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The Dothraki Deserved Better From Daenerys

Her bloodriders followed her across the Narrow Sea only to be forced to carry out a ridiculous plan in the Battle of Winterfell

HBO/Ringer illustration

In Game of Thrones Season 6, after Daenerys Targaryen has burned all of the khals in Vaes Dothrak and consolidated their various Dothraki hordes into one massive khalasar, she makes them a bold promise. Standing on top of Drogon, Dany announces she will not name just three bloodriders, as is Dothraki tradition. Instead she will give them all the honor.

“I will ask more of you than any khal have ever asked of his khalasar,” Dany says.

That turned out to be true.

On Sunday’s episode of Game of Thrones, “The Long Night,” the Dothraki and their horses were taken off the chessboard. In a plan Dany approved, they charged headfirst into the army of the dead with predictable consequences. As the Dothraki’s flaming swords flickered and faded in a matter of seconds, so too did much of the Dothraki culture: “What [the other characters] see is the end of the Dothraki, essentially,” series cocreator David Benioff said in an Inside the Episode segment after the credits on Sunday night. Perhaps there are Dothraki stragglers Dany left in Essos, but the tribe as we knew it is gone.

In a show about badass warriors, the Dothraki were perhaps the most badass. (“A Dothraki wedding without at least three deaths is considered a dull affair,” Illyrio Mopatis tells Dany at her nuptials in the pilot episode.) The Dothraki were the first followers to place their trust in Dany, and they did so twice: first when she birthed her dragons and again after she burned down Vaes Dothrak. Yet when the Battle of Winterfell came, Dany—their Khaleesi—failed them.

In the opening minutes of Sunday’s episode, the massive Dothraki horde is at the front lines when Melisandre, the red priestess, returns from … somewhere, and she asks Jorah to command the Dothraki army to raise their swords. He complies. What follows is one of the most stunning visual sequences in a series replete with them.

Seeing thousands of Dothraki swords light up in flames was jaw-dropping. It was also the moment that sealed their fate. The Dothraki have two rules:

  1. No weapons in their holy city.
  2. Don’t mess with witches.

No one should understand the second one better than Jorah, Dany’s most trusted adviser who was there in Season 1 when a witch’s magic left Khal Drogo in a vegetative state and killed Khaleesi’s unborn child. That made it all the more surprising that he would accept Melisandre’s help before the battle with the army of the dead. He should know that a witch sending the Dothraki into battle is like the New York Jets making the Super Bowl and having Tom Brady read the pregame introductions. Yet when Melisandre asks Jorah whether she can grace their swords, he obliges. No wonder they all promptly die.

Perhaps the Dothraki trusted the magic because they knew the plan—ride headfirst into the Night King’s army—was basically a suicide mission. There is an entire tactical analysis explaining why this is such a dumb strategy, but at the risk of beating thousands of dead horses, it’s worth breaking down just how stupid it was. Jon’s and Dany’s armies dug trenches, built a flame moat, and created dragonglass barbed wire and then had the Dothraki and Unsullied stand in front of those barricades rather than behind them. They also put the artillery in front of the Unsullied rather than behind them, and they didn’t seem to stock up on enough supplies for the battle. Look how many flaming doughnut holes (it’s a technical term) they had:


I count 10 spare flaming doughnut holes plus some assorted bricks to launch. That’s not enough! The trebuchet could take 90 seconds to reload, and they’d still be out of ammo with more than an hour left in the episode. That’s before we get into their aerial naivete. It’s a baffling plan considering that when the Dothraki took on the Lannisters in the Loot Train Attack, they had the element of surprise plus a dragon flanking the enemy. See how Dany attacks the Lannisters from the side as the Dothraki approach them head on?

Why is that not what happened in the Battle of Winterfell? These tactical failures were explained on a postshow segment with creators D.B. Weiss and Benioff. Jon and Dany’s plan is to draw the Night King out into the open and attack him two-on-one: “One thing they couldn’t have foreseen was Dany’s reaction to seeing the Dothaski decimated,” Benioff said. “Jon is the person who wants to stick to the plan but the Dothraki aren’t Jon’s. They’re not loyal to Jon. They’re loyal to Dany, and I think Dany can’t bring herself to watch them die, and so the plan starts to fall apart the second she gets on her dragon and so he does too and then we take it from there.”

Double-teaming the most important player on the other team is a great strategy. But what did Dany think was going to happen? She signed off on the Dothraki leading a charge into an army of the dead in pitch blackness and was stunned when it didn’t go well. With bringing her dragons north of the Wall, using the Unsullied as policemen in Meereen, and then sending in the Dothraki on a solo quest at the Battle of Winterfell, she has a remarkable talent for getting those devoted to her killed.

None of this helps Dany’s questionable track record as a liberator, but that might say more about the real-life writing than her fictional character. The cultures Dany has spent so much time around—from those of Astapor and Meereen to the Dothraki—often feel like plot devices, not people. The culture considered “savages” by Westeros were the ones who died in the darkness on Sunday. Perhaps Benioff and Weiss chose for the Dothraki to die in that fashion because the fiercest fighting force fading in a flicker sends a message of the Night King’s strength. But it’s also probably because most fans would be hard-pressed to name one Dothraki character beyond Drogo, who died in Season 1. The Dothraki were expendable, and, as The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer pointed out, it’s something to keep in mind as Weiss and Benioff gear up for their next project.

The Dothraki’s death was aesthetically pleasing, but narratively, it served as the setup for the story of another culture, for Dany’s story. She asked for the Dothraki’s faith—they certainly gave it to her. But it’s hard to feel like she kept her end of the deal.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.