By Taylor Marvin
Two weeks ago HBO broadcast the season finale of Game of Thrones’ third season. In the climactic final scene lead character Daenerys, after conquering the slave-trading city of Yunkai, is met by an adoring crowd of freed slaves who proclaim her “mother” and their savior. The season ends with a dramatic bird’s eye shot of the white-skinned Dany surrounded by a sea of darker-skinned supplicants, all reaching inward to touch, salute, and worship her.
Critics immediately attacked the scene’s staging as, at the least, racially uncomfortable, and accused its depiction of a light-skinned foreigner effortlessly freeing people of color from similarly dark-skinned oppressors as perpetuating the tired white savior trope. George RR Martin responded to criticism of the scene, arguing that slavery in his books is not based on race and has much more in common with the Roman and Greek world, where debtors or prisoners of war were enslaved regardless of ethnicity. Indeed, Martin goes out of his way to avoid race in A Song of Ice and Fire altogether. Unlike in our world, skin tone in Martin’s follows no real geographical pattern, and the inhabitants of some of the most exotic and otherized locals in the series — Qarth and Asshai — are explicitly identified as some of the whitest in the series. Indeed, Martin is one of the few fantasy authors to write protagonists of color who tell their own stories through their own voices.
But it’s natural that images of a white savior surrounded by adoring people of color would draw more controversy on the screen than on the page, especially when — in contrast to how Martin wrote the scene in A Storm of Swords — Game of Thrones’ crowd of slaves appear uniformly darker than the white protagonists. In his response Martin attributed this to logistical necessities the show faces but his books do not. As the scene was shot in Morocco, local extras filling in as slaves were necessarily darker-skinned than the leads — unless the production is going to fly in hundreds of foreign extras (which would have its own very troubling connotations) crowd scenes are always going to reflect the local prevailing skin tone, which in Morocco is by no means uniform. This echoes Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, which if I recall correctly cast many dark-skinned extras as Orcs simply as a way of including local New Zealand actors in Tolkien’s white-dominated narrative.
Again, these logistical limitations are reasonable, and George RR Martin is right to note that many instances of historical slavery lack a racial component. But Game of Thrones is produced and consumed in a cultural context where slavery is overwhelmingly identified with the subjugation of dark-skinned people by lighter-skinned people. “It’s not the most-racist thing you’re going to see on TV, most days,” commenter witlesschum writes of the scene on Sean T. Collins’ site. “But living in the 21st century US, I can’t see that scene without the racial implications pinging and taking me out of the narrative.” It doesn’t matter if slavery in the ancient world was race neutral, because Game of Thrones isn’t broadcast for an ancient audience. In our world slavery is not, and the show’s producers should have anticipated the controversy the scene would draw.
However, it’s unclear if the audience is intended to take Dany’ triumph as an endorsement of her victory, and the white savior narrative it embodies, at all. Whatever the merits of freeing slaves, Dany’s actions represent a top-down, violent attempt to reform a society she knows literally nothing about. In a word it’s imperialism, “liberal” qualifier nonetheless. While the now-freed slaves may hail Dany as their mother, “as joyful as that sequence was framed to be, a family conceived not in genuine compatibility or a shared vision of the world but in desperate need and a rush of affirmation contains great potential for harm,” Alyssa Rosenberg writes. At Rolling Stone Sean T. Collins questioned the writers’ endorsement even more strongly, noting that “Dany’s triumph outside the gates of Yunkai came with its fair share of visual and narrative warning signs that we’re not to take it at face value.”
[Begin spoilers for A Storm of Swords through A Dance with Dragons]
Dany’s moment outside of Yunkai may be a genuine victory, but later events make it clearly a hollow one. Dany’s subsequent attempt to rule the third city of Slaver’s Bay, Meereen, is a failure, undermined by an insurgency organized by the elites she violently overthrew and the economic importance of the slave trade she abolished. Her conquest and emancipation of Astapor led directly to the total destruction of the city, and hundreds of thousands of deaths.
In this sense Martin’s narrative is a bait-and-switch. Much like A Song of Ice and Fire evokes narratives of righteous young princes avenging their fathers before Robb’s betrayal and murder pulls the rug out from under our feet, A Dance With Dragons explicitly undermines the white savior narrative by suggesting that violent interventions to reform foreign societies are always more complicated than they appear, no matter how good their intentions. But this nuance may be lost in the television medium. Game of Thrones presents viewers with a climactic visual — literally climactic, as it’s the last shot of the season — that appears to endorse a white savior narrative and will only be subverted two seasons later; casual viewers may not get the message. This is partially a problem with translating a so-far 5,000 page plus book to television, and ultimately a narrative that subverts a trope is still an instance of that trope. Wired’s Laura Hudson is right to remark that “I’ve seen this trope so many times before that it feels emotionally flat and boring.” It won’t once Dany’s idealism begins falling apart around her, but it does now.
The simple truth is that images of white characters surrounded by grateful, otherized people of color are loaded ones in our civilization, and have been created far, far more often as part of narratives that endorse colonialism rather than critique it. These narratives should be subverted, but it is inherently difficult to do so.
As I’ve previously written, I don’t think A Song of Ice and Fire is orientalist or racist. While its depictions of societies modeled after the Mediterranean and Middle East ring more stereotypical than its main, Western Europe-inspired setting, this is partially a deliberate choice — Martin predominantly shows societies populated by people of color through the eyes of foreigners, who have good reason to see them as alien. It’s also impossible to paint A Song of Ice and Fire as an endorsement of European values. In A Dance With Dragons Martin repeatedly suggests that while Westeros’ culture abhors slavery its own serfdom is fundamentally no different. “Some slaveowners and their overseers were brutal and cruel,” Martin writes, through the eyes of Tyrion, “but the same was true of some Westerosi lords and their stewards and bailiffs.” In this context, Martin’s depiction of slavery is if anything a critique of orientalism, suggesting that Western-identified travelers ultimately find just as much barbarism at home as they do in the “Orient”.
Indeed, this critique is one of the most fascinating aspects of Dany’s character. Just as her denunciations of King Robert as a “usurper” ring false given that her own claim to power is an ancestor who took it by force, Dany abhors slavery yet seeks to return to a throne resting on the backs of serfs who are slaves in all but name. The fact that we’re talking about white saviors at all, and not Dany’s own entitled orientalism, tells me that Game of Thrones’ writers missed a step.