Game of Thrones is undoubtedly the biggest show in the world. And this week it is also undoubtedly the most controversial. Daenerys Targaryen’s decision to ignore the surrender of King’s Landing and instead go on a brutal rampage of destruction with her dragon has ignited the show’s fan base.
Waves of hate mail have been directed towards the show’s two main writers David Benioff and DB Weiss, known to many as ‘D&D’. Many fans believe the show has been ruined beyond repair, with the latest twist a complete debacle that is a betrayal of those who have invested in the story for nearly ten years.
I’m going to separate two aspects of it: the actual twist in the story itself and the execution of it. On the latter part, there were some very clear failings. On the former, I think it’s brilliant.
George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire is more than anything else a deconstruction of fantasy tropes. The honorable beyond reproach hero figure uncovers the evil plan to claim the throne from the rightful heir … and it executed before he can stop it. The son raises an army to seek revenge, falls in love with a beautiful woman and is seemingly invincible on the battle field … until he is murdered at the dinner table. One person works tirelessly to unite the groups of the living to fight against a supernatural threat … and he’s betrayed and murdered because those groups hate each other even more.
The Game of Thrones’ TV show has managed to pull off many of these plot lines exceptionally well. Too often, particularly in later years, it has fallen afoul of many of the trappings and tropes it was trying to subvert. Many twists, including this one to some extent, are deliberately obscured to play up the shock value for the audience.
In an interview leading up to this season, Martin described the ending as essentially the same as what will appear in his books. We’ll have to infer then that the final great twist of the story is that the avenging queen who gains three dragons on a quest to reclaim her birthright… is willing to go to horrifying lengths to claim it.
Should we have seen this coming?
Dany’s entire character and story arc is centered around reclaiming her family’s crown by fire and blood.
Here’s a small compilation of quotes from the show:
Daenerys: “My child was innocent.”
Mirri: “Innocent? He would be the Stallion who Mounts the World, now he would burn no cities, now he will trample no nations into dust.”
“When my dragons are grown, we will take back what was stolen from me, and destroy those who wronged me, we will lay waste to armies, and burn cities to the ground.”
“I will take what is mine with fire and blood.”
“I’ve ordered Daario to execute every master in Yunkai.”
“They can live in my new world or they can die in their old one.”
“Who is innocent? Maybe all of you are, maybe none of you are. Maybe I should let the dragons decide.”
“Will you kill my enemies in their iron suits and tear down their stone houses?”
“I will crucify the masters. I will set their fleets on fire, kill every last one of their soldiers, and return their city to the dirt.”
“I swear this: If you ever betray me, I’ll burn you alive.”
“Enough with the clever plans. I have three large dragons. I’m going to fly them to the Red Keep.”
Olenna Tyrell: “Commoners and nobles are all children really. They won’t obey you unless they fear you… You’re a dragon. Be a dragon.”
“Perhaps it’s good the people see Daenerys Stormborn made every effort to avoid bloodshed and Cersei Lannister refused. They should know whom to blame when the sky falls down on them.”
“I’m here to save the world from tyrants… and I will serve it, no matter the cost.”
“Far more people here love you than me. I don’t have love here. I only have fear. Let it be fear.”
I don’t think we could say we haven’t been warned.
Threatening death and fiery destruction sounds pretty badass… until they follow through with it and you actually start seeing them unleashing death and fiery destruction.
Why one of the most hated plots is one of the most important
The best way to understand how Dany’s compassion and empathy has dissipated is best understood by an earlier plot.
Dany’s time in Meereen is almost universally despised by fans of the book and show alike. It’s an often labyrinthine maze of infighting and political maneuvering among a group of people we don’t really care a lot about.
However, it is perhaps the most important to understanding Daenerys’ progression from compassionate liberator to ruthless conqueror. (There’s an excellent series of essays written by Adam Feldman that detail this.)
The show boils it down to a conflict between the freed slaves and the former slave masters. Basically, Dany spends a season trying to unite the two groups and attempting to find peace.
Eventually, a hidden guerilla group called the Sons of the Harpy tries to assassinate her, one of her closest advisors is murdered, the city is besieged by a coalition of slave cities (including city she liberated than fell back into slavery and another she decided not to destroy after they gave her their slaves), before Dany is forced to flee on her dragon and slavery is reinstated in the city.
At every point her laborious efforts to bring people together are questioned, thwarted by various factions and her life is at constant risk. All that time, the audience is itching for her to instead breeze through it and simply lay waste to all of the evil slavers. In the show, she returns to the city, displays her power and then allows the slavers to surrender.
If she claims the Iron Throne she could be beset by many of the same problems she faced in Meereen. There is no reason to expect others won’t start to launch their own guerilla wars, treasonous coups and Lannister loyalty plans from across the seas. In fact, a pregnant Cersei was attempting to escape to the free cities, which is exactly what happened to Dany’s mother.
