And just like that, Game of Thrones makes a creative choice to self-detonate, in the process annihilating not just King’s Landing, but a good portion of the audience’s already waning trust.
Daenerys Targaryen — self-proclaimed savior of Westeros , and for many an empowering figure and moral focal point of the story — went full Hiroshima after suffering one too many losses, killing hundreds (maybe thousands) of innocent people in a frenzied attempt to show her future subjects that she’s not to be fucked with.
Calling this development divisive would be like saying Ned Stark died of a headache. The virulently negative reaction in reviews and on social media boils down to the argument that Dany’s actions are so unearned on a dramatic level as to constitute a betrayal of her character, as well as to the audience’s faith in that character and what she’s come to represent.
It’s clear this about-face is rooted in whatever George RR Martin revealed to the show’s writers about his ultimate designs for the story. However, has the series truly failed to plant the seeds for this particular form of destruction? Or has this outcome always been quietly embedded in the DNA of Game of Thrones from the beginning?
The first glimpse of Dany’s potential for homicidal detachment arrives with the death of her older brother Viserys. An abusive twit acting under the delusion that he’s somehow fit to rule Westeros, Viserys sells his sister into a form of sexual slavery to gain access to the Dothraki, only for the tables to turn as Dany rises to become a respected member of the khalasar.
After numerous failed attempts to reconcile with her brother and create peace, Dany steps back and allows Viserys to stir her husband Khal Drogo’s protective anger, resulting in death by molten metal. Staring down at her brother’s pathetic corpse, she coldly observes “he was no dragon.”
There really isn’t much cause for alarm here, as Viserys had repeated chances to redeem himself and proved an absolute asshole every step of the way, up to and including constantly insulting and harming his sister. But that gleam in Dany’s eyes — mostly emotionless, with a hint of satisfaction at justice delivered in its cruelest form — does prove a harbinger of things to come.
Mirri Maz Duur
Near the end of season one, Dany rescues the witch Mirri Maz Duur from the clutches of their khalasar following a raid. She protects the witch from further harm, and entrusts her with treating an infected wound sustained by Khal Drogo. As Drogo’s infection worsens, Dany makes the unwise choice of agreeing to a blood magic ritual to save his life, ultimately causing the death of their unborn child and turning Drogo into a soulless shell. Revealed to be a deliberate betrayal on behalf of Mirri Maz Duur, Dany has the witch burned alive on Drogo’s funeral pyre, stepping into the flames herself and emerging with three baby dragons, the rest history.
This is absolutely the first instance of Dany’s propensity for wrath . . . an action which seems fully justified, as the witch took advantage of Dany’s trust in order to destroy both husband and child. It’s also framed as a moment of triumph, Daenerys emerging from the smoking remnants in what could only be described as a miracle.
And yet, what is the reverse perspective at play here? Mirri Maz Duur watched people she’d known for years being beheaded, raped, and enslaved, including children. She herself was raped repeatedly before Dany intervened. And then this royal white foreigner spares her suffering, only to later ask the equivalent of “oh hey, can you save my unrepentant rapist-murderer husband who oversaw your whole world turning to wreckage?” The audience is aware that Drogo has started to evolve as a person, but the witch has no such knowledge. She just sees a brute whose warriors decimated the only life she knew.
Make no mistake, Dany’s choice to burn her alive is rooted in sadism. The witch proclaims she will not scream, but as the flames engulf her she does exactly that, something in which Dany takes full pleasure. On the evening of her rebirth, Dany’s power is seeded by murder and revenge, sacrificing the exact type of person she would normally aim to protect. The dragon is awoken here, metaphorically as much as literally.
Speaking of eye for an eye retribution, if their positions were reversed, would Dany have not taken vengeance against the people who destroyed her life and then had the nerve to condescend to her with pious sympathy?
In Qarth, Daenerys is betrayed by the merchant Xaro Xhoan Daxos, who schemes with Dany’s trusted maiden Doreah to kidnap the baby dragons and give them to the warlocks at the House of the Undying. Dany responds by locking Xaro and Doreah in Xaro’s underground vault, essentially burying them alive. Meanwhile, the dragons burn the warlock Pyat Pree, the first life they ever claim.
Again, all of these actions appear justified on the surface. Dany has been betrayed and many of her friends murdered, and her dragon children stolen.
