Beyond The Wall

Why the Mad Queen Theory Could Lead to Daenerys' Demise on 'Game of Thrones'

game of thrones
HBO
This post contains spoilers up through Game of Thrones Season 8, Episode 5. Visit Beyond the Wall, our official Game of Thrones hub page for recaps, theories, spoilers, explainers, and the best episodes of all time.

"Let it be fear," proclaimed Daenerys Targaryen in the penultimate episode of Game of Thrones. The Dragon Queen said those words to Jon Snow, describing how she could potentially win back the faith of the people, but she could have been talking to any number of characters who she interacted with before soaring into King's Landing on the back of Drogon and laying waste to the Iron Fleet, the Golden Company, and seemingly thousands of innocents in the city below. Instead of being loved by her subjects, she decided to be feared, potentially losing the Iron Throne in the process.

With only mega-sized one episode left, Game of Thrones doesn't have as many narrative options left on the table as it did back in its earlier seasons. When the show began, a significant part of its appeal was its ever-expanding, seemingly limitless scope, which created a sense that each successive hour could introduce the viewer to a fascinating new region on the map, a complicated character, or a bit of layered familial history. Part of the pain some fans have felt in watching showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss's more aggressively plotted recent episodes is rooted in the frustration of seeing all those potential pathways get closed off. When a beloved character like Daenerys commits horrible acts in pursuit of military dominance, it can feel like a betrayal.

From beginning to end, "The Bells" mostly embraced the idea of Daenerys as a Mad Queen. The Mad Queen theory posits that Daenerys Targaryen will follow in the footsteps of her father, Aerys II Targaryen. Don't remember Aerys? He was the last Targaryen to sit on the Iron Throne, and for a period he was a celebrated king, a leader who united the Seven Kingdoms in peace. Like most good times in George R.R. Martin's imaginative universe, it wasn't built to last and eventually the King grew increasingly paranoid, hostile, and isolated. As unrest grew throughout the city, he ordered Wildfire to be planted throughout King's Landing and he had plans to burn it to the ground, hoping to turn himself into a dragon in the process, until he was murdered by Jaime Lannister, an act that earned the knight the nickname Kingslayer.

For viewers who have trouble holding all the show's mythology in their heads during a given episode -- it's hard enough to remember everyone's name -- this history should at least sound vaguely familiar. The chilling after-effects of the Mad King have reverberated throughout the series, particularly in Daenerys's plotlines and in the ongoing power struggles of King's Landing. Also, you might remember Jaime telling his version of the King's demise, including Aerys issuing the command to "burn them all," to Brienne in the bath way back in Season 3. Even creepier, Aerys appeared in one of Bran's visions in Season 6, issuing the same order from the Iron Throne. He remains the ultimate bad leadership cautionary tale. 

game of thrones
HBO

What relevance does the Mad King have to Daenerys's decision making? In a show so obsessed with parentage and family, his deadly actions and his unpredictable temperament provided a historical precedent for Daenerys as she attempted to wrestle control of King's Landing from Cersei and potentially battle Jon Snow for the rightful claim to the Iron Throne. (Some of the Mad King's tactics, like his fondness for Wildfire, have already inspired Cersei, who used the substance to eliminate her enemies back in Season 6.) Daenerys rather aspirationally dubbed her showdown with Cersei "The Last War," which had its own troubling apocalyptic connotations. As Tryion said during the celebration after defeating the Night King, "We may have defeated them, but we still have to contend with us."

If the reactions on social media are any indication, Daenerys's choices in this episode will be debated in the weeks ahead, particularly the question of whether or not Benioff and Weiss did enough to set up her heel turn. After the brutal beheading of her closest advisor Missandei, the harrowing clipping of her beloved dragon Rhaegal, and the tragic death of her sworn protector Jorah Mormont, Daenerys was clearly pushed to the edge. (Don't forget: She also recently discovered her lover was actually her nephew.) Clearly, she had every right to be angry; she was facing off against an opponent capable of immense cruelty. However, her destruction of the city was so clearly a horrific and unnecessary act. Was it similar to the madness that consumed her father? 

At multiple points in Daenerys's rise to power, advisors like Tryion and Varys have cautioned her against using her powerful, fire-breathing dragons to roast her enemies into submission. "Do not become what you have always struggled to defeat," Varys told her during one increasingly tense strategy session in "The Last of the Starks," cautioning that using flames to torch King's Landing would not earn her the respect of its people. Daenerys responded by re-articulating the underlying philosophy that has driven her politics for most of the series: "I'm here to free the world from tyrants." Her "break the wheel" outlook, which places an emphasis on freedom and justice, is based in her conception of herself as a mold-breaking, once-in-a-generation ruler. It's the same belief that led to her executing Varys. 

game of thrones
HBO

Again, one of the most consistent themes of the series is that the unwavering confidence and unbreakable certainty of great leaders can often curdle into arrogance or blind them to their own mistakes. Power has a tendency to corrupt -- or at least cloud one's judgment. As the bells clanged out across King's Landing and cries for surrender echoed through the streets, Daenerys, alone on her dragon, made the call to unleash a flame-kissed rampage. She couldn't trust the people around her any more. She lost faith in her fellow humans. She rejected mercy. 

The possibility of a shift like that was the subject of the hushed conversation between Varys and Tyrion in the previous episode, which found the two getting downright metaphysical about what exactly constitutes an ideal leader for the realm. "What is the realm?" asked Tyrion at one point, sounding a bit like a undergrad philosophy student. Unsurprisingly, the two never arrived at a definitive answer. Varys's tentative support for Jon Snow, which Tyrion identified as potentially treasonous, also crossed into some frustrating territory as the two men argued over whether "cocks are important" and dismissed Daenerys for her gender. Varys made a similar statement in "The Bells" when he said to Jon Snow, "Men decide where power resides."

Some viewers find the Mad Queen narrative and the speculation surrounding it inherently sexist; it's a theory based on viewing the leadership of a woman through the lens of mental instability. The rushed pacing of these final episodes also means that the "madness" has been painted with a broad brush, leading to some hurried scenes that have perhaps lacked the proper degree of psychological nuance and dramatic flair. Though Daenerys has taken control of the city, vanquishing Queen Cersei once and for all, it feels unlikely that she'll be sitting on the Iron Throne at the close of the series finale. Emilia Clarke has said that her character's final moments inspired "loads of tears," an indicator that at the very least the final image of the show probably won't be everyone climbing aboard a dragon for one final joyride. Winter may no longer be coming to Westeros, but that doesn't mean there won't be dark days ahead.

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Dan Jackson is a staff writer at Thrillist Entertainment. He's on Twitter @danielvjackson.