The Happy Slave: or, Khaleesi’s American Dilemma

Avidly is very avid about Game of Thrones.  This is our second piece anticipating Sunday’s premiere; find the first here. –Eds.

grey wormWhat does it matter, to a master, how a slave feels? If you own another person—own them as though they were a thing—it seems that their feelings, this strange proof of humanness, would almost be irrelevant.  Who cares how they feel?  But the feelings of slaves have mattered enormously–and still matter to US culture, even now that legal slavery is over. We see this mattering playing out all over, in movies and in reality shows.  But maybe surprisingly, one of the most interesting meditations happening right now about slavery—slavery as both a legacy and contemporary problem—happens in the fantasy world of Game of Thrones.

Before we turn to the fantasized medieval past of GoT, let’s stop for a moment in the fantasized dystopic future of the 2013 film, The World’s End. In this comedic thriller, a boozy pub customer confronts men he suspects are cyborgs. “Are you guys robots?” he demands. “Well,” they reply, “the word robot actually comes from an old Czech word robotnik, meaning slave, and we’re not slaves. We’re very, very happy.”  

Their response intimates that one can’t both be happy and be a slave, which would be news for adherents of old South nostalgia. Throughout the nineteenth century, slaveowners insisted that enslaved and oppressed people were happy with their lot. Sadly, the story has considerable staying power. “Were they happy?” Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson asked himself about African Americans living in the Jim Crow South. kentucky homeSure they were: “They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.” As much as we’d like to dismiss Robertson’s 2013 remarks as outside the mainstream, the desire to imagine past oppression as a mutually beneficial arrangement is alive and well in much of the US.  Just look at the continuing popularity of Gone with the Wind (due to spawn a 2014 sequel featuring the unfailingly loyal Mammy). If you prefer sports, just listen to the wistful lyrics of “My Old Kentucky Home” (still played every year the Kentucky Derby) in which a former slave pines for the plantation.

The myth of the happy slave continues, in spite of overwhelming historical evidence contradicting that narrative. And small wonder–the fairy tale of the content slave transforms the brutal arc of US history. If those in power can convince themselves that the oppressed and enslaved weren’t discontent, then there was no harm done. Or to paraphrase the pub-going cyborgs in The World’s End–if you were content, then you weren’t really a slave at all.

unsulliedThere are no robots in the world of Game of Thrones, but the Unsullied—an army of slave boys trained into finely honed killing machines–come as close to cyborgs as one can get with medieval tech. They may not be content, but they have been stripped of the ability to feel discontent. As their owner “Good Master” Kraznys demonstrates during his sales pitch to rising Queen Danerys Targaryen, the Unsullied are impervious to pain. To prove his point, he chooses one solider out of the lot, and slices off his nipple. The soldier not only fails to protest, he fails to register any response at all. Like robots, the Unsullied are slavishly loyal to their programming. Pain and fear have both been eradicated from their — to use a word both feudal and cybernetic — code. They will follow orders to the point of death, never improvising or deviating.

For Daenerys Targaryen, who desires the highest throne in the world, but who is horrified by the rape, pillage and murder that accompanies conquest, the Unsullied offer a tempting option. She can have her war and a clean conscience. “There’s a beast in every man,” warns her advisor Ser Jorah, “and it stirs when you put a sword in his hand.” be a khaleesiAs enuchs who have been subjected to the strictest discipline, the Unsullied, Ser Jorah tells us, “are not men. They do not rape. They do not put cities to the sword unless they are ordered to do so. The only men they’ll kill are the ones you want dead.” The Unsullied, in other words, offer the medieval version of surgical strikes.

As we saw last season, Daenerys quickly puts the Unsullied’s legendary obedience to the test. Within minutes of taking hold of the whip—which effectively renders her in the programmer/owner of the Unsullied—she tells them to sack the city of their birth. She instructs them to kill only the masters, but to leave the women, children and other slaves, well, unsullied. The bad guys are defeated, the oppressed are freed, and Dany has bought herself both glory and riches. Shortly after the battle, she goes on to free her slaves, but they are content to stay by her side, happy to risk their lives to achieve her aims. Dany’s response to the Unsullied reveals her need to tell herself, as nineteenth century slaveowners did, that her power is benign, that her slaves were enthralled by love rather than chains.

But the Unsullied show us not only slavery’s past. Their impassive violence casts the myth of the happy plantation slave within the cold light of current US policy. The sack of Astapor might well be used as a promotional video for the favorite weapon of our own time–drones.  We have been told that they represent the most humane way to kill. If older systems of slavery insisted that the violence of dominion was underscored by paternal care, the twenty-first century insists that our own violence is devoid of any feeling whatsover.  Drones, like the Unsullied, aren’t motivated by hatred, or bloodlust. They do not rape. They do not steal. They do not struggle with pangs of conscience or PTSD. There is no beast within.  They go about bombing a village containing potential enemies as placidly as they go about any of the other tasks drone-enthusiasts celebrate, including, smog-checking, data-gathering, and if Facebook has its way, internet distribution.

drone guide

It remains to be seen how the Unsullied will work out for Danerys, but I suggest that in our own world, relying on unemotional robots who contentedly do our bidding is anything but humane. For uncomplaining drones allow the illusion, as much as the myth of the happy slave ever did, that exerting power over others can be a bloodless exercise. War is a beastly act, and anything that obscures that reality only results in more war, and more death. Hattie as MammyDrones’ placid obedience seduces us into thinking that there’s such a thing as clean conquest, that we can have everything we want (for Danerys, the most powerful throne in the world, and for the US,  well, pretty much the same thing) without the guilt of shedding “the blood of the innocent.”

In Game of Thrones, turning men into beings that see killing as no more taxing than ditch-digging requires a  brutal deadening process. Only one out of  four Unsullied survive a training process that culminates in the dispassionate murder of infants. They may not hate, but they cannot love. They will not engage in acts of cruelty unless ordered, but if ordered to do so, they won’t spend a second contemplating mercy. As Missandie tells Daenerys,  “All questions have been taken from them.”

Our use of drones in real-world warfare threatens to take away our questions about whether we want to continue in an ever-expanding war that allegedly poses a risk only to those we don’t consider “innocent.” As Good Master Kraznys found out to his sorrow, relying on an army of uncomplaining, unfeeling machines has devastating consequences for those who fall on the wrong side of their programming.

It is only the hand that holds the whip that controls the Unsullied, and no one, not even the mother of Dragons, can hold on forever.


Anna Mae Duane