And again, she takes delight in what she does. Xaro and Doreah will slowly starve to death in pitch blackness, their screams unheard, and Dany is very happy with that fact.
Cersei later does something similar to Ellaria Sand, who murdered Cersei’s daughter in cold blood. Ellaria is left in a dungeon to watch her own daughter’s corpse rot until she herself eventually succumbs. We’re supposed to see Cersei’s actions as villainous, despite her avenging the death of an innocent young girl, yet we justify Dany because she’s a more sympathetic character.
In the beginning of her rise to power in Essos, Dany makes her stance clear by using the dragons and the Unsullied to first sack Astapor, then Yunkai.
One of the defining aspects of Dany’s character is the desire to free the oppressed, her rightful disgust at the reality of slavery a driving factor in the larger quest to reshape the world into a fairer and more just place. But at the end of the day, sacking a city still means killing people left and right, and not all of them will necessarily be guilty. Collateral damage is inevitable, and both Astapor and Yunkai end in bloodbaths.
This isn’t any different than any other war currently fought in either Westeros or Essos, with the exception that Dany is a deposed noblewoman plowing through various foreign cultures under the auspice that her approach is objectively better and that they need to bend to her will or face the consequences. The issue here isn’t one of whether slavery is acceptable. But these civilizations are so deeply ingrained with this particular institution that such radical change also means radical destabilization, and the aftermath is not much concern to her, despite that resultant chaos leading to further deaths.
There’s also the highly problematic image of her being passed around in an act of thanks and worship, the very white Dany enjoying the accolades of the very non-white masses. She revels in the adoration, accepting their designation of Mhysa (Valyrian for “mother”) and betraying what appears to be a burgeoning messiah complex in the process.
The conquering of Meereen, the largest of the slave cities, offers a turning point in Dany’s character. Her need to be a ruler comes to the forefront, as does her capacity for cruelty.
In one of the most horrifying scenes of the entire series, we see the corpses of over a hundred crucified slave children used as mile markers on the way to Meereen. Dany is filled with rage at this unforgivable loss of innocent life, and her solution upon the taking of Meereen is to crucify an equal amount of slave masters.
However, the show does not necessarily portray this as justice. The image of hundreds of people crucified and screaming in pain is shown in grotesque detail, accompanied by ominous music. We later learn that some of these masters had vehemently opposed the crucifixion of the children. The justification for all of this is that anyone who owns or trades slaves must instinctively be an irredeemable human being, yet that comes up against the fact that such a horrific tradition is entrenched to the point where these cultures are stuck in a feedback loop of established power dynamics which can’t be easily circumvented.
This gives way to domestic terrorism in all three cities, Astapor and Yunkai being retaken by vicious rulers who re-institute slavery, while the Sons of the Harpy attempt to undermine Dany’s rule in Meereen. She responds by selecting several Meereenese noblemen and then intentionally feeding one of them to her dragons to set an example. His guilt or innocence is of no concern to her; this is to establish rule through fear. Yet again we see that combination of coldness and rage in her eyes.
It’s also revealed that Drogon, now an adult dragon, has been parading through the lands surrounding Meereen, occasionally killing innocent people (at least one little girl’s death is accounted for). Dany responds with grief, but the larger indication that the dragons represent a form of barely controlled violence still lingers over the proceedings.
When the city finds itself under siege, power is only restored through Dany’s access to dragonfire. No agreements or compromises can withstand such a force. It seems like a legitimate solution, but this returns again to the notion that fear is the only way for her to enable change, which appears to be at odds with the progressive ideals Dany frequently espouses.
In season six, Dany is reunited with the Dothraki and taken to their capital of Vaes Dothrak. Initially subjected to threats of rape and death when the khals don’t realize who she is, she’s then faced with a different form of humiliation as they try to force her into the dosh khaleen, a collective of widowed khaleesis who act as a center of revered and respected wisdom but are, conversely, subjugated into the engineered obedience of having to advise men. Dany is taunted further by the misogynistic khals, and she responds in kind by burning them all and asserting dominance over the entirety of Dothraki civilization.
Keeping with her previous demonstrations of power, Dany conditions her calls to servitude as purely voluntary; anyone who follows her is doing so by choice, not by force or cultural obligation. But this is also the second instance in which she’s emerged from flames unscathed, this time a blood sacrifice of the khals her fuel to demonstrate superiority and a promise of liberation. Like her occupation of the cities in Slaver’s Bay, we see someone not inherently part of those cultures utilizing them as a means to an end. That end? Tools to retake another continent entirely.
