Graced with the silver hair of Tolkien’s slightly built Elvish race from Lord of the Rings, the last surviving Targaryens possess such unpronounceable names as Daenerys and her brother Viserys. The siblings have been exiled across the Narrow Sea to a sunkissed, windswept land that seems so preferable to Westeros we can’t imagine why they’d ever want to return. Viserys plans on giving Daenerys as wife to Khal Drogo, the warlord leader of a savage tribe of horse soldiers known as Dothraki, who are so at one with their mounts they’re like centaurs. Sweltering on the desert dunes in some equatorial Transvaal, they’re the scourge of the world, sweeping a swath of wanton destruction across the land from east to west, like the Mongol hordes of Genghis Khan or Attila the Hun. They herald the rebirth of the fire-breathing dragons that will again dominate the world like the winged serpents of old, leaving a scorched earth in their wake. The only thing that has spared Westeros from invasion before is the Narrow Sea dividing the continent from Essos, and the superstitious Dothraki’s reluctance to cross water. Viserys however plans to employ them as an army to reclaim the Iron Throne his ancestors forged, using his sister as a pawn in this scheme to restore himself to power. He couches the trade in board game terms, “I know how to play a man like Drogo. I give him a queen and he gives me an army.” He considers his sister a fair exchange for 100,000 horsemen (though Ned assures Robert a million Dothraki would be no threat to the realm). Assessing what he has to work with, Viserys’ hands roam freely over Daenerys’ newly developed body and the way she blanks out while he molests her indicates it’s far from the first time. Treated as if her brother owned her, body and soul, Daenerys has such little say in her own affairs, she trails idly behind, a silent bystander, as he discusses her future with his host.
Allowing herself to be sold into marriage like an obedient child who docilely does what she’s told, Daenerys is given no voice in the political games in which she’s maneuvered, not even when she objects to being mated with the hulking, barbaric, monosyllabic chieftain who terrifies her. The one word Drogo knows in her language, ‘no,’ is also the one word he can’t understand, forcing himself on his young bride. It seems less a marriage than ritualistic sexual sacrifice; she’s a lamb being led to the slaughter. Three times her size, Khal Drogo, played by Hawaiian actor Jason Momoa in alarming eyeliner, is all swarthy and bronzed from a nomadic life spent out of doors, tattooed like a Maori but as dependent on horses as the Plains tribes, while his sheltered princess has the pallid pallor of flesh never exposed to sun. Her white hair makes her look ethereal, like an alabaster albino, at once both old and young, innocent and wise, giving Daenerys the wispy look of a fairy floating through this barbaric landscape. Even the milk white horse Khal Drogo gives her as a wedding gift has her same filmy appearance, a winged Pegasus.
Their colorful Dothraki wedding ceremony, a wild mélange of wedding tributes, wooping war cries, uninhibited, half-naked mating dances, exotic dishes of raw food, Indian snake charmers and sacrificial bloodlettings, seems more a brutishly primitive, pagan fertility rite. As the new ‘khaleesi,’ the Dothraki word for their tribal queen, Daenerys tries not to become sickened by their backward ways and ill from the heat, fainting from sunstroke in the face of such head-spinning culture clash. She’s not unlike a pioneer settler taken hostage by an indigenous tribe, another Pocahontas in her leather-hide miniskirts and midriffs. It’s an association enhanced by the fact that the nomadic Dothraki set up tent villages, wear animal hides and eat dog like early Native Americans. Given the formations the director arranges them in and the terrain used as backdrop, at times their winding caravan even appears to be traversing Monument Valley as it stretches off into the distance. Unaccustomed to such an arduous lifestyle, after her first hard day in the saddle, Daenerys is so numb, stiff and wobbly she must be helped from her horse by handmaidens, proving unable to walk under her own volition.
Over the course of the first season we’ll see this princess who’s always known a cushy, palatial existence, the finest fabrics and luxury goods, become acclimatized to these primitive peoples and their way of life, finding reserves of strength she didn’t know she possessed, her ivory skin becoming tanned and toughened along with her indefatigable spirit. When the Lord Snow episode cuts from a conversation between Uncle Benjen and Tyrion over the wildlings north of the wall and the fact they’re no different from other men, we see the Targaryen knight, Ser Jorah Mormont (Iain Glen) and a Dothraki, Rakharo (Elyes Gabel), debating the comparative advantages of their own respective cultures, the civilized and the primitive, Westeros’ sword blades and Essos’ scythe-like arakh, a comparison that is later put to exciting purpose when Mormont faces off with one defiant warrior who accosts Daenerys, proving how handy armor can be. Daenerys, who tries to learn her new tongue, is herself the living embodiment of how two cultures can be successfully merged into one (“These are my people now. Don’t call them savages.”). For the first few episodes I couldn’t imagine the petite, childish-looking Emilia Clarke, with her strangely hypnotic, anaconda eyes, posing a serious threat to anyone. With few prior credits, she had a lot to prove stepping into the role first cast with The Tudors’ Tamzin Merchant in the unaired original pilot. But Clarke seemed to amass greater stature with each episode, evolving with her character, gaining more confidence, assuming surprising command. Daenerys ended up growing more rapidly than any other character on the show (apart from the direwolves). We watched her during the first season mature from a timid, frightened child who does what she’s told to a formidable, self-confident force to be reckoned with, giving orders rather than taking them. “You’re learning to talk like a queen,” Mormont observes, to her correction, “Not a queen, a Khaleesi.” After winning over the Dothraki by throwing herself into their way of life, he remarks with admiration, “She truly is a queen today.”
