This article contains Game of Thrones spoilers for the whole series, including season 8, episode 5: “The Bells.”
Over the last four days, a division among Game of Thrones fans has grown as deep as the scorched earth left by dragonfire. Daenerys Targaryen, one of the ostensible heroes of the series and definite protagonists, had finally gotten everything she always dreamed of: her birthright returned to her. Years of fighting, of killing, and of suffering finally brought her to the home she’d never known. Off in the distance, the palace where her father was stabbed in the back by his Kingsguard was now hers, along with the city at her feet—a city that so resisted her that she lost another of her beloved children, Rhaegal, and her best friend Missandei.
… It wasn’t enough. Losing complete perspective of who she is supposed to be or wants to be, she embraces who she apparently always was. “A dragon,” as the most perceptive character on the series, Olenna Tyrell, once surmised. Laying waste with a genocidal fire that consumed the innocent and guilty alike, Daenerys’ rampage left thousands, mayhaps tens of thousands, dead and fans divided over whether the Daenerys many of them came to love was ever even capable of that—never mind if she could’ve done it in that moment. As I detailed in my review, I am of mixed feelings about it. I do not think season 8 properly built to a naturalistic tipping point for Dany where the penny drops and the dragon awakens, but beyond the thematic brilliance of this ending (which George R.R. Martin is likely to have revealed to showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss as his intended endpoint), it is easy to forget that the Daenerys of the early seasons could have done this. In fact, we have seen this side of the Mother of Dragons on a micro-scale from years before the show romanticized her to the point where the heel turn felt inorganic.
While in the last few days there have been a lot of articles listing all the foreshadowings of Daenerys’ descent, including those that would appear to retcon snow as ash, it is likely better to focus on the moment when Dany’s was a hair’s breadth away from being the dragon (and still might in the books). Many of House Targaryen’s fiercest advocates will point to the fact that she was also the Breaker of Chains in her early seasons, liberating one oppressed people from bondage at a time. But those moments of benevolence recall when everything was coming up roses for the Khaleesi. After taking Astapor—in Fire and Blood—and destroying most of a slaver’s city, she had an army of freed Unsullied who willingly followed her to the ends of the world, fighting and dying for her. Magnanimity was easy for her when each city she conquered had vast populaces who welcomed her as a “Mhysa,” a mother to millions after losing her one and only human child. Yet when the chips are down, and the stresses of ruling instead of conquering crept across Daenerys’ troubled mind, a definite pattern became visible.
The first time she felt overwhelming grief, Daenerys Targaryen had almost nothing to command. Not even a Mother of Dragons, the loss of Khal Drogo and all the power that is supposed to come with being a Khaleesi evaporated over a terrible night. What remained to Dany was the loyalty of some of Drogo’s bloodriders, the infatuated support of an exiled Bear Knight, an enslaved witch who she could blame for her most immediate problems, and three fossilized dragon eggs. The only person she could take her grief out on was Mirri Maz Duur, a witch who did wrong her (though with justifiable reasons given how Khal Drogo’s people treated her, and the knowledge that their baby would burn more cities to ash). Thus while burning Mirri Maz Duur alive, Dany made a decision that seemed baffling and even insane to Jorah and her few remaining followers: she walked into an open funeral pyre where three stone eggs rested with her husband… and she came out with all the wonder of a Biblical fable.
But the real moment that best illustrates how Dany handles pressure came during the full length of season 5. The final season directly based on George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire,” it is the year where the Breaker of Chains discovers it is much harder to rule a people than conquer them. Even her ideas of justice proved rash and unstable. The most vindictive slave masters of Meereen crucified 163 children on her path to the pyramid city—one for each mile on the Dragon Queen’s journey to the cities walls. Her response was to indiscriminately crucify 163 of Meereen’s aristocrats and noblemen, not caring about their complicity or lack thereof in the atrocity she saw. She couldn’t conceive of any being innocent.
Yet according to Hizdahr zo Loraq, more than a few were, including Hizdahr’s father. A young nobleman made the head of his house, he only gained that power after Dany had Papa Loraq nailed to a cross. But Hizdahr insisted with understandable anger that his father actually was an opponent of the local slave trade, and something of a Meereenese abolitionist. Now, admittedly, Daenerys has every right to take Hizdahr’s claim with a grain of salt since a political dissident may say anything to undermine a new occupying ruler. However, the fact remains Daenerys did nothing before or after to ascertain the guilt or innocence of the men she crucified. And that was when she perceived herself as a calm and loving Mhysa. It is that sense of empathy that even forces her to reluctantly entomb two of her dragons, Rhaegal and Viserion, for this misdeeds of Drogon.
