Daenerys Targaryen: A Different Type of Tragedy in Game of Thrones
After building it’s reputation as a show full of tragedies and shocking twists, the final season of Game of Thrones presented us with final tragedy— the tragedy of Daenerys Targaryen
Game of Thrones was always known as a show filled with tragedies. The Red Wedding, Hold the door, Ned’s death and so on, made this show iconic and unique and people loved those scenes. They built Game of Throne’s reputation as a show where anything can happen and even major characters can die. Game of Thrones stayed true to itself, saving the biggest tragedy for the very end — Daenerys’ downfall.
Looking a few seasons back, Robb’s death was indeed shocking and tragic, an event that surely reshaped the television landscape for many shows to come. But the power of the Red Wedding doesn’t necessarily come from the mere shock of it, but it comes from the fact that it completely changed the nature of this tale. During the first 3 seasons, fans thought that The Lannister-Stark War will be in the center of the story, the spine that will hold everything together. And, suddenly Robb was dead. Wait, what this means? The main conflict is over?
But there is a fundamental difference between Daenerys’ death and Robb Stark’s. Robb was a good guy who was killed by bad guys. It’s the oldest tragedy in the book. The nature of Daenerys’ ending, on the other hand, is completely different. Here you have a character you loved and supported do something bad, something horrible — and then die. Without any redemption afterwards.
With the Red Wedding and Ned’s death, the cynical worldview that so many people have in general, and not specifically related to Game of Thrones, is confirmed and validated. Good people will always loose. It’s those dishonorable, evil and corrupt that will always win, because that’s what real world is. In real world good people like Ned, Robb and Cat are crushed by the wheel, by evil system.
And we are all victims in this broken world.
But Dany’s end put the audience in the role of the accomplice. It tells us that maybe this world is broken, but we are not just naive and good hearted bystanders, we are those who made this world broken, by ignoring flaws in the leaders we follow, by blindly supporting those who maybe don’t always deserve that support. Because we make excuses for bad acts when it’s convenient.
Ned’s death is a tragedy that supports the comforting idea that evil people are responsible for evil things in this world, not us. The burning of King’s Landing and Daenerys’ downfall are a tragedy where we as the audience were responsible. Kit Harington (Jon Snow) said in a post-season 8 interview — “So, we have to say to the audience: ‘You’re in denial about this woman as well. You knew something was wrong. You’re culpable, you cheered her on.’”
Peter Dinklage (Tyrion Lannister) also weighed in on the subject, by saying “This happens. Monsters are created. And you don’t see it coming. You look the other way. So for everybody to get upset because they loved a character so much and they had so much faith in that person — there were signposts all along the way for that character.”
When it comes to Daenerys, the show always provided balance between two sides of her persona. She was fighting against slavery, which is something everyone can support, but the ways in which she did it weren’t always that justifiable. A good example can be the execution of the 163 Masters in Meereen back in season 4.
You could make a convincing argument, that the masters were worthy of death. In that case, it appears Daenerys was right to kill them. Except why not kill all of them? By choosing to kill only some, she then allows them to stay entrenched in some of the power parts of the Meereenese society. If it isn’t just OK to kill someone for being a Master, then surely proportionality for their crimes must be handed out. But Dany doesn’t do this — she randomly kills 163 masters, including those who opposed the crucifixion of the children. We know for example that one of those who died, Hizdahr Zo-Loraq’s father, spoke against killings of slave children. Ironically, with this random revolutionary justice- Daenerys probably spared many of the cruelest slavers that went unpunished. Because there were no trials. It was a show of power, more than anything. One of the earliest times Daenerys chose fear as a motivator for her subjects.
One of Dany’s closest advisors Jorah Mormont, was a former slaver in a society where that was forbidden — and yet he got a chance to be pardoned for his past crimes. Why not give the same chance to former slavers in Meereen, those who were born in that society and never get to choose? Why not, at least give them a fair trial before doing something so extreme?
Jorah Mormont: “They treat men like beasts, as you said yourself. Herding the masters into pens and slaughtering them by the thousands is also treating men like beasts. The slaves you freed, brutality is all they’ve ever known. If you want them to know something else, you’ll have to show it to them. It’s tempting to see your enemies as evil, all of them, but there’s good and evil on both sides in every war ever fought.”
