Game of Thrones: A Philosophical Insight on Daenerys Targaryen

With GoT at its conclusion, much has been written on the rage, outrage, disappointment, dissatisfied fans, the cis-white male patriarchy of it all, and sprinkled about has been the occasional claim regarding ethical values – including Megan Garber’s piece for The Atlantic and other similar pieces (to say nothing of the absolute flowering of the same ideas in the medium of YouTube).

Though I would like to write a much longer piece, about the actual ethics analysis of the story in the books and the show, that is a far greater undertaking, which I do not quite have the time for – at the moment. So, instead, I would like to offer some initial thoughts, particularly on the character of Daenerys Targaryen and ethics. I will especially focus on the issues brought up by GoT season 8 – which is where so much of the noted “problems” may be found.

Spoiler Alert (rather obviously)!

Dany

Many fans were shocked to see Dany turn genocidally psychotic, starting in episode 5. The claim is that the turn simply does not match her character. After all, she has fought to free the slaves, to emancipate people, to rule with love; she has taken as her advisors Jorah Mormont, Ser Barristan Selmy, Tyrion, and Varys. All these were guilty of betrayal, of aiding the rebellion that wiped out the Targaryen family, or at least working closely with Dany’s enemies at some point. Tyrion, for example, only joined Dany when his own side tried to have him executed. Therefore, she must have forgiven them wholly, in order to take them as her advisers. She took on slavers, the oppressive aristocracies of Essos, closed the fighting pits where the indigent were forced to die for the amusement of the rich. In Westeros, she zeroed in on the corrupt tyranny of the Lannisters, put her goals aside to fight the White Walkers, and sought the unification of the realm in order to stop the petty monarchical wars that cost the nobility little while obliterating the lives and lands of the poor. That does not seem like a genocidal psycho in the making.

Yet, dig a little deeper, and the angelic character becomes rather tarnished – especially in the ash and snow tinted light of the aftermath of the fall of King’s Landing. Leaving aside, for the moment, the Targaryen family instability, let’s take a quick look at her history.

She is married to Drogo (not of her choice), and seeks to become part of the Dothraki culture. While she finds unease in the Mongol-inspired rape and pillage ideology, she is ecstatic at the thought that her child, a Dothraki child, will be the “Stallion that mounts the world!” Translation: the Dothraki Kahl who will conquer the world (presumably in the age-old Dothraki rape and pillage fashion).

For their part, the Dothraki (whose culture she seeks to embody) have no real concept of loyalty. What matters, what sits at the heart of the culture, is the notion that might makes right. The strong live, and the weak die. We can see this when Drogo dies: the khalesar simply heads off to find a new Kahl, leaving the weak to die. We can see it again when Dany (and this is rather instructive on her embodiment of the Dothraki culture) murders the collected Khals, and therefore assumes the legal authority to lead the Dothraki (according to the custom of the Dothraki).

Next, in her fight back to power, we see Dany constantly placed in circumstances where the strong try to exploit her for what goods she has – namely, the dragons. In return, Dany fights back. This is fairly legitimate: fighting back against underhanded plots to dispossess her, is about as justified as one can get. The leverage (not theft) on the part of the strong is understandable as well: she owns a rather unique set of objects, yet is down on her luck. Of course, everyone will try to find a way to get those possessions – and if they’re honest, it will be in trade for something Dany needs. Nothing immoral in using leverage in trade.

This brings us to Dany’s army. She arrives at a city, and asks to trade in good faith. She needs an army, and has no wealth to offer in trade. Therefore, her payment must be in something other than cash – and she has nothing but the dragons. She makes the deal, and sells a dragon for an army. That is a fair trade. If she had cash, they would have, presumably, taken cash instead. And here, we see Dany’s true colors come through. On her belief that slavery is bad (keeping in mind that the Dothraki had slaves as well), she decides to renege on the trade, and proceeds to commit a massacre. Let’s consider that, for a moment. Dany carries out a premeditated massacre, under the guise of a good-will trade. Leave aside the idea that “slavers are evil.” That consideration is superfluous. She needed those slave traders, she needed the fruits of their labor; in fact, she needed the grueling and torturous treatment of the slaves that created the Unsullied, in order to commit her massacre against the very same people that made it possible. Those slavers, for their part, were engaged in a practice that was socially – nay, continentally –acceptable and even praised; hence her knowledge of the power of the Unsullied.

