On Game of Thrones’s season-six premiere Sunday night, Daenerys Targaryen was thrust out of the frying pan and into the fire (though, given Daenerys’s history with fire, maybe that metaphor doesn’t quite work the way it’s meant to). After enduring a bit of Python-inspired banter from her Dothraki captors, Dany informed Moro, leader of the khalasar that surrounded her in last season’s finale, that she was no anonymous slave, but in fact the widow of Khal Drogo. The good news? She won’t be faced with any more threats of sexual violence. The bad news? Mogo is going to take Dany to the Dothraki capital of Vaes Dothrak, where she’ll be forced to live out her days among the widows of the other khals, the dosh khaleen.
Why does she have to do this? That’s just the way Dothraki culture works. When khals die, their widow is sent to Vaes Dothrak, where the dosh khaleen act as something between a municipal government and a council of fortune-tellers. You may remember them from season one: When Daenerys stopped by the city with Khal Drogo, the dosh khaleen were the ones chanting in the background of that famous horse-heart scene. They predicted that Daenerys and Drogo’s baby would be the Stallion Who Mounts the World, a legendary warrior who prophecy says will unite all the khalasars and conquer the globe. (They were obviously a bit off the mark on that one, though many fans believe the prophecy was actually referring to Daenerys herself.)
It’s tempting to say that the power of the dosh khaleen makes the Dothraki a matriarchy, but that might be reading too much into it. After all, it’s not like they can leave, and, outside Vaes Dothrak, the horselords practice a culture based on widespread rape and pillage — they’re not going to be winning any awards for Most Woke Fantasy Society any time soon. Better to think of the presence of the dosh khaleen as one more thing that makes Vaes Dothrak an exception to the rules that normally govern Dothraki life. For one thing, it’s a city — the only one that the nomadic Dothraki have. But even there it’s unique. As The World of Ice and Fire puts it, Vaes Dothrak is “hollow shell” of a city, usually empty unless a khalasar’s in town. It has “neither walls nor streets,” only “grassy thoroughfares” decorated with the statues of “stolen gods” the Dothraki have plundered from other cultures. In short, the book concludes, Vaes Dothrak is “no true city” at all. (Judge for yourself whether this is a problematic example of Westeros-normativity.)
And while the khals have no reservations about warring with one other out on the Dothraki sea, Vaes Dothrak is a sacred place of peace where all khalasars can come together as one. Spilling blood is expressly forbidden. Of course, as Viserys Targaryen learned, a savvy warrior can find a loophole in those rules.
Fantasy narratives often bring their heroes back through territory where they’ve been before, to mark the ways they’ve changed. Season one’s stop in Vaes Dothrak saw Daenerys prove she was strong enough to be a khaleesi, and if the khals have their way, she’ll spend season six in a dosh khaleen retirement home, playing the Dothraki equivalent of dominoes. But this time, Daenerys has something the horselords haven’t counted on — a dragon. How long until Drogon comes looking for its mother?