The one person actively working to get the city to surrender, Tyrion, is also actively betraying her by releasing Jaime. Not to mention every single idea Tyrion has had over the past couple of seasons has resulted in defeat, and every act of apparent mercy has been repaid with spite.
Dany is not treated like a liberator by the people of Westeros. The people of King’s Landing don’t love her, in fact, it’s full of the enemies who have taken everything from her. She’s risked her life to save the realm, lost almost everyone close to her in her life and two of her dragon ‘children’ too. Yet no one shows her the love, respect or fealty she believes she is entitled to. But she can vanquish her enemies, burn their cities and rule through fear.
People will point to how in the first season she stops the army of Dothraki sacking a city, or how in season 4 she is aghast at her dragons killing a child, or even how she allows the slavers to eventually surrender. I don’t call this inconsistency, I call in character progression even if it is not always very well handled by the writers.
Where the writers went wrong
Of course, a lot of this defense is built upon reading into the story things which aren’t always explicit in the text of the show. Over the past few seasons by redefining who is ‘deserving’ of holding power. Previously, it would go to lengths to show that being noble or honest was often foolhardy, while really “power resides where men choose to believe it does”.
The abridged seasons have resulted in a very rushed story where complete and abrupt shifts in characters actions occur within moments. The subtleties of the storytelling has largely disappeared and the underlying themes and big picture questions ignored.
The show has become preoccupied by talking about who out of Jon or Dany was a more intrinsically ‘better’ person and more deserving person to hold power. Even take the reveal of Jon’s parentage. It’s basically been used solely as an excuse for him to have a legitimate claim to the throne. But someone like Cersei had no real claim to the throne, she just took it.
The most effective leader in the show Tywin Lannister, who was almost incomprehensibly brutal and ruthless but has a brilliant record of winning alliances, putting down rebellions and restoring the balance of peace. We would judge him an absolute monster who committed horrific war crimes, but effective none the less.
Tywin previously entered King’s Landing under false pretenses, sacked the city and murdered mountains of its civilians. The song Rains of Castemere is all about how Tywin murdered every single member of a rebellious house and every person inside its walls. In Westeros, Tywin wasn’t loved, but he was feared and respected.
But the show fails to engage with questions on how others have used terror and fear (Tywin), non-discriminatory wiping out all of your enemies (Cersei) or even fire as an effective battle strategy (Tyrion). That is baffling and a concerted failure of the show’s writing.
But it is in this vein of thinking where a political and strategic justification of Dany’s action can be argued.
Does the show present enough evidence for us to be able to glean this? I think it does.
Other will disagree. The fact that I have to write such a lengthy dissertation about it probably is evidence enough that it’s not explicit enough for people to understand purely on the basis of what’s actually in the show. And people can justifiably feel let down by this.
The Mad Queen?
I’ve made the argument that Dany’s actions are thoroughly understandable, perhaps even predictable, in the context of her storyline, explicit rhetoric and political context. Of course, next week the writers might decide that Dany was actually just crazy all along and only did this because she’s the new ‘Mad Queen’.
Dany has become a feminist icon of the age and an inspiration to countless people all over the world. Hundreds of children have been named in her honour. Many of these people betrayed or even horrified that a character they love and adore would do something so horrible.
If she’s presented as motivated only by insanity next week then I will very happily admit that this is a farcical end and will include myself as being very let down. I hope that if she is ‘mad’, it would purely be in the ‘angry’ or ‘pissed off’ sense of the word.
I hope they take a more nuanced approach. We don’t have to look far back into our own history to find parallels to her actions. Churchill was ultimately responsible for the firebombing and destruction of Dresden. Truman authorised the use of nuclear weapons against the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. According to the Council for Foreign Relations, Obama authorised 540 drone strikes that killed an estimated 3,797 people, including 324 civilians.
Particularly in times of war, leaders have to make some fairly horrifying choices that can lead to the death of many innocent people. I don’t think we would call Churchill, Truman or Obama inherently ‘evil’ or ‘mad’ people, but we can definitely scrutinise their decisions and wonder if the death of so many innocent people was absolutely necessary.
This is not an endorsement – this is a warning
Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire are essentially anti-war stories. We’re supposed to be horrified by what people do for their leaders, in the name religion or for their own naked ambition.
Perhaps a lesson to take away from this is to be wary of people who talk so flippantly about the use of violence, particularly if they also possess \powerful weapons and seem to be paranoid about perceived enemies. There’s a long list of tyrants, dictators and war criminals who felt perfectly justified in their own minds when they started out on their path.
We should perhaps be a worried if someone starts saying “I’m going to bomb this shit out of them”, “If you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of them”, or “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose”.
Of course those aren’t Daenerys Targaryen quotes. I hope that tale has a different ending.