After her favorite child burned an innocent shepherd’s son alive for a midday snack, Dany walls off the literal part of herself that is dragon. She commits an act of self-sacrifice for the well-being of Meereen’s residents. It is only then that the pressures and loneliness begin. Around the same time as Rhaegal and Viserion’s imprisonment, she also is forced to banish her once most trusted advisor and friend, Jorah Mormont, the only remaining member of the inner-circle who had been with her since the beginning. The loss of Jorah weighed on the Dragon Queen as much as the loss of her dragons—both wounds she inflicted on herself because she could not trust them and thus the source of her power and strength.
Which then brings us to season 8’s most prescient reverberation from the past. Daenerys gave much of herself away for Meereen and expected the city to love her in return like the Unsullied do. Instead a city that welcomed her with open arms grew an insurgent and virulent resistance, the Sons of the Harpy, who attacked her men in the streets. They then killed her other most wise advisor and injured the captain of her forces. Ser Barristan Selmy was Daenerys’ last connection with her Westerosi heritage after Viserys’ death and Jorah’s banishment, and only moments after teasing a kernel of his knowledge about the father and brother she never knew, Selmy was cut down in the streets like a dog.
With Selmy slaughtered and Grey Worm on death’s door, possibly never to recover, Daenerys’ rage was piqued by grief for the first time since Khal Drogo’s death. This is the moment that most foreshadowed who Dany is when someone seriously damages her calm. And her reaction is as illuminating as the fires that still burn King’s Landing.
In the fifth episode of Game of Thrones Season 5, Dany walks away from Barristan’s still warm corpse and Missandei’s late night vigil by Grey Worm’s sick bed to summon the heads of all the remaining “Great Houses of Meereen.” Yes, that includes Hizdahr zo Loraq, the son of a possible abolitionist. With a little more than a half-dozen aristocrats gathered beneath the Great Pyramid of Meereen, Daenerys introduces these rich men to her two children still ruefully in chains.
“They will eat you if I tell them to. They may eat you even if I don’t. Some say I should give up on them, but a good mother never gives up on her children. She disciplines them if she must, but she does not give up on them. Who is innocent? Maybe some of you are, maybe none of you are. Maybe I should let the dragons decide.”
As Daenerys speaks these words, she is savoring the terror of these great men before her children, pushing the one praying the loudest before Rhaegal, pausing only long enough to savor Rhaegal barbecuing him to a cinder. Only after Rhaegal and Viserion begin to chow down on his remains does she add, “Who is innocent? Maybe some of you are, maybe none of you are.” She’ll let her dragons decide.
This is who Dany is when things are not going her way and she has literal power to burn. As Daenerys points out, any of them could be guiltily in league with the Sons of the Harpy, or mayhaps they all could be innocent. The truth is she doesn’t care, because they’re all complicit in her eyes and all worthy of being food for the Dragon. Yet there is an obvious method in this cruelty too. By randomly feeding a man who might be innocent to her dragons, she instills an unimaginable dread in the survivors. If they do hate her—and likely all the nobles in Meereen do—she hopes they will not cross her after this grisly sight. “Let it be fear then.”
And sure enough, it is only a week later she returns to that same chamber to force Hizdahr zo Loraq to marry her at dragon’s point, assuming a political marriage along with fear will keep Meereen in line and scare off the Sons of the Harpy. It does not work, of course, and the Sons of the Harpy attempt another political assassination on her own royal head, murdering Hizdahr in the process, suggesting he was not part of the conspiracy and his family were actually anti-slavery. It makes no matter now, he and his father are dead, and Daenerys’ rule over Meereen appears to be in complete tatters when season 5 ends.
It should be noted that this is also where George R.R. Martin’s guidepost source material likewise ends. And while the details are different—Dany never actually feeds any noblemen to her dragons in the books, and Hizdahr and Selmy are alive—her exasperation with Meereen and the Sons of the Harpy seems to be even in a darker place. When A Dance with Dragons concludes, and Dany has barely evaded her assassination due to Drogon’s intervention, she has a moment to reflect on the Great Grass Sea, and in the book concludes about her recent experiences, “You are the blood of the dragon… Dragons plant no trees. Remember that. Remember who you are, what you were made to be. Remember your words. ‘Fire and Blood,’ Daenerys told the swaying grass.”
