It was easy to root for Daenerys Targaryen. She was a callow teenager, a kind-hearted person in a land populated by slavers, witches, barbarians, and her extremely annoying and cruel older brother. We watched her grow up and develop a talent for languages and a penchant for freeing slaves and fighting injustice. She took in outcasts and loved animals and compared to the loutish (Robert) or stupid (Tommen) or outright cruel (Joffrey and Cersei) people that occupied the Iron Throne, she looked downright benevolent.
So we gave her a cute, easier-to-spell nickname (“Dany”) and turned her into a cultural icon even outside the world of the show. But now, more than halfway through the seventh season of Game of Thrones, the closer she gets to achieving her goal of reclaiming the Iron Throne, the less heroic she gets. Our enfant terrible is no longer an enfant—she’s just terrible.
In “Eastwatch,” Daenerys committed an act even more depraved than referring to your pets as your children: She murdered prisoners of war in cold blood. Laugh at poor Dickon’s name and sneer at the cruelty of Randyll Tarly all you want, but that’s what she did. This comes one week after she abandoned her commitment not to use weapons of mass destruction—having seen the carnage, I’m not sure you can call a dragon anything else—because she lost Highgarden. Perhaps that commitment would’ve been stronger if she’d made it on any kind of ethical or humanitarian grounds—really, the decision not to raze King’s Landing was all about practicality. She held off on nuking thousands of civilians not because it’d be wrong, but because her subjects would be harder to rule if she did.
Now this great liberator is standing in a field, offering defeated Lannister soldiers the option of switching sides or being incinerated, which isn’t much of a choice at all. She can talk about breaking the wheel all she wants, but as long as she’s hawking the “convert or burn to death” combo, she’s no more a liberator than Tomás de Torquemada.
Daenerys is now confronted with the intrinsic paradox that leading an army of liberation presents. Burning people would be problematic even without her family’s troubling history with fire—but what kind of freedom can she really grant people under threat of excruciating death? What does breaking the wheel mean to one of the captured Lannister soldiers? They can replace one absolutist ruler who punishes dissent with death with another, or die. Those are the options.
The Breaker of Chains—and for what it’s worth, no do-gooder who’s worth a crap would give herself a nickname about what a great person she is, then go around bragging about it—is at a point where she can either be good or be in power, but not both, and it’s becoming clear which matters more to her. Daenerys says she wants to end a destructive cycle of civil wars among the most powerful houses in Westeros, and she’s willing to wage a destructive civil war to do it. She doesn’t want to be judged by her family’s crimes, but it’s through her family that she bases her claim to the Iron Throne, and she uses weapons of mass destruction in accordance with her family’s tradition.
It’s a good thing Jon and Davos asked Missandei why she follows Daenerys, because when you look at it closely, she’s one of very few people who supports a Targaryen restoration solely because Daenerys is a great gal. Tyrion and the Greyjoys are in it to settle old family scores. Varys and the late Barristan Selmy joined up partially to screw the Lannisters and partially for lack of a better option. Jorah and Daario just wanted to get in her pants. Countless others are in awe of either the magical power or military utility of her dragons, but Missandei and the Unsullied are the only ones who think she’s anything more than an improvement on Joffrey and Cersei. In this context, you start to wonder whether ending slavery in Slaver’s Bay was actually altruistic. By freeing the Unsullied, Daenerys gained the army she sought without having to pay for it. Freeing the slaves in Meereen allowed her to take the city without a fight. In “The Spoils of War,” Davos, who misses nothing, pointed out to Missandei that every time Daenerys does a good deed, she also profits immensely. Her juxtaposition to Jon Snow—who not only gave his life for his principles, but also might have a better claim to the Iron Throne by birthright, not that Sam was paying attention—isn’t helping.
If you’re going to talk like a liberator, eventually you’re going to have to act like a liberator even when you don’t stand to profit by it. Does she actually want to break the wheel? Sure, but only after she makes sure she’s on top.
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.