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Charting Daenerys Targaryen’s course from Khaleesi to ‘Mad Queen’

How Game of Thrones prepared us for the series finale

Daenerys Targaryen’s actions in the penultimate episode of Game of Thrones caused a stir. Though conflict brewed throughout season 8, many viewers thought the rampage against the innocents of King’s Landing looked strange and out of character. What happened to Daenerys?

It’s worth backing up to see the full scope of the Targaryen’s arc. Examining the road that led us here — viewing the past through the lens of “The Bells” — makes everything look different.

The journey of Daenerys Stormborn of House Targaryen, the First of Her Name, Queen of the Andals and the First Men, Protector of the Seven Kingdoms, Mother of Dragons, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, the Unburnt, Breaker of Chains, Mad Queen, is one of many choices. Let’s examine as we prepare for her final bow.

Madness runs in the family

“They say every time a Targaryen is born, the gods toss a coin and the world holds its breath.”
— Lord Varys, season 8, episode 5

The history of Daenerys Targaryen’s decisions begins before she was born. You can’t separate her from her ancestors — the kings and queens who ruled the Seven Kingdoms for centuries before she was born.

Whether as a result of generations of incest (her parents were also brother and sister), or maybe some magical dragon blood influence, Targaryens have a tendency to go mad and bad. The most recent example of this is Aerys II Targaryen, the Mad King, Dany’s father. Way back in season 3, Jamie and Brienne had a conversation about him and his sadism.

Aerys Targaryen (the Mad King) HBO

“He loved to watch people burn, the way their skin blackened and blistered and melted off their bones,” Jaime said. “He burned lords he didn’t like. He burned Hands who disobeyed him. He burned anyone who was against him.”

The Mad King died screaming “Burn them all!” about his subjects in King’s Landing.

Targaryen madness abounds. One of them drank wildfire, believing it would turn him into a dragon (he died). The Sept of Baelor in King’s Landing is named after a Targaryen who became convinced that food was sinful (he died). Dany’s older brother Viserys was just an all-around power-hungry and abusive dirtbag (he died). Even Dany once had 163 people crucified — some of whom were innocent (or at least less-than-guilty).

History makes it impossible to see any decision that a Targaryen makes outside the lens of that unstable bloodline. People are right to be wary. Dany knows this, and she aims to be different.

Dany believes she’s destined to rule

“She’s a girl who walked into a fire with three stones and walked out with three dragons. How could she not believe in destiny?”
— Tyrion Lannister, season 8, episode 4

About 17 years before Game of Thrones begins, a bloody civil war called Robert’s Rebellion unseated the Targaryens. Dany and her brother grew up in exile, across the Narrow Sea, believing that their family belonged on the Iron Throne and that the people of Westeros longed for their return.

That is the central truth of being a Targaryen: They are the rightful, dynastic rulers of the Seven Kingdoms. King Robert Baratheon was a usurper. He and those who follow and flow from him are illegitimate.

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When we first meet Daenerys Targaryen, she believes that her older brother Viserys is the one who belongs on the throne — that he is the Last Dragon, as the Targaryens style themselves. But as Dany evolves during the first season from the naive girl we meet in the first episode to the beloved khaleesi of the Dothraki, she comes to see her brother as less than worthy.

When her brother’s inherent garbage-person-ness finally catches up to him, Khal Drogo pours molten gold on his head, killing him. Instead of being distraught, Dany watches coldly. She’s detached.

“He was no dragon,” she tells Jorah. “Fire cannot kill a dragon.”

It is our first inkling that Daenerys Targaryen can turn fearsome. She can and does dehumanize those who stand between her and her (perceived) destiny.

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Later, Dany proves that, unlike her brother, fire cannot harm her: Once in the funeral pyre of Khal Drogo, and, much later, when she burns down the temple in Vaes Dothrak. The first time she tested herself in fire, she walked away with three dragons. The second time, she walked away with an army.

This is the lens through which we must view Dany’s actions because it’s the lens through which she views them. She is the Last Dragon. And it’s hard to argue with her logic.

The question then becomes: Will she be a good and benevolent dragon queen or a mad one like the worst of her ancestors?

Daenerys loves being loved, but will accept being feared

“Who can rule without wealth or fear or love?”
– Viserys Targaryen, season 1, episode 6

As Dany evolves into a khaleesi and later into a queen, she receives the adoration of her various adopted subjects.