Of course, we can argue that, no matter the social acceptability, the practice of slavery is vile, and should be ended. But Dany offered no argument. She massacred the slavers. This presumably included all the people who had made slavery possible – accountants and all – not to mention their families. Perhaps the families were spared – after all, we did not see the Unsullied going door-to-door exterminating them. But at the very least, it did leave their families destitute, homeless, social pariahs in a system that had just declared them to be the absolute lowest of moral monsters. What did a child of that slaver, still in its crib, do to condemn it?

Dany did not put the spear points of the Unsullied upon the slaver’s necks, and declare that slavery is over; that they can pack up some x amount of goods and leave – or perhaps stay, so long as they gave up their ill-gotten gains. She murdered them. Not killed: she took the lives of people on the basis of might makes right fiat, making slavery a capital crime after the fact, and assigning guilt for actions committed in line with the law – except that now she had changed the law, so retroactive punishment was in full force. Yet, as an audience, we cheered, and Tyrion (episode 6) tells us why. We cheered because slavers are bad by our estimation, and because she was a little girl, down on her luck, just fighting to take back what is hers – the Iron Throne.

Then, she took that army and moved onto the next city. The people who followed her, quite literally worshiped her. As Prof. Peterson points out, that kind of absolute adoration does things to human psyche: when a million people tell you that you are right and good, it is rather difficult not to think so yourself. When they see you as divinity-made-flesh, it is far easier to believe them, than to check your ego.

And we see that ego-based idea that she can do no wrong come in full-force as she takes the next city. With no consideration of the implications for her actions, she does away with the entire social structure of a massive metropolis. Of course she has no concept of the things that can go wrong, because her triumphant conquest is based on the Dothraki ideology: loot and pillage, then move on. When Mereen is occupied by her forces, suddenly a whole host of problems emerge. Governance, food, water, sanitation, social tensions, and the problem of what it means to suddenly disposes an entire class of people – removing them from the political sphere and barring any meaningful access to it, on the basis of class identity. And the ruling class at that. The Sons of the Harpy come back as an insurgency: a rebellion form of protest of the people otherwise suddenly politically dispossessed, and wanting “their country back.” Dany’s answer is… nothing. For a long while, she does nothing. Then, she tries the old “murder your way to success” approach, but the enemy is a political one, not a military one – so that fails rather spectacularly. Then, as a last resort, she tries diplomatic compromise, in the form of a marriage. No surprise, that is taken as a means to put an end to her occupation, and the assassination attempt ensues. She disappears, dragon ex machina, only to return triumphantly at the head of the entirety of the Dothraki forces, plus dragons, and exterminate her opposition (which had become a military opposition by that point). Oh, another problem solved by destruction – and might makes right, yet again.

We cheer for an inept ruler, who keeps on learning the lesson that power is all that matters. Have a problem? Nothing you can’t kill your way out of. She does not learn about her mistakes (nor from them), and so she does not develop as a functional ruler. She understands nothing about the idea of rulership, nothing about governance, nothing! She see-saws between wanting more power, and desiring admiration from all. And that admiration? Somehow always follows on the heels of displays of murderous power.

Then she comes to Westeros. Her goal? Take the Iron Throne and amass yet more power. Oh, she does it for “good” reasons. Avenge her family, end the wars, etc. But the end goal is power.

Then we get Jon. Jon’s plea is to focus on the enemy that threatens everything. Yet, she is not willing to help unless Jon bends the knee – that is, unless Jon accepts the validity of her cause and swears to follow her. She will deign to offer assistance, only on the condition of amassing more power, removing a competing power from the board (by absorbing it), and further establishing her right to be seen as a savior and a divine-like entity. For the record, that is what she is asking for, since bending the knee requires oaths of self-subjugation to another. Further, it places in the monarch the absolute authority of law, of right and wrong, etc. This is a rather Hobbesian idea of the Leviathan, and one that John Locke, for example, argued is incompatible with the very idea of government. Jon notes this fact as he argues with Sansa, noting that it was a precondition of Dany’s offering help against the Night King.

That her concern is for power, rather than the Good, is on full display throughout season 8. Her entire time at Winterfell is nothing but a series of arguments, threats, and power-posturing designed to establish her supremacy and authority. The very idea of the North being an independent state (despite the Northern ideology that does not support the tyrannical ideas found elsewhere, which should be right in line with Dany’s own goals, if they were about the Good) leads her to physically recoil from Sansa. Power is everything.

