When you follow a story for a long period of time, it can be difficult to separate expectations from reality. Game of Thrones is a story with over twenty years of buildup if the books are taken into consideration, and almost a decade of buildup for the fans who only watched the show. With so many characters and storylines that fell by the wayside, there was no way for the showrunners to deliver a conclusion that would satisfy all or most of the audience.
A perfect ending was impossible. A strong ending was still within reach if the showrunners stayed true to the characters and followed the rules established in the fictional world. Going into the last season of Game of Thrones, I prepared myself for the probability of a conclusion that would honor the story it had followed, regardless of whether or not it was my preferred ending.
Instead, we got a penultimate episode that destroyed years’ worth of credibility and made me nostalgic for the How I Met Your Mother finale, all because the showrunners forced an unearned heel turn for one of the show’s most beloved characters.
Daenerys Targaryen is a messianic leader with delusions of grandeur who feels entitled to the Iron Throne because of her family’s legacy. Thanks to the stories she’s heard from Viserys in her childhood, she expects Westeros to roll out the welcome carpet the second she arrives at King’s Landing. She’s ruthless, does not forgive easily, and calls on her dragons to burn her enemies to a crisp when they betray her. She doesn’t blink when Drogo puts a crown of molten gold on her brother’s head, doesn’t flinch when she locks Xaro Xhoan Daxos and Doreah in a vault to starve to death, and serves swift justice to the slaveowners in the cities of Essos. Her advisers often have to talk her out of administering brutal punishment.
Daenerys is also a principled leader who abhors and abolishes slavery in a world where many people, including her closest advisers, see it as a necessary evil. When merchants nail their slaves to crosses, taunting her with their dead bodies, she forces herself to look into the face of every human sacrificed on her behalf so she never forgets them. She makes the Ironborn promise to end their pillaging and raping before she accepts them as allies. Her tendencies lean towards brutal punishment, but she often listens to her advisers and moderates her decisions based on their guidance.
“Every time a Targaryen is born, the gods toss the coin into the air and the world holds its breath,” goes the old saying in the Seven Kingdoms. Targaryens are either gentle and kind (Rhaegar) or cruel and insane (Aerys). Daenerys was compelling because she didn’t fall neatly into either category. Her capacity for cruelty and kindness, for selfishness and selflessness, were equal. She gave into her destructive tendencies as often as she pulled back from them.
The most recent episode, “The Bells,” made the final decision on Daenerys’s coin toss. She was another evil Targaryen, the Mad Queen father’s daughter that Tyrion and Varys had learned to fear. She abandoned her principles and murdered thousands of innocent citizens even after receiving an unconditional surrender from the city she invaded, brought to the brink of insanity after losing several loved ones in a very short period of time.
On some level, this action makes sense. George R.R. Martin has made it clear that he’s no monarchist, and the books support his thesis that there’s no such thing as a “good” ruler. Anyone who wants the power of an uncontested monarch will eventually be corrupted by that power even if their original intentions were as pure as snow, especially if they prioritize their personal ambitions over the common good, or have lost their closest ties to humanity in the people they loved most.
The glaring flaw in Daenerys’s arc is that she lost the people she loved because she temporarily put her personal ambitions on hold for the common good.
Dany, like most other characters on the show, was a
climate change White Walker skeptic in the seventh season. She wasn’t willing to sacrifice any of her people or resources to fight a problem she didn’t believe existed. Even when she started to understand that the White Walkers posed a real threat, she refused to help until Jon Snow bent the knee.
This changed when Jon traveled to fight the White Walkers (in a very ill-conceived plan that only worked because the writers said it had to). When she realized the true threat of the danger, she took her dragons and rode to save Jon and the other fighters in his mission.
In the process, she lost a dragon. Her heart was broken; her dragons were the children she would never have. Despite her grief, she changed her plans, decided to postpone her fight with Cersei, and instead teamed up with Jon to fight the common enemy in the White Walkers.
This led to a chain of events where the White Walkers were defeated, but Daenerys lost a second dragon, her closest adviser Jorah Mormont, and her closest friend Missandei, none of which would have happened if she had stuck to her original plan of fighting Cersei directly.
In short, Daenerys was punished and turned into a villain because she did what heroes do – temporarily prioritized the greater good before her own ambitions. If she had ignored Jon and flown directly to King’s Landing with all three dragons, she could have roasted Cersei to a crisp without touching the common people, and then flown back in time to help in the Battle of Winterfell.
After all, time and continuity don’t follow the many rules in Game of Thrones. Trips that once took months take five minutes, dragons are foiled by a scorpion bow in one episode and indestructible in the next, and the White Walkers are the most existential threat to all humankind but can be wiped out completely with one well-timed stab from Arya Stark.
And Daenerys can roast innocent people after losing her loved ones, even though she lost her loved ones by trying to help innocent people.
Some fans think this criticism is unfair and like to quote Ramsay Bolton: “If you think this has a happy ending, you haven’t been paying attention.” But most fans upset with this direction weren’t expecting a happily ever after. We only wanted the story to make sense.
There was enough groundwork in A Song of Ice and Fire to eventually turn Daenerys into a tyrant if that’s the story George R.R. Martin wanted to tell. I could see Daenerys ascend the Iron Throne with the intention of being a fair and wise ruler, only to eventually become corrupted with power and turn into the same tyrant she had always criticized. Heck, I would have welcomed an even more pessimistic ending where the White Walkers won and destroyed all life on the planet as a chilling message about human pettiness and arrogance.
Instead, we got a conclusion for Daenerys that seems like a culmination of mixed messages. It was wrong of her to use Mirri Maz Duur to cheat Drogo’s death and save his life (even though it was okay for the Night’s Watch to resurrect Jon Snow). It was wrong of her to roast the Tarlys (because Tyrion and Varys are shocked, SHOCKED, that the dragon queen they chose to follow would…use her dragons). It was wrong of her to distrust Tyrion (even though Tyrion proved himself untrustworthy many times).
Come to think of it, the dragon queen’s arc is perfect in its way. Crushed under impossible-to-reach standards, doomed no matter what choice she makes, is a perfect metaphor for being a woman with power in this world.