Whiteness and Power in 'Game of Thrones' (Spoilers)

The sensational HBO series Game Of Thrones peddles in a brutal moral economy. Kings are laid low by slayers, the poor are invisible to the powerful, while advisors balance the scales in their interests by collecting and hoarding devastatingly damaging information on the powerful. In a world where bastard sons are open secrets, women are commonly treated as little more than objects of desire and are often victims of sexual violence. The white women who do rise to power nevertheless find themselves vying for a place in a world that is distinctly a product of men’s caprices.

Yet, the most systematically marginalized populations in the show are comprised of Black and Brown bodies which, as the show approaches its conclusion, apparently exist as the currency of white power in this brutal economy.

This particular brutality became explicitly clear in the third episode of the show’s eighth season, “The Long Night.” Significant death occurs among all factions, but there is something especially disturbing in the episode’s treatment of the Dothraki and Unsullied — the two largest Brown populations in the show’s story arc.

The Dothraki are a nomadic “wild” and “savage” group, often referred to as a horde. They are feared for their combat savagery, and their honor is represented by the length of a man’s ponytail — for once a man loses in combat, his hair is cut. Moreover, they are lascivious and sexually violent, as demonstrated by a wedding scene in which one man's public copulation with his female conquest is interrupted to begin a bloody fight — which ends with the new victor finishing the act his victim had begun. “A Dothraki wedding without at least three deaths is considered a dull affair,” advisor Illyrio Mopatis tells Daenerys at her wedding in season one.

The Unsullied are also a fearsome combat group, a previously enslaved population of eunuchs who are raised to do one thing: wage war at their current master’s behest.

The show expends great effort to represent its Brown populations as physically and martially fearsome. They are also depicted as culturally “low” in contrast to the intellectually sophisticated and socially advanced major white protagonists, who are portrayed with a clear reference to European culture and linguistic practices. Both groups are predictable candidates for white saviors, and that is exactly what Game of Thrones delivers.

In its first season, Daenerys Targaryen, the Mother of Dragons and an aspiring ruler of The Seven Kingdoms, is effectively pimped by her mad brother to the leader of the Dothraki. After a wedding that is consummated by what can only be described as sexual assault, Daenerys (who is white in complexion with striking white hair) becomes one with the Dothraki and assumes leadership after her husband is killed.

Her betrothal is leveraged into commanding one of the most feared fighting forces in the realm, and the Dothraki quickly become part of her quest to retake the Iron Throne and restore the Targaryen claim to power. Season three has Daenerys visit the city of Qohor, with Dothraki in tow, where the Unsullied are trained. She first buys the army, frees them, then sets them upon their former owners. The white savior then asks the Unsullied if they want to live their lives on their own or follow her (and the Dothraki) into battle for the Iron Throne in Daenerys’ name. To no one’s surprise, they overwhelmingly vote to put their lives on the line for her quest.

The narrative tactic is well-worn in both fantasy fiction and American history: so long as the formerly oppressed choose to serve whites, even when the choice is really no choice at all, white innocence will follow.

Game of Thrones leverages this white innocence for eight seasons. I watched every episode wondering if the showrunners had enough courage and imagination to do more with the Dothraki and Unsullied. I never believed that they possessed that courage, and “The Long Night” confirmed my cynicism. It is a great irony that the show’s most urgent existential threat are called the White Walkers.

They control a legion of undead wights and are led by a supernatural leader referred to as the Night King. The show’s preceding seven seasons built up to a confrontation between the living and the dead where the fate of all humanity would hang in the balance. Should the Kingdom of the North, Winterfell, fall to the Night King’s advance then all is lost; the odds were never in their favor as the dead outnumbered the living by staggering proportions. “The Long Night” depicts the capstone battle between the Walkers and allied forces from The Seven Kingdoms.

“The Long Night” begins with the living facing off for war. If the battle is won, the power politics of white elites can proceed, and Daenerys will have a clear path to fight for the Iron Throne, which is currently occupied by Cersei Lannister. It is telling, then, that the Dothraki are at the frontline of the fight and are sent on their war horses into the pitch black night to charge the Night King’s army. It was heart-wrenching to watch the thousands of fire-lit swords get entirely extinguished within the first couple of minutes of battle as the White Walkers easily overcame the Dothraki.

It is hard to watch this scene and not be reminded of the near extermination of North America’s native population in the name of European dreams of conquest.

When the battle commences in earnest, the Unsullied move to take the place of the first line defense, and when the army of the living must retreat to temporary safety, the Unsullied are rendered expendable as they protect the retreat in a situation that can only end in their carnage. And that is precisely what happens – their forces are obliterated.

“The Long Night” exemplifies and celebrates the historically common thinking about Black and Brown life: if white saviors do not redeem it, it is worthless, and its subsequent worth is to live in the service of white power fantasies.

The author of the books upon which the show is based, George R. R. Martin, was recently confronted about the show’s pitiful racial politics during a roundtable at Brown University. In a somewhat snarky manner, Martin defended his books by saying the enslaved in Game of Thrones are racially diverse as they were in ancient Greece — when, so he affirms, slavery was not a matter of Blackness but of being a loser in war.

When he was pressed as to why the show fails to reflect his claimed racial diversity in slavery, Martin remarked, “The scenes [in Qohor] were shot in Morocco; when you cast for extras, you are going to get Moroccans.” The predominantly white audience collectively chuckled.

Yet rather than being funny, Martin’s remark is a tired example of the laziness of white privilege. In a cinematic age where large groups of enemies are generated by computer animation, it would have been a small and easy feat for the show’s producers to depict racial diversity in the Unsullied’s ranks.

Similarly galling is that it never occurred to Martin that HBO’s quest for global profit had it shooting in a Brown country where, of course, people will work for $30 a day. Thus, just as with the Unsullied, a supposedly free choice operates to exonerate white complicity in racism while the wheels of capitalism turn unimpeded.

In the second episode of the current season, Unsullied commander Grey Worm and his love interest, Missandei (also a formerly enslaved person) observe the disdainful looks the white northerners of Winterfell cast their way before the coming battle. They understand that not only are they looked at because they are racially different, but because they are unwanted.

Grey Worm promises Missandei that, should they win the battle, the two of them will find a place in the world that will welcome them. Once Grey Worm utters this dream, those who understand the existential wages of Blackness know that he and Missandei will never live happily ever after. Their sacrifice is required for the ongoing power struggle among whites.

And as Cersei in the most recent episode has Missandei, who became her prisoner offscreen, decapitated her while Grey Worm and Daenerys look on, we are reminded of a tragically common feature of white imagination — Black and Brown lives don’t really matter.


About the Author

Chris Lebron is the associate professor of philosophy at Johns Hopkins University and a senior writer for The North Star. He specializes in political philosophy, social theory, the philosophy of race, and democratic ethics. His work has focused on bridging the divide between analytic liberalism and the virtue ethics tradition. He is the author of The Color of Our Shame: Race and Justice In Our Time (2013) and The Making of Black Lives Matter: A Brief History of An Idea (2017).