Burned by Our Heroes: From Game of Thrones to Christian Leaders
HBO’s House of the Dragon, a prequel to their Game of Thrones, premiered to a record number of viewers—nearly ten million across platforms. In some ways, the massive audience was a surprise, given that the vast majority of GOT fans hated the final season. Certainly, some fans were too disappointed by the original series to ever venture into Westeros again. But apparently there are plenty who, like me, are willing to dare to fall back in love and hope we avoid another heartbreak.
As strange as it may seem, GOT’s final season is what got me to start watching. When Game of Thrones was on air, I wasn’t interested. Knights and dragons didn’t excite me enough to pay for an HBO Max subscription. I was, however, intrigued by the intense mourning after the last season aired. Tweets, memes, and headlines all told me not to bother with this cultural phenomenon.
Although the posts on my social media feeds were generally united in their assessment that the last season was bad, they were divided on one point: should fans have seen the ending coming? Most of these debates had to do with the fall of Daenerys Targaryen, whom I knew as Dragon Girl. Some fans felt betrayed because they believed Daenerys was given an unbelievable and grievous ending, outraged at the writers for suddenly turning Daenerys into a villain. Other viewers rolled their eyes at the shock, saying that #TeamDany had been delusional to trust her. These viewers claimed to have seen Daenerys’s “true nature” for several seasons. Even if they hated the ending overall, they felt validated in their assessment of this largely beloved character.
So I watched. I knew it was going to be bad in the end, but I wasn’t watching the show for entertainment. I was watching for the real-world drama. I had to know which side was right. Before long, though, I was genuinely enjoying the show. Though there is plenty of fantasy, GOT is ultimately a political drama. The first four seasons take time to develop complex characters, and like real politicians, those vying for the throne aren’t perfectly moral heroes. The show won me over near the end of season 1, when Good Guy Eddard Stark is beheaded. The most morally sound character is killed, not rewarded, for his naïve belief that power and honor can reign together peacefully. Dragons aside, this was political realism.
And as in real politics, viewers cheered on their favorite “candidate,” faults and all. Daenerys was the fan favorite, and for good reason. Despite her start as a timid victim, she becomes a fierce and charismatic leader. She frees slaves and cares for her subjects. She holds deep convictions and rides dragons. She is conveniently beautiful. And yet, she is flawed, often making violent decisions fueled by righteous anger but not forethought. Of course, it’s easy to excuse some of these impulses since most of her violence is aimed at slave owners and abusers.
Daenerys’s desire to win the Iron Throne is also flawed. In the second season, we see her entitlement, rage, and thirst for power flare in one line when she yells, “I will take what is mine! With fire and blood, I will take it!” This was the first time I could see Daenerys as a potential villain. Her words reveal that she believes power is her birthright, and she is determined to have it. Though she might make the best potential queen, her campaign for the Iron Throne initially stems not from a desire to rule justly—though she decides she wants to “break the wheel” later—but from her supposed claim to it.
The moment I realized Daenerys made sense as a villain, though, didn’t come from one of her ruthless decisions, but after she’s freed thousands of slaves. They begin crying, “Mhysa,” which means “mother,” and the crowd reaches out to touch her, eventually lifting her on their shoulders. The scene terrified me. Yes, it falls into the white savior trope, but it seemed clear to me that the showrunners were already revealing that this Marian veneration was sinister, not salvific, because the image looks alarmingly like photos of Adolf Hitler on his rise to power.
As soon as someone is cast as a benevolent god, they are doomed to fail because they will be given both power and worship, a combination no human can bear. So if I must take sides, I believe that Daenerys was destined to be a tyrant unless someone stopped her. Unfortunately, no one does until she’s already burned down a city of innocent people.
Yet I am hesitant to revel in being “right” about Daenerys’s true nature (especially since I knew she was going to do something awful by the end). Her sudden decision to destroy the city she planned to rule seems a bit much. Daenerys becomes more obviously power hungry and egocentric throughout the last two seasons, but she claims that she doesn’t want to be “Queen of the Ashes” too many times to square with her delight in literal ashes at the end. Beyond whether her demise was earned, I also can’t revel because it’s still a bad ending. GOT’s last season is a mess of plot holes, bizarre pacing, and unconvincing character arcs. Though Daenerys’s fall might make for a decent cautionary tale, it’s an unsatisfying ending for viewers and a tragedy for the kingdoms they came to love.
After I finished Game of Thrones, though, the Twitter wars launched by its finale still haunted me. The fight between disbelief and smugness felt important. It felt familiar. Then it hit me—it felt like 2016, when Donald Trump was on the rise. That year, as pastors and prominent Christians (overwhelmingly white evangelicals) went from denouncing Trump to accepting him, to even rabidly supporting him, my largely Millennial social media feeds became a series of battles over how we could square these leaders’ past sermons with their current allegiance. When we were younger, they had been the arbiters of virtue and “family values.” Now that they were aligning themselves with a candidate who was so clearly at odds with their teachings (as many of them had said themselves at the dawn of his candidacy), narrative and character were diverging to an implausible extent.
