Character Rehab: How to fix Daenerys from 'Game of Thrones'

Game-of-Thrones

Image Credit: HBO

Here at EW, we have a new weekly series in which we — and readers — weigh in on ways to rehab much-maligned characters on some of our favorite shows.

There are plenty of reasons why Game of Thrones should not have worked as a TV show, and one of them is Daenerys Targaryen. Or Daenerys Stormborn, or the Mother of Dragons, or Dany, or Khaleesi, or whichever nickname honorific you prefer. The adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series was always going to have a massive cast, but at least in the early days, most of that massive cast is located in roughly the same place. We meet the Starks and Lannisters in a memorable get-together at Winterfell; and even now, three seasons into the TV show, most of the key characters on the show are still living on the same continent.

Not so for Dany, who begins her journey across the Narrow Sea and has spent much of her life moving further away geographically from the continent of her birth. In the books, Dany’s story often seemed beamed in from a very different kind of fantasy epic. While the great families of Westeros squabbled in a recognizably Medieval pseudo-Europe, Dany was hobnobbing with an assortment of ethnically ambiguous barbarians and distant foreign cities with names like Astapor and Yunkai. On Westeros, there was barely any magic; by the end of Book One, Dany is walking around with three genuine dragons. (By comparison, imagine reading a Hilary Mantel novel about Thomas Cromwell that occasionally got invaded by Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian short stories.)

It’s a testament to the show’s savvy ability to adapt its source material that Dany didn’t feel awkwardly wedged into the first season. And it’s a testament to actress Emilia Clarke — essentially an unknown before Thrones‘ debut — that Dany became such a breakout figure for the show. Clarke’s Dany is older than the books’ teenager — a reflection of the fact that they had to age up half the cast — but in the show’s first season, she managed to show the full evolution of Dany from an innocent, terrified object into a brave, fully grown woman, capable of leading her people. By comparison, imagine if Peggy Olsen went from this to this in 10 episodes or less. Really, Dany in the first season of Game of Thrones was a much more interesting character than Dany in the first book. (It helped that Jason Momoa — a gigantic superhuman who may actually wrestle with dragons in his spare time — played Khal Drogo as a Fantasy Über-Warrior who was also a believable husband for Dany.)

The problem is that, since then, Dany has been exactly as problematic as she was supposed to be. She spent season 2 wandering through the desert and then exploring the bizarre social stratospheres of Qarth, a city that seemed almost entirely populated by bald zombie-mystics. (Season 2 was also when half of Dany’s lines seemed to be “My dragons! My dragons!”) She was more mobile in season 3, but it was mostly variations on a theme. Step One: Dany goes to city. Step Two: something something dragons. Step Three: Profit! The road ahead for the Mother of Dragons is unclear. Without trying to spoil anything from the books — although you should probably just read them at this point, since reading is cool — Dany is obviously a pivotal character in the greater saga, but the show is entering narrative territory that, in book form, features ever-more characters and a much more gradual story progression. Here are a few ideas that would help Dany regain her stature as one of Thrones‘ shining (sun-and-)stars.

1. No more scenes where she meets with a foreign dignitary and reveals that she is smarter than they think. There are three basic types of interactions in Game of Thrones: Scenes between extremely powerful people, scenes between powerless people, and scenes where powerful people explain power to powerless people. Part of what makes Dany’s journey so interesting on the page is that — much like Jon Snow in the distant North — she is learning how to use her power, and deciding what kind of ruler she wants to be. Unfortunately, in season 3, most of these scenes ultimately circled around to the same repetitive interaction: Dany talks to the head of some city far, far away from the rest of the show’s action, and that person she’s talking to misjudges her, and then she manages to get one over them. This was awesome the first time, when she unleashed the full force of her dragons, but it also has the effect of pushing Dany even further away from what makes the show fun. The characters on Westeros are constantly forced to make terrible compromises for their own greater good; Dany, at this point, gets away with pretty much everything. There needs to be more to her story than just “How Daenerys Targaryen Became Really, Really Great and Everyone Loved Her the Whole Time.”

2. Accelerate the evolution of those damn dragons. Thrones is one of the best-looking shows on TV. But the show doesn’t have a bottomless budget for CGI dragons. This is a problem only because, in book form, Dany’s relationship to her dragons is a key aspect of her character from Book 2 onward. Drogon, Rhaegal, and Viserion aren’t quite “characters,” per se, but they are a constant presence, and Dany’s perspective on them evolves in interesting ways. At this point in the show, though, they’re pretty much just pets who appear occasionally; they’re cute, until they suddenly attack bad guys on command. Again, this can be fun, but it also feels much simpler than any of the multifaceted interactions back on Westeros. Do the dragons get along with each other? Does Dany love one more than the other? Does she do anything with them besides lose them?

3. Spend an entire episode in Slaver’s Bay. Thrones‘ narrative strategy for their episodes is an all-you-can-eat buffet, cutting across the various strands of its fantastical world and checking in with main characters, sometimes just for a couple of minutes. But the show threw out that structure for “Blackwater,” which zeroed in on a specific time and place with just a few key characters — and that wound up being the show’s best episode yet, and a great showcase for all the actors involved. If the show is serious about keeping Dany as a key character, I would argue that she needs a similar showcase. Heck, at this point, Dany has her own massive supporting cast of advisers and potential love interests — and again, without trying to spoil anything too much, lots of stuff is happening next season that could feasibly lead to a “Blackwater”-esque treatment. The problem is that, right now, Dany is at the center of a lot of major drama, but because we only spend a few minutes with her each week, that drama never really builds. (Last season, Dany freed entire civilizations of slaves; the show practically spent more time on Jaime and Brienne taking a very memorable bath.) Give us a full hour to really understand the new ecosystem of power circling around the Khaleesi, and that will make us love her for a hundred more episodes of dragon-feeding.

Any other thoughts on Dany’s status in Game of Thrones? Book fans, is there anything you’d want the show to focus on — or, conversely, anything you’d want the show to leave out?

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