How Game of Thrones Failed Daenerys Targaryen

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In the finale of Game of Thrones‘ premiere season, “Fire and Blood,” Daenerys Targaryen stands before the khalasar in Lhazar, a lit pyre framing her with red flame from behind. She speaks to them with a confidence larger than her slight frame; she is full of anger, she has recently miscarried, her husband Khal Drogo is dead by her own hand. Her body is sweaty from grief, but her words echo like thunder through the night.

“I AM DAENERYS STORMBORN OF HOUSE TARGARYEN OF THE BLOOD OF OLD VALYRIA. I AM THE DRAGON’S DAUGHTER. AND I SWEAR TO YOU, THOSE WHO’D HARM YOU WILL DIE SCREAMING.”

This quote has been passed around this week, in the aftermath of the show’s most recent episode—the series’ penultimate, “The Bells”—as “proof” that Daenerys has always been hungry for vengeance, quick to kill, and prone to madness. Out of context, the quote may sound alarming. But seen in full, it’s powerful and liberating. It comes after Daenerys offers freedom to any who seek it. And it comes with a qualifier: She will only kill “those who’d harm you.” Meaning slavers, rapists, pillagers.

This is the Daenerys Targaryen we have always known; an orphaned girl turned abused woman, whose kind heart always swayed her from her inherited mental illness, and from the trauma that threatened to swallow her whole. She’s imperfect, she’s too idealistic, and her focus on legacy has allowed for much failure. But she was never a monster. And she was never “mad.”

That’s why her turn in the “The Bells” has been such a hard pill to swallow. Because she had secured, through her battle prowess, the crown that she spent eight seasons seeking. She won the battle against Cersei. She proved that with the aid of her advisers and the assistance of her dragons she was capable of what the realm had, to that point, denied her. But instead of steering Drogon to the Red Keep and assassinating Cersei, she did the unthinkable: She targeted the citizens of King’s Landing, deciding to “rule with fear” instead of honor. These are the same innocent people that, two episodes before, she risked her fleet and dragons to protect in Winterfell.

In the after-the-episode segment, actress Emilia Clarke explained that it was a rash decision made in the name of “grief.” Grief over the loss of Jorah, Missandei, and her dragon Rhaegal, and grief over her lover Jon and her hand Tyrion’s lost faith in their queen.

But how on earth does that track with what we know of Daenerys? How do we reconcile the woman who two seasons ago locked her dragons in a tomb for burning a child, with the person who would ruthlessly destroy a city of innocent children after winning the only thing she ever cared about? There is a world where Daenerys going rogue makes sense, but this isn’t it. This was an irresponsible, irrevocable undoing of an arc that enthralled and empowered a generation. And it sends a dangerous message: That women who seek power will piss it away the second their emotions kick in. The show might as well as have told us Dany was on her period.

One default answer for Dany’s turn is that her father’s madness—which was referenced in the “previously on” segment of “The Bells”—is coming through in this moment of emotional vulnerability. “Every time a Targaryen is born, the Gods flip a coin,” the show tells us. But what does this mean? The show—and, ostensibly, the books—has always had a flimsy understanding of “madness.” Is Dany a psychopath? A sociopath? There’s no indication of that; her empathy for slaves and innocents, until this point, precludes her from those distinctions.

Is she depressed, does she suffer from PTSD, is she bipolar? Those are all modern ways of categorizing mental illness, but they could help us understand her mindset here. And yet, there’s no way of knowing the specific thing ailing her, because the show fails to orient us in her headspace. Is she triggered by something specifically? Is this really her way of processing grief, which she’s suffered greatly in the past without a similar reaction? A little insight would go a long way. Instead, her “madness” serves only one purpose: to punish her ambition.

“I AM NOT HERE TO BE QUEEN OF THE ASHES.”

And she will be punished. There’s no way Daenerys Stormborn, breaker of chains, survives the story now. That could be a tragic ending if the show had found an in-road to her psyche. Or if she hadn’t, for seasons now, displayed an eagerness to improve. Her descent could be chaotic if chaos was ever part of her philosophy. But even at her most tumultuous, past Dany always had a plan. She was trigger-happy in words only, never action.

Recall, for a moment, her burning of the khalasar in season six, when she liberated the widowed women from their grieving huts. Vulnerable and alone, her advisers and her dragons far from her grip, she channeled her fiery energy into a revolution. She has never needed the reassurance of others to be strong. So why is it her breaking point? Why, in this moment, as the story is about to end before we can ever contend with the carnage her emotions conjured?

Dany’s journey has always been a mix of highs and lows. She once rode atop a wave of brown bodies, their white savior; an image that was, at the time, played for victory, but left a haunting mark on her legacy. And she has ruled with fire and blood in the past, but never indiscriminately. She burned the Tarlys, but only after she gave them the option to bend the knee.

It was a harsh punishment, but in this world of broken honor, no different than Jon hanging Olly or Robb beheading Rickard Karstark. She was never more exactingly cruel than Arya, who killed for money and sport in the House of the Undying. Even Ned Stark executed boys for the sake of an agreement made on the basis of fantasy.

But those actions didn’t drive their perpetrators to annihilation. And Dany’s didn’t need to, either. The show made a decision, likely based on the blueprints of George R.R. Martin’s unfinished story, but it laid the bricks haphazardly. It’s dangerous, what’s been done to Dany. Because it hinges her carefully deployed conquest on the unpredictability of feminine desire. That’s what feels more out of nowhere than her fiery inclinations: The presentation of Dany as not only prone to her worst impulses, but careless in her actions. That’s not the Daenerys who stood before the khalasar and pledged her life to the common folk. That’s not the breaker of chains. If this is what the male-only creators think passes for earned female villainy, one has to wonder the intentions of telling this story in the first place.

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