdoms have to find some new way to exist. That would be so this show, right?

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