Game of Thrones fans everywhere are divided due to Daenery’s actions in the penultimate episode of HBO’s epic fantasy series. Was this “heel turn” simply bad writing? or are there underlying causes that drove her to her newfound villain status?
“Every time a Targaryen is born, the gods toss a coin and the world holds its breath”. – Lord Varys, episode 5 “The Bells”
There’s no denying the family history surrounding the Targaryen lineage in terms of cruelness and atrocity: Dany saw first-hand the behaviors of her own brother, Viserys; Ser Barristan told her stories of her father, Aerys, and how cruel and wicked he was; other notable Targaryens also include Aerion the Monstrous, Rhaegel (who drank Wildfire), and Maegor the Cruel. The incestuous nature of Targaryens in relation to the purity of their bloodlines frequently resulted in offspring that had some sort of mental illness, usually resulting in rage, insanity, paranoia and bloodlust.
When we first meet her, Daenerys and her brother Viserys are orphans living in the residency of Magister Illyrio Mopatis in Pentos. The last two remaining Targaryens in the world have been on the run all their lives from assassins sent by King Robert Baratheon, who is looking to extinguish the remaining Targaryens from the world. Dany has lived in fear of her brother, who has shown her cruelty time and again, believing himself the true heir to the Iron Throne of Westeros after their father Aerys “The Mad King” was stabbed in the back by his own Kingsguard commander, Jaime Lannister.
Viserys embarks on a quest to amass forces to invade Westeros, selling off Dany to Dothraki warlord, Khal Drogo, in exchange for their horsemen. Viserys winds up getting the golden crown he’s always wanted, thanks to Drogo. Now the only remaining Targaryen, Daenerys evolves from a helpless refugee to Khaleesi to the most powerful leader in Essos, for a time. After Drogo is mortally wounded in battle, Dany pleads with a magi woman named Miri Maz Duur in order to save her beloved. Things go terribly wrong, as the witch uses blood magic, sacrificing the life of Dany’s unborn son, Rhaego, to “save” Drogo, who becomes a catatonic shell of himself. Rhaego was said to have been born looking like a half-human/half-dragon monstrosity. Dany would later smother her husband to put him out of his misery.
Upon burning Drogo’s body, Dany enters the flames with her 3 stone dragon eggs, which leaves her unburnt and a new mother of 3 newly-hatched baby dragons, the first new ones born into the world in over 100 years. Dany begins bonding with her new children as she journeys across Essos, seeing instance after instance of war, famine, plague, starvation, and murder.
More attempts on her life lead her to encounter Jorah Mormont, who quickly becomes a trusted part of Dany’s new khalasar. While in Qarth, Dany enters the mysterious House of the Undying where she sees various visions of her future. She also later encounters a mysterious figure in the form of a shadowbinder named Quaithe, who gives her further prophecies, which will come to prove true down the line..
Dany eventually learns that Jorah was a spy for Robert Baratheon, and in turn spares his life by exiling him. Dany had grown very fond of her protector, whose betryal was one of the prophecies she had just learned about. Despite the betrayal, Dany continues along after locking prominent trader Xaro Xhoan Daxos and handmaiden Doreah in a vault, leaving him to die, as Xaro had plotted to steal her dragons.
Moving on from Qarth, Dany encounters places like Astapor, Slaver’s Bay and Meereen. Feeling compelled to liberate these cities of their slaving masters, Dany and her newly-acquired force of Unsullied sack each city and put a temporary stop to the atrocities against commonfolk. Dany becomes Queen of Meereen, leaving various advisors to monitor the happenings of her conquests.
However, the rebelling forces in Meereen, known as the Sons of the Harpy, openly attack her forces and eventually her, prompting her to fly off on the back of a full-grown Drogon. Returning to subdue the threat, she plans to destroy the city until Tyrion convinces her otherwise, begging her not to become like her father. She would eventually leave for Westeros, as she felt like she had nothing left in the East.
Dany’s experiences in Essos helped to shape the person she was becoming in multiple ways. She is seen as a hero, a liberator, and a savior to many of the people she has helped. Conversely, to many she is seen as an invader, a conqueror, and the daughter of the Mad King. The people in Westeros still remember the reign of the Targaryen Dragonlords and the generations of despair they brought.
Flash forward a bit where Dany has finally traveled to Westeros, where she would put Randyll and Dickon Tarly to death by dragon fire. As she makes an alliance with a recently-resurrected Jon Snow in order to save the realm from the forces of the Night King and his White Walkers & accompanying wights. Putting her quest for the throne on hold, Dany joins in on the effort after seeing the undead for herself, believing the northern threat more pressing than the battle down South to come.
