‘Stranger’ Things Have Happened

Here are two interesting essays on last Sunday’s provocative episode of Game of Thrones called “Book of the Stranger.” Laura Hudson’s feminist bias leads her into an avoidable error of fact regarding Walks of Atonement conducted by the High Sparrow (i.e., those naked walks do not apply to women only); yet her review still does a good job of connecting Daenerys Targaryen to the ancient personification of “the breaker, the burner, the scourge, the scythe.”  Lara Zarum is unhappy with Emilia Clarke’s willingness to have Daenerys appear nude in the final scene, mostly because she suspects Clarke has acquiesced to the wishes of the male-dominated production crew of the show; this, despite the fact that at least partial nudity is required for the scene, based on who and what Dany is as the Mother of Dragons.

What both of these critics have missed (or simply ignored) is that Daenerys’s “finest moment” was anything but.  In celebrating her as “woman triumphant,” they have conveniently forgotten that Dany is descended from generation after generation of  incestuous, stark raving mad lunatics.  The act of burning down the House of the Khals represents nothing more and nothing less than a Targaryen behaving like a Targaryen.  You can’t outfight your enemies, and you can’t outwit them, so you simply burn down their house, using dragons or whatever other source of flame happens to be handy.

Good luck with sustaining that kind of rule.  If A Song of Ice and Fire has shown us anything, it’s shown us that the presentation of absolute power is an illusion.  Such power cannot and will not last, no matter who–or which sex–holds it.  The alternative kind of rule drives many of us to distraction, but we’ve seen at work this season through Tyrion’s labors as ‘Hand of the Queen’ in Mereen the success of the negotiator, the compromiser.  Tyrion has offered a compromise for the ending of slavery in the kingdoms around Dany’s.  In part, the negotiation was conducted simply to buy time until Daenerys could be found and returned.  No one truly knows whether the “seven year” window to end slavery will be accepted or will work.  But we have long known that the Targaryen-Lannister-Bolton-Frey “kill-em-all” policy won’t work either because, for one thing, it really cuts down the number of people a ruler can rule.  Having people to rule is kinda the point of ruling, whether you’re a man or a woman.

I had hoped that Daenerys would eventually emerge from the story as a different kind of ruler.  But she won’t.  In a strange way, I accept that, because the George R R Martin universe has long established the utter gloom and hopelessness of its atmosphere and done so brilliantly.  But the gloom applies to everyone.  Feminists need to rein in their cheering, because Daenerys is subject to the same fates as everyone else, and her “triumph” last Sunday, even if it lasts for a while, was a mass murder straight out of the ancestral patriarchy’s playbook, an act we ought not to admire.

[PS  Thursday morning thoughts.  It took a long time for me to decide to write this post.  I was just going to let the matter drop.  Then I  saw Lara Zarum’s argument against Dany’s nudity, coupled it with Laura Hudson’s essay, and thought that the opposing case ought to be put out there.

This is the third–no, fourth–time Daenerys has played her fire card:  when she hatched the dragon eggs at the end of season one; when she escaped from her magical captors in Astapor (she was chained, but clothed at the beginning of that escape); when she called her dragon to escape slaughter at the hands of Sons of the Harpy late last season; and now this.  I do not find her nudity objectionable; on the contrary, it’s necessary if you’re going to bring down the house, whether in Astapor or on the horse plains.  I believe Ms. Zarum believes a woman’s sexuality  is always and only a woman’s business, regardless of how a woman uses that sexuality or whether she invites anyone to share in it.  Whether Dany’s sexuality is in play here or not (I don’t think it is; nudity doesn’t imply it), that’s a defensible position, although holding it does inevitably make male-female relationships enormously complicated.

Less defensible, it seems to me, is Dany’s reversion to Targaryen behavior.  We are at a point of great creative freedom in the story; any number of possible courses of action were open to her, even last week.  She could have escaped with Daario and Jorah; she could have called her dragon and made a very visible threat against the Khals; she could have fomented an insurrection against her foes.  Some of these choices are less likely to have succeeded than others; the point is, they were open to her.  Instead, she chose the simple, brutal, patriarchal Targaryen solution and burned her way to freedom.  It looked spectacular, and it was.  But the solution ought not to fool us:  at bottom, it was no different from what her ancestors did, or what the hateful Walder Frey did at the Red Wedding.

If the claim is that Daenerys Targaryen is “woman triumphant,” that she represents, fictively, feminism itself–a new and better way of living than the patriarchal system under which Westeros and, by extension, we ourselves are breaking–then she ought to be truly different.  Thus far, in the books and in the series, she is not.  She lacks the skills to negotiate and compromise.  Tyrion could be the one to teach her those skills.  If he does, he could render Dany’s inborn invulnerability unnecessary to use in ruling.  That power would always be there, available to her as a last resort, but only that.  Recall, if you will, the Star Trek episode “Mirror, Mirror,” wherein Kirk tries to persuade the alternative-universe Spock to take command of his ruthless Enterprise and begin to bring to an end the waste and illogic of the empire he serves.  Spock is fascinated by that possibility but, he says, “a man must also have the power,” whereafter Kirk tells him of the Tantalus Field in the captain’s cabin.  Daenerys already has such an invincible power, and she has used it.  But that does not make her a ruler.  Not yet.  She will become a ruler the day she thinks of exploiting that power, but chooses not to.]


2 thoughts on “‘Stranger’ Things Have Happened

  1. I had to bookmark and then skip down over this, as I am way behind in watching Game of Thrones. I look forward to catching up and reading these two essays, John!


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