Warning: contains Game Of Thrones spoilers.
I try to be kind to people, do the right thing, buy candy off babies instead of just taking it and all that, but I still wonder if I could one day become a villain. When, in Shakespeare’s Othello, Iago describes our being as a garden we must tend, and claims virtue is a fig, I think, hell yes it’s a fig. ‘Tis in ourselves that we are thus or thus,’ he proclaims, reminding me that I am capable of all things, and it is reason that prevents me from carrying these things through.
Iago is the quintessential Shakespearean villain, complex and affable, a ‘trusted’ advisor who manipulates the hero Othello into murdering his own wife. Like most villains, he is fueled by self-serving vengeance and ambition. He pauses never to question his motivations, only to justify them; ‘What’s he then that says I play the villain? When this advice is free I give and honest…’. His morality is never fixed, rather it quivers like a compass, pointing only in the direction he intends to go.
However, affable Iago might be, there is no mistaking his treachery. Often depicted with a sharp goatee and a withering smile, it’s frankly galling that the other characters fail to recognise his true nature. He is Hans Gruber in Die Hard or Senator Palpatine in Star Wars. His greatest successor in contemporary popular fiction might be Game of Thrones’ Littlefinger, a caricature of the devil himself, playing games with the noble few. This is what a true villain looks like.
Daenerys Targaryen, mother of dragons, breaker of chains and weapon of mass destruction is not born from the Iago line of villainy. She has been regularly heralded by the masses as a rightful heir to the throne, a hero with great hair, and a feminist icon with an unrelenting influence on baby names. I’m grateful that my two-year-old cousin, Dany, will one day get to watch her namesake engulf women and children in flames and burn an entire city to ash. Girl power!
There are a number of people who are clinging on to Daenerys as hero, pushing back on her decimation of an entire city as out of character or unconvincing. This could be a mistake made by the show runners, they cry, a betrayal to the original text! Of course George RR Martin has said that while a great deal of story has been changed in the television series, the larger plot points remain intact. Dany, it seems, was destined to burn cities to the ground, which should be unsurprising to anyone who listened to her when she yelled ‘I will burn cities to the ground!’.
The backlash against her decision to attack King’s Landing is a testament to how unlike Iago Dany seems. Since her first season, she’s displayed great affection and care to those in need. She is the breaker of chains after all, a champion for the marginalised, a great conquerer, a white saviour lauded as a God …
Right, I’m starting to see the problem here.
Dany is not a hero. We know this because of the ashen corpses in King’s Landing, reminiscent of a devastation at a scale akin to Pompeii. We know this too because the episode is deliberately filmed from the ashen corpses’ perspective. Once she begins her attack on civilians, we are transported from atop a dragon’s back, into a fray of babies crying, skin melting, and me screaming because holy shit, I can’t believe she just did that. For the rest of the episode, we’re trapped with some of our favourite characters, struggling to survive her relentless attacks.
Slight of Hand
It would be unreasonable to characterise Dany as villainous from the start. She is introduced to us as an innocent and somewhat virtuous figure. A young virgin treated as a possession, she is sold by her brother to the leader of a warrior nation. She is ‘raped and defiled’, yet finds a way to assert herself in this most hostile and diminishing environment. She is as determined and strong willed as any hero should be, which means that when she stands by as her husband pours molten gold on her drunk brother’s head, we’re as pumped as she is.
The anti-villain is an uncommon and tricky character, not least because it requires a kind of magic trick to execute successfully. As an incestual aunt to the anti-hero, these characters too hide in a moral grey area and entice us into their muck. The anti-hero might commit heinous acts, like Arya Stark’s penchant for murder, but their ultimate ambition at the end of the narrative is noble and selfless—to defeat a monster or to save the world. An anti-villain, however, feeds destruction with their noble deeds.
Dany became the ‘Mother of Dragons’ by tying a rape victim to Khal Drogo’s funeral pyre as a ritual blood sacrifice. I imagine, however, few watched that final scene of season one and felt anything but awe for this queen and her fire retardant hair as she climbs into the pyre herself yet appears later, unburnt. The piercing screams of an old woman burning alive could not quell our love of baby dragons. Her pain, a worthy sacrifice for the cool bit in season three when Dany burns a slave master alive. This woman did murder Dany’s unborn child, after all. Frankly, I’m glad she died.
Or, at least, that’s how we’re supposed to feel. For the magic trick to work, for us to consider the acts of an anti-villain as noble, we must be fed justification. There is no doubt that Dany is a compassionate and loving person, and that she is driven by this into grand moral pursuits. Her tireless war to end slavery stands as testament to this, and yet it is in this act of compassion that her moral compass seems to break.
Dany’s rage against the slave masters feels justified, especially in Meereen, where they crucify enslaved children to ward her off. Unable to perceive these masters as anything more than monstrous, Dany is incapable of diplomacy around the matter. She retaliates by sacking their city and crucifying the head of each household.
