If you thought that turn on Game of Thrones felt surprising, or like it came out of nowhere... you haven’t been paying attention.
In the latest episode, “The Bells,” Daenerys Targaryen did the seemingly unthinkable: After Cersei Lannister officially surrendered King’s Landing, Daenerys chose to burn it anyway, killing thousands of people and turning the city to ash.
This felt like a shocking move from the woman who’d spent her life ending slavery, gaining support, and working toward the Iron Throne. For years, we’ve been trained to see Daenerys as a hero. But what if she’s nothing more than a conqueror who’d run out of cards to play?
She may have had seemingly good intentions, at least at first, and one could argue that a character’s supposed “end game” shouldn’t define them. It’s why I believe Cleganebowl shouldn’t have happened, and why I’m glad Arya chose life over her list. But Dany’s had many opportunities to circumvent her father’s “Mad King” fate, and she’s failed many of them. To justify her getting the Iron Throne she thinks she deserves, we have had to excuse lots of horrible behavior from her. Not only does it show that Daenerys wasn’t the leader we thought she’d be, it also points a finger at us, the audience, for what behavior we were willing to accept – and against whom – before it finally crossed a line.
“I am Daenerys Stormborn of House Targaryen, of the blood of Old Valyria. I am the Dragon’s Daughter, and I swear to you that those who would harm you will die screaming.” – Season One: “Fire and Blood”
From the beginning, Daenerys has been focused on getting what’s “hers.” She grew up being told of her family’s great legacy. She was the last of the Targaryens, destined to return from exile and take back the Seven Kingdoms. Well, technically it was her brother Viserys Targaryen’s destiny, until Khal Drogo killed him for his insolence. And even though he was technically the rightful heir to the Iron Throne – at least at the time – Daenerys Targaryen was totally fine with Drogo killing him, as she saw him unworthy of the destiny she was now bestowing on herself.
Since then, Daenerys has brutally killed just about anyone who’s stood in her way. The witch who was kidnapped by the Dothraki, and cursed Dany’s baby for revenge? Burned alive. Xaro Xhoan Daxos, the guy who staged a coup against Qarth’s leadership and stole her dragons? Locked inside a vault to slowly suffocate. She ordered the Unsullied to massacre every slave master and noble in Astapor before she freed them. Upon learning that the masters of Meereen had put 163 slaves on racks as punishment, Daenerys did it to 163 of them. We might think these people deserved their fate, because they were bad, but it doesn’t change the fact that Daenerys has done cruel and terrible things to her enemies.
The only thing that has ever kept Daenerys from acting on all her worst impulses were the people around her. For example, in season five a Harpy’s Son was taken into custody for killing an Unsullied. Dany’s first instinct was to butcher him, but Ser Barristan Selmy convinced her to give him a fair trial. He had served under her father and sensed she was following a similar path.
“The Mad King gave his enemies the justice he thought they deserved, and each time it made him feel powerful and right,” he told her. But then, Mossador, one of Dany’s supporters, murdered the Harpy’s Son anyway, claiming he was following her “example.” She put him on trial and sentenced him to death, which caused a riot, because Daenerys hadn’t bothered to make consistent laws for her people and justice was based solely on her discretion.
She learned a lesson that day: Leading is hard and true justice is harder – especially when absolute rule is so much simpler. This is why she killed the Tarlys without a trial in season seven, and Varys in this latest episode. It was easy. While her justice may have been swift, their deaths certainly weren’t. Daenerys burned them alive. Come to think of it: Daenerys has never once solved a major problem without the use of fire. She burned the slave master to take control of the Unsullied. She overthrew the khals by roasting them alive. Then, after that failed attempt to actually rule Meereen for an entire season, her solution was to burn every supposed enemy in sight – unintended casualties be damned – claim victory, and peace out. What did she leave behind? For all we know, absolute chaos.