Daenerys is so slight she must command power vicariously, through the strength and brute force of Khal Drogo. Under the tutelage of a handmaiden brought from the pleasure house to teach her how to keep him happy, she uses her new-found sexual prowess to wrap her husband around her finger. She already seems to have the dragon by its tail, or at least by the braid. Drogo, who wears his ponytail long to signify he’s never been defeated in battle, finds himself conquered for the first time on the field of love.
Before he took her to bed on their wedding night, Daenerys looked out longingly across the Narrow Sea, submitting herself to his carnal lust while thinking of home, doing it for her country as he mounted her on all fours, like the horses his people are said to lie with. It’s the same bestial, undignified position Bran will subsequently spy the queen in as she’s rogered from behind by her brother, the very image of a slatternly milk maid with the rough-shod stable hand. But this sensualist, who can’t be burned, begins feeling the fire down below, climbing astride to ‘ride’ Drogo like a stallion, taking the dominant position on top rather than allowing him to take her from behind again, the way he would a slave, subtly shifting the power dynamics in their relationship (“Out there he is the mighty Khal, but in here he belongs to you.”). We’re surprised she doesn’t cut his hair like Samson to signify his subjugation. Having originally been given in bondage, she finds marriage to Drogo a liberating experience and ends up falling in love with him for empowering her, making it possible for her to stand up for herself, freeing her from Viserys’ venomous grasp and Game of Thrones would only have benefited from showing us more of the kinder, gentler qualities she responds to in her fierce husband during the first season.
Drogo believes it’s his child inside her who is altering Daenerys, strengthening her spirit same as it’s changing the shape and contour of her body. “See how fierce she grows? That is my son inside her, the stallion that will mount the world filling her with his fire,” he observes appreciatively. It may very well be the case since we subsequently see Daenerys taking part in a Dothraki ceremony that gives a whole new meaning to the term ‘hungry enough to eat a horse.’ With blood coating her face like rib sauce, we can’t help thinking of Rosemary’s newfound cravings for raw meat caused by the cloven-hooved seed she was carrying. This barbarous act seems similar to the beliefs in other primitive cultures that ingesting the heart of an enemy allows one to absorb their other qualities as well, such as strength and bravery. It is prophesied that Daenerys will give birth to “the Khal of Khals. He shall unite the people into a single Khalesar. All the people of the world will be his herd,” which sounds suspiciously like the one-world dictatorship that is meant to herald the antichrist. Despite his plan to put a puppet on the throne, as Cersei does with Joffrey, Viserys finds he’s given his sister too much power and can no longer rein her in. Having foolishly placed Daenerys in this exalted position he loses his grip, realizing he no longer has claim on her or anything she owns (“I am a Khaleesi of the Dothraki. I am the wife of the great Khal and I carry his son inside me. The next time you raise a hand to me will be the last time you have hands.”). His importance diminishes proportionately as hers increases. Daenerys proves to have a stronger will than Viserys had bargained on, in addition to the love of the Dothraki people he considers beneath him. While we’re marveling at how this nomadic tribe could have carved such impressive, permanent settlements and statuary as the two bronze stallions decorating the entrance gate to the City of the Horse Lords, the sneering Viserys offers up his own low opinion of it as “A pile of mud. Mud, sh*t, twigs, best these savages can do.” With nothing but disdain for Dothraki and their ways, he reproaches his sister in disgust “You’d turn me into one of them wouldn’t you? Next you’ll be wanting to braid my hair.”