We are next treated to Dany’s notion that bending the knee should include the idea of elevating her to the divine status, and necessitating worship. Her authority, especially when expressed through her desires, must be paramount, or else no amount of obedience is good enough. We see this in her interactions with Jon. Jon’s oaths of allegiance are not enough; they are never enough. She desires him, and the idea that he will refrain from indulging her desires sets her off. No matter his feelings, only hers matter – and the fact that Jon has the audacity to do something other than bow in obedient worship is more than she can take.

We get another interesting glimpse into the power-hungry core of Dany’s psyche when Jon reveals his true heritage. After 7 seasons of insisting that she fights to take back what is rightfully hers (the Iron Throne), she discards the entire idea of that “rightful rule” the moment she discovers that the throne is actually rightfully Jon’s. No consideration for what is right, no moment of thought that Jon has the same right to take back what is his – actually more right, if we’re being factual. Instead, she only interprets it in terms of challenge to her own authority. And then, she insists that he cannot reveal the fact to anyone – because it would challenge her authority. Never mind the truth, never mind the right, never mind Jon’s right, never mind the fact that he can come out of the shadow of being an illegitimate bastard, never mind the sacrifice of Lyanna Stark and Rhaegar Targaryen, or the sacrifices and dishonor borne by Ned Stark or Catelyn Stark. Never mind that the reveal can restore the honor back to the Targaryen name, by proving that the cause of the last war (kidnapping, rape, and murder of Lyanna Stark) was a falsehood; that the rebels were in the wrong, and that the deposition of the Targaryen house should never have happened. These were things Jon Snow was willing to reveal – to accuse his own “father” (Ned) and all who fought in that rebellion of immense ethical breaches, etc. Dany disregards all the actual Goods, all the positive arguments that legitimize Targaryen rule, in favor of ensuring her own power remains unchallenged – because she has the bigger army. She has no interest in the right, only the might (which she happens to wield at the moment).

In the aftermath of the battle against the Night King, the power-hunger is on full display. Even the idea that the troops to be marched into battle should be rested, healed, etc. is rejected, because it did not come from her; because it might undermine her authority. The consequences of her heedless rush to secure her power? Death of a dragon, destruction of a major portion of the fleet, and the capture of Missandei. Her reaction?

There is no introspective analysis of what went wrong. There is no There is no contrition on her part, for a foolhardy maneuver that cost hundreds of lives, a dragon, and a trusted advisor. There is only anger, and a desire to kill her way out of this predicament. And, let’s not forget, the threat of execution of her own advisors, because they were wrong. I do believe that smacks of Joffrey, Cersei, and any number of petty tyrants whose inability to self-reflect, to accept something like a modicum of responsibility, leads them to lash out at others – while they, themselves, remain blessedly perfect in their ideas, like the embodiments of the divine that they are. You can see this play out as her advisors become increasingly reluctant to offer advice, or do anything other than bootlick.

And then, we get to King’s Landing. It starts off with the legitimate attack on the military defenses of the city – which, unsurprisingly – leads to the surrender of the city. But here, Dany does not accept surrender. Instead, she goes all out psycho genocidal. Plenty of people have complained that this is out of character, but I disagree. It is perfectly in line with everything we have seen. Dany has not accepted a surrender of an enemy. Ever. Instead, she has killed all those who have opposed her – at least, if they have actively opposed her. It is, in fact, the Dothraki way. It is a pure demonstration that might makes right. And, in addition, it is a demonstration that one must not merely submit to her – as a surrendering foe does – but must worship her.

The city burns, because all those who sought refuge from other than Dany, are guilty of a cardinal sin: heresy. To have placed their trust in Cersei (never mind the absence of choice for the poor, starving, etc.) is to have worshiped a false idol, in a pantheon where only Dany holds the divine status. They are collectively guilty of not rushing forth to welcome her with open arms. They are guilty of having, in some way, challenged her authority. Those who had a choice, no matter how remote or bad a choice, have condemned the whole city.

As King’s Landing burns, Dany demonstrates her power; that is, her might. She demonstrates the divine judgment that will fall on all who oppose her. She demonstrates that she alone is worthy of the worship, fear, and hope of the people. Any who have gods beside her, will burn. This, by the way, is solid Dothraki methodology (and is in many ways in line with, say, Machiavelli). But, it shows us a way in which Dany has, actually grown. She complained earlier that, on this side of the world, no one loves her. What she means, is that the masses of people prostrating themselves to her, are missing. Those masses, as noted, were worshipful as a result of a demonstration of her power.

