Rage. Despair. Vengeance. I’m not talking about Daenerys Targaryen, but rather the white hot social media reactions to the Khaleesi’s conversion of King’s Landing and its tens of thousands of innocents into a funeral pyre in The Bells, the penultimate episode of the Game of Thrones series. Daenerys was supposed to be a liberator, a breaker of chains. It wasn’t supposed to turn out like this. The writers are to blame. Somebody must be to blame!
These reactions were initially surprising to me, but they should not have been. I forgot how little I once knew about myths. I forgot that people only want their tropes overturned just a little bit. We might be fine with a little deconstruction of sword and sorcery tropes for the shock value, but if there’s anything the incredibly successful Marvel movies have taught us, it’s that we crave stories of good and evil. We feel a deep need to find the story’s hero and identify ourselves with them. And in so doing, we will overlook so much. And this is exactly what Game of Thrones has been telling us the whole time.
Take Ned Stark, set up in the role of the archetypal hero who will Do What’s Right. He’s beheaded at the end of the first season precisely for following his code of honour, while the wicked prosper. The story was telling us from the beginning that our search for heroes will not be satisfied. But we searched on.
The good hero’s mantle is transferred from Ned to his son Robb, who is crowned King in the North. He will avenge his wrongly murdered father! He will destroy the tyrant Joffrey! This culminates in the infamous Red Wedding, a horrific betrayal and murder of King Robb, his pregnant wife, and his mother Catelyn (along with many soldiers and a direwolf). And so the hunt for the true hero continues. We are even told of some prophecy.
Perhaps Renly Bartheon will be our hero? No, murdered.
Maybe Drogo? The mighty warrior, cruelly felled by an infection.
Jon Snow? Murdered, for his honour, just like his dumb father Ned Stark.
And even when Jon is resurrected and learns of his true parentage, he screws up again by not keeping the newly learned secret of his Targaryen birth and superior right to the throne from Daenerys, his lover the dragon queen (and his aunt). She begs him not to tell his sisters, but he does it anyway, all because of honour, a core heroic virtue.
But our collective need for a hero doesn’t dampen a bit. They’re just making it hard to identify the true hero, we think, while we can’t begin to question the search itself, because all of our stories of heroic good triumphing over horrific evil are myths, not in the sense that they are false, but in the sense that they are lies.
This is one of the deep insights of René Girard, the recently deceased French thinker whose “mimetic theory” explains many features of our world with uncommon and uncomfortable clarity. Behind all of our myths, Girard contends, is the murder of some innocent victim, a scapegoat. When a community in turmoil reaches a certain boiling point, the collective rage of the mob falls upon an arbitrary victim. And as we unite to expel this contaminating evil from our midst, the community finds themselves united, miraculously. Girard describes this as “unanimity minus one.”
Since the murdered victim cannot cry out, the surviving community tell stories about how they were saved from a great cataclysm. All traces of humanity are removed from the victim, until they become a demon, a monster, a trickster god. And whoever first pointed the finger at the victim is hailed as an emissary, perhaps a demigod. Certainly a saviour. Definitely a hero. We tell these heroic stories because the reality of the fact that all cultures are in the business of creating innocent victims to hold their communities together is unbearable to us. We want to think we’re the good guys, and we want to identify with the good guys in heroic stories.
Which brings us back to Game of Thrones, and Daenerys Targaryen, Khaleesi, holder-of-plenty-of-titles. It is a deep structure of the way our consciousness is formed to seek out heroes and villains, and to then ally ourselves with the good heroes against the evil villains. In a show where every other obvious heroic candidate had been murdered, Daenerys was the only remaining hero for us to ally ourselves with. She was young, beautiful, an outsider, and a victim. A woman in a world full of awful men.
She grew in maturity and power along with her dragons. She promised fire and blood against her enemies, and we cheered. She burnt her enemies, and we cheered. She crucified the masters of Slaver’s Bay, and we cheered. She did it to rescue slaves, after all. This would have been the work of a lifetime for many lesser people, but Daenerys was only beginning. She would have vengeance against people she had never met and take hold of a throne she had never seen that ruled a land she had never set foot in. Destiny was on her side. The logic of colonialism.
As the ringing bells faded and the dragon took flight, Daenerys showed us who she was the whole time. We just didn’t want to see it, because we’re so deeply programmed to find a hero to identify with so that we can tell ourselves we’re good. We overlook the atrocities that heroes commit because that’s the way myths work: they silence the cries of the innocent victim(s). On the eve of the invasion of King’s Landing, Tyrion comes to the despot-to-be and begs her to spare the tens of thousands of innocent lives that Cersei, the evil queen (and Tyrion’s own sister) has sequestered behind her walls as a kind of human shield. Daenerys’s imperious answer told us everything we needed to know:
Your sister knows how to use their enemies weaknesses against them. That’s what she thinks our mercy is. Our mercy is our strength. Our mercy toward future generations who will not be held hostage by a tyrant.
She told on herself, far from the first time. Yet we still wanted to believe that she didn’t mean what she said, that she would somehow master this dark impulse, that she is a breaker of chains simply because she said so. This would only be war, with a regular number of casualties we would be able to excuse. That this was not a colonial invasion by a bloodthirsty despot with a comical firepower advantage, ruled by vengeance and a story of her own destiny impervious to doubt.
We wanted to love her. We needed her to be the hero in a story that has denied us any. She seemed just different enough from the traditional heroic template that the story had repeatedly set up and knocked down. So when people complain that the writing is horrible and that her fiery massacre of thousands of innocents came out of nowhere, we are telling on ourselves. We, too, are enmeshed in a world where the powerful cloak themselves in the language of righteousness, of destiny, of nobility. We will believe anything our heroes say and do, so long as it makes us good in our own eyes. Heroism is bullshit and we are fools to believe it.