Contradictions in Dany’s judgment continue even further during her rule in Meereen. In Season 5, she declares that even members of the terrorist group Sons of the Harpy deserve a fair trial. She even kills a former slave for preventing that trial from happening. And yet, once Barristan Selmy dies and she is filled with rage she says, right after she burns a man alive- “Who is innocent? Maybe all of you are, maybe none of you are. Maybe, I should let the dragons decide”. Again, no trial. And all of them were innocent, because we saw in Season 6 that Sons of the Harpy were supported by those outside Meereen, and not the former slavers. Yet at the time, most of us indeed just looked the other way and justified Daenerys’ extreme measures in her try to make a better society in Meereen. It was just below our noses, yet we couldn’t see it.
Another evidence of this arbitrary judgement in how she explains her morality to Hizdahr-Zo-Loraq in Season 5.
Daenerys Targaryen: One day your great city will return to the dirt as well.
Hizdahr zo Loraq: At your command?
Daenerys Targaryen: If need be.
Hizdahr zo Loraq: And how many people will die to make this happen?
Daenerys Targaryen: If it comes to that, they will have died for a good reason.
Hizdahr zo Loraq: Those men think they’re dying for a good reason.
Daenerys Targaryen: Someone else’s reason.
Hizdahr zo Loraq: So your reasons are true and theirs are false? They don’t know their own minds but you do?
Daenerys does not answer here. She will give her answer, however, much later in a scene with Jon Snow, at the very end of the show. She said that she will make a good world, because she knows what is good. And the others? “They don’t get to choose”. The key point is that her arbitrary judgement allows her to completely decide on a group being good or evil without appropriate justification, and perhaps even decide they are worthy of death without said justification.
That’s why people of King’s Landing does not deserve mercy any more. Mercy is for future generations, those who will love her and understand the better world she made for them. It’s interesting how differently she sees people of Meereen and King’s Landing.
Tyrion Lannister: The people who live there, they’re not your enemies. They’re innocents, like the ones you liberated in Meereen!
Daenerys Targaryen: In Meereen, the slaves turned on the Masters and liberated the city themselves the moment I arrived.
Tyrion Lannister: They’re afraid! Anyone who resists Cersei will see his family butchered! You can’t expect them to be heroes. They’re hostages.
Daenerys Targaryen: They are. In a tyrant’s grip. Whose fault is that? Mine?
Tyrion Lannister: What does it matter whose fault it is?! Thousands of children will die if the city burns!
Daenerys Targaryen: Your sister 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.
The central tension within Dany has always been between her instinct and her better judgement. Her instinct is to act swiftly and without mercy against those who question her authority and those who betray her. The more tempered and reasoned alternative often comes from her advisors who remind her that it is in her own best interest to stay her hand and try to build bridges, even with her enemies.
It seems that often we don’t consider what could have been if circumstances were different. Daenerys didn’t burn an entire already defeated army in Season 7 only because they were so afraid after she burned Tarlys that they knelt. She did’t however necessarily had to burn the Tarlys in the first place. At least not both of them. She didn’t burn the Red Keep, with thousands of innocents in it, in Season 7 because Jon convinced her otherwise. She didn’t attack King’s Landing with dragons the moment she came to Westeros because Tyrion convinced her not to do that. She didn’t burn Astapor, Yunkai and Volantis at the end of Season 6 because Tyrion convinced her not to do it. She didn’t organize massacre in Astapor and Yunkai in Season 4 because Jorah convinced her not to do it. And so on.
But the fact that she was really close to doing these horrible things and she was stopped right before she did it, meant that it was just a matter of time, and right circumstances, until she actually does it. Among the subtleties in Peter Dinklage’s brilliant performance you can see how his character is endlessly conflicted- he wants to convince himself she is the best queen for everyone, yet he does sense the sudden cruelties in her. He always described his job as “checking her worst impulses”- and it definitely worked — for a while. Until it didn’t anymore. Add to that all the emotional trauma she has been through - and this is what we got at the end.
So we arrive to a central question- why show-runners Benioff and Weiss decided to stop her just before she does all these horrible things? Why not have her burn Astapor and Yunkai at the end of Season 6 as she wanted. It would be obvious to everyone what she is capable of doing, we will all know, two seasons before the destruction of King’s Landing.
Well, that was the point. It’s exactly the difference between a good story and a great one. It is pretty certain that they actively wanted people to support Dany and then be shocked by her downfall, without realising they are actually implicit.
