The third season of Game of Thrones has been a formative one for Daenerys Targaryen, the exiled descendant of Westeros’s former ruling family. Where Dany spent the first season growing from a terrified child bride into a three-dimensional character and the second killing time in the merchant city of Qarth, this year brought the Mother of Dragons to Slavers’ Bay, a cluster of cities whose primary export is human beings. Some of Dany’s best moments of the entire series have come out of her experiences in Astapor and Yunkai, but Sunday’s season finale also raised an uncomfortable question for Game of Thrones fans: has the show turned Daenerys into a white savior?
Game of Thrones as a whole, and Dany’s plot line in particular, has come under fire before for its treatment of race. Like many fantasies, Game of Thrones is heavily white, using medieval Europe as an inspiration for its casting choices as well as its setting. The only people of color we meet in the first season are the Dothraki, presented as a ruthless warrior people who pillage cities and do little else. The hulking, violent Khal Drogo’s contrast with Daenerys’s virginal innocence played into all kinds of nasty stereotypes — and the newlyweds’ first sex scene, which few would read as consensual, only made things worse. For a show that’s often praised for its complex, empathetic treatments of female characters and gender relations, Game of Thrones has been unable to do the same for race.
Fortunately, Daenerys spends a good portion of the first season recognizing the merits of Dothraki culture, particularly the freedom it grants her from her controlling older brother. She learns the language, eats a horse heart, and builds her relationship with Drogo into a mutually respectful partnership. But the undercurrent of difference remains, as when she demands that two warriors keep their hands off of Mirri Maz Duur. Dany’s momentary compassion comes back to bite her in the ass: Mirri renders Drogo into a zombie-like breathing corpse, then explicitly rejects the idea that Dany rescued her by sparing her from rape after Drogo had already killed her family and conquered her city. Yet it’s clear at the time of Dany’s intervention that the audience is meant to believe it was the right thing to do. The scene pits her noble empathy against the worldview of two Dothraki while making it obvious who’s in the right, and it still leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
Fast forward to Season 3, where the main thrust of the Daenerys plot line is that she’s simultaneously building up military experience and not simply fighting for fighting’s sake. The season’s opening episodes grappled with the question of how Daenerys would acquire an army: would she compromise her values by fighting with an army of highly trained warrior slaves, or would she go it alone with her dragons and tiny group of followers? In the season’s most explosive moment that didn’t involve main characters dying, Daenerys gets the best of both worlds, buying an army of Unsullied only to use them (and her dragons) against their former masters. One of the scene’s most powerful shots shows Daenerys symbolically trampling the whip once used to command her newly freed soldiers.
There’s no denying that the conquest of Astapor is thrilling to watch, but the way the show frames Daenerys’s quest still raises a few eyebrows. Given Game of Thrones’s ability to undermine virtually all notions of conventional morality, the show is strangely unwilling to give slave owners the benefit of the doubt it granted, say, the guy who murdered his boss and pushed a ten-year-old out a window. The Slaver’s Bay arc positions Dany as a liberator, there to selflessly rescue slaves she’s never met from the clutches of evil masters. We’re given little explanation as to why she suddenly cares so much about eliminating a major economic institution beyond the self-evident barbarism of slavery, yet her motives and reasoning go unquestioned even by the slavers she’s sworn to destroy. Slavery is evil and Daenerys has decided it should stop; therefore it should stop, because Daenerys knows what’s best for this part of the world she’s never been to before.
The situation only gets more unnerving once Dany and her army conquer a second city, Yunkai, in the season’s last couple of episodes. Though we don’t see Jorah and Daario’s nighttime ambush pan out, we’re told that the city’s slave armies “threw down their spears” and welcomed Daenerys with open arms. This culminates in the very last scene of Season 3, when thousands of slaves open the city gates and declare her their “mother,” reaching out in adulation while she crowd-surfs above them. Like Daenerys’s sudden and unwavering conviction, the slaves’ celebration feels off. Beyond a brief admission that “people learn to love their chains,” there’s no conception that the slaves will do anything but embrace Yunkai’s new ruler, let alone any actual dissension among the thousands of newly freed men and women.
The end result of the Slaver’s Bay subplot is thus an endorsement of the idea of the white savior: a Western (or in this case, Westerosi) outsider who has both the right and the obligation to intervene on behalf of an entire group of people with whom she has little to no prior relationship. As a fan of the books, which do complicate what we’ve seen so far, I’m hopeful that the series will use Daenerys’s subsequent misadventures as a commentary on the trope. But as a viewer of the series, I’m troubled by how the show has chosen to portray one of its most important characters. With Ned Stark, Game of Thrones showed just how naïve the stereotype of noble, honorable ruler is when confronted with reality. With Daenerys Targaryen, the show has an opportunity to do the same with the white savior. It’s an opportunity that’s too important not to take.