Game of Thrones has made an incredibly big deal out of how important Daenerys’ dragons, the last ones in existence, have been in Westeros, because of the unique advantage they’ve always afforded the Targaryen family. Over the course of the last two seasons, though, the show’s been trying to tell us something about the magical beasts that finally came to a head last night: on their own, and in small numbers, dragons really aren't that great.
It’s easy to understand why Game of Thrones’ dragons are sometimes thought of as being Westeros’ answer to nuclear weapons, considering the type of firepower they bring to the battlefield and the relative difficulty and danger involved with having them as part of one’s arsenal. They’re a rare resource with incredible potential for destruction in the right hands, and nearly every ruler in the seven kingdoms understands that having a dragon on their side puts them in a prime position to succeed in battle.
For a long time, Game of Thrones placed a cap on Daenerys’ dragon-related upper hand with the logic that they wouldn’t be at their best potential strength until they were fully grown, and for a time, that was enough to force the would-be queen to be more strategic with her plans for conquest. As the dragons matured, however, the show’s had to reckon with the fact that they represent a kind of strength that would make Daenerys almost too formidable in the final conflict for the Iron Throne, and gradually, Game of Thrones has been establishing that they aren’t anywhere near all-powerful as they were once made out to be.
There was a certain kind of narrative poetry and logic to the Night King felling Viserion with his spear and turning the dragon into a wight. Of course an ancient ice demon can singlehandedly kill a fire-breathing reptile – that’s just how magic works. On paper, it made for a lovely sort of rhyme within the larger context of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series and suggested that Daenerys and the rest of the living might have ultimately been taken down by something they once thought would have helped lead them to victory.
But magic and monsters have never really been the point of Game of Thrones, as evidenced by the way the Battle of Winterfell played out with Arya’s fatal blow against the Night King sealing the undead’s fate. The show is telling a story about the fallout from conflicts between the living (including their pet-children), and “The Last of the Starks” hammed that point home by showing us how easy it apparently is to kill a dragon with manmade technology.
Rhaegal getting got because his mother didn’t outfit him with armour.
One would think that someone, at some point, might have suggested that Daenerys outfit her dragons with a few pieces of armour in order to protect them from sharp projectiles (especially after what happened to Viserion), but apparently that never happened. Game of Thrones has never really got into the intricacies of dragon physiology but last season it became clear that Daenerys’ children aren’t indestructible, and could, in the right circumstances, be killed with relative ease.
“The Last of the Starks” showed us just how vulnerable the dragons are, which, while unfortunate for Daenerys, introduces an even more interesting dynamic to the show as a whole. While the Targaryen family might have been able to solidify their grip on power with the help of dragons back in the day, the key differences to bear in mind here are that at their height, Dany’s ancestors were in control of far more of the creatures and were much more familiar with dragon-based war strategies.
Daenerys’ dragons were strong, yes, but it’s difficult to argue that Dany’s ever been particularly good at deploying them in effective ways. The easiest explanation as to why would be that nobody’s seen dragons in decades, much less crafted war tactics involving them, and Dany’s really just been winging it. As many mistakes as Cersei’s made during her time as queen, one lesson she’s obviously learned and taken to heart is that dragons can die and that without an entire fleet of them at her disposal, Daenerys’ might is only a shadow of what the Targaryen name implies. All it took was a few well-aimed bolts from Cersei’s scorpions to completely obliterate Rhaegal, and even then, Daenerys didn’t seem to have much of a counter strategy aside from straight-up turning around and running away, letting Cersei know that she had her opponent on the ropes.
You can see Rhaegal’s death as the latest example of Daenerys getting in over her head as she gets closer to the Iron Throne and loses her grip on the power she’s been fighting to maintain, but it’s more interesting to look at it as a way of levelling the playing field and reminding us all that these characters are locked in a war that any of them could win.