They never wanted it to be obvious. If they did it would completely undermine their main point — demonstrating the danger of populism and revolutionary rhetoric/power through making the audience make the same mistakes as the characters. It’s an absolutely ballsy and groundbreaking move. That doesn’t mean there can’t be a discussion over whether it made sense- but it’s a lot harder to ask. Nonetheless, if you do pick apart the story, look for the clues, there is an absolute enormity of evidence for Daenerys’ character downfall— her messianic complex, her ego and entitlement, being reined in by her advisers constantly, her convenient and loosely defined morals, her emotional instability — that its hard to say it wasn’t justified.
Miguel Sapochnik, the director of the penultimate episode of the show where Daenerys lays waste to King’s Landing, further described what they tried to achieve while creating those scenes:
“The destruction of Kingʼs Landing, for me, has always been an audience participation event. You wanted this, you wanted this, you wanted this. Here. Is that really what you wanted?” Miguel said. “I felt like there was this thing of this bloodthirstiness that exists in the fans, for revenge, for this payback that is personified by Dany. I just wanted to get to the core of what that actually means.”
In the political philosophy, there is an eternal dilemma- ruling through love or fear? Daenerys knows her answer at the end — “Let it be fear.”, she said to Jon Snow, when it became clear that their relationship is ruined, when she lost two of her dragons, half of her army, when she lost Jorah and Missandei. When she knew that Varys betrayed her, Tyrion failed her, Sansa and Cersei worked against her, the entire foundation of her identity was destroyed. She was not the last Targaryen, she was not the hair to the Iron Throne. And it was all for nothing. The pain, the sacrifice was in vain. People in Westeros showed her respect when they cheered for her after the Battle of Winterfell — respect, but not the love she thought she deserves, the admiration she got in the east. They cheered much louder for Arya Stark, the Hero of Winterfell, for Jon Snow, “mad man or a king”.
She realized that bonds of those born in Westeros are much stronger than anything she can hope to accomplish. That becomes clear as she watches Sansa and Theon embrace. Theon respected his Queen Daenerys, but his love was with Sansa Stark.
“A Targaryen alone in the world is a terrible thing”, said Maester Aemon. We didn’t know how true these words will be.
Dany was shaped in Essos when she fought against slavery. And slavery is evil. It makes sense that she will have black and white perspective of the world. But Westeros is far more complicated. She came as a saviour in a land that didn’t need saviours, land tired of war and misery. Land that didn’t love her. Ruling through fear is something Dany flirted with in the past. It’s important to note though, that Daenerys’ choice to burn these innocent people after the city surrendered wasn’t remotely a calculated strategy. It was a sudden impulse that boiled up as her world came crumbling around here- founded on her already violent hidden nature and and tendency of inflicting fear upon her subjects to achieve her goals.
Tyrion Lannister: Yes, you’ll need to be ruthless if you’re going to win the throne. You need to inspire a degree of fear, but fear is all Cersei has.
Daenerys Targaryen: Aegon Targaryen got quite a long way on fear.
Tyrion Lannister: He did. But you once spoke to me about breaking the wheel. Aegon built the wheel. If that’s the kind of Queen you want to be, how are you different from all the other tyrants that came before you?
Again, no answer from Daenerys.
With Daenerys the show plays with our perspective. We meet her as an underdog, as rape victim, abused by her husband and brother, it makes sense that we will root for her. But Daenerys soon stops being an underdog and we continued to treat her as one. In Season 3 she already has a large army, in Season 4 she already had a kingdom. And yet in the eyes of the audience she is still that little girl that we met in the first episode.
The story forces us to completely buy into Dany’s narrative, without seeing her flaws, her mistakes, her God complex, and without realizing the biggest irony of all. That her war in Westeros was completely unnecessary, she wasn’t like Sansa or Jon in Season 6, in danger of Ramsay Bolton. She was safe, powerful, she had her armies, dragons, her kingdom, a better world she made. But it wasn’t enough. She wanted the Iron Throne. “Perhaps try wanting something else”, said Tyrion, the day he met her. Before he was also seduced by the myth of Mother of Dragons. All this makes Daenerys’ story throughout the show not only a compelling one, but in my opinion truly a work of literary art, an elaborate manoeuvre taking place throughout the show’s entire run- all came together in the mind of George R. R. Martin decades ago, and executed brilliantly by the writers of the show to fit the TV medium.
When Emilia Clarke (Daenerys Targaryen) was asked if she wanted it to end more triumphantly for Daenerys she said: “I’m not sure it could. Even for a part that I’ve given so much to and I’ve felt so much for, and for a character that’s seen and lived through so much, I don’t know that there was any other way”. It was embedded in her personality long ago, ever since the beginning. We just preferred to look the other way, and wait to cheer for the next “Dracarys!”.