To say that “Game of Thrones” has been very polarizing this season would be putting it lightly, and yesterday the show made some very controversial choices with Daenerys Targaryen’s character in the series’ penultimate episode, “The Bells.” If you’ve felt unsatisfied with how things turned out on the show last night — as the cast perhaps did — here’s our roundup of the best takes on whether those choices worked or made no sense at all.
But first, let us give our last warning that this article would be full of spoilers. So if you haven’t seen the episode and don’t want to be spoiled, now is the time to really listen to Jon and fall back as quickly as you can.
First, The Biggest Question Of Them All: Was Daenerys’ Transformation In Or Out Of Character?
While there were many unexpected moments on the show last night — and yes, I’m talking about the unnecessary showdown between Euron and Jamie — the episode’s biggest WTF moment came when Daenerys decided to unleash the fiery wrath of Drogon on King’s Landing, killing millions of people in the process despite the fact that the city’s residents had already surrounded and rung the bells, the namesake of the episode, to signal their capitulation.
Showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss have explained that Dany’s decision is a result of her isolation — most of her advisors and closest friends have been killed off at this point — and seeing the Red Keep, a symbol of “everything that was taken away from her” and her family is what spurred Daenerys to make the destruction of the city “personal” and essentially massacre everyone in King’s Landing, innocent or otherwise.
But does this character decision from the showrunners actually hold water?
Some Believe It’s A Credible Evolution For The Character
Variety’s TV critic Daniel D’Addario believes it makes sense that Daenerys Targaryen would conquer the city in this fashion as it’s in keeping with her political philosophies and tactics within the show.
Daenerys’s tactics have always been more deeply rooted in dominance than in empathy (she spent an entire season insisting a peer united in the struggle with her “bend the knee”), and she has for seasons framed her politics as a generational struggle, rather than an evolutionary process that necessarily includes the freely-given consent of the governed. And, most notably of all, her case for herself as queen, and the actions she’s taken to get there, pivot around the idea of revenge.
Others argue that the subversive turn of Daenerys’ character dovetails with the larger themes of the show and the original author’s vision.
Game of Thrones devoted its climax to portraying the horrors of war, and to a longtime hero becoming a monster. It’s a bold, unforgettable statement — an instantly iconic and shocking late turn to the eight-season saga.
And it’s entirely consistent with the series’ core themes and motifs: the misuse of power, how innocents suffer when the high lords seek power, and the subversion of expectations. That is, it’s classic George R.R. Martin.
The Seeds Of The Villainization Of The Character Were Better Planted In The Books
Throughout this last season, the writers of the show have been eagerly trying to sell us on the idea that Daenerys’ tyrannical tendencies could be tipped towards the evil and they haven’t exactly been subtle about it. And in previous seasons, critics have pointed out that the series was laying the groundwork for the dark turn of the character.
But Joanna Robinson from Vanity Fair argues that the George R. R. Martin books upon which the series is based upon do a better job at depicting Daenerys’ state of mind and her potential descent into madness.
One of the thornier aspects of Martin’s novels has to do with a very specific structure that puts each chapter inside the mind of a different character. This makes it hard for Martin to tell a story, because he needs to leap around from internal monologue to internal monologue. But it also means readers can better understand what motivates the heroes and villains of Westeros, Essos, and beyond. It’s why, for example, many book readers have an even stronger devotion to Jon Snow—they know what’s cooking inside his brain and behind that pout. And it’s why, too, book readers long ago noticed the many clues leading to Dany’s downfall.
The Main Consensus Is That This Sudden Transformation Of Daenerys Feels Unearned
Most grievances towards Dany’s actions in “The Bells” is less about the showrunners turning Daenerys into a mad queen and more about how said transformation feels abrupt and unearned. In other words, the problem is more about the execution, rather than the outcome.
The show’s single-minded devotion to replicating that feelings of shock and disbelief as often as possible is one reason the series, with one episode to go, feels like it’s yanking us from one plot twist to the next rather than coasting in for a smooth landing.
The problem with Dany going full Mad Queen isn’t that she used to be a hero or that the show never foreshadowed it. There have been seeds, all the way back to Season 1 when she burned Mirri Maz Duur alive as vengeance for Khal Drogo’s death. She has long been vain, ruthless and completely convinced of her own brilliance.
But the show spent far more time making Dany a hero, if a rather boring one. Making her Mad Queen Dany now is rushed, unearned and emotionless.
Dany’s decision to sack the city also makes less sense given the fact that the people of King’s Landing had already surrendered.
If the show had played it differently where Daenerys gets impatient for the bells and starts destroying things before the bells have had a chance to ring, that would have worked because it would speak to her impatience and being so close to her goal that she can’t risk losing it […] While still a rushed conclusion, it would at least have a reasonable motivation to it. But she’s won! She knows she’s won! And she chooses to murder thousands of innocent people for no reason!
It’s one thing to be ruthless, as Daenerys has always been; it’s another to be truly cruel and evil. Daenerys’s actions in “The Bells” were the latter. She instigated a completely unnecessary mass killing, a vicious act that is entirely outside her established character. Maybe Dany, who has much of the same foreshadowing in George R.R. Martin’s books, was always destined to become the Mad Queen—it just doesn’t make sense for it to happen without the show demonstrating any internal conflict or nuance.
