How does one go about identifying the weak link in a TV cast? Salon‘s Willa Paskin has proposed the so-called “Julie Taylor” test for gauging the ability of television actors and actresses (though all four of her major examples, Julie included, are women). “Ask yourself,” Paskin writes, “is it possible to imagine the inner life of this character?” Her most controversial subject is Game of Thrones’ Emilia Clarke, who plays exiled Mother of Dragons Daenerys Targaryen on the hit fantasy show.
According to Paskin, Clarke is merely “functional,” relying on the built-in fan base of the original book series’ many readers to make her character believable. Yet many avid Game of Thrones fans, myself included, would beg to differ: when adapting a saga as beloved as A Song of Ice and Fire, it’s all too easy to cast actors who just can’t live up to readers’ heightened expectations — Sophie Turner’s Sansa, for example, falls flat. Clarke, on the other hand, has proven her ability to bring Daenerys to life many times over. Here’s a sampling of her high points throughout Game of Thrones’ two and half seasons, moments where it’s not just possible, but impossible not to imagine her character’s inner life.
Gaining the upper hand over Viserys
Daenerys Targaryen’s relationship with her older, deranged brother Viserys is central to her Season 1 plotline, following the Khaleesi from terrified obedience to total independence. Clarke doesn’t say a whole lot in this scene, which has Viserys attack her before being stopped cold by one of Daenerys’s Dothraki protectors, but she doesn’t have to. With facial expressions alone, Clarke conveys the mix of emotions that accompany her character’s exit from an abusive relationship. She’s still residually afraid of her brother, and against all odds she retains enough affection for him to feel compassion when he has a whip around his throat. But we also see the realization that she’s no longer beholden to him dawn on her face, and the look of steely resolve Clarke assumes once Daenerys begins issuing commands says volumes about the sense of leadership she’s developing.
Learning how to use her sexuality
Game of Thrones is infamous for its use of sexposition, but these back-to-back scenes show Clarke conveying a crucial change in her character: abandoning her shyness and passivity in favor of standing up to her warlord husband, deepening their relationship physically and emotionally. Clarke’s embarrassment at her maid/tutor’s forthrightness feels authentic rather than cloyingly girlish, and her scene with Khal Drogo depicts a seismic shift in Daenerys’s worldview in less than a minute, not to mention almost no dialogue. Sexposition may get a bad rap (and at times justifiably so; that scene with Littlefinger and the two prostitutes in the background was flat-out unnecessary), but Clarke makes a case for its importance in developing Daenerys’s storyline with an excellent performance.
Mercy-killing her own husband
In terms of plot, Drogo needed to die for Dany to fully come into her own as a would-be queen, but Dany’s desperate attempts to save him through magic and teary smothering of his zombie-like corpse pack an extra emotional wallop. It’s a moment most characters on Game of Thrones experience at some point: a dramatic loss of innocence that forces them to come to terms with the fact that the world is a cruel place. The scene puts the spotlight on Clarke, who rises to the challenge with a tearful performance that conveys the enormity of her decision. Daenerys’s grief, acceptance, and courage all come through in the scene, proving that Clarke’s version of Dany is mature enough to lead her own khalasar and, more importantly, foster the dragons that will soon hatch on Drogo’s funeral pyre.
Surviving the house of the undying
As with most of Game of Thrones’ traditional fantasy moments, Daenerys’s eerie trip through the House of the Undying functions more as an opportunity for some great character work than showy special effects. The finale of the show’s second season, a slow and uneventful one for Daenerys, had a tough act to follow after “Blackwater,” arguably its best episode to date, but Dany’s journey through the warlocks of Qarth’s creepy haunted house externalized her inner demons in a triumphant ten minutes of television. To rescue her “children,” Daenerys walks through the (presumably dragon-blasted) remains of the Iron Throne room, comes face to face with the ghosts of her dead husband and child, and finally sees her dragons come of age by unleashing them on the head warlock himself. Clarke’s monologue to Khal Drogo is delivered with a heartbreaking sense of loss, and the alternating ferocity and fear she gives Daenerys make the Mother of Dragons a magnet for both compassion and admiration from the audience.
Striking a bargain with slave merchants
Sure, the battle scene at the end of Episode 4 is more exciting, but Daenerys’s negotiations with the slave masters of Astapor at the beginning of Season 3 give Clarke far more opportunities to build her character. We first see her showing compassion for a dying slave on the Walk of Punishment, but it’s a steelier punishment than we saw Daenerys express in Season 1′s encounter with Mirri Maz Duur. During the face-off with the masters themselves, Clarke’s acting is confident and tough, but her ensuing shutdown of Barristan and Jorah’s concerns is even more commendable: Dany is now an effective commander who runs a tight ship, and the difference in Clarke’s demeanor between Season 3 and Season 1 (and even much of Season 2) is extraordinary. More than almost any other character on the show, Dany has undergone a complete transformation, and Emilia Clarke has deftly shown the effect of Daenerys’s experiences on her personality.