The following contains spoilers for Game of Thrones Season 8.
There’s a common saying among the Westerosi that Varys (R.I.P.) is fond of repeating. “Every time a Targaryen is born, the gods flip a coin.” The implication is that one side of the coin is a calm, collected, and fair ruler of the realm. The other side of the coin is…madness, pure madness. The Targaryen family has always had an equal chance of producing fair-headed rulers or mad despots. That sort of thing is bound to happen with years of inbreeding.
For one Targaryen in particular, Daenerys Stormborn, the coin seemed to have landed squarely on the side of the good. Through eight seasons of Game of Thrones, Daenerys has been one of our most important heroes. She’s the Mother of Dragons, Breaker of Chains, and all other many of good stuff we like to see in our rulers. Of the many (and there are many) characters on the show, she’s been the only one to adopt a vocal anti-slavery position, which seems like it should be a real slam dunk for any other character who wants to see themselves atop the Iron Throne.
Of course, following the events of Game of Thrones season 8 episode 5 “The Bells,” we now know that Dany is every bit the Mad Queen that her father was the Mad King. Daenerys lays waste to King’s Landing in “The Bells.” She encounters a city ready to surrender and embrace its new Dragon Queen but puts it to the flame all the same. Why the sudden heel turn? And were there any clues along the way?
Beyond cryptic visual hints from early seasons–like Daenerys standing in the ruins of the Red Keep in what could just as easily be ash as snow falling on the Iron Throne, and Bran having a vision of a dragon flying over King’s Landing in season 4–Game of Thrones showrunners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff did their best to explain Daenerys’s actions in their post episode interviews. Understandably, Daenerys’s temperament and motivations are complex so the creators point to several options. The first item brought up is her isolation.
“Dany’s an incredibly strong person. She’s also someone who has had really close friendships and close advisors for her entire run of the show,” Benioff said. “You look at those people who have been close to her for such a long time and almost all of them have either turned on her or died. She’s very much alone. That’s a very dangerous thing for someone who has that much power to feel so isolated. At the very time when she needs guidance, and those close friendships and advice the most, everyone’s gone.”
One ingredient in Daenerys’s re-embracing of the Targaryen madness is her lack of trusted advisors. She’s always had a wealth of people around her whose opinion she trusts but now Ser Jorah and Missandei are gone and Tyrion Lannister has proven himself to be as useless as nipples on a breastplate (to borrow a phrase from the books). Compounding her isolation is that she finds herself in her homeland that no longer feels like her homeland.
“I don’t have love here. I only have fear,” she tells Jon Snow before later concluding “Alright then, let it be fear.”
Benioff says in the post-episode interview “she chose violence. A Targaryen choosing violence is a pretty terrifying thing.”
Of course, viewers know that a Targaryen choosing violence can be a terrifying thing because we’ve seen it many times before with Daenerys herself. Daenerys has never shied away from violence, she has just usually used it against targets whom deserve it.
Our first introduction to Dany’s use of weaponized cruelty occurs early on. In the season 1 episode “A Golden Crown,” Dany watches as her husband Khal Drogo murders her brother Viserys in just about as creatively cruel a way possible. Drogo overturns a pot of molten gold onto Viserys’s head, giving the wannabe king “a golden crown” and a one-way trip to the grave.
“There is something kind of chilling about the way Dany has responded to the death of her enemies,” Benioff said in the post-episode feature as the scene helpfully plays over again. It is indeed rather chilling to see Dany’s face as her brother dies, though he very much deserves it. Dany’s passionless observation or active participation in others’ deaths, however, becomes a frequent occasion through Game of Thrones afterward.
Dany burns the witch Mirri Maz Duur at the stake at the end of season 1, even cryptically suggesting that she’ll take pleasure in hearing Mirri scream (which she of course does). She then burns all the warlocks of Qarth at the end of season 2. The slavers of Astapor and huge chunks of that city in season 3? Burned. Bloated aristocrats looking to pressure Dany via their privilege in season 5? Flambéed and fed to Rhaegal and Viserion before she forces one such feckless personality to marry her. Randyl and Dickon Tarly in season 7? Torched into a fine powder.
Dany’s cruelty (and some would say madness) knows no quarter when it comes to those who she rightfully sees as her enemies. But what about the citizens of King’s Landing? What was their great crime? In terms of medieval warfare they were on the wrong side of a siege and massacre. Ever since the birth of her dragons, Daenerys has hinted that she’d do as Aegon the Conqueror, her direct ancestor, did and take Westeros with “Fire and Blood.” Outside the gates of Qarth, her idea of negotiation for entry was to remark that “When my dragons are grown we will burn cities to the ground… refuse us and we’ll burn you first.” She later tells one of Qarth’s richest men, “I will take what is mine in fire and blood. I will take it.” These bloodthristy instincts were tempered by Jorah Mormont, Barristan Selmy, and Tyrion Lannister over the years, but they were there. When she spoke of wanting to kill all of the Starks for their role in Robert’s Rebellion, Jorah tells her, rather unconvincingly as far as the queen is concerned, that there are good and evil people on every side of a war.
But she gained wisdom enough from these counselings to spare most of the slavers inside cities like Yunkai or Meereen… but her sense of manifest destiny was being quenched by the inhabitants of these cities mostly being slaves who welcomed Dany’s liberation, feeding the part of her that only came alive when the Dothraki began to cheer on their new young Khaleesi… the part that wanted to be loved. Nonetheless, Dany is still the type of woman who even after conquering Slaver’s Bay would seek eye-for-an-eye retribution. The slavers crucified children for over 350 miles, so she indiscriminately crucified over 350 slavers after taking the city.
The closest thing we may find to a definitive answer though comes again from the creators in the post-episode interview. This time it’s Weiss sharing his theory.
“I don’t think she decided ahead of time that she was going to do what she did. And then she sees the Red Keep, which is to her the home that her family built when they first came over to this country 300 years ago,” he says. It’s in that moment when she’s on the walls of King’s Landing and looking at everything that was taken from her when she makes the decision to make this personal.”
Game of Thrones has not done a particularly great job of subtlety or attention detail in this plotline that really calls for it. Daenerys’ mental state and motivations are difficult things to parse. The show has given us more than enough evidence that she is capable of violence. There just isn’t that much evidence that she was capable of violence against the innocent… and that’s probably because all of the evidence for that came before the show’s stories ever began.
For us, Daenerys’s story begins right as she is wed to Khal Drogo and begins the process of empowering herself and evolving into a ruler that the Eastern continent can fall behind. What we don’t get to see, however, is what came before that. Dany and Viserys had a harsh life. They were banished from their home solely for the crime of having the wrong last name. Daenerys’ childhood must have been a brutal and lonely one, running around Essos with her brother looking for refuge and a place to call home and knowing that they were unlikely to ever find it.
At that moment above the Red Keep, perhaps it’s this bitterness that Daenerys thought of. The King’s Landing inhabitants weren’t the ones who exiled Daenerys and Viserys, but at that moment they may as well have been. If nothing else, they are part of a culture who took everything from Dany. At that moment, they went from the innocent to the enemy in her head.
The fable about the gods flipping a coin has a broad implication. Regardless of what side that coin lands on, it’s still a coin with two sides. Madness and sanity always exist within Targaryens and everyone else for that matter. And the innocence of who that madness is unleashed upon is merely a matter of perspective.