There’s a reason we all hated the Meereen storyline in season five. Not only was it boring, but we were all forced to watch Daenerys fail at the one thing we needed her to be good at. She knew how to invade a city and inspire a revolution, but she was a terrible ruler. She ransacked Astapor, only to see it overthrown by a butcher named Cleon. She raided Yunkai, but had to send the Second Sons back after the slave masters reclaimed it. And she failed to come up with a long-term solution for Meereen. She was constantly fighting off coups, and her so-called “social services” had become a free-for-all where the strong preyed on the weak. At one point, a freed man even came to her begging to become a slave again, as anything was better than the “brave new world” Daenerys had failed to give him.
“I will crucify the masters, I will set their fleets on fire, kill every last one of their soldiers, and return their cities to the dirt.” – Season Six: “Battle of the Bastards”
Ever since Daenerys set sail for Westeros at the end of season six, we haven’t returned to Meereen, or the rest of the continent she supposedly freed from tyranny. Tyrion had previously begged her to stay in Essos she could establish a new kingdom and fix the problems he’d struggled with during her time away with the Dothraki. But instead, she abandoned Essos, and left Daario and the Second Sons in charge until a new democratically elected leadership could be established. But, per usual, Daenerys didn’t bother helping them figure out how to do that. For all we know, Essos could be in the middle of a civil war right now. How could we ever trust Daenerys to rule Westeros when she couldn’t be bothered to save Meereen? We can’t.
In Westeros, Daenerys found a world with its own set of problems, but none that could be solved in the ways she was used to. In Essos, the conflicts were presented as relatively black-and-white and easy to solve (though they did bring up issues of the “white saviour” narrative that, as of now, still haven’t been properly addressed). Slavery existed and she didn’t like it. All she had to do was ransack a city, then step in and take the credit. But in Westeros, there wasn’t a single issue that would automatically give her the love and devotion she thought she deserved. Westeros was complicated and messy, but the people were getting by. They weren’t crying out for their queen, their “Mhysa,” as others had before. And, contrary to previous statements about her brother being foolish to think the Westerosi were praying by their beds for the Targaryens’ return, Dany did eventually believe that’s what would happen.
When she arrived and wasn’t immediately greeted with fanfare and praise, her inner council considered burning King’s Landing to the ground. But she chose caution, at Tyrion’s suggestion, as she didn’t want to be “queen of the ashes.” So, she tried playing by their rules...only to lose all her allies. Then, she helped save Westeros from the White Walkers but didn’t get the thanks she thought she deserved. She was betrayed by Cersei, lost two of her most loyal supporters, and saw two of her dragons murdered in front of her. And she didn’t even have the Iron Throne to show for it.
This was the beginning of the end for Daenerys Targaryen. Not only had she lost a bunch of her armies and support because Cersei was much better at the “game of thrones,” but it was all a tragedy that wouldn’t have happened if she’d taken the easier route of just burning her enemies and seizing control much sooner. It was the very thing she’d done in Essos countless times, and the only strategy that was actually working in Westeros (like with the Loot Train attack).
“I will take what is mine, with fire and blood I will take it.” – Season Two: “The Old Gods and the New”
By season eight, the only card she had left was the belief that she was born to rule the Seven Kingdoms, that her destiny meant everything would work out in the end. Then, it was discovered she wasn’t the rightful ruler, Jon Snow was. And just like that, Dany’s only justification for everything she’d done was gone. She was now a foreign conqueror with no claim to the throne, invading a country that didn’t want her. She would never get the people to love her, nor would she ever become a good queen for them, because she didn’t know how. And if they didn’t see her as an immediate saviour, they became a threat, and therefore the enemy. What does she do with enemies? She burns them.
(Note: The showrunners have said Daenerys burned King’s Landing spontaneously because she got mad while looking at the Red Keep, as it was a “symbol of everything that was taken from her.” I think this is stupid and I don’t agree with it.)
When Daenerys visited the House of the Undying in season two, she saw a vision of herself walking through the Red Keep. It had been destroyed, and flecks of white danced in the air. For the longest time, we thought it was snow. But it was actually ash. To overtake her enemies, and prevent Jon from taking control away from her, Daenerys took the easy way out and did what she’d always done. She conquered. Just as her ancestors had done when they came over from Valyria, and she herself had done in Essos.
It’s easier to rule an empty room than a house of potential traitors. That way, you can break the wheel, and build the world you actually want out of the ashes and dirt.