This is the black and white of it, but the grey stands beside her as her closest advisor and dearest friend, Jorah Mormont, a former slave owner on a journey of redemption. Later she learns that many of those she executed had fought against the crucification of the children. Her initial unwillingness to extend her compassion, and to offer the masters a chance at redemption, or even a fair trial, leads to a rebellion against her. Under scrutiny, the ethical reasoning behind one of her greatest noble acts begins to crumble.
A Charismatic Leader
Before the sack of King’s Landing begins, we are shown Dany’s patchwork army of Northmen, the Unsullied and a handful of Dothraki warriors, the horses standing tall among tired men in scrapheap suits of armour. It isn’t the most beautiful shot in the episode, or the most confronting, but it is a disquieting contrast to what we have come to expect from the armies of Daenerys Targaryen.
Though Dany herself is a beacon with white blonde hair and an upper east side wardrobe, the armies who serve her are distinctly uniform. After being granted freedom, the Unsullied remain consistent in wearing their armour and standing in line. We never see their faces under their helmets, only the face of their general, Grey Worm. The Dothraki army aren’t even afforded a seat in Dany’s council, their distinguishing features are erased under heavy eyeliner and horse-leather pants.
Fascism may not encourage the wearing of horse-leather pants, but it does applaud uniformity as a virtue. Benito Mussolini was especially keen to quash diversity, as Italy was a woke casting agent’s dream, and he was afraid of rebellion from factional groups. He institutionalised conformity, teaching children and workers to aspire to a new fascist ideal—himself. This is mildly jarring, considering Mussolini looked like a squat Italian grandpa.
This isn’t to say that Dany is a fascist dictator—yet—but like those marching armies in old propaganda films, the dispassionate conformity signals a lack of individuality, and therefore an incapacity for individuals to have a voice. In contrast, the free folk north of the wall utilise their freedom to build a type of democracy, where they choose their ruler with a vote, ensuring a balance of power. As Russian poet Joseph Brodsky writes:
The surest defense against Evil is extreme individualism, originality of thinking, whimsicality, even… Evil is a sucker for solidity. It always goes for big numbers, for confident granite, for ideological purity, for drilled armies and balanced sheets.
Dany’s drilled armies are a foreshadowing device, marching her toward her fate as a tyrannical dictator. But they are also indicative of a fatal flaw in Dany’s moral character. She tells us it is love for her that compels these armies to fall in line, a claim backed by her trusted advisor Missandei, who tells Tyrion she ‘believes’ in Dany. They are not allied forces, but disciples, putting their faith in Daenerys Targaryen as one might in a god.
Dany’s charm offensive becomes potently manipulative in later seasons, spinning her desire to conquer Westeros as prophecy, and using her dragons to elicit fear in anyone who refuses to bend the knee. Her mistake is not in inspiring love from her people, but in feeling entitled to it. She’s been metaphorically hanging posters of herself in classrooms around the world, and expecting kids to start braiding their hair.
Virtue is a Fig
When Iago says virtue is a fig, he intends it as a rebuke against the notion that we should aspire to a higher morality outside ourselves. We must use reason alone to push us into living better lives, he claims. Many characters on Game of Thrones would surely agree. Well, the ones who are dead, anyway.
Almost all in the main cast left in their wake are characters of strong virtue. Tyrion, the most self-assured in his ability to reason, believes in the goodness of people, in spite of all evidence to the contrary. Jon takes his cues from his adoptive father, Ned Stark, who saw justice in doing the right thing, even if it’s also the very stupid thing. Sansa and Arya both value family, community, and working toward a common good—especially now that the common good is killing Dany.
The purpose of an anti-villain is not to deny virtue, but to embody it, to live as the virtuous being we should all aspire to be. This is why most portrayals of anti-villainy are mythic characters with great power, such as Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars, Thanos in The Avengers, or Ozymandias in Watchmen. They sit outside our reality, or, in their minds, above it.
If virtue is a fig, Dany chewed it up a long time ago. Like that old high school frenemy sharing insta-stories about her volunteer vacation, Dany is a virtue signaller, bragging about freeing the slaves while one of them freshens her cup. She is motivated toward a greater good of her own creation. ‘Breaking the wheel’ is the means by which she can give herself dominion without compromise.
Grief, exhaustion, solitude, and an inherited mental illness tipped the Dragon Queen over an edge that she was already teetering on, held steady by those around her, who lived their lives for other people, and encouraged her to do the same. ‘Let it be fear,’ she says, when she is denied love, her options narrowed by her very singular perspective.
A well-written anti-villain can show us that evil doesn’t always stroke a sharp goatee, and that frankly, the distinction between good and evil is a slippery bitch. In Dany we aren’t offered a perfect character, but we are given an impressive example of how best intentions can become corrupted by ambition. With one episode to go, it’s worth noting that the anti-villain rarely survives—she is just a villain, after all, with a better disguise.