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The Dothraki Are Dead. Does Game of Thrones Care?

Photo: HBO

Early in “The Long Night,” the third episode of Game of Thrones’ eighth season, we see a series of the most gorgeous images I can remember on this show. Melisandre magically lights the arakhs of the Dothraki. From Arya and Sansa’s vantage point on the Winterfell walls, we watch as flames ripple and blaze across the inky battlefield. The lights of the Dothraki flicker from afar, both from the air and from Jon and Daenerys’s hilltop perch. Against the deep black, the bright pinpricks look like a swarm of luminescent fish with an almost tidal pulse.

Then, in a dark haze, the Dothraki slam against the wall of mindless wights as the triumphant theme music becomes muffled. We pull back to the castle, where, for many long seconds, the camera keeps us anchored with those left behind, aware of the horror just beyond the black onscreen horizon. The noise of the wind picks up, hushing the distant sounds of screams and chomping. The camera pans across the faces of every character we know at Winterfell, as they watch a mere handful of riders return.

It only struck me later that this scene meant nearly all the Dothraki in Westeros have died — as have, presumably, a large chunk of all the Dothraki fighters in the world, since all the khalasars knelt to Daenerys after the inferno at Vaes Dothrak.

“Valar morghulis,” Melisandre says to Grey Worm, just before the Dothraki march off. “All men must die.” This didn’t hold true for our core central characters, who, contrary to everyone’s best guesses, escaped the fray mostly unscathed. So why did this massive sacrifice of human life barely register emotionally?

The Dothraki are a people whose culture we spent seasons immersed in, alongside Daenerys. Their depiction may have flirted too strongly with noble savage tropes, and they haven’t been much of a real, felt presence for some time. But Dany spent years growing up with them. She underwent their rituals; she accepted their blood riders as her own. Yes, the show set her apart from the Dothraki in some crucial ways besides her Westerosi heritage — she dared to style herself a female khal, and later, by slaughtering all the khals at Vaes Dothrak, she showed that she was beyond the very notion of khals — but she was still deeply embedded in that society. And in Sunday’s episode, there wasn’t a single Dothraki we recognized. Only Jorah Mormont, who translated Melisandre’s martial command to lift their swords for the lighting and then rode out with them. The editing even suggests that it’s the threat to Jorah — whose horse we see limping back to the castle immediately before we cut to Daenerys — that spurs her to break away from Jon and fly out with Drogon, not the loss of tens of thousands of people who overcame their fear of “poison water” to follow her across the Narrow Sea.

For roughly 70 hours, the central question of Game of Thrones has been: “Who will sit on the Iron Throne?” Yet it has also occasionally reminded us there’s more to ruling than sitting in the big poky chair, and that to occupy that singular position of authority comes with a responsibility, or at least a kind of tethering, to your people — the “many” to your “few,” as the High Septon once put it. Those moments when our central characters, nearly all highborn, rub up against the common folk not only tell a story about the relationship between the governors and the governed, but also reveal the limits of narrative and perspective in the show’s endgame.

The masses of the ruled have occasionally been a force the highborn must reckon with, though they’re typically just that: a force, an undifferentiated group. They’re a resource: Witness the many conversations about how many fighting men, women, children, and sellswords each side has. Or they take resources, as Sansa very practically noted in the season-eight premiere. They can be rhetorical pawns: Viserys Targaryen, and his sister Daenerys after him, are forever referring to hypothetical crowds who cry for them to return to Westeros and break the Baratheon and Lannister reign. We’ve seen them rise up like a mob, as the renegade Night’s Watch rangers did at Craster’s Keep in season three, or as the starving refugees did in King’s Landing in season two, ripping apart the old High Septon like a hungry flock of wights. The people were a sneering backdrop of religious and resentful frenzy during Cersei’s season-five walk of shame. Olenna Tyrell and her granddaughter Margaery believed the people need to be managed and placated; Cersei claims they’re a threat that must be perpetually cowed. Are either of those cynical philosophies correct? The Tyrell line has been extinguished and Cersei’s ability to rule seems dubious, even if she is the final Big Bad, but maybe that just means neither of them have been very good at putting their political philosophies into practice.