As they leave Vaes Dothrak, Daario tells Dany he believes her to be a conqueror, not a ruler. A few minutes later, he witnesses her for the first time atop a dragon, where she rallies the Dothraki by promising they will destroy her enemies in Westeros by any means necessary. Despite his encouragement just moments before, Daario appears genuinely alarmed at the sheer megalomaniacal energy she conjures.
Dany’s first confrontation in Westeros pits her against the Lannister and Tarly forces, marching back to King’s Landing after sacking Highgarden. Despite being two of the most well-trained armies in the Seven Kingdoms, their skills are no match for the fighting tactics of the Dothraki. But even that doesn’t matter, as Dany uses Drogon to swiftly decimate the opposing side. In the aftermath, the remaining soldiers are captured and given a choice: swear fealty to Daenerys, or be burned alive by her dragon.
It’s notable that this battle sequence is structured not to emphasize Dany’s victory, but instead highlights that hundreds of people have been set ablaze and are cooking to death in their armor. Even Jaime, a hardened knight with years of experience, is genuinely overwhelmed by the sheer horror surrounding him. He’s never seen anything like this, not even under the rule of the Mad King.
One of the more gruesome aspects of this confrontation is Dany’s subsequent execution of Randyll and Dickon Tarly, who refuse to bend the knee. On a purely strategic level, it makes sense: create loyalty by sowing terror through a choice of submission or punishment. She gives them the opportunity to change their minds, and they don’t.
Yet, at this point it’s worth pointing out that Dany’s initial humanitarian goals of freedom have become increasingly replaced with a sense of entitled eminence. Her talk of breaking the wheel has given way to a tunnelvision focus on a divine birthright to the Iron Throne, and to win that Throne at any cost. After burning the Tarlys, the remaining men pledge their allegiance to Dany’s claim, but not because they respect or even necessarily want to fight for her; they just don’t want to be immolated.
Randyll Tarly himself is a remorseless bastard and doesn’t inspire much sympathy, but it’s clear that the more innocent Dickon only joins his father’s refusal through a naive sense of familial responsibility and childish, chivalric ideas of manliness. Tyrion makes it clear to Dany that she’s being rash, potentially ending both a bloodline and a significant ally by burning these two men. (After all, he’s seen this playbook before: his own father, whose savvy for political manipulation could only be outmatched by his inclination towards amoral ruthlessness). She has no empathy for that argument, and doesn’t even think twice about her decision until she later learns that she incinerated Sam’s family.
This event proves so disturbing to Tyrion and Varys that both of them, clearly shaken, get drunk and feebly try to convince themselves that they’re not terrified of their new Queen.
Dany’s arrival in the North is expected to be a grand event. She’s sworn to defend the realm from the White Walkers and to temporarily table her pursuit of the Iron Throne, and her romance with Jon Snow is meant to signify a union between North and South.
Unfortunately, South is the operative word, as her experience heads that direction quickly: the Northerners don’t trust her; Jon turns out to be her nephew and legitimate rival for the Throne; she loses a great portion of her army; Jorah and Missandei, two of her most trusted advisers and closest friends, are both killed; Rhaegal dies as well, the second dragon she’s lost in Westeros; and in general it’s made clear to her that she’s viewed as an unwelcome usurper with a specious claim.
These factors are all unfair and out of Dany’s control, though her own attitude doesn’t help matters.
When she arrives in Winterfell, she’s taken aback by the judgmental and apprehensive stares she receives. This is not what she experienced in Essos. She’s not Mhysa to these people; they’ve already declared independence and are inherently distrustful of anyone not from the North. Moments later, Drogon and Rhaegal arrive and scare the absolute shit out of everyone. Dany smiles . . . not playfully, but with a smug look of superiority.
It only continues to get worse from there. Dany makes not-so-veiled threats against Sansa, telling Jon she’ll do what she has to do if Sansa won’t acknowledge her as Queen. She repeatedly intimates that she’s willing to kill Tyrion if his advice doesn’t start getting better. And her handling of the news about Jon’s true parentage results in her ordering him not to tell anyone in his family, a highly implicit “or else” hanging in the air.