This is the moment where she seems to accept all of her choices up to that point have been wrong and counterintuitive to “being the dragon.” Chaining up Rhaegal and Viserion to protect innocents was a mistake; showing leniency to Meereen after the Sons of the Harpy’s attacks was a mistake. “Fire and Blood” suggested to many readers that Daenerys might burn Meereen down in The Winds of Winter. And she still might, as we do not know how Martin ends his Meereenese knot, but all book readers were a bit skeptical when Tyrion, in Season 6 of Game of Thrones, convinces Daenerys not to “return their cities to the dirt” and instead rather incredulously breaks their siege with minimal death. I imagine her answer of breaking the other Slave Cities’ siege of Meereen will be much more bloodthirsty in the books, including for the residents of the city.
Be that as it may, the show still underscored what Dany thinking “dragons do not plant” looks like in season 5. She feeds a potentially innocent man to her dragons while contemplating doing the same to others. And in the process, she hopes to instill enough fear in them that the people of Meereen will be obedient. When she says, “A good mother never gives up on her children. She disciplines them if she must, but she does not give up on them,” she isn’t just referring to her dragons. As she views herself as Mhysa to all the cities she conquers, she is implicitly referring to these noblemen as her children. And like naughty boys, she is forcing them to take their medicine.
Which brings us back to her perched on the walls of King’s Landing hearing the bells of surrender. She expected to be greeted as a liberator in her homeland, even if she scoffed at Varys’ kind words in season 7. Instead they despise her. Jon Snow got all the credit in the North for the victory over the White Walkers, even though it was her Dothraki that bore the biggest casualties and it was her dragon that Jon was riding. Meanwhile King’s Landing’s residents cower in fear, hoping that her one remaining child will be killed just like how their current queen had Rhaegal murdered. And also like how Cersei slaughtered Missandei.
Just as when Daenerys lost Selmy Barristan and potentially Grey Worm—and she had no Jorah shoulder to cry on—Daenerys has lost her best friend in Missandei and two-thirds of her children for this capital. Jorah has also left her again, this time never to return, and unlike in Meereen her claim is already being questioned due to Jon Snow’s parentage. In Meereen she was greeted as “Mhysa,” but then her “children” still disobeyed her and tried to kill her. In King’s Landing she is welcomed as an aggressive tyrant.
“Who is innocent? Maybe some of you are, maybe none of you are. Maybe I should let the dragons decide.” In “The Bells,” she returned to that mindset but with no desire for one last chance to “plant,” as with her arranged marriage to Hizdahr zo Loraq. She now knows that way won’t work and the only eligible bachelor that could keep the peace, Jon Snow, has rejected her. So she indulges in letting “the dragons decide” who is guilty and innocent, and rains dragonfire down on both. All will be purged. It is a macro-scale of what she did to that one nobleman in the dark of season 5, but now it’s thousands in the light of day in season 8. Let King’s Landing be a lesson to all who deny my right to rule.
All of this is not to say that I think the execution was perfect or even satisfactory. Seasons 7 and 8, in retrospect, clearly needed to show more of the Daenerys we saw in season 5. There was the execution of Randyll and Dickon Tarly, but that was presented in a way that again looked too close to veering on reasonable, even if it disregarded a modern understanding of the Geneva Convention. They were officers who opposed her rule and she made an example out of them to completely destroy the resistance of their army, plus audiences were predisposed to hate Randyll Tarly for his treatment of Sam and treachery toward the Tyrells. We needed to see Daenerys disregard guilt and innocence like she did in Meereen before she did it on a genocidal scale. Perhaps having her show no quarter to the Lannister forces altogether, or destroying large swaths of Meereen—still a city full of slavers, thus dividing audience loyalties between right and wrong—would have made it clearer in the later seasons just who Dany is. Instead the showrunners chose to focus solely on her refusing to be “Queen of the Ashes” and riding to Jon Snow’s rescue multiple times with an open heart.
A focus on the romantic and heroic side of Daenerys, with nary a hint of the conqueror from the early seasons turned paranoid in season 5, made her sudden heel turn in less than two full episodes rushed and unconvincing. Nevertheless, this has always been part of Daenerys. We’ve seen this from her before. It’s a fitting end to her character, even if the later seasons failed to remind you until it was too late.