Daenerys Targaryen, Queen of the Andals and the First Men, etc., etc. rode into Winterfell resplendent in a white fur greatcloak, which was smart because quite a chilly reception awaited her there.
At first blush, it seemed petty, even ponderous, for Game of Thrones to spend precious time in its final hours on the continued intrafactional bickering that has peppered its first seven seasons. I know the internet loves Lady Lyanna Mormont of Bear Island, a fourth-grader stuck on permanent thermonuclear heat-check mode, but she’s got her priorities out of order. Northern autonomy and Jon Snow’s crown won’t matter much if the army of the dead overruns the region and turns every last man, woman, and child into an ice zombie. Come together to beat back the existential threat now, says Jon, and worry about who rules the living later.
Having seen and fought the aforementioned army of the dead, and gotten to know Daenerys—socially, diplomatically, and biblically—Jon Snow is in a better position than anyone to determine whom to trust, and whom to fight, and in what order. And as an audience that’s watched over his shoulder for seven seasons and change, we know he’s doing the best he can with the information he has.
The problem is that nobody else in the North has anywhere near as much information. Jon left Winterfell as King in the North to find allies to help fight off the Night King’s horde, and he came back having bent the knee to a foreign invader, marching at the head of a column of Dothraki, Unsullied, and dragons. This army, formed mostly in Essos, might as well have come from outer space. Moreover, and critically from Sansa’s perspective, the last Starks to appear before a Targaryen court were her grandfather, Rickard, and her uncle, Brandon, who were killed by Daenerys’s father, the Mad King. And as far as she knows, her aunt Lyanna was kidnapped, raped, and murdered by Daenerys’s older brother Rhaegar. It’s entirely rational for Northerners in general, and the Starks in particular, to distrust Daenerys.
Dany's Mad Queen vibes were somehow turned UP this episode. Not a great first impression to march into the North with two dragons, a massive army, and a giant smirk— Riley McAtee (@RileyMcAtee) April 15, 2019
Samwell Tarly was getting along with the Mother of Dragons just fine until she admitted to him that she murdered his father and brother in … not cold blood, exactly, but you get the idea … for refusing to swear allegiance to her. Sam knows that his father was a bully and a snide prick, and that his brother was literally named Dickon, but it’s still incredibly difficult to pledge loyalty to someone who can look you in the eye and tell you they murdered your family.
So when Sam, still rattled by grief, tells Jon that he’s actually a Targaryen and that he, not Daenerys, is the rightful heir to the Iron Throne, it’s with an admonition: You gave up your crown to protect the realm—would she?
It’s the pivotal moment of the episode, and it shows that the infighting over the political order after the battle against the Night King is far from petty—it’s quite important. Jon is right when he argues that if they don’t defeat the army of the dead, nothing else matters. But it’s not the only thing that matters. Putting off questions of postwar politics until after the war isn’t a plan, and it’s an approach that almost always ends in disaster (cf. the occupation of Meereen, or the past 70 years of American foreign policy). And for all Jon’s assurances that Daenerys is trustworthy, the Northerners, who know less about her than he does, can’t take him at his word.
The show is imploring us, the audience, who know even more than Jon about the Mother of Dragons, to be similarly skeptical. And frankly, it’s a relief. Daenerys is one of the heroes of the story, positioned as the good guy after she freed slaves in Essos and took up Jon’s cause to protect the realm.
In contemporary American culture, “Khaleesi” has become an honorific for any woman people like in a position of power. “Daenerys” is insufficiently affectionate and familiar, so millions of fans refer to her as “Dany” instead. But the frightened teenager who appeared in Pentos in Season 1 has grown into an intercontinental conqueror who sometimes punishes resistance or even ambivalence with immolation, as her father once did. She’s a grown woman and a war criminal—let’s not infantilize her.
Those close to Daenerys know her to be a thoughtful, idealistic, and capable leader. But nobody outside that circle of intimates has any reason to follow her except her name, her army, and her dragons, which might act like cats but are essentially weapons of mass destruction. As Daenerys rode into Winterfell with her nose in the air, it was clearer than ever that she doesn’t think she needs more reasons for people to follow her. Which, yes, that’s how monarchical authoritarianism works, but as Daenerys’s father can attest, loyalty under fear of death only lasts until it doesn’t. The most troubling thing for Daenerys is that it’s not like this is a concept that only exists in contemporary political science—Tyrion spelled it out for her two episodes ago: “You need to inspire a degree of fear, but fear is all Cersei has. It’s all my father had, and Joffrey. It makes their power brittle, because everyone beneath them longs to see them dead.”
Daenerys says she doesn’t need Sansa to like her, just to respect her. Judging by how many lingering shots we saw of skeptical Northerners in the season premiere—Chekhov’s scowling serf—that might not be true. She needs to win over not only Jon, but Sansa, the Northern lords, and the population. Daenerys is not as bad as the encroaching Night King to the north or the even more murderous and increasingly unhinged Cersei to the south, but that might not be enough. If she doesn’t give the Northerners an affirmative reason to fight for her during the coming battle, they seem unlikely to accept her as ruler when there are no other worse enemies left.
What if the Night King is defeated but the Northerners still don’t trust Daenerys, and therefore refuse to bend the knee? What will Daenerys do then? Burn them all?
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.