Let’s be clear: these are threats against people she claims to care about, even love. If push comes to shove, Dany will hurt them and/or their families if it makes the difference between winning and not winning the Iron Throne. Her instincts about the possible threats to her power are all correct, but it’s the inability to question her own dogmatic beliefs of ascendant grandeur which cause others to distrust her intentions.
Daenerys seems willfully oblivious to the fact that storming into Westeros and saying the entire continent belongs to her — and that anyone who disagrees will be burned alive by dragons that only she possesses — might rub people the wrong way. Despite Tyrion and Varys repeatedly trying to explain this, part of Dany seems predetermined to stage a grand act of destruction in a show of supreme authority.
And why wouldn’t she be? It’s how her ancestors conquered Westeros in the first place. They didn’t fly over from Essos and ask nicely to rule the Seven Kingdoms. They arrived from Dragonstone and took what they believed to be theirs, through fire and blood.
If the people of Westeros won’t accept Dany through love, she is willing to choose fear. She literally says this to Jon. For much of her time here, fear has been her default setting.
Both Tyrion and Varys for a long time maintain the intellectual highwire act of trying to support Dany while acknowledging her occasional bouts of unwarranted cruelty. But Varys eventually reaches his breaking point upon learning the truth about Jon.
Until then, Varys is far from some weekend warrior for Dany. He sailed to Essos and joined her at great risk, and later brokered their side’s alliance with Dorne. He steadfastly maintained the belief that, for many reasons, a Targaryen sitting on the Throne is in the best interest of all.
Yet Varys is acutely aware of Dany’s mental state, having watched her father devolve into a genocidal lunatic. He knows what the three-headed red flags look like, and begins to see them in Dany. Of particular concern is her growing imperviousness to, and suspiciousness of, advice, the very thing which Tyrion and Varys exist to offer her. And the very thing which has stayed her hand on numerous occasions. He sees the trainwreck ahead and wants to stop it, as it will cost untold numbers of innocent lives.
Daenerys won’t listen to him, so his only choice is to undermine her claim by spreading the news that Jon is really Aegon Targaryen. Dany burns him to death on the very beach where dozens were offered as human sacrifices by Melisandre. His ashes now join theirs.
And it is here we arrive at the breaking point, both for Daenerys Targaryen as well as a large swath of the viewing audience. An increasingly enraged Dany, pushed to her limit, fully embraces her inner Targaryen, using Drogon to unleash fiery wrath upon the people of King’s Landing. At this point, the city has signaled surrender, but the mere sight of the Red Keep reminds Dany of everything she’s endured to get to this moment. She’s tired of diplomacy, patriarchy, pageantry, compromise, and watching everything she loves taken away. She’s tired of suppressing the dragon.
The ground level view of her rampage leaves no doubt the amount of terror and death this decision inflicts, as we watch men, women, and children consumed in fire and rubble, as well as falling to the swords of the Dothraki, Unsullied, and Northern armies.
Dany’s ultimate goal is to dethrone Cersei Lannister — a task at which she more than succeeds, with Cersei crushed beneath the collapsed ceiling of the castle’s dungeon — but in the process she wants people to see her capacity for brute force, as nothing she’s tried thus far has convinced Westeros to take her seriously.
It’s easy to take issue with what’s been dubbed Mad Queen Daenerys, as having to witness her choose extinction-level violence proves exceedingly unpleasant, even devastating. We’ve never seen her quite like this before, and the general consensus has been that this transformation is forced plotting, the groundwork not successfully laid.
But all of the examples outlined above do foreshadow this moment. The trick of it is simply that when Dany would embrace cruelty — burning people or burying them alive, crucifying her enemies, using dragons as an intimidation tactic — we could easily say “well, she had to! Besides, those people deserved it.” She chooses to be merciless and even relishes that decision, but since it’s in the name of progress and overthrowing those who abuse power, somehow her inflexible brutality is excusable as a form of righteous deliverance.
Is it, though? Taking pleasure in unsparing slaughter is still a form of sadism, regardless of the political framing. No one forced her to burn or crucify hundreds of people. Those were conscious decisions informed by a mix of rage and cold-blooded, vicious calculation. It was a mistake to assume that a predilection for ferocious, intentionally inhuman retribution would only ever be directed at those who “deserve” it.
