War is a hell that reveals darkness in our hearts. Hate plus power makes a heady cocktail that turns people into monsters. Atrocities are committed by hotheads convinced of their own righteousness, and someone somewhere is always shocked that their child could have participated in a massacre.
None of this is news to anyone with a passing interest in human history, but it is apparently something we all need to keep re-learning, over and over. The latest lesson has arrived in the form of Game of Thrones Season 8 episode 5, “The Bells.” Or, if we’re going to name it Friends-style, The One Where It Becomes Clear This Was Never A Game.
Too many of us (I include myself and my power rankings in this) have treated Game of Thrones like it was the Super Bowl. We sit there with our popcorn and weigh the odds of a character ending up on the Iron Throne like we’re discussing stats, or hyping our favorite player. All this despite — or perhaps as a distraction from — all that garishly simulated screen violence.
Dany’s horrific turn was baked into the character from the beginning, no matter how much we loved her.
In its worst moments, Thrones has fed this sports fan mentality. In recent seasons especially, it threatened to become merely a story about teenage superheroes with revenge fantasies, instead of what George R.R. Martin intended — a mirror that reflects the awful truths of our own history back at us.
The greatest problem in this regard was Daenerys Targaryen. She has become a powerful icon in the geek community and beyond, beloved by cosplayers, practically a Disney princess. She filled a gap in the culture: We were crying out, and still are, for more portrayals of strong female leadership. Her blend of fragility and steely charisma — portrayed to perfection by Emilia Clarke — won as many hearts and minds in our world as she failed to win in Westeros.
So much so that for years, it was hard to remember what she really is, and what she has always been in this story, worldwide fandom or no.
The debate about whether Dany’s massacre of King’s Landing was sufficiently foreshadowed has been raging online since the episode aired, so I’m not going to rehash it here. This video does a pretty good job of collecting eight seasons’ worth of receipts:
Sure, the showrunners could have given us a longer look at her inner turmoil. By killing off most of her main advisors, they painted themselves into a corner. Anyone she could have had that dialogue with was gone. Maybe she could have had a longer chat with Tyrion or Grey Worm. Regardless, it was still very clear that Dany was hungry, angry, lonely, and tired. As any addict or codependent knows, that state of mind portends the worst.
Teens with nukes
Look at it from another angle. Let’s say you’re writing a story about a teenager. He’s the ultimate scion of privilege: white skin, blond hair, blue eyes. His family celebrates inbreeding the way the Hapsburg monarchs did, so he’s probably not the sharpest knife in the drawer. The family has fallen on hard times, and the teenager is constantly told he needs to take back control. He develops a penchant for revenge. All of a sudden, the teenager is gifted three magically reusable nuclear warheads.
In what universe does that story end well?
If your ending failed to fully explore the unintended consequences of using nuclear war to crush your enemies — and as Martin has often said, dragons are the fantasy-world equivalent of nuclear power — your readers would very likely laugh you out of the room. You would have committed the classic novice writer sin of being nice to your lead character at the expense of the story.
We wanted Dany to win. We wanted Cersei to die. How does it feel to have everything you wished for?
Introduce a nuke in the first act, as Chekov might have said, and it has to go off in the last. Write a story about war, and you have to show the true horror of war — the way plans go awry, the way the killing spirals far out of anyone’s control.
Strategy never survives contact with the enemy — and in any case, as we saw at the battle of Winterfell, Dany’s strategy has never consisted of much more than the terrible “take my dragons out for a ride and burn stuff” tactic. (To be fair, Jon Snow’s patented “just charge at the enemy” tactic has fared even worse.)
It is part of this story’s profound success that it suckered us into supporting and excusing Dany at every bloody step on her road to tyranny. She watched, unflinching, as her husband killed her brother with a cauldron of molten gold, then merely declared that “he was no dragon”? That’s okay, he was an abusive asshole. She locked Xaro Xhoan Daxos and his retinue in a Qarth vault to suffocate and starve to death? Well, he shouldn’t have participated in a plot to steal her dragons. She literally crucified former slaveowners, becoming no better herself? She burned a hut full of Dothraki leaders? They deserved it! They all deserved it!
And then there was the burning of the Tarlys, one of the least noticed but most telling moments of season 7. I’ve seen otherwise reasonable people defend Dany for killing Samwell’s father and brother in this grisly manner with arguments that don’t withstand a second of scrutiny. They were enemy combatants! (Nope, they had surrendered; in our world, that would be a clear-cut war crime.) They refused to recognize her authority! (Okay, imprison them.) They were mean to Samwell! (So we’re burning people alive for being mean now?)
All along, Dany has been telling us who she really was, and we should have believed her the first time. “I’m going to break the wheel,” she said, and we thought she meant the metaphorical wheel that keeps the downtrodden down. What she actually meant was the metaphorical wheel that kept her family off the throne. She might as well have yelled “Targaryens forever!”
There were voices in the wilderness. There were viewers who noticed the problematic “white savior” narrative that had developed by the end of Season 3, when Dany was literally crowd-surfing over freed slaves. Other viewers waved that away. Now we have good reason to reexamine it, and to be more wary of white savior characters in the future.
We also have an excellent reason to reconsider the nature of war, violence and power. For the better part of eight years, we have been cheering for death and destruction. We wanted more dragon action. We wanted King’s Landing to fall. We wanted Dany to win. We wanted Lannister soldiers to burn. We wanted Cersei to die. How does it feel to have everything you wished for?
The path of nonviolence is celebrated precisely because of how hard it is. It goes against human nature. In our hearts, we want our enemies to suffer for what they did. Time and again, we confuse punishment with justice, and perpetuate the cycle.
If your enemy executes your best friend in front of your face, and your best friend’s last words are an instruction to burn it all to the ground, even a saint would be tempted to pick up the flamethrower. To suggest that Dany would react differently is to place her on a pedestal. It isn’t feminist, it’s condescending — especially considering her history.
Dany is a breaker of chains; Dany is a monster. Dany is impossibly elitist; Dany is all of us. All of these things can be true. When we truly understand that, we understand ourselves — and why our history has been one long heartbreaking song of oppression and revenge.