When she announces the name of her unborn child, the gathered Dothraki literally lift her on their shoulders. When she acquires her army of Unsullied and offers them their freedom, they choose to stay and serve her. When she conquers the Yellow City of Yunkai, the people hail her as “mother.” When she lays siege to Meereen, just her presence empowers the slaves there to rise up against their masters and open the gates of the city to her army.

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These are the best case scenarios for Dany. These are examples of the kinder, gentler Targaryen that she wants to be — the inspirational, aspirational, good Targaryen. She is determined not to repeat the tyrannical mistakes of the past. She wants to rule with love, not fear.

It doesn’t always go that way for her. And when it doesn’t — when the people she would rule don’t adore her — she tends to react fiercely.

Dany wields physical power in service of her destiny

“I am Daenerys Stormborn of the blood of Old Valyria, and I will take what is mine. With fire and blood, I will take it.”
– Daenerys Targaryen, season 2, episode 6

An early glimpse of her wrath comes when she arrives at Qarth in season 2. When she’s not welcomed inside, she vows, “When my dragons are grown, we will take back what was stolen from me and destroy those who have wronged me. We will lay waste to armies and burn cities to the ground. Turn us away, and we will burn you first.” Not exactly the words of a good houseguest, let alone a benevolent queen.

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She firmly believes in the power she will one day wield. She believes that she’s destined to possess it for dynastic reasons and because of her dragons. And she’s not afraid to threaten with the promise of fire if anyone stands opposed to her.

The young leader’s threats eventually become action, and burning people alive is something Dany does in every season of the show. Here are a few examples:

  • In season 1, Mirri Maz Duur — the maegi who pretended to treat Khal Drogo’s wounds, but was actually killing him — burns in Khal Drogo’s funeral pyre.
  • In season 2, Dany’s dragons burn Pyat Pree, the wizard from Qarth who tried to steal them and imprisoned Dany.
  • In season 3, she commands Drogon to burn Kraznys mo Nakloz, the former owner of the Unsullied army.
  • In season 4, Dany doesn’t directly order anyone burned alive. However, her dragons burn (and eat) a little girl, so we’re going to count it.
  • In season 5, Dany marches the leaders of Meereen’s noble houses in front of her dragons as punishment for the actions of the Sons of the Harpy. Only one of them gets burned (and eaten), but the threat remained.
  • In season 6, Dany burns down the temple in Vaes Dothrak, with all of the assembled khals inside.
  • In season 7, Dany executes Randyll and Dickon Tarly via Drogon for not bending the knee to her.
  • In season 8, Dany executes Varys, again via Drogon.

Many of the executions above seemed justifiable at the time. Kraznys was a slaver who castrated little boys and turned them into soldiers. The Sons of the Harpy tried to kill her. She wields enormous and terrifying power — weapons of mass destruction in the form of dragons — but she generally applies it against those we could objectively consider evil. She is, it appears, a force for good.

Other executions are harder to justify. Randyll and Dickon Tarly were defeated and had surrendered. They refused to kneel before Dany, not necessarily because they believed in Cersei, but just because they had already pledged themselves and didn’t want to change allegiances. Dany gave them an out, allowing them to claim that Cersei deceived them. But they didn’t kneel, and Dany killed them.

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This is the decision that Game of Thrones’ writers used to foreshadow Dany’s turn throughout season 8. It’s the archetype for every questionable decision she’s ever made, and in episode 1 they juxtapose it with Jon’s choice to bend the knee and renounce his kingship for the greater good.

“Daenerys,” Sam tells Jon, “she executed my father and brother. They were her prisoners. She didn’t tell you.”

What Dany did was awful but justifiable in Jon’s rationalization. It’s the old if you want to make an omelette, you’ve got to break a few eggs chestnut.

Dany might occasionally do terrible things, but they’re (arguably) justifiable. She may make mistakes from time to time, but her heart is generally in the right place.

And we weren’t wrong to see Dany in this way. She spent a lot of time trying to be better than her ancestors. The problem arose when she wielded her unimaginable power at a moment when her heart was in the wrong place. Great power necessitates great responsibility. In the heart of a good ruler, it’s fine. In the heart of a bad one … well, you know.

This is what she did back in Vaes Dothrak, too. The Dothraki khals told her she was just a khal’s widow. She disagreed.

“None of you are fit to lead the Dothraki. But I am. So I will,” she says.

