This article contains spoilers for Game of Thrones Season 8, episode 4, “The Last of the Starks.”
We’ve seen this queasy image before. A beloved dragon, the creatures of myth and majesty, plummets from the sky with a groan and a cry before vanishing beneath a watery grave. Last season it was perhaps a little more traumatic since it was the first time we saw such a wonder die, but Rhaegal’s death was no easier to watch than Viserion’s. At least Viserion died at the hands of a worthy adversary like the Night King. Euron Greyjoy, by contrast, is empirically the worst character on Game of Thrones.
Yet here we are, two episodes left and only one dragon remaining to Daenerys Targaryen after another of her adopted children took a scorpion’s volley to the heart, throat, and wings. It was a viscerally depressing moment, and not just because of its unconvincing plotting. Dragons arguably carry the mystique in Westeros’ world that dinosaurs do in our own, and the fact that three such creatures have walked this earth for nearly the whole duration of Game of Thrones has left us to take for granted they would always be there. As we now see two of them meet the Many God Face of Death, the feeling of invincibility for the magical, for the fantastical, is fading. And Daenerys’ claim and sanity is fading with them too.
Before the series began, dragons had gone extinct for nearly 150 years. The last one belonged to King Aegon III, and she died sickly while the size of the cat. Dragons, like most magic, was believed to be a thing of the past by Westerosi scholars and maesters. In fact, many of them doubted most of ancient lore altogether, be it White Walkers and wights, or Children of the Forest, much as how you hopefully doubt the existence of elves and gnomes in our world. But a not-so-funny thing occurred gradually over the length of Game of Thrones: the magic came back. It is perhaps more than coincidence that as the White Walkers emerged from their millennia-long slumber that direwolves ran south of the Wall, red priestesses of Asshai wound up on western shores… and dragons were again born to this world.
Intriguingly, the dragons Daenerys herself has mothered are the results of ancient slights against her family merged with blood magic borne out of the same city Melisandre hailed from, blood magic from Asshai. While it will never be totally proven, at least by George R.R. Martin, Daenerys’ dragons likely came from the place of her birth, Dragonstone. Centuries before that stormy night, a woman named Elissa Farman also fled Dragonstone after ending her pseudo-secret lesbian affair with Queen Rhaena Targaryen. A bit like Arya in the later seasons of Game of Thrones, Elissa did not wish to stay put as a lady, or rather as Rhaena’s secret paramour, when she could fulfill her dream of sailing West and discovering a New World. Rhaena balked at the notion, so Elissa stole three dragon eggs from the Targaryen’s ancestral home and sold them to a wealthy sea merchant in Braavos, paying for a ship that allowed Elissa to sail west… and never be seen again.
It is believed by many that those eggs fossilized while out of the reach of the Targaryen’s magical care, becoming the same stones gifted as prized ornaments to Daenerys on her wedding day to Khal Drogo. Of course these were ornaments she ultimately hatched by walking through fire with them and sacrificing a witch of Asshai to dark magic.
The result is three dragons were born in the same year that the White Walkers began noticeably killing the Night’s Watch, thereby taking the first several steps of the Great War, which ended this season when Daenerys helped defeat the Night King at Winterfell. Yet with the Long Night averted, the balance in magic between the White Walkers’ ice and the dragons’ fire is broken. If the White Walkers are gone, it is conceivable the dragons will likewise go extinct again, returning the world to its previous state before magic seeped in and woke up.
This is a melancholy thought, not least of all because it leaves one of the most beloved characters on Game of Thrones in a precarious situation. For what is Dany if not magically inclined with the way she can waltz through fire? It now seems impossible for the final two episodes to end in anything but heartache for the Mother of Dragons. Which brings us back to Rhaegal.
Unlike the death of Viserion, we were allowed to really watch Daenerys grieve Rhaegal and understand what her dragons’ deaths mean. When the gold-and-cream dragon fell Beyond the Wall, it was due to facing an unimaginable, magical foe in the White Walkers, as well as in what felt like a Herculean effort in the Great War. She was saving a man she was also falling in love with, and as Jon was by her side by the time she was able to process the death of Viserion, she took it in better stride than she has now. Despite Jon Snow’s protestations, we have every reason to believe in the magic–light and dark—of this world. When Mirri Maz Duur told Dany in season 1 that she will not have another child until the sun rises in the west and sets in the east, it didn’t sound like a bluff. And Dany hasn’t had reason to stop believing her from lack of trying with either Jon or Daario Naharis before him. Drogon, Rhaegal, and Viserion are the only three children Dany will ever have, and now two of them are gone.
Processing that grief might also suggest Dany has given up too much for the Iron Throne and even just for Westeros’ benefit. Whereas her dragons prospered and grew to be the size of jumbo jets in Essos, they stopped eating in the North in season 8, suggesting that the source of her power has stalled at Winterfell. It was further up north still where Viserion died, and now Westerosi humans have proven as capable as the Night King at killing another of her babies. And as her dragons fall, so too does Daenerys’ ability to force the Westerosi into fearful obedience.
In Essos, Daenerys was ultimately well loved and celebrated as a liberator in every city she entered. While that is not specifically true of the slavers who deliberately undermined and nearly killed her in Meereen, she was still able to control and ultimately squash that dissent. As most of these cities were populated by now former slaves, the woman who attempted to act as their savior was given a hero’s welcome… and more. They called her “Mhysa,” feeding into her maternal complex that was denied when Mirri Maz Duur killed her first son on that fateful evening in a tent. Their adulation added to the dragons’ confidence-building power on her psyche, and therefore her sense of entitlement.
In Westeros though, no one is looking at the Dragon Queen as a mother. Rather she’s an interloper at best and an enemy at worst. While she was able to turn the remnants of the Lannister’s main army into her subjects, it wasn’t out of love but fear they bent the knee as Drogon roared over the ashes of their dead friends. Jon, meanwhile, might’ve embraced the Silver Queen out of love, but his subjects are at best wary of this Khaleesi if not outwardly disdainful, including Sansa and Arya. It might be as much Daenerys’ victory as anyone’s that they survived the Night King, but it is Jon Snow the Northerners still treat like their king and not the woman they’re technically supposed to bow to.
Dany is able to keep the Northerners in line because, as Arya reluctantly admits, they needed her dragons to defeat the White Walkers. However, the White Walkers are gone and now so are most of her dragons. The only reason she is considered a formidable choice for power in Westeros is slipping, and with it Dany’s sense of identity as a queen, as a predestined heir of the Iron Throne, and as a mother are also descending into the muck. With each dragon that dies, so too does Daenerys’ grasp on the world around her.
Perhaps the greatest reason to mourn Rhaegal’s death is it heralds the loss of the Daenerys we know and whom most fans love. When she came to Westeros all three children flew high, and soon she had the support of dear friends like Jorah Mormont and Missandei of Naath, and a new love in Jon Snow. Those friends are dead now, Jon Snow has forsaken their romance, and her children are mostly a bitter memory. So too might be the magic that has brought so many of us under Dany’s spell all these years.