On the great question of the episode—what the hell are you doing, Daenerys?—it was impossible not to be baffled at first. But that’s because of the greater failing of the show lately: pacing. A series that used to meticulously, even tediously, build foundations for major character decisions instead has been sprinting through plot check marks. I’ve just become resigned to Benioff and Weiss’s shoddy motivation-explaining, I suppose. With just six episodes this season and seven in the previous, there hasn’t been a long enough runway for Dany’s murderous departure.
Still, the pieces of her decision-making apparatus were all on-screen, even if the show hasn’t put them together all that sturdily.
The Sexist Tropes Tied To Daenerys’ Downfall Are Also Troubling
Lest we forget, the battle at King’s Landing was also a battle between two queens and now with only one episode to go, the show known for subverting tropes seems poised to have Jon Snow, the show’s male hero, become king.
The choice probably wouldn’t be so bad if it didn’t come at the cost of the depiction of Daenerys as a ruler.
Varys twice suggested that Jon would be a better ruler exactly because Jon did not want to rule. This is not an original idea: figures ranging from Moses to George Washington to Harry Potter have been exalted in stories because they came to power reluctantly. Those figures also tend to be male. And how do our myths and stories cast women eager for power? As evil queens. And that’s what Daenerys is now: A cliché.
And apart from the troubling implications of the mad, power-hungry woman trope, there’s also another trope that’s equally disturbing.
The way the episode is scripted, it’s being jilted by Jon Snow, of all things, that pushes her over the edge. (Not his “betrayal” in telling Sansa about his lineage; Dany tries to kiss him again even after that.) It’s Jon pulling away from the idea of making out with his aunt that hardens her beyond reach: “All right then. Let it be fear,” she decides, forgoing hope for love.
In the 11th hour, Game of Thrones turned Dany not just into a Mad Queen, but into a crazy ex-girlfriend—the laziest of sexist tropes. And one that could have been so easily avoided. There were all the reasons in the world for Dany to snap, from genetics to bad fortune to isolation and betrayals. For the love of God, why make the final straw about Jon Snow?
But Is Daenerys Really ‘Mad’?
Aaron Bady from Los Angeles Review of Books goes against the grain and argues that, contrary to what people might think, Daenerys is the only person who has gleaned lessons from past experiences and is making a rational, calculated decision in her conquering of the city.
[T]he only rational person, here, is Daenerys. She has experienced rebellions, both for her and against her, and has learned from them; she correctly apprehends that time is not on her side (King’s Landing is not going to rebel against Cersei and her allies are all betraying her, which will only continue) and she correctly realizes that the only way to win—and not die—is to be a dragon. Without allies who will serve her out of love, she must do what dragons do: eat the sheep.
Far from being “mad,” Bady asserts that Daenerys made a correct assessment of her dilemma.
[E]very scene leading up to the battle shows us a Daenerys who is a step ahead of everyone else; in her seething vengeful fury, there is complete clarity: she knows what she’s going to do, she blames others for making it her only option, and she’s angry at everyone for what she’s about to do […] If Daenerys wants the Iron Throne—and she does want it, it’s the only thing she wants and has always wanted, her entire character is built on wanting that one thing to the exclusion of all else—then she can’t let herself be a Ned Stark, having it both ways and dying in the middle ground.
A military strategist also weighs in on the reasoning behind Daenerys’ destruction of the city and how the assertion of power makes strategic sense in her securing of the Iron Throne (though not necessarily to her rule of the Seven Kingdoms in the long term).
Political considerations necessarily infuse strategic calculations. For Queen Daenerys Targaryen, seizure of King’s Landing and the deposition of the usurper Cersei no longer cuts it. Aegon Targaryen (Jon Snow) has a better claim to the throne; he has a base of operations, a narrative of legitimacy, and his own army. Even if Jon doesn’t want to be King, people who dislike Daenerys will fight in his name. Dany is no longer the presumptive Targaryen heir and can no longer rely on her family’s right to the throne.
She can rely on Drogon, however. Her claim to the throne rests on demonstrating the power of her dragon. With Rhaegal—the dragon Jon had ridden—dead, she is uniquely capable of making such a claim. Daenerys need not be “mad” in order to see political value in burning King’s Landing to the ground.
Megan Garber at The Atlantic argues that the ambiguity behind Dany’s actions is what makes it so terrifying, even more terrifying than a reading of her simply acting out of madness:
Here is the horror lurking in the fiery rubble of King’s Landing: Whether Dany acted out of a lost mind or a cruelly sharp one makes no difference in the end. The effect of either is precisely the same. Innocent people, crushed and snuffed and burned. Terror, raining from the sky.
Dany is a savior, and Dany is a monster, and it is impossible to know where one ends and the other begins.
In that foundational ambiguity, there is despair. This is what happens, after all, when individual leaders accumulate strength that refuses to be questioned or moderated: Everyday people become subject, in the most intimate of ways, to the workings of leaderly minds and hearts and spleens.