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When they say they won’t serve her, she gets tough. “You’re not going to serve. You’re going to die,” she says, and burns down the temple with them inside. She walks out the undisputed leader of the Dothraki horde.

The gods flipped a coin for Dany that can — and does — fall either way. But it tends to come up good when the people love her, and bad when the people don’t. She’s repeatedly saying I have a destiny. I will park my ass on the Iron Throne. Here’s how it’s going to work: You’re going to bend the knee, or you’re going to die. I’d prefer if you loved me. I’ll accept that you fear me. A bent knee or your death.

Dany wields diplomatic power in service of her destiny

“I’d like to suggest an alternate approach.”
– Tyrion Lannister, season 6, episode 9

During the first six seasons, we see Dany go from unwilling pawn to powerful queen. She builds the army that her brother envisioned, is (generally) adored by her people, and makes the world a better place — by using force to take what she wants.

But Dany never forgot her birthright and her destiny — to return to Westeros, take back what was lost, and sit on the Iron Throne. She finally has the army to do it. When Yara Greyjoy and her Ironborn fleet arrive in Meereen, Dany has the means to transport her army across the Narrow Sea.

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She starts her conquest in her ancestral home of Dragonstone, which has been empty since Stannis Baratheon abandoned it. She’s back where she was born, but she’s not alone. She has Tyrion Lannister, her exceedingly clever Hand of the Queen. There’s Lord Varys, Master of Whisperers (and little birds) who only wants what’s best for the realm. She has allies in Dorne and the Iron Islands, and in Olenna Tyrell, the firebrand from Highgarden. And the ever-faithful trio of Ser Jorah, Missandei, and Grey Worm.

Across her (hero’s) journey, Dany has surrounded herself with better angels and a couple hawkish devils. They all serve to temper her crueler and more impulsive instincts.

Now that she’s in Westeros, Dany has a choice: Take King’s Landing by force right away, or bide her time and make some political moves first.

Everyone agrees that taking the Iron Throne by force would be successful, but Tyrion, in his role as Hand of the Queen, cautions that tens of thousands of innocent people would die when her three dragons were set loose on the city. That’s not the kind of queen she wants to be.

“Conquering Westeros would be easy for you,” says Tyrion. “But you’re not here to be queen of the ashes. We can take the Seven Kingdoms without turning it into a slaughterhouse. If the great Houses support your claim against Cersei, the game is won.”

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For now, she listens to Tyrion, sending the Unsullied instead to Casterly Rock and capturing the ancestral Lannister home, dealing a psychological blow first. Their plan works, but her forces fall into a trap laid by the Lannisters — which ultimately leads to Dany and Drogon’s brutal assault on the Lannister wagon train at the Battle of the Goldroad.

After she learns that her troops were ambushed, Dany’s furious at Tyrion.

“Enough with the clever plan,” she says, fuming. “I have three large dragons. I’m going to fly them to the Red Keep.”

In that moment of foreshadowing frustration, she has the presence of mind to seek council (something she refuses to do in season 8). On the shores of Dragonstone, she turns to Jon Snow, who she barely knows at that point, and asks what he’d do.

“I never thought that dragons would exist again. No one did,” Jon says. “The people who follow you know that you made something impossible happen. Maybe that helps them believe that you can make other impossible things happen. Build a world that’s different from the shit one they’ve always known. But if you use them to melt castles and burn cities, you’re not different. You’re just more of the same.”

Jon Snow’s not aligned with Cersei (making him a potential ally), and he’s the King in the North. For his part, Jon wants to ally himself with Dany because Dragonstone sits on top of a huge supply of dragonglass — a weapon he needs in the coming war against the dead.

And it’s because of that fight against the Night King and her growing feelings for Jon that Dany chooses for a second time to hold off on attacking King’s Landing. She agrees to take her armies and her dragons north to help Jon defeat the army of the dead, but she’s relentlessly insistent that Jon renounce his title of King of the North and pledge his (and the North’s) fealty to her.

At the time, this seemed good and altruistic. And it was. But it was also shrewd and political. Helping the North defeat the White Walkers may be the right thing to do, but it would earn her allies from a region that notoriously distrusted outsiders, particularly those from the south.

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As we all know, Jon, Dany, and the forces of the living are ultimately successful against the Night King. Almost immediately after the battle, though — the very next day while the bodies of the fallen are still smoldering — Dany gets impatient. She helped Jon, now it’s time he and the North helped her.

