This article contains major spoilers for Game of Thrones Season 8.
It sure seemed like a smart move at the time. Beneath her stood two men, insolent men at that, who despite having their army vanished in a fiery plume still refused to bend the knee. Worse yet, this Randyll Tarly implied bigotry and illegitimacy directly to Daenerys Targaryen’s face, questioning her claim on the Throne by calling her Dothraki bloodriders and Unsullied followers “savages,” and implying that Dany is as good as a foreigner despite being born on Dragonstone before being driven from her homeland by men like him.
Several weeks earlier in season 7, Olenna Tyrell had suggested Daenerys ignore clever men like Tyrion Lannister and “be a dragon.” This seemed like sage advice after Tyrion’s plan to take Casterly Rock turned out to be a disaster that got Olenna killed. As a consequence, Daenerys became a dragon, a true Targaryen, and like any true Targaryen she cannot tolerate insolence, particularly of the veiled misogynistic kind. Tyrion might throw Randyll in a cell or banish him to the Wall, and the Starks would certainly do the latter, but Daenerys is not a Lannister or a Stark; she’s a dragon. So she fed Randyll and even his naively brave son to Drogon’s flames. She burned them to ash in a power flex that caused any remaining Lannister holdout among the prisoners to bend the knee, and like Aegon Targaryen she claimed a little more power with fire and blood. In that moment, she looked strong, and Tyrion soft, but in classic Game of Thrones fashion, a good decision one season turns out to be a tragedy the next.
So it was in the Game of Thrones Season 8 premiere. Standing before Samwell Tarly, the humble and unambitious half-a-maester who saved her beloved Ser Jorah Mormont’s life, Dany’s equivocations as to why she burned not only Sam’s arrogant father but also his stalwart brother fell as short as Lannister arrows before Drogon. She decapitated his family—lest she or perhaps a different king pardons Sam from the Night’s Watch—out of pride. Now an apolitical ally who risked his life to help her friend is suddenly a potential foe, and one with some very dangerous information that Daenerys is oblivious to. Her show of strength suddenly becomes a lapse of judgement—even a weakness of vanity. Tyrion was right, the wheel Dany wishes to break just keeps on spinning, now over the last Tarly. Could it spin again on top of her?
At moments such as these, it’s fair to begin wondering whether Daenerys is too much like her father, Mad King Aerys II. If the season 8 premiere is read the way showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss position it, or clearly how the Northerners’ perceive it, there are some sinister implications at play.
Daenerys is of course the daughter Aerys II, the last Targaryen to sit on the Iron Throne and by all rights a man who deserved the moniker of the Mad King. Obsessed all his life by wildfire—the green flames with a bleak real-world basis in fact that Tyrion used to set the Blackwater aflame—Aerys is the inevitable result of paranoia and incestuous inbreeding among the Targaryens. Inspired by the real-life Ptolemy family of ancient Hellenistic Egypt, the Targaryens are a notoriously hit-or-miss dynasty. It’s a common saying in Westeros that every time a Targaryen is born, the gods flip a coin. Perhaps they’ll be born with natural nobility and compassion, or maybe the lineage’s penchant for marrying brother to sister will produce heirs as cruel as Joffrey (a Lannister also born of this dubious practice).
Aerys II was the most wicked and cruel to come out of this bloodline, as gleaned when he hostaged Brandon Stark, Ned’s older brother who’d come to King’s Landing to demand the return of Lyanna Stark, the sister everyone assumed Rhaegar had kidnapped. When Rickard Stark, Warden of the North, then also descended on King’s Landing to reclaim his son, Aerys burned Rickard alive in his suit of armor via ghastly wildfire. Brandon Stark then died strangling himself in a noose while trying to reach his father.
This was the incident that setoff Robert’s Rebellion, and it is also a circumstance fans have long assumed would replay in some fashion, save with Cersei as the Mad King reincarnated. She too has grown obsessed with wildfire, using it to smote the High Sparrow, Margaery Tyrell, and all her other courtier enemies back in season 6. It is also easy to imagine her saying, “Burn them all,” just as Aerys did before and after Jaime Lannister ran him through. However, the show is beginning to sow seeds of doubt about Dany too. If the gods do indeed flip a coin, it landed on the tail’s end when her brother Viserys Targaryen was born (the sniveling fool), but seemed to be more graceful toward Daenerys. But if you asked Samwell Tarly whether Dany is just like her father, his answer might be more negative than yours.
