Daenerys Targaryen is the Mother of Dragons, Khaleesi, The Breaker of Chains. Many Game of Thrones fans consider her a favorite character. Some have gone as far as to name their children Khaleesi, though that’s confusingly not a name but a title. Even your non-Game of Thrones watching friends know who she is. “Oh, she’s the one with the hair, right?” they say with sage smiles. “I’ve seen the posters! I know pop culture! “
And yet, in spite of Daenerys’s impressive sounding titles, in spite of her prominence both in Westeros and the real world, she’s a questionable ruler, a not-particularly three-dimensional character, and a massive distraction from the main action. In other words, she’s kind of the worst. She was promising at the show’s beginning, but over the course of the last few seasons, the writers have dropped the ball. She’s subsequently suffered the worst fate a character can on Game of Thrones. Worse than beheading, worse than limb-severing or imprisonment: She become boring.
In Season 1, we rooted for her because she was an underdog. Her brother was a raging douche canoe who gave her to a warlord in exchange for an army. She was a pawn with seemingly no control over her own fate, and yet she quickly became assertive, forged a genuinely touching relationship with Khal Drogo, and turned her situation around. What was not to be invested in? She was sympathetic, and her stranger-in-a-strange-land narrative helped draw us as viewers into the foreign world of the show.
Come Season 2, the show wasn’t so alien to us anymore and the stranger-in-a-strange land angle was no longer fresh and alluring. In fact, it became a bit of a hindrance, as we’d itch to get back to The North and King’s Landing instead of the circular logic and endless desert dust of Qarth. But no matter, we were still invested in her getting those dragons back.
Then in Season 3, she freed a bunch of slaves and obtained a kickass army of eunuch killing machines. And yeah, her story took a turn for the queasy White Savior narrative, as the season ended with a crowd of brown people holding her above them.
But don’t worry about it, she frees slaves! She’s got dragons and the Unsullied! She’s Khaleesi! The Mother of Dragons! The Breaker of Chains! She’s a Strong Female Character! Awesome!
Then came the Meereen plot in Seasons 4 and 5. At this point, we can no longer ignore the fact that Daenerys is not a good ruler. This is glaringly obvious as we watch her blunder her way through executing the wrong people, piss off all the Meereenese citizens, fail to recognize that imposing her belief systems on another culture doesn’t work. And to cap it off, she fucks off on a dragon and leaves Tyrion to deal with her foreign policy mess. As several fans have already pointed out, Daenerys is the George W. Bush of Westeros and Essos.
That wouldn’t be an issue if the show realized this, but the writers clearly want us to care about her and root for her to take the Iron Throne. After all, if Game of Thrones wasn’t trying to make the case for Daenerys as the rightful queen, then following her plotline — consistently divorced from anything else on the show — would be a gigantic waste of time.
And it is a waste of time. Her plot, each season, revolves taking a break from the main action to watch her get entangled in new cities and cultures, impose her own beliefs on them, and ultimately leave them worse off than before.
Oh, Season 6 will see her marching into a new dusty city? How novel! This will surely be a welcome use of screen time instead of finding out what the hell is happening with Jon Snow, what happened in Westeros’s past, what Arya is up to in assassin school, what Sansa will do as Queen of the North, what Jaime will get up to with all his battles, or watching Cersei wreck shit with the Franken-Mountain.
Nope, let’s take a break from those more interesting developments to watch Daenerys be petulant in the dust.
The word “petulant” is key here, because fans of Daenerys laud her for being a “powerful woman” or a “Strong Female Character.” And yet, a bland female character yelling about being queen does not equate strength. You want girl power? Look at Cersei. Sure, she’s a giant bitch and a terrible person, but she’s also fascinating and far more nuanced than one-note Daenerys. You want a woman to lead Westeros? Margaery Tyrell would do a far better job, her political savvy is up there with Tywin Lannister’s. Even Sansa Stark would be more equipped in a few short years.
Her journey is much like Daenerys’s; she begins as a highborn young woman who is a victim of circumstance and she’s had her spoiled and misguided moments along the way — but she’s had an actual character arc. She wised up, grew from her experiences, and knows how to play the game now.
Even Brienne, who has a smaller role than Daenerys, has more depth. Her Season 5 monologue about the roots of her loyalty to Renly was the most feminist thing to happen on this show, simply because the writers were acknowledging all the inherent contradictions that come with being a woman who rejects femininity. Brienne is fierce and gruff and unfeminine in every way, yet the show doesn’t make her one-dimensional. It lets her open up about once wanting to be called pretty and hating herself for it. Cersei, too, is given dimension — she’s ruthless and cruel, but she’s never less than riveting to watch. Game of Thrones is teeming with strong female characters, but Daenerys Targaryen is not one. She’s a pretender to the throne.
Emilia Clarke has done a fine job with the material she has, but the writers don’t give her much. Daenerys is a robot with three main modes: Queen Mode, Quietly Imperious Mode, and Brooding About Dragons mode. She’s had less development than any of the central protagonists, male or female. Sure, a bunch of stuff has happened to her, but it’s sound and fury, signifying nothing. At the end of the road, she’s a girl who wants to rule out of a sense of entitlement just because her father did — and he was a psychotic maniac who did a terrible job, to the point that his own Kingsguard had to slay him.
Daenerys sucks up screen time that could be given to more intriguing characters and plotlines. And at this point in the Game of Thrones story, when it’s past the half-way mark and eyeing the end, it can’t afford to waste time on limp characterization. But on a show where you can conjure the top 20 deaths in under a minute, there’s an easy solution to this problem. Kill her.
Her death will never happen, both because it’s clear the writers love her and because they won’t be able to resist including dragons in the show’s final endgame. But after six seasons, it’s too little, too late for character development. If the show ends with Daenerys taking what’s hers with fire and blood, its legacy will be that of a show that ends with a whimper when it thinks it’s ending with a bang. And after countless hours of Game of Thrones showing its capacity to be truly great TV, with stronger characters and more meaningful stories, that would be a damn shame.