So, what was the point of Dany’s sojourn in Meereen?
Many just dismiss it as wholly filler, without any real purpose at all except to pad out the books. Others think that Dany as a character “regressed,” returning to a state of incompetence, naivete, and passivity. Others think the point was about giving Dany “practice” ruling, so she could make mistakes, and eventually become a better ruler when she reaches Westeros.
Here’s why all these interpretations miss the point:
“The human heart in conflict with itself is the only thing worth writing about.” –George R. R. Martin
Martin has paraphrased this quote from William Faulkner time and time again in interviews, yet many readers haven’t fully internalized it. It means Martin is not interested in merely showing characters “leveling up,” like a video game, progressing from incompetent naif to awesome badass. His main interest is in exploring his characters’ values. And throughout the series, he creates drama by forcing characters to choose between their core values — love vs. duty, honor vs. pragmatism, vows vs. innocent life.
With that in mind, a closer look reveals that Dany’s plotline in Meereen has been very cleverly designed as a series of tests of her values, and one value in particular. Each test is designed to ask — how far will Dany go to make peace and protect innocent life? With nearly every new chapter, Dany is asked to give up something else she wants or desires, for the good of the Meereenese people. The use of her dragons. A share of power in Meereen. Some of her anti-slavery reforms. Her desire for vengeance. Her desire to right every wrong she sees. Her distaste for cultural practices she finds abhorrent. Her sexual autonomy. Her happiness. Her pride. Her chance at Westeros.
Dany’s arc is revealed in how she responds to these tests, and how she tries to balance her moral ideals against her own darker impulses and desires. Part of Dany genuinely does want peace, and wants to sacrifice a great deal to protect innocent life. But another part of her would rather she take what she wants, through fire and blood.
The main drama of the Meereen plotline lies in Dany’s mind and in her choices. On the surface she is struggling with the Meereenese — but her most crucial struggle is with herself. And the outcome of this struggle will have momentous consequences for Westeros.