Viserys watches with increasing antipathy as his sister goes native, imagining himself the only remaining paragon of civilized enlightenment. Believing himself to be the torchbearer for “the greatest civilization this world has ever seen,” he is in essence an imperialist who thinks the Dothraki should worship him as their great white hope, leading them out of the darkness of ignorance and superstition (“I piss on Dothraki omens.”). His contempt for these backward people induces him to underestimate them, believing they can easily be manipulated to his own ends, though he learns differently, as he does with Daenerys. When Viserys hears that she is pregnant with an heir to the Iron Throne, he argues that “he won’t be a true Targaryan, he won’t be a true dragon,” since to his mind the dilution of their ‘pure’ bloodline through intermarriage with Drogo means the little stallion will be coming of tainted stock. Green-eyed with envy that Daenerys has been embraced by her followers for trying to integrate herself into their culture rather than holding herself up as superior to it as he does, this man who would be king grieves that “No one has ever given me what they gave to her in that tent. Never. Not a piece of it… Who can rule without wealth, or fear or love,” none of which Viserys possesses in any abundance. When Daenerys stops the marching procession for a rest, her brother storms up warning, “You don’t command the dragon. I am lord of the seven kingdoms. I don’t take orders from savages or their sluts.” But he finds that his presumed authority is only illusory now that the Dothraki take their marching orders from her and her alone. Mormont no longer feels obliged to obey him either, as he proves when he ignores Viserys’ command to kill the warrior that wrapped a bullwhip around his neck. While Daenerys is helped back onto her mount, the pedestal she’s been placed on the saddle on which she sits, throneless, horseless Viserys is thrust aside to continue the journey on foot. When she later wrestles with guilt over having struck the one true king, same as Ned smarted over no longer being able to box Robert’s ears (“My brother was a fool I know, but he was the rightful heir to the seven kingdoms.”), Mormont soothes her conscience. Assuring her that her brother Rhaegar was the last of the true dragons, he describes Viserys as less than the shadow of a snake. He’s much like those knights Ned compared Jaime to, strutting around in their armor without ever having swung a sword.
Viserys assumes the role of great ruler but as his sister points out, despite the heroic stance he adopts he’s not even worthy of a braid like the Dothraki wear, having won no victories yet. With his peckish posturing and delusions of grandeur, Viserys already has the entire history of his glorious reign written down for posterity in his head, but he fails to realize what’s painfully obvious to everyone else – he’s not king material. How could he be when actor Harry Lloyd plays the part like a Regency era twit; at his most insufferable he recalls Julian Sands. Considered a fool by the Khal rather than a threat, following three hundred years of inbreeding Viserys may be just as unhinged as his father the mad king was before him.
Daenerys is eager to return home but acknowledges that Viserys is incapable of leading the army that could take her there. Increasingly she begins to lean on Mormont for advice and moral support. Having granted her the gift of knowledge in the form of books, a beam of enlightenment during her otherwise savage wedding ceremony, he seems the only man of culture and refinement she can carry on a civilized conversation with in this barbaric world. “Think I haven’t seen the way you look at my little sister?” Viserys hisses when Mormont prevents him from absconding with Daenerys’ dragon eggs to sell for ships and an army. “I don’t care. You can have her. She can dine on whatever horse parts she likes and you can dine on whatever part of her you like.” Mormont’s emerging feelings for Daenerys prove so strong that even when offered a royal pardon if he carries out the king’s attempt on her life, his finer nature asserts itself at the last minute, preventing him from going through with the plot, although he’d like nothing better than to return home himself. Same as Jaime, the other Ser in the cast, Mormont wrestles with the knowledge that he has disgraced his proud family’s name by absconding from the king’s justice with a price on his head.
Exiled for selling poachers he caught on his land to slavers, unconscionable Viserys assures Mormont that under his regime he needn’t worry about being punished for such nonsense. When Daenerys speaks to Mormont however, she makes it clear that she feels slaving to be wrong and that he merited his status as fugitive from the crown. Past experience has sensitized her to the subject so she now shares the same mindset as Stark, who had been told “Ser Mormont’s a slaver, not a traitor. Small difference I know to an honorable man.” Of course her brother would not be opposed to slavery after having virtually sold his own sister like a liquidated asset, same way the handmaiden he buys for her was sold to the pleasure house by her mother at the age of nine.
Viserys is a self-interested monster who cares nothing for Daenerys, instead exploiting her like a whore. All he’s concerned with is returning himself to power, revealing that “I would let his whole tribe f*ck you. All 40,000 men and their horses too if that’s what it took.” When Viserys points his sword at his pregnant sister’s belly, it’s with the words “I want the crown he promised me. He bought you but he never paid for you. Tell him I want what was bargained for or I’m taking you back. He can keep the baby. I’ll cut it out and leave it for him,” secure in his safety since it is against Dothraki custom to shed blood inside the walls of their city. Viserys finds his quest for the throne fulfilled when he’s anointed with “a golden crown that men will tremble to behold.” Dismissed as an absurd figure before, he’s proven himself too dangerous a liability to continue humoring. His threat to abort her baby forces Daenerys to realize that he’s not worth protecting any longer, so willingly lets the savages do with him as they will or risk them all being massacred for desecrating sacred ground. Kept in check by Viserys all her life with his idle threat that she didn’t want to wake the dragon inside him, Daenerys remains unmoved, watching almost fascinated as she realizes he was not who he claimed to be since fire can’t destroy true dragons.