Now that she is in Westeros, that is gone – partially because the slave class is not around to be “liberated,” and partially because the people do not have that relationship with their rulers. She hopes to inspire that blind faith among the Northerners, especially following the conclusion of the battle against the Night King. She came, she saw, she messianically saved the people from certain death. Yet, the people do not bow and pray. Instead, they embrace each other as fellow warriors, human to human. Jon is included in this collective, because he does not hold himself above the rest of the people. He does not mandate their obedience and worship. Dany watches this comradery but does not reflect on the differences in how Jon and she are being treated. No, again, she only sees a threat to her power, a thing that must be stopped in order to ensure that she is the fairest in the land – the only one anyone would think to worship. Jon’s connection with all those people, nobles to wildlings, is a form of power she does not have and cannot merely command. Therefore, she finds it to be a threat.

Love aside, Dany tells Jon, rather directly, that with her inability to inspire love, then she must inspire fear. This is borrowed so close from Machiavelli, it borders on copyright infringement. But the point stands. Love is an emotion that cannot be controlled. Fear can. And so, Machiavelli concludes, it is better to be feared than loved. To be feared, properly, in the sort of deified manner she is looking for, normal fear will not do. The emotion she needs is absolute shock, terror, and fear so deep it turns pathological. If she cannot be worshiped as the benevolent goddess, she will become the goddess of death. In this way, her desire for power and worship is sated.

Although many have complained about the genocidal psychosis as being out of character, I am led to ask: what is her character? What is her creed? What is her ideology, her laws, the… anything that one can objectively point to, in order to demonstrate to others what this person should or should not do? So much of the claims of her “wonderful” rule are there because her actions happen to coincide with our moral outrage at the people she had decided to do away with. But does she believe that promises should be honored? Not according to her acquisition of the Unsullied or the apparent order to Greyworm to cease attack in case of bells. Does she believe in individual responsibility, or does she engage in genocidal approach of assigning collective guilt on the basis of class or group identity? Apparently, the latter – given the targeting of class groups in Essos and (in the final season) the group identity targeting of people in King’s landing – namely, the former Lannister soldiers, etc.

Fact of the matter is, the laws that govern Dany’s little mini and militaristic nation are not laws at all. They are merely her whims and desires. Whatever Dany says, the Unsullied do. That is why Jon and Davos look on in horror as Dany unleashes the dragon on the civilians, but Greyworm just plows on. His god has spoken, her will be done. Who is Greyworm to question a god? There is no basis for anything Dany does, except that it is the thing she currently wishes to do – or at least finds to be the least repugnant.

Finally, we have her last actions in episode 6. Victorious over a city of ashes, Dany is the roaring dragon as she faces her assembled troops. “Now, you are liberators. You have freed the people of King’s Landing from the grip of a tyrant. But the war is not over. We will not lay down our spears until we have liberated all the people of the world!” Oddly enough, there were no people left to be freed, after a genocide-by-firestorm, but let’s ignore that. Dany has won. She has the Iron Throne. There are no challengers left. It is over. Except, not for her. Her word-choice is a bit chilling, given the notion of liberation, and then the desire to spread it to the rest of the world.  But, more than that, it tells us something important: Dany’s power does not depend on titles, but on a continuation of military bloodshed. Oh, she has the titles read everywhere and for every occasion, except that titles are about political power – about the kind of intricate diplomatic dance that people like Littlefinger would excel at. But Dany’s power has never been that. Her power, since the day she married Khal Drogo, has been based on the military might to kill. And it is that kind of might that makes right.

The moment she ends her wars, Dany falls into a position where the military might does precious little: politics. Military may conquer nations, but it cannot rule them. It is a place where her lack of education, experience, and exposure will show her for what she is: a young girl, blessed with a bit of luck, charisma, and dragons. Her lack of political insight has already been on full display in Mereen, where everyone else ran laps around her. To stop conquering means to give up her power. To stop conquering and turn to actually rule, means to have to engage with problems and make choices where her status as divine embodiment of goodness cannot be maintained. To rule means to take on the kinds of problems that one cannot simply kill their way out of. Dany cannot rule, because she is, at best, an incompetent ruler.