As with the Daenerys debate, the disorientation seemed to give those of us who were raised on a steady diet of Veggie Tales and Focus on the Family two options: We could say that the political sway Trump promised prominent white evangelicals led them to change their character entirely, or we could say that we never should have trusted them in the first place. The first position was built on the hope that we might salvage some of these leaders’ previous teachings as worthwhile; the second aimed to pull out any hint of corruption, root and stem. And to show we were serious about whichever side we chose, we posted. Though we were agreed in our denouncement of Trump, threads often used his vocabulary: stupid, disgusting, ungrateful, crazy, traitor, coward. And it didn’t stop with Trump. Over the last several years, various church and Christian institution scandals have only continued these divisions.
But what if the issue doesn’t have to become a war of “Things were ok” and “I told you so”? I believe Christianity Today’s podcast on Mars Hill (which eventually had to report on the company’s own sexual harassment coverup) offers a framework for making sense of fallen leaders. I never trusted Mark Driscoll. To me, his statements about gender weren’t merely red flags but obvious fruit of a rotten theology. I stand by this position. When things began to fall apart for Driscoll, I wasn’t surprised by the news; I was relieved and perhaps too happy about Mars Hill’s ending.
I didn’t listen to the podcast until it had been out for a year because I knew I could all too easily join an unholy glee unfolding on Twitter when the podcast was released. Some friends were delighted to see anyone associated with Mars Hill dragged through the dirt, and even more delighted to say that they had always seen this coming. (Oddly, some of those posting had actually recommended that I listen to Driscoll back in college. I guess we can all be prophets after an apocalypse.)
But the podcast offered nuance to the story by giving former members and staffers at Mars Hill a chance to give their version of the narrative. They largely expressed remorse for enabling Driscoll, but also explained the reason they initially believed in him. It was not only about his charisma but about his mission to create a local church that took care of its people. They made excuses because they remembered an earlier version of him—one who housed, prayed for, and listened to them. That previous mission and pastoring kept them following and promoting him, allowing the bad seeds that were always there—sexism, pride, meanness—to flourish as the church grew and transformed. “Power corrupts” is a cliché because it’s true. It both changes us and reveals what was always there; it allows our worst parts to take over without consequence.
We see this happen with Daenerys. Her people and counselors believe in the woman who freed slaves and apologized for her errors, but as her army grows and comes closer to the Iron Throne, she becomes less willing to heed advice that counters her impulses. She no longer learns from her mistakes but repeats them. Some of her newer followers realize the danger she’s becoming and try to challenge her, but the ones she freed trust her implicitly, even defending genocide. And the few who did foresee her downfall did not win anything. They died or lost brethren at her command.
I don’t know any disillusioned Christians or former Christians who can fully revel in foresight. That’s because we haven’t only been disappointed by leaders we may or may not have admired. We’ve also experienced painful revelations at home. It can be easy to sneer at celebrity pastors who traded key moral convictions for political power, but it’s far more difficult to watch those we love do the same. Be it a theologian, childhood mentor, or family member, Christians have been disappointed by someone who was formative in the development of their faith. We have always been fallen people who will fail each other, but this reality has been accentuated as the Church has recently experienced a series of watershed moments. It’s a disorienting experience that makes us question our judgment and place in our own narrative. Had we been duped for years, missing obvious signs of vice? Or was there something worth our admiration before the promise of power or security took hold?
These are important questions for us to address as we move forward in our own development and cultivation of humility. But as important as it is, we cannot become solely focused on when we were right or wrong in a character assessment. We must remember that we are arguing and floundering in the ashes. We must allow ourselves and others to grieve bad endings and those who were burned by the people they trusted.
So how can we avoid being burned by our heroes? GOT fans have found reasons to hope that House of the Dragon will avoid many of GOT’s pitfalls. Thankfully, it’s based on a finished novel and won’t need an off-the-cuff finale. But more importantly, scorned GOT fans come to the show knowing they cannot fully trust any leader, especially a Targaryen. That is the focus of HOTD—exposing the ugly truths of the supposedly godlike bloodline. Viewers can root for their favorite character, but there’s no pretending any of them is a moral exemplar.
We must also learn from our mistakes offscreen, never idolizing our role models nor pledging our undying allegiance to them. We don’t have showrunners to remind us of our past misjudgments. We must work to see clearly, staying informed and seeking out resources that can help us recognize the signs of dangerous leaders. Hardest of all, we must humble ourselves, both admitting when we were wrong and choosing not to bask in our own wisdom. Otherwise, we’re just making a home out of our ashes.