Dany’s two major decisions after arriving at Dragonstone — not turning the continent into a slaughterhouse and joining the fight against the army of the dead — are both good deeds. But they’re also political deeds. Both earn her goodwill among her soon-to-be subjects, and joining Jon gains her his (and the North’s) fealty.

Dany in King’s Landing, Dany in isolation

“A Targaryen alone in the world is a terrible thing.”
– Maester Aemon Targaryen of Castle Black, season 5, episode 5

Daenerys Targaryen was born into a harsh world on the night of a storm, and her mother died in childbirth. Robert Baratheon wanted her dead because of her last name and her potential claim to the throne. Her cruel brother died. Her Dothraki husband died. She assembled an army. She crossed the Narrow Sea with them, and made her way back to her birthplace. She took Casterly Rock. She vanquished the Army of the Dead.

Everything is finally in place.

Dany might be the Last Dragon. Dany might even have a cruel streak, as Varys suspects. But she has surrounded herself with good people who love her, and she’s poised to take back the Iron Throne and fulfill her destiny.

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Her Targaryen coin spins. Her destiny is cloudy. The game of thrones has other plans for those she loves the most.

Two of her three dragon children are dead. Her sworn protector, Ser Jorah Mormont, a man who loved her unconditionally and counseled her relentlessly, is dead. Missandei, her best friend, translator, and humanizing touchstone, is dead. Lord Varys, who worked behind the scenes since season 1 to return a Targaryen to the throne, has lost faith in her and now he’s dead. Her Hand, Tyrion Lannister, has done nothing but make mistakes and miscalculations since they got back to Westeros.

Even Jon Snow, a man she loves and who once loved her in return, has pulled away from her and betrayed her trust by telling his real lineage to his family. She knows that what was once a closely held secret will now be common knowledge, threatening her claim to the throne.

She’s no longer the Last Dragon. John has a better claim than she does. But worse than that, many love him more than they love her.

The game of thrones has stolen the love from her life. And again, love is what’s important to Dany. It’s what keeps her coin coming up good. In the absence of love, her Targaryen coin lands on the mad side.

“All right, then,” Dany tells Jon after he rebuffs her final attempt at romance. “Let it be fear.”

Dany burns King’s Landing

“Fire and blood.”
– House Targaryen words

There’s a moment in “The Bells” where Dany sits atop Drogon on the walls of King’s Landing. The Lannisters have surrendered. The gates are open. The war for the Iron Throne is over, and Dany has won.

Game of Thrones season 8 episode 5 - Daenerys on Drogon’s back looking toward the Red Keep HBO

Dany looks out over King’s Landing.

It’s the city where her family fell from power. It’s the city where her father died, and where usurpers have been sitting in her family’s throne for 20 years. It’s a city that’s full of people that didn’t welcome her with open arms.

“The people who live there, they’re not your enemies,” he said. “They’re innocents, like the ones you liberated in Meereen.”

“In Meereen, the slaves turned on the masters and liberated the city themselves the moment I arrived,” Dany said. “[Cersei] knows how to use her enemies’ weaknesses against them. That’s what she thinks our mercy is: weakness. But she’s wrong. Mercy is our strength. Our mercy towards future generations who will never again be held hostage by a tyrant.”

Dany is not concerned about the people living in King’s Landing today. Dany is concerned about the people who will one day live in King’s Landing under her rule. In her eyes, the people there aren’t innocent, they’re enemies.

Earlier in season 8, Sam asks Jon, “You gave up your crown to save your people. Would she do the same?”

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With her choice, Dany gives us her answer. Unfortunately, the answer is a definitive, resounding, smoldering ruin of a “no.”

In the only moment that ultimately matters — when the battle for King’s Landing was won, and she sat atop her dragon, perched on the walls of the capital city — Daenerys Targaryen makes her choice.

It’s a choice that costs the lives of thousands of innocent people. It’s a shocking choice. It’s a choice that hurts just to watch. But it’s a choice with precedent.

Analysis

If you ever want to read The Winds of Winter, pray for the New York Giants

Game of Thrones

George R.R. Martin says he only has another 500 pages to write on Winds of Winter

House of the Dragon

House of the Dragon’s first season shows how good it hurts when you see everything coming

View all stories in Game of Thrones

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