To be sure, nearly all of the characters have done something questionably violent, even if justified or cathartic, whether it’s Tyrion murdering Shae and Tywin, Sansa feeding Ramsay to dogs, or Jon making the choice to hang his attackers (including a young boy) before stepping down from the Watch. But these characters aren’t repeatedly succumbing to these instincts, whereas with Daenerys her cruel streak is as long as the red comet’s tail.
A lot has led Dany to this moment. Losing most of the people she trusts. Cersei’s intentional provocations. Paranoia about Jon and Tyrion’s loyalty. The unabashed sexism of Westeros, which would choose Jon over her. A lifetime of trying to get back to this place only to see her ambitions start slipping through her fingers. Had circumstances been different, maybe the dominoes wouldn’t have fallen quite this way.
But this was always going to happen, in some shape or form. The signs were there from the beginning. A person armed with giant fire-breathing dragons, several armies infamous for their absolute brutality, and the belief that she is ordained by both law and destiny to be the rightful ruler of a continent was never going to come across as anything other than a warmongering despot once she began marching through Westeros. For years Dany has vowed to take back her land with fire and blood, and the idea that she could do it neatly and remain some kind of liberal champion was a false one.
Throughout much of the series, Daenerys — as well as the audience — has never had to reconcile that she’s a walking contradiction, aiming on one hand to shatter the mechanisms of political power which keep the Seven Kingdoms in a stranglehold, but on the other using those exact systems as justification for why the Iron Throne belongs to her. She aims to end tyranny, yet increasingly employs the methods of tyranny if it suits her goals.
This attempt to be two things at once falls apart when she sets foot in Westeros. She’s finally forced to choose between being a liberator or a conqueror. The Throne itself is now her obsession, and she’s lost sight of the fact that the Iron Throne might be the very wheel she’s always aimed to break.
And what is that throne, anyway? It’s a melding of the swords belonging to the various Houses which bent the knee to Aegon the Conqueror, who along with his two sisters used their dragons to pummel the Seven Kingdoms into submission. It has always stood as a monument to rule by force and fear.
Dany, far from becoming her father, is really just repeating the behavior which brought her family here 300 years ago. She comes from a long line of egomaniacs prone to messianic impulses and bouts of murderous anger, and is no exception herself. But like some of her relatives, she can also be a great, compassionate leader and a force of emancipatory revolution, particularly when thinking outside of the box.
Right now, she is not thinking outside of that box.
We’ve seen this look of merciless rage on her face before, just directed at people who weren’t necessarily likable. But awaking the dragon means a lot of adjacent casualties, and one day that would eventually include folks who weren’t slavers or horselords.
Dragons themselves are unpredictable, just like a Targaryen going into destruct mode. Dany considers them her children, but they are dangerous beasts which yield an unbelievable amount of death when used as tools of war. Perhaps Dany’s connection to dragons is not in fact healthy, but a seduction by the potential for absolute power through violence. Perhaps this has always been true of the Targaryens.
And perhaps no one should have this kind of power at that level.
As for the pivot of her character, this was in many ways doomed to resistance from the start. While some find the development simply unjustified and would accept it had the transition been handled differently, the larger outcry is that the series has turned what is arguably its primary female protagonist into a tyrant, when the show already has an established tyrant queen, thank you very much.
The inevitable criticism is that this implies women can’t lead and are easily manipulated by emotion. While a larger view of the story really negates that angle — Sansa, Yara, and Lady Mormont would have a lot to say about there being no positive examples of female leaders in Westeros, and Dany’s flip into fiery insanity has less to do with being a woman than being a Targaryen — there’s simply too much riding on the presentation of Daenerys as a character in a final season already fated for scrutiny on nearly every level.
What’s interesting is the show already told us what would happen to Daenerys, and very early on. While wandering through the House of the Undying back in season two, she has a vision of the Throne room, destroyed and covered in snow. The takeaway from that image is that it symbolizes the threat of the White Walkers. And it does, but not just that. Winter is more than the Night King. It’s also the destruction of the human soul, the loss of humanity that often accompanies the pursuit of power. Cersei came to represent this, and now Dany. Ice and fire don’t necessarily have to be mutually exclusive. Sometimes, ashes look like snow.
Danaerys may not yet be lost. The reality of what she’s done might still wash over her and break this trance the Iron Throne has cast over the essence of her being.
The possibility still exists for her to choose a better way.
However, Dany’s present attitude is fire and blood, with mercy at a later, undetermined date.
Like most of those who’ve come to power in Westeros, her choice might already be made.