This post discusses the most recent episode of “Game of Thrones,” and the events of A Song of Ice and Fire through “A Dance With Dragons.”
“Game of Thrones” has recast characters before, and given the rate at which the series is progressing relative to the aging of its youthful actors, it may soon face more significant challenge. But the most dramatic switch in the series came last weekend when the epic fantasy series swapped out Ed Skrein, who had been playing hunky mercenary Daario Naharis before departing for the “Transporter” franchise, for Michiel Huisman, who most recently starred as a sleazy producer on “Nashville” and a talented addict on “Treme.”
HBO, which sometimes takes its license to show nudity as a veritable command, has a reputation for being particularly free with female anatomy, though the network is rather more protective of its male actors. And much of the discussion of what parity for the heterosexual ladies in the audience might look like has centered on a rather particular region of the male anatomy. But the great Daario switch-out actually gets at a reason for that failure of fairness that has little to do with prudishness, but rather, a deep-seated reluctance to valuing men just for their looks.
As Daario, Skrein looked like he had meandered onto the “Game of Thrones” set from a gig modeling for romance novel covers. And his portrayal was consistent with George R.R. Martin’s characterization of him in “Game of Thrones”: He was a hunk rather than an intellectual, given to pronouncements like “I have no interest in slaves. A man cannot make love to property,” on screen to remind Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) that she was a woman as well as a kahleesi. In Martin’s novels, Daario is kind of a sexy adolescent folly who distracts Dany from her education as a ruler, and Skrein looked set to carry forth that idea and look just ridiculous with his shirt off in the process.
Huisman is a rather different kind of Ken Doll figure, in ways that go beyond his scruff, his rather more modest physique, and the fact that he keeps his leathers buttoned all the way up (at least through the episodes I have screened so far). Rather than acting as an object of pure lust, “Game of Thrones” is turning Huisman’s Daario into the sort of figure who can advance Dany’s political as well as sexual educations.
Sure, New Daario does things like engage in stupid competitions of strength to try to get Dany’s attention. But when he shows up bearing flowers, the blooms are a way for Daario to show off intellectually. “You have to know a land to rule it. Its plants, its rivers, its roads. Its people. Dusk rose eases fever. Everyone in Mereen knows that,” he tells Dany, then hits on her most recent animating interest. “Especially the slaves who have to make the tea.”
Turning Daario into a more legitimate partner in Dany’s abolitionist-imperial project may make her seem less ruled by her hormones a season or two down the line. But the change in casting and characterization also burnishes away some of the tarnish that Martin put on Dany in the books, rendering her a little less human, and a lot less purely lusty. And it protects Daario from being just a sex object.
The way “Game of Thrones” has turned women like Shae and Ros into real characters rather than just the generic prostitutes they were in Martin’s novels has reaped real dividends, making deaths hit harder and the declines of relationships cut deeper. But sometimes shading in a minor character actually makes a major arc less complex. In the name of Dany’s story, and in the cause of beefcake parity, I wish “Game of Thrones” had preserved Daario as the dumb, impulsive stud that Martin wrote him.