Game of Thrones has a race problem.
Last Sunday’s season finale left me with an uneasiness that was hard to shake. In the episode’s final scene, beautiful white Queen Daenerys Targaryen has just conquered the Eastern city of Yunkai, and stands above scores of newly liberated, brown Yunkish slaves as she announces to them that they are free. The former slaves cry out “Mhysa!” which, as Daenerys’ servant — herself a darker skinned woman who had recently been freed by the Queen — tells Daenerys, means “mother,” and the queen walks down into the adoring crowd. Daenerys is then lifted up into the air and placed on the shoulders of two Yunkish men, smiling gleefully down at the rest of the crowd who are all reaching out, trying to touch the hem of the garment of their savior. We’ve all seen this story before, where people of color are helpless to improve their station until an enlightened white person comes along and rescues them. It’s a tired, condescending cliché, but one that Hollywood continues to perpetuate and reward, and its use in Game of Thrones is not surprising, but still rather disappointing.
That final scene is just the latest misstep in Game of Thrones’ continued mishandling of race. Before Daenerys was liberating Eastern slaves, season one followed her adventures with the Dothraki, a tribe of darker skinned nomadic raiders. That storyline was an uncomfortable hodgepodge of outmoded noble savage tropes and primitive rituals performed by barely dressed brown people from the East. And back on the Western continent, where most of the series’ events take place, there is nearly a complete absence of people of color. I can recall only one time in the show’s three seasons seeing a character in the West who was ostensibly of a different race. He was Salladhor Saan, a black pirate turned mercenary, who sleazily demands to be rewarded with Queen Cersei in exchange for fighting on behalf of Stannis Baratheon. Barbarians, nameless slaves and a lecherous thief aren’t exactly representations of which anyone can be proud.
All this is especially frustrating, considering how progressive the show has been in addressing gender relations. Over and over Game Of Thrones has been openly critical of the lack of agency so many females in Westeros have, even high born ones like Sansa Stark, while highlighting the efforts of women like Margaery Tyrell and Ros who use their cunning and sexuality to subvert the sexist power structure. There’s Arya Stark and also Brienne, who have both rejected traditional gender roles of Westerosi society in favor of swordsmanship and knighthood. And Daenerys’s story might be the most feminist on the show, where not only has she grown into a powerful leader, but into one who has managed to overpower male adversaries who've made the mistake of underestimating and openly disrespecting her on account of her gender. If Game of Thrones can be this critical of sexism, why can’t it be as forward thinking in its depictions of race?
As I have not read any of the novels on which the show is based, I do not know what is in store for Daenerys and her army of former slaves. But Game of Thrones has not been shy about punishing its protagonists for their follies in the past (poor Starks!), and perhaps season four will address the issue of Daenerys’s burden head on. There are nine months between now and next season’s premiere — let’s hope the show uses the time to get race right.