The show has teased the notion that the game of thrones our central characters are playing doesn’t actually matter to the little people. “The common people pray for rain, health, and a summer that never ends,” says Jorah Mormont in season one. “They don’t care what games the high lords play.” Of course, the people are always impacted by regime changes, whether in fictional worlds or in real countries, and whether the chroniclers — or the regime itself — choose to pay attention. The common people may not care about the exact machinations of highborn political intrigue, but they have been affected by it plenty, even if the fallout for themselves, their families, and their communities is typically given little screen time. “Things were different when Hoster Tully ruled the Riverlands,” reminisces the farmer who hosts Arya and the Hound in season four. “Now with the Freys, raiders come plundering, steal our food, steal our silver.” Three seasons later, the Hound will find their corpses, apparent victims of starvation and suicide.

For all the show’s grand sweep and the multiple lands, there’s never really been any space made for a kind of Upstairs, Downstairs look at the lives of the common people when they’re not interacting with the highborn. Davos Seaworth, Gendry, Bronn, Missandei, and Grey Worm all have risen to become major characters because of their continued proximity to the lordly, but the only commoners they interact with are each other. (Does anyone remember Davos’s beloved wife Marya? Does Davos remember Davos’s beloved wife Marya?) Meanwhile, we’ve seen a number of the lowborn — the prostitutes Shae and Ros, the wildling Osha, the former slave and handmaiden Dorreah — summarily dispatched when they interfered with the game. Collectively, these character arcs both illustrate the devastation political scheming can wreak on the common people and keep Game of Thrones’ narrative tightly centered on the ruling class.

It’s painful to see the Dothraki, in particular, snuffed out in “The Long Night” because Daenerys, out of all the rulers on this show, has the unique humility to wonder how her people might view her. “Perhaps they didn’t want to be conquered,” she says nervously to Jorah in the season-three finale, as they wait to see whether the Yunkish slaves will greet her after she has taken their city. Jorah says that Daenerys in fact “liberated them” and the Yunkish seem to agree, as they hoist her above their heads and call her Mhysa, or “mother.” (It’s a word that, as Missandei points out, comes from Old Ghiscari — a ghostly scrap of language from an older empire and, presumably, older conquerors.) It may be giving Game of Thrones too much credit to assume that the white-savior aesthetics of that particular scene are meant to make us queasy, but in the seasons we’ve spent tracing Daenerys’s political evolution, the story of her relationship to her subjects seems like one we shouldn’t close out so fast if there’s any chance that she’s the last ruler standing.

More than any other character in power, Daenerys has come face to face with the disproportionate impact she has on those she leads. In season one, she witnesses Khal Drogo’s khalasars brutalize the captive women of Lhazareen and puts an end to it — and when her husband is then cursed by Mirri Maz Duur’s blood magic, she sees how the subjugated may enact their revenge. In Meereen, in a season-four episode called “The Children” (a title that references the Children of the Forest but also the relationship Dany has claimed to her people), she receives a line of supplicants struggling with the fallout of her new occupation: an old man who wishes to sell himself back into slavery, to regain the respect and safety he once had as a teacher; a distraught shepherd whose young daughter was burnt to death by Drogon.

Jon Snow is, I would argue, the only other royal leader shown as having any kind of intimate knowledge of the non-highborn people he leads. Perhaps it’s because neither he nor Dany grew up as part of a family that they’re drawn to the figurative extended family of their subjects, whether presented as children (Daenerys) or brothers (Jon). Jon is not the best military strategist and he doesn’t even really want to be king, but because he began his story outside the highborn centers of power, he’s gained a leadership advantage by spending long stretches of time with the Night’s Watch and the wildlings, like a Prince Hal who never actually knew he was a prince.