Which is the point. Showrunners Benioff and Weiss have at last found a way to duplicate the shifting perception of action-and-consequence that George R.R. Martin made commonplace in his novels (and thus the first five seasons of Game of Thrones). Now Sam views Dany as a false queen, and he has the evidence to back it up when he tells Jon Snow that he is actually Aegon Targaryen, the rightful King of the Seven Kingdoms. It also is unlikely that Sam will keep that information to himself in the weeks to come after what Dany did… and especially by what she might do next.
Jon is wont to say, “The Great War is here,” but as we know the White Walkers may arrive as soon as the end of next week’s episode, so the question remains about the Wars to Come in the following three or four episodes. Cersei is obviously preparing for them with her newly hired Golden Company, and Dany is already thinking far ahead. When she arrived in Winterfell, Sansa Stark, the Lady of Winterfell, showed her every courtesy, no more or less. Of course even while acknowledging that “Winterfell is yours, your grace,” Sansa was doing so with some of her patented side-eye disdain. But how could Daenerys expect anything less? Winterfell and the North aren’t a city full of slaves who are joyful that the Breaker of Chains has come to set them free; they’re a tribal and prideful bunch who’ve just learned the King in the North they happily swore fealty to has abandoned their autonomy for yet another Targaryen monarch.
The North remembers well that Torrhen Stark saved hundreds of thousands of Northern lives three centuries ago when he bent the knee to Aegon Targaryen. They also eternally recall Torrhen as “the King Who Knelt.” Jon Snow has now done the same and for what? Aid against an enemy they have not seen, and for a queen who at least Sansa suspects would’ve come even if Jon hadn’t bent the knee. Sansa is not openly questioning Daenerys like Lyanna Mormont—or even Robett Glover who has abandoned Winterfell and the Starks in the face of the White Walkers’ advance—but Sansa is the most powerful Northerner who simply won’t smile while acknowledging Daenerys’ supremacy.
And like Aerys II, that is clearly a point of contention to the Mother of Dragons. It was an amusingly awkward situation for Jon Snow to sit between a passive-aggressive girlfriend and sister early in the premiere, but when Dany brought up that tension later by telling Jon, “She doesn’t need to love me, but she should respect me,” it wasn’t quite so funny. Dany says “respect,” but she already has that from Sansa, if begrudgingly so. What she wants really is love; the same kind of adoration she received in Yunkai when the freedmen all called her “Mhysa.”
A conflict is being sown. If Dany and Sansa should both survive the White Walker invasion to come, will the Lady of Winterfell’s perceived slights raise the dragon out of Daenerys? Could she prove to be as ruthless to Jon Snow’s sister as Aerys II was to Brandon Stark, brother of his son’s newly secret bride? That is the conflict brewing, causing us to wonder if history could have a gruesome repeat, with Dany’s dragon-sized insecurities over nothing driving another generational riff between the North and the Targaryens—a riff that could force Jon Snow to embrace his destiny as the more rightful King Aegon VI.
It is a genuine possibility, but one I suspect is ultimately a case of misdirection. Much like the alleged tension between Sansa and Arya in season 7, it is there to keep us looking one way while the narrative moves another. Arya and Sansa ultimately combined their talents against Littlefinger instead of using them on one another, and I imagine the blossoming dispute between Dany and Sansa will turn into a bond when Jon Snow, or rather Aegon Targaryen, proves to place the legitimacy of both over his own benefit. He might be Rhaegar’s son, but Ned Stark is still his daddy, and like Ned Stark, he will never survive or enjoy King’s Landing. If being a Targaryen also loses the trust of the North, perhaps his destiny is not in this world.
Jon Snow ultimately will placate the suspicions of his aunt—which will undoubtedly grow when she finds out Jon has a greater claim than she on the Iron Throne—and it will force her to reevaluate the North, Sansa, and even herself. I stand by my prediction that Dany is not her father’s daughter, and that she will take the Iron Throne only to destroy it and build a better world with some form of parliamentary rule. Hopefully, if Jon is no longer with us, she’ll even allow Sansa the autonomy to be Wardeness of the North, or mayhaps Queen.
Still, I cannot be certain. As has circulated on the internet, the patterns of the Night King’s defiling artwork in Last Hearth have an eerie similarity to the three-headed dragon sigil of House Targaryen. For years, we have all speculated the Night King was once a Stark, but who is to say he isn’t a distant ancestor of the Targaryens? He had a certain type of blondness, and perhaps the fire magic in his blood is why the Children of the Forest chose to impart him with an icy heart. What if he is the true child of ice and fire? If so, he, Jon, and Dany all have genetic ties, including the fact they can fly dragons. If the outcome of ice magic is the Night King, there is a chance that Daenerys’ fire could prove just as consuming if her sense of entitlement and manifest destiny goes unchecked.
We’ll know the answer soon enough with only five episodes to go.