Why Daenerys' Descent Into Madness Feels So Unearned
Of the characters in Game of Thrones, Daenerys has had the most purely upward trajectory. She began the series a naïve girl, abused by her brother, but morphed into the Dragon Queen, who confidently conquered lands and amassed faithful followers. But with that rise has come the hardest fall, and the penultimate installment of the series finds Daenerys Targaryen consumed by anger and paranoia, turning into the Mad Queen that her ancestry has foretold.
The "previously on" intro to "The Bells" laid the show's intentions on thick, as if to try and remind viewers that this had always been a possibility. As Emilia Clarke's grim face that ended Episode 4 fills the screen, a chorus of voices ring out.
"Every time a Targaryen is born, the gods flip a coin." "The Mad King gave his enemies the justice he thought they deserved." "Children are not their fathers." "Be a dragon." "You have a gentle heart." "Targaryen, alone in the world, is a terrible thing." "You don't want to wake the dragon, do you?"
The series of quotes from various characters ranging from Cersei Lannister to Aemon Targaryen speak to the binary that has defined the Targaryen name and will come to define Daenerys' trajectory. If you're a Targaryen you have two choices: You go insane, or you don't. Either seem to end in untimely death. By the first scenes of the episode, it seemed clear which path Daenerys was hurdling down. Not because it made narrative sense, necessarily, but because it seemed inevitable.
All season long, showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have been setting up a move into villany for the show's most ferocious heroine. With the Stark family -- specifically Sansa -- as the voice of reason, Daenerys' actions in pursuit of the Iron Throne appear increasingly erratic and desperate. But the mania that's been brewing crystallizes after the deaths of her dragon Rhaegal and her trusted advisor Missandei at the hands of Cersei Lannister's forces, and she didn't invade King's Landing just to be surrendered to.
Daenerys becomes blinded by her own personal tragedies. When she's refusing to eat or see anyone in the episode's open, the subtext is that she's acting like a petulant child. That notion of her is furthered in a scene just a short while later opposite Jon Snow following her ordered execution of Varys. Jon remains faithful to her as his queen, but she wants more from him. She kisses him, he pulls away, and her lip begins to tremble. She makes her proclamation: "Let it be fear," the principle that will guide her for the rest of the episode. Thus, Dany turns into a mess of stereotypes. She's the spurned lover, enraged that the man she adores will not reciprocate her affection; she's the hysterical woman unfit to rule because she lets her emotions get the better of her; she's the Mad Queen. And she's evil. Really fucking evil. Benioff and Weiss make a point of showing the women and children she massacres, gruesomely burned alive in the narrow streets of King's Landing, after the opposing forces had thrown down their swords.
Now, as the "previously on" would have you believe, this was the plan for Daenerys all along, and indeed, there are moments the showrunners can point to that would help justify their claim. In Dany's Season 2 vision quest in the House of the Undying, she walks through the Red Keep's throne room, covered in a snowy substance that now seems an awful lot like the ash falling from the sky at the end of "The Bells." She walks through the haze to find the dead Khal Drogo, who presents her with the idea of their union in the afterlife. Plus, there are plenty of examples of how Daenerys' passion could, through another lens, be seen as disconcerting rage.
But the consensus frustration is not that Daenerys broke bad -- it's how they made her do it, giving an audience whiplash in the process. While there have long been complaints about her character, especially her white savior tendencies, her name alone has also come to signify a feminist warrior. It's a simplistic reading, sure, but calling someone "khaleesi" might as well have become short-hand for a "badass lady who takes no prisoners." At the beginning of this season, presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren declared her love for Daenerys in an essay published by The Cut. In it, Daenerys is presented as the thoughtful leader compared to Cersei's unbridled evil. Thousands of children have been named after the character. Now, with one episode left, Daenerys ends her run a villain -- a complicated one to be sure -- but a villain nonetheless, who went after innocent people because of a personal vendetta, fully inward and alone because of misplaced paranoia about others undermining her legitimacy as Queen.
So, what now? Every episode this season -- perhaps save for the lovely character beats of "A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms" -- has felt predictable in its conflicts. At each turn, Jon Snow has been presented as Dany's alternative, but stood by her side, even as he brushes off those championing his claim to the throne. Throughout "The Bells," he was mostly ineffectual, his mind reeling as he lost control of his army and they became seemingly infected by Dany's madness. The one thing he has going for him is his supposed nobility, which is now in direct conflict with the actions of his queen, signaling a showdown to come in the finale. Meanwhile, Arya, a noted killer, has also seen the horrors Dany's dragon fire ignited up close and escaped the city, possibly with death in mind.
Regardless of what becomes of her -- though it's not looking good survival-wise -- the Daenerys audiences thought they knew is gone. It's hard not to think she's been done dirty in the process.