Despite winning the day (or, more accurately, night) the remaining Northerners and Dany’s forces have sustained major losses, including her dragon, Viserion. The fighters are injured, tired, cold and hungry; and against Sansa Stark’s advice, Dany plans to move South immediately.
Importantly, as shown during episode 4, Daenerys is closely watching and listening in on the various conversations and celebrations in the dining hall scene. She overhears various people proclaiming their love for Jon, showcasing the beginnings of her paranoia. In this moment, she is realizing that though she and her forces may have been integral to the defeat of the Night King, she’s not getting the love or respect she’s expecting. She feels alone and unappreciated, which begins the main portion of her spiral.
The split forces travel different paths, with Jon commanding the Northern forces coming down the Kingsroad to King’s Landing while Dany and her remaing khalasar encounter a naval blockade led by Euron Greyjoy. Dragon Rhaegal is shot down from the sky and Dany’s fleet is decimated. Amidst the destruction, handmaiden/advisor Missandei is captured and held hostage by Cersei and later beheaded by The Mountain.
Returning to Dragonstone, an enraged Daenerys locks herself away from her small council, unaccepting of food, drink and sleep. During this time and also shown in episode 4, Tyrion and Varys have been having conversation about Dany in terms of her instability and leadership capabilities, with Varys believeing Jon to be the better choice to rule Westeros, as it was revealed that Jon is the son of Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark, making him the rightful heir to the throne over Dany’s claim. This knowledge, paired with the people’s love for Jon, increase Dany’s paranoia.
An important scene during episode 5 shows a conversation between Daenerys and Tyrion where he begins to tell her of Varys’ plan only to find out that she already knew about it and everything else going on behind her back (Varys was most assuredly trying to have Dany poisoned, as alluded to at the beginning of the episode), She specifically cites Jon as someone that has betrayed her and is again refuted in sexual advances by Jon, prompting her to later tell him she will rule with fear instead of love. She has Varys executed with dragon fire for his betrayal.
As battle preparations are being discussed, Tyrion implores Dany to cease her attack if the city’s bells begin ringing, signaling a surrender, to which she agrees, and also threatens Tyrion’s life if he fails her again. As the battle ensues, Dany and Drogon make quick work of the Iron Fleet and the city’s ballistic defenses, raining fire down on the Lannister soldiers mercilessly and taking out the Golden Company effortlessly.
As her forces are now taking the city, the bells begin ringing. Breaking her agreement with Tyrion, Dany goes full dark side and begins torching both the city and its innocent inhabitants indiscriminately. To the horror of characters like Jon and Arya, the Dragon Queen has seemingly truly gone mad, as King’s Landing is being reduced to ash.
To many fans, Daenerys’ villain switch was described as “badly written”, “pure shock value” and a “character betrayal”. To those descriptions, I would like to counter by giving reasons for the character change. Throughout Daenerys’ story, as mentioned previously, she has gone through an incredible amount of adversity, heartache, loss, and betrayal. Sure, plenty of other characters have gone through events just as bad as she, but other characters aren’t Targaryens.
The inherited genetics contained within Dany’s DNA already put her at a 50-50 chance of being crazy. Until the beginning events of her introduction, she’s had to live her life in constant fear of being assassinated in her sleep, faced sexual assault, deaths of her husband and son, lost 2 dragons, a large percentage of her fighting men and her best friend. She knows that no matter what she does, the Westerosi people will never love or accept her as their ruler, but she’s determined to take the Iron Throne at all cost.
Dany says something to the effect of “breaking the wheel” in past seasons, putting an end to cruelty and oppression for all time, but understands that the current generation of people will never love her, so her decision is to destroy them and look to the future. The new generations will have the chance to grow up in a new world under her rule, learning to love her. Those that remain will fear her, which is fine with her. She knows that her failures in Essos are sure to repeat themselves if different decisions aren’t made, and she isn’t going to make the same mistakes.
Many people cite her turn this late in the game to be purely for shock value, but isn’t Game of Thrones predicated on shocking audiences? As the series started and the Starks were made out to be the main characters of the series, Ned was executed by beheading, Catelyn and Robb were murdered and the remaining children were scattered. Main characters consistently were killed off, tortured, burned, flayed, raped, eaten, disemboweled, beheaded and killed in every way possible.
