Game of Thrones made Daenerys Targaryen into the Mad Queen, making its penultimate episode one of the series’ most divisive. But does "The Bells" deserve all the ire thrown its way? Ultimately it comes down to your interpretation of Dany’s arc and how much that interpretation was diluted by pacing, execution and cultural context, if at all.
In the last half of Game of Thrones season 8, episode 5, Dany has roundly defeated Cersei’s forces in the relatively bloodless victory she’s said she wanted. But when the bells ring, signaling the city’s surrender, Dany ignores them in favor of torching the city itself, not just the Red Keep, raining fire down upon scores of innocents. It’s a selfish, violent and ignoble act, the likes of which have irredeemably villainized other characters on the show, and it would seem, cements Dany’s fate as a tyrant to be vanquished. Considering Dany’s been characterized as the opposite for so long, the backlash against Game of Thrones has been extreme.
But while it's certainly shocking, the potential for such a turn from Daenerys has always been there. The situation Game of Thrones finds itself in after "The Bells" is less a story of out-of-nowhere development and more storytelling deficiencies - both on the parts of the reader and the teller. Daenerys was always a Mad Queen. So why has it caused so much debate?
All The Clues To Daenerys Becoming The Mad Queen
While there’s a good argument to be made for how this character development was executed, Daenerys' struggle not to repeat the sins of her family – a dynasty that was arguably too powerful for its own good – has always been a central component of her story. She grew up abused at the hands of Viserys, a Targaryen who qualifies as a dangerous combination of delusional and (power) mad, and knew better than to believe him when he said the population of Westeros eagerly awaited a Targaryen restoration. She’s always been able to see her own potential for following in her father and brother’s unhinged footsteps and Tyrion and Varys actively helped her guard against it in later seasons as her power to inflict large scale damage grew along with her dragons. But even then, she still exhibited a sense of entitlement, a thirst for vengeance and hunger for power that made it more than possible she would take a dark turn.
In Game of Thrones season 2, Daenery's handmaiden Doreah – a naïve, stupid girl – betrayed her with Xaro Xan Daxos – a wealthy man who seduced her with riches and a life of comfort away from the indentured servitude she faced working for Dany. In punishment for this offense, Dany locked her and Xaro inside his vault to die a slow death from starvation and probably madness if they didn’t murder-suicide themselves first. It made for great television and it’s doubtful anyone mourned either of those characters for long, but five seasons later Cersei did nearly the exact same thing with Ellaria and her daughter - and it was bone-chilling. For a long time, the show presented Dany as an underdog and an incredibly sympathetic one, so it’s been easy to perceive her moments of brutality – crucifying the masters, executing Mossador, burning alive the Dothraki leadership because they don’t share feminist values – as justified and heroic, when many of those cases were opportunities to show mercy that went ignored in favor of “fire and blood.”
Tyrion made that point more than once to her after he joined her service. In "The Battle of the Bastards," he advised her to back off when she wants to destroy the masters who laid siege to Meereen, insisting that a show of strength made more sense and would result in less innocent bloodshed. She listens then, but as her campaign against Westeros starts to go poorly, she’s less inclined to listen and more than ready to vent disproportionate rage on justified opposition like the Tarlys.
In contrast to her dominion over Essos, Dany’s mission to retake the Iron Throne has always been questionable because her entitlement to it has never been justified. Regardless of whether Robert’s Rebellion was built on a lie and the outcome of his subsequent rule, Aerys Targaryen abused his power to such an extent that he should have been overthrown. Dany doesn’t deserve to rule Westeros any more than Robert did, but she’s cloaked her quest in righteousness, insisting that a family she never knew had their power stolen when one could argue it was rightfully taken. And while her rhetoric has occasionally veered toward “ending tyranny” and freeing the people of Westeros from unjust rule, she’s just as much of a usurper as Robert was and as much of a tyrant as Aerys. Her inability to see that becomes an outright refusal to as she gets to Westeros and it becomes plain that her allies don't welcome her as a liberator, but instead just another turn of the wheel that places power in their hands instead of the Lannisters.
That sense of entitlement is also exhibited in Daenerys' inability to give an inch when it comes to power. While she showed that kind of flexibility regarding the Iron Islands back in season 6, when Sansa asked for Northern independence, Dany defiantly refused, despite several practical reasons she should’ve said yes. First of all, Dany’s already aware she doesn’t have the love of the Westerosi people coming into this pursuit, and making nice Sansa – who also asked, just like Yara – would’ve created a strong ally. Second, the North already is, essentially, uncontrollable. Even with ten dragons, it’s too big to hold, plus it’s so underpopulated that it’s not exactly a threat. Northerners aren’t conquerors nor are they invaders, and demanding it remain a part of the Seven Kingdoms served nothing but Dany’s ego. Had she been able to bend even a little, Sansa wouldn’t have tried to undermine her because there wouldn’t have been a reason to. Despite her heroism and suffering during previous seasons, it’s hard to look at Dany’s history objectively and not see a ruler with the potential to become as unhinged and murderous as the one we saw in the “The Bells.”
But even with all that setup, a huge portion of the fandom has furiously rejected Dany’s characterization in this week’s episode, and they aren’t exactly wrong to do so.
