Last week, possibly Game of Thrones’ most controversial episode saw Daenerys Targaryen make a dramatic heel turn from a strong liberator to a terrifying genocidal conqueror, and fans were left wondering what put Dany over the edge. While it had been made clear throughout the show that Daenerys had a penchant for violence, her actions always had tangible justification; she burned the slavers of Astapor in retaliation to their siege on Meereen, she burned the Dothraki Khal so as to make her escape, she crucified the nobles of Meereen as recompense for what they did to their slave children. Systematically burning the civilians of King’s Landing, in contrast, seemed pointlessly savage.
Part of what made this drastic turn so baffling was a lack of perspective. At no point during The Bells did the audience get Daenerys’ viewpoint, nor any inclination as to what made her snap at that moment as the bells tolled. Without any insight as to where Daenerys’ head is at, we had no way of sympathizing with her position, as we’ve had countless times before.
This week’s season finale, The Iron Throne, had the potential to give us that perspective. I had hoped, after the dust (and ashes) had settled, we would get to hear from the Mad Queen some reasoning behind her seemingly pointless violence, regardless of how insane or reasonable they were. Unsurprisingly, an opportunity for that insight was presented—and the writers completely missed it.
During his final confrontation with Daenerys in the obliterated hall of the Iron Throne, Jon demands an explanation for the children burned in the streets below them. “I tried to make peace with Cersei,” Dany says. "She used their innocence as a weapon against me. She thought it would cripple me.” Apparently, this was sufficient, because immediately after, Jon asks Dany what she plans to do with Tyrion.
It struck me as absolutely baffling that Jon would not press Daenerys here, for a number of reasons. Primarily, it is unclear how Cersei used the citizens of King’s Landing against Dany. It was made clear that Cersei was corralling civilians into the Red Keep, apparently creating a human shield to protect herself from Drogon’s blasts. But this just doesn’t explain why Daenerys felt the need to burn the entire city to the ground before attacking Cersei holed up in the Red Keep.
Daenerys’ first defensive statement also seemed blatantly contradictory: “I tried to make peace with Cersei.” It was plainly illustrated that the tolling of the bells was the signal for surrender; an open invitation for peace. Dany’s moment of maddened rage clearly came from that moment, when Cersei’s forces were making a final request for mercy. The idea that Dany would feign to Jon that her hands were tied in the leveling of King’s Landing seems more ludicrous than the massacre itself.
In this meager statement, Daenerys offered Jon (and via Jon, the audience) not an explanation or any semblance of a viewpoint, but rather a restatement of what everyone knew long before the attack. It’s not quite out of character for Jon to blubber through something as important as incentives for genocide just to get on to saving his friends, but it was unbelievable for Dany to completely dodge the question, and for the writers to completely avoid her perspective in this character’s most critical moment.
Much of Season 8 was spent on others discussing Daenerys and their concerns for what her conquest in Westeros meant. Sansa and Jon spoke about her plans for the north; Tyrion, Davos and Varys discussed a potential marriage proposal between Jon and Dany; Sam warned Jon of her dangerous nature—Dany was the talk of the town this season. We also got to see the Dragon Queen herself interacting with many of the show’s central characters, giving us important insight on how her feelings of isolation led her to conquer the seven kingdoms through fear and violence.
As the season progressed, however, those much needed personal moments were increasingly replaced with men deducing her intentions and her mental state in private. Before the destruction of King’s Landing, Tyrion and Varys discussed at length what they deduced Daenerys believed of herself. They were, of course, almost entirely correct, but it’s equally important to see Daenerys’ point of view as one of the show’s long-standing protagonists.
The Iron Throne took the last step in supplementing any moments of relating to Dany with conspiring men. After witnessing the wreckage of the city and the slaughtering of kneeling Lannister soldiers, Jon visits Tyrion’s holding cell, where he is imprisoned for treason. As they discuss the horrific events they’ve just witnessed, Tyrion reiterates Varys’ point.
“She believes her destiny is to build a better world for everyone. If you believed that…wouldn’t you kill whoever stood between you and paradise?"
Again, he’s most likely correct; based on what Daenerys says, it sounds like she feels justified by the certainty of her destiny. But when others speak for her, when we can only see how others see Daenerys, she ceases to be the heroine we followed for years. Instead, we see a merciless and unhinged villain, unperturbed by the horrors of her actions—horrors she fought against not so long ago.
From the beginning, we’ve watched Daenerys grow from a meek wife for Khal Drogo to a benevolent, yet powerful queen. We saw her suffering and fear. We saw her determination fuel her through multiple revolutions. And all the while, we knew her motives, why she wanted to rule, what she hoped to bring to her followers, because it was all communicated through her experiences, her interactions with other characters, and her actions.
This season, we were given less intimacy with Daenerys. In just a few short hours, we saw her benevolence and compassion disperse with no warning. There were, I’m sure, reasons for this dramatic shift. But this season of Game of Thrones left no room for us to meet Daenerys halfway. Instead, she was placed out of arm’s reach, resplendent in dragon’s wings and a crazed expression, leaving us abandoned and confused. The anti-heroine is a compelling arch to watch, but there has to be consistent intimacy for the audience to understand how our favorite character could fall so low. Otherwise, we cease to recognize them, and so we don’t care when they lose.