Another angle cites sexism as an issue with Dany’s turn. Did they not see Arya kill off characters like Walder Frey or the Night King? Did they not see Brienne be a bad ass an become the first female Knight of the Seven Kingdoms? Did they not watch Sansa transform from a scared little girl to one of the major players remaining in the game? Plenty of female characters in Game of Thrones are depicted as incredibly smart, powerful and important.
Would her character’s turn be as divisive if it were a male character? There have been countless instances of male heroes gone bad like Bucky Barnes/The Winter Soldier, Jack Torrance in The Shining, or Alec Trevelyan in Goldeneye (hey Sean Bean!) as well as male villainous characters turning good, such as Darth Vader, Severus Snape, and even the Grinch! As far as female turns go, Mila Kunis became the Wicked Witch in Oz: The Great & Powerful and Jean Grey became The Phoenix in X3: The Last Stand & X-Men: Dark Phoenix (hey Sophie Turner!). Both male and female characters in film and TV have frequently used the face/heel turn trope, so its use in Game of Thrones shouldn’t be foreign.
George R. R. Martin frequently uses real-life history in his writing, adapting various events for the world of ice and fire. The series itself was heavily inspired by the War of the Roses as well as other world events. Dany’s use of excessive force in the destruction of King’s Landing draws a lot of parallels with the use of nuclear weapons against Japan during World War II.
If you equate nuclear weapons with dragons and the Japansese cities against King’s Landing, the two events can be seen as similar. The United States didn’t HAVE TO drop the bombs on those cities to showcase both their power and willingness to use it, but they did in a display of authority because they thought it was the right choice. In Dany’s case, she didn’t HAVE TO destroy the city and murder the innocent in order to showcase her power, but she felt she had no other choice other than to do so.
The parallels continue when thinking about what Daenerys and Jon represent in terms of the name of the book series A Song of Ice and Fire from which Game of Thrones is derived. Daenerys, the Dragon Queen, represents the Song of Fire. Her House sigil, the three-headed dragon, touts the words “Fire & Blood”. Jon Snow, revealed to be Aegon Targaryen, shares Stark blood of the North, making him the Song of Ice (and in a way, both Ice & Fire).
Continuing the Ice & Fire parallel, the Battle for Winterfell during The Long Night represented the Battle of Ice while Daenerys’ turn represents the Battle of Fire. Throughout future generations, the stories, or songs, will be sung about Ice & Fire. Diametric opposites, like ice and fire, Jon and Dany were always meant to cancel each other out, quickly melting in a bittsweet ending.
Nature vs nurture is a huge theme within Dany’s story. Daenerys Targaryen should be remembered as a tragic character; the duality of human nature. She initially became a heroic character despite her past; but in the end, her past caught up to her, much like many of the fallen characters throughout the series. In truth, Daenerys has killed many people in the past, regardless of the reasoning, including: Khal Drogo, Miri Maz Duur, Pyat Pree, Doreah, Xaro, Kraznys, the Great Master of Meereen, Randyll & Dickon Tarly, Varys and countless slavers and soldiers.
In her final moments, the true height of her madness is on full display, as she’s telling Jon of what equates to global conquest. Jon’s previous conversation with Tyrion swayed his thoughts on obeying his queen, as the events of the King’s Landing destruction also clouded his feelings. Jon murders Dany to prevent more slaughter and destruction, which leads to a new age of leadership under King Bran Stark, breaking the wheel in which Daenerys ultimately became a part. The ending of the series was poetically beautiful and meta for fans that were able to appreciate it.
Daenerys became drunk on the power she possessed and the antithesis of what she set out to be. Her story (fire) ended oppositely to Jon’s (ice), further continuing the previously mentioned parallels. Jon is Azor Ahai, whom killed his love to save the world, just as Jon had to as well. Despite the medieval fantasy backdrop, this series was about the human condition more so than the mystical elements. It showed how people can come together in the worst of times to overcome adversity while also displaying the incredible capabilities of cruelty, cementing the parallel paths.
On a personal note, I applaud the writers and showrunners for their decision to take Dany’s character in the direction that they did. For myself, it felt like something that had really been subtly brewing throughout the series until the events of season 8 exacerbated her mental state. I also don’t believe that the upcoming novels The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring will be at all similar to the events depicted on the series from season 6 onward.
This thought process has helped me to come back to the show and enjoy it, realizing that it’s just an alternate take on the series. It was refreshing for me, whom is a huge fan of the books, to see the series playing out the way it did because I’m expecting such different things for the novels. I got to see an “elseworld” version of the story in a visual way that blew my mind all season 8.
Now, let’s hear your thoughts on the matter…