Why The Daenerys Twist Has Divided Game Of Thrones Fandom
Despite everything Game of Thrones has done to ground the decision to make Dany a willful murderer of innocents, there's no getting around the fact that the show has presented her in an uncompromising heroic, sympathetic light basically all the way up until season 8. It’s when she arrives at Winterfell and isn’t received as a liberator, but an unwelcome guest, that we see to what degree power and validation are integral parts of her identity. All of it made sense – Dany’s not the new hotness in Westeros, she’s a repeat performance of an era that many Westerosi probably don’t remember fondly. At the very least she’s someone with enough power to do devastating damage the likes of which the continent hasn’t seen since the last time Targaryens came across the Narrow Sea. But because of how compressed the narrative has been the last two seasons, it feels abrupt, unearned and blunt to watch Dany’s understandable frustration and subsequent descent unfold in the space of five episodes.
If at any point during her rise to power in Essos someone had opposed her that wasn’t essentially a comic book villain – had she ruthlessly punished justified objection to her rule that wasn’t a slave trader or a terrorist or a murderer - then Dany's choice to burn King’s Landing in “The Bells” might have felt less like it came out of left field. Further, had she directly faced more social opposition to her arrival in Westeros and refused to reconsider her goals in the face of that, it would’ve grounded her evolution into the Mad Queen.
Instead, Game of Thrones' pacing was such that Dany is still presented a rational savior at the end of season 7 (at least compared to Cersei), yet barely six hours later is a woman whose been driven to murder people she’s claimed she wants to protect. Obviously the unprecedented trauma and loneliness she’s experienced in season 8 contributed to her state of mind, but there’s barely been time to see her process her experiences, much less believably descend into what was shown in "The Bells."
Culturally speaking, Dany’s transformation into a “Mad Queen” could not have been more poorly timed. That’s not something we can really lay at the show’s feet; David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are presumably adapting the broad strokes of George R.R. Martin’s ending, and he started this series in the early 90s. There was no way to plan for third-wave feminism, the Me Too era, the demand for better representation in Hollywood both in front of and behind the camera and all the other factors that make the choice to tarnish one of the show’s most visible representations of feminism as utterly tone deaf as it is. Add to that Game of Thrones’ historic mishandling of its female characters combined with a woeful dearth of women behind the camera, and you have a landing that’s nigh impossible to execute, even with unlimited time. And that’s not even taking into account what a superficial understanding of mental health this development represents.
Despite how much Dany’s actions track on paper, Game of Thrones hasn’t earned total trust when it comes to consistently executing female stories with nuance, delicacy and complexity. That mistrust combined with unforgiving cultural context made for a story that was hard to swallow at best and egregiously mishandled at worst.
There’s no definitive answer here, as with any subjective criticism. Where you come down on Dany’s evolution is going to depend on how important the mitigating factors are and how invested you were in her characterization as a savior in the first place. But beyond whether or not "The Bells" worked or didn’t work, the question remains: was there a better choice?
Could Game Of Thrones Have Found A Different (Or Better) Ending?
What if Dany hadn’t burned the city? What if she’d just razed the Red Keep with Cersei and the Mountain inside it, approaching madness but inching back from the brink as she’s done in the past? If Game of Thrones has taught anything, it’s that the result would still have been the same. The wheel wouldn’t have been broken, it would’ve just become a wheel without spokes. Even if Daenerys married Jon and he was around to stay her hand, there’s no reason to think she would listen to him if someone came along who made her angrier than Cersei (especially when you consider just how bad he is at politicking in the first place). There isn’t anyone whose performed consistently enough to earn Dany’s total trust, aside from maybe Jorah and Missandei, and they’re both gone. And if there’s one thing Game of Thrones is clearly trying to say, it’s that putting absolute power in the hands of one, fallible human is a bad idea, no matter the human and no matter how well-intentioned.
You don’t have to be a villain on this show to inflict devastating damage – you just need to make mistakes. And sometimes good choices are indistinguishable from bad ones. Robb’s love of Talisa Stark sealed the fall of the Northern resistance. Drogo did exactly what his culture told him to and was the best at it… and all of his success was wiped out when his unmatched arrogance got him killed by a slave. Jon’s loyalty to his family and his little brother nearly cost him the Battle of the Bastards, and definitely cost the North hundreds of lives. Tyrion’s devotion to Dany and contributed to the second sack of King’s Landing. No matter how smart, how strong, how good or how loyal a person is, they’re still vulnerable to their mistakes, and given enough power, they’ll burn the world down whether they mean to or not. There’s just too much room for error built into the system. Not that it needs to be said, but that’s a big part of why there aren’t many absolute monarchies anymore.
If it was hard to believe Daenerys would torch innocent people, it’s even harder to believe she could be talked into giving up any of her power once she alone sits the throne. If her life has taught her anything, it’s that giving an inch costs a mile. But if Game of Thrones is about bringing forth a new era in Westeros (and it had better be), she can’t end the series sitting on the Iron Throne with unchecked power without betraying the story. But she would never give up power willingly and Jon and Tyrion wouldn't oppose her... unless they believed she was truly unfit to rule. So that's what she is now. As bitter and jagged a pill as that is to swallow.
Game of Thrones concludes this Sunday at 9pm on HBO.