It helps Jon’s case that the wildlings, as a people, have been more fleshed out than other groups — perhaps because they’re the only non-feudal society we’ve spent time with in this world. Individuality and self sovereignty are part of the wildlings’ essential self conception: They follow their tribal lords loyally, but this is something they choose as “free folk,” not vassals or “kneelers.” Though the Dothraki and the Ironborn also choose their leaders based on shows of power and military strength, the wildlings are the only people who seem to choose not only who will lead them, but when and whether they will even have a King-Beyond-the-Wall. Now that the surviving wildlings are firmly won to the Northern cause, their prominence as a culture has too faded. As the show has started winding down and narrowing its focus, they’re largely represented in this tale by Tormund Giantsbane, the closest thing they have left to a king.

George R. R. Martin once spoke to Rolling Stone about his desire to “answer” J.R.R. Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings with a tale about post-conquest tax policy and natural disaster planning, and how a king learns to rule his people and his country well. But in that same interview, he distanced himself from the sociopolitical interests of “modern historians” and made his focus clear. “I’m interested in the stories,” he said. “The kings, the princes, the generals and the whores, and all the betrayals and wars and confidences.”

Within Game of Thrones, we see this type of tale in “The Bloody Hand,” the ripped-from-the-headlines, flatulent riff of The War of the Five Kings that Lady Crane’s troupe performs in Braavos. In the audience, the commoners hoot and hiss, weep and clutch their pearls at the depictions of Robert’s death, Tyrion’s marriage to Sansa, and Joffrey’s demise — all of which the play slants in favor of the current ruling family. Even Arya, who actually knows the royals involved, can’t help getting caught up in the drama and advises Lady Crane on how to deepen her portrayal of Arya’s sworn enemy, Cersei. (Namely: Get vengeful.)

As Game of Thrones itself nears the end, this formerly globe-spanning story has begun to feel a bit like The Bloody Hand. Before, the show trusted us with multiple plotlines and what seemed like a thousand players. Now it has tightened its focus on a core group of mostly royal characters roaming two castles. Just as Lady Crane’s play, with its recasting of events we actually “witnessed,” draws our attention to the fact that a story isn’t just about what happened but how you choose to tell it, these final episodes have made me highly aware of the creative team’s shaping, selectively bloody hand.

The show has always kept the highborn at the center of its story. But for the past season or so, as it’s closed its narrative ranks, it has also felt like it’s protecting the ones it cares about from the kind of harm it used to dole out freely. We’re a long way from the stinging deaths once deployed not only to shock us, but to destabilize our notion of what this story is and where it’s going. Plenty of characters have died, but they peeled off neatly, as if the show needed to shed some extra baggage before the endgame. It’s telling that the only recent death that had any kind of Ned Stark-ish, Red Wedding jolt was Viserion’s — and he is, I’ll remind you, not a human being.

Which brings us back to the Dothraki. In a behind-the-scenes documentary about the production of the “The Long Night,” producer Chris Newman discusses the challenges of holding and keeping viewers’ attention during the longest battle ever captured on film. “The core of it is the people you care about,” he says. “You want to care about the people that are fighting, so every effort is made to make sure you center the conflicts around the people you know.”

We know Jon, we know Dany, we know Jaime, we know Sansa and Arya. That’s why every Stark, every Lannister, and every Targaryen — any royal who might be important to the political endgame — remains miraculously standing. But we do not know the Dothraki — not really, not anymore.

The Dothraki taught their khaleesi how to be fierce, how to be loyal, how to lead. They brought her across the Narrow Sea to reclaim her family’s lost throne. Now that they’ve served their purpose in her story, they’re riding off into that dark, long night. The kind of sequel I dream of — a social novel where immigrant Dothraki riders marry Westerosis and raise generations of multiracial children in a new, strange land — will just have to come from my own fan-fiction folder. In this story, our watching of the Dothraki has ended.

The Dothraki Are Dead. Does Game of Thrones Care?