And the last moment, her last moment in fact, Dany gives Jon a little speech. The content of the speech shows that the underlying belief in her own divinity is clearly a factor here.

Jon Snow: “How do you know? How do you know it will be good?”

Daenerys: “Because I know what is good — and so do you.”

Jon Snow: “I don’t.”

Daenerys: “You do. You’ve always known.”

Jon Snow: “What about everyone else?” All the other people who think they know what’s good?”

Daenerys: They don’t get to choose.”

Only her opinion counts – those who would be liberated do not count, because their ideas are always sub-par compared to hers, and because any idea that is not in-line with hers is, ipso facto, wrong – and those who hold such ideas are evil. This is every dictator and tyrant ever. Her will, on any and every issue, outstrips the collective knowledge, education, experience, and will of everyone else. Again, this represents well the divine status she pursues.

As for Jon always knowing, clearly, according to her, he does not always know, because he told Sansa and family about his heritage; he refused to continue their sexual relations. But, if he joins her – i.e. if he completely subsumes his will under her, without question – if he wants what she wants, when she wants it, and how she wants it, well then, he will also know what is right.

The content of the speech has already been considered, though the speech does confirm those ideas with further evidence. More importantly, Dany’s features, cadence, and her fervor take on (what I can only assume is a serious effort on the part of the director) the exact cast as those of Viserys Targaryen – Dany’s brother. And here, I want to return to that “Targaryens be crazy” issue.

Viserys is a power-hungry psycho, who takes his impotent rage out on Dany – because she is the only one he can take it out on. His whole world revolves around building an army, going back to Westeros, taking back the throne, and executing vengeance. When he flies off into one his fits of psychosis, he blames Dany for his rage, in the standard, “why do you make me hurt you?” style. He warns her not to risk “waking the dragon,” i.e. making him upset, because his wrath will be terrible. And what we see from Dany, is what happens when that impotent rage replaces the impotence with an actual dragon. The same self-justification, the same petulant childishness, the same self-aggrandizement (though, admittedly, Dany has had quite the basis for those beliefs). The difference is that Viserys was impotent, but Dany is not. The psychosis is the same. In fact, Viserys was 22 when Khal Drogo killed him, while Dany was 23 when she died (according to a timeline analysis). If we take the family insanity to be hereditary, and to not me immediately manifest, then Dany starts the story off being sane, but in that last year or so – just like her brother – her grip on reality slips, and the psychosis takes over. Dany completes the work her Grandfather began, destroying King’s Landing; though she is successful in that destruction before her sworn guardian puts her down (While the Mad King was removed before his plans came to fruition).

In the end, if you pay close attention to Dany’s story-arc, season 8 was not out of character. In fact, it was rather carefully in-character; despite the writers clearly knowing that the “happily ever after” conclusion is what the fans wanted. Her actions are entirely consistent with her earlier ones, her ideology of “might makes right” is on full display, her focal point of interest is always ever power – as it always has been. As Tyrion notes, we were just too busy appreciating the death of evil people to take note of the fact that their evil is really accidental to her murdering them.

Now, there is something to be said for the time management, pacing, and the feeling of the season being rushed. There should have been more time to explore these ideas in another episode or so. That much seems true. But rushed or not, the character development and progression is not “out of character,” nor unexpected. It was a thoughtful completion of a story line, which has been heading in this direction, in subtle ways, since book one. While I have no access to the writers, and we are all waiting for the next book by Martin (who knows, maybe he’ll write one by 2025), the direction taken by the show is fully coherent and in line with the books (at least on this point). Since it is coherent, I don’t see any reason to complain (other than personal preference of who you hoped by ascend the throne, or other factors, like pacing).

In the end, Dany simply revealed herself for what she has been all along: an ethical egoist (do whatever you want/think is best for you – personally), with delusions of godhood, dedicated to nothing more than the desire for power – coupled with the Dothraki idea that might makes absolutely anything right. 

1 thought on “Game of Thrones: A Philosophical Insight on Daenerys Targaryen”

  1. Couldn’t agree more. To me most of the whinging comes down to a rushed ending and clumsy handling of the last subversion of fans expectations. Happiness goes to die in the works of GRRM, and anyone who has read the books or watched the shows shouldn’t be that surprised. I can see a series of these character analysis being very entertaining. Tyrion, Varys, and Catlyn would be the other ones if choose next.

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