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Game of Thrones’ dark turn for Daenerys has been long in the making

It’s been frequently foreshadowed, both on the show and in George R.R. Martin’s books.

Daenerys Targaryen has long shown her capacity for violence.
HBO

After Sunday’s fifth episode of Game of Thrones season eight, “The Bells,” it seems clear that Daenerys Targaryen may well have been the series’ ultimate villain all along — as she and her last remaining dragon rained serious destruction on King’s Landing, apparently killing thousands, even though the city had surrendered.

It’s already a controversial turn for one of Game of Thrones’ most sympathetic and admirable protagonists; my colleague Alex Abad-Santos, for instance, has criticized it sharply.

But in my view, this turn was inevitable. It’s been amply foreshadowed across several seasons of the TV show (though season eight’s execution of it has been rather ham-handed), and based on George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels, it seems to be what Martin planned all along.

I wrote while season five was airing (in 2015) and again during season six (in 2016) that I thought Game of Thrones’ showrunners were laying the groundwork for Dany to become the series’ final antagonist, at least in some form.

Here’s why I’ve long thought this was the showrunners’ — and Martin’s — endgame.

Daenerys has long been capable of great compassion — and great violence

It’s been difficult for many to imagine Dany breaking bad because she’s been one of Game of Thrones’ most moral figures. Where most other characters have ignored the exploitation and abuse of the least powerful, Dany has actually tried to do something about it. She went on a multi-season quest to end slavery, after all. And on the whole, her story has been an empowering and inspiring one.

But the great power her dragons give her also gives her the capacity for great violence — and showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have often seeded the possibility that she could go too far. “As the sphere of her empathy widens, the sphere of her cruelty widens as well,” Weiss said all the way back in 2013, in an “Inside the Episode” segment from season three.

For instance, when Dany took over the city of Meereen during the season four episode “Oathkeeper,” she was so angered by the Meereenese nobles’ crucifixion of slave children that she ordered an equivalent number of captured nobles crucified. What started as a joyous, happy scene of liberation quickly swerved, with even the music turning dark and twisted and screams of pain ringing out as Dany disregarded her advisers’ urgings to take a more merciful path and instead pursued violent executions — or, as she put it, “justice.” (As I wrote at the time, I thought this was “a microcosm of where her story arc is headed.”)

Similarly, in season five’s “Kill the Boy,” after the Meereenese insurgency attacked her advisers, Dany demanded that the leaders of all the city’s great families be brought to her. She chose one of them, seemingly at random — and had him burned to death by one of her dragons, as she gazed on.

From Game of Thrones season five, episode five, “Kill the Boy.”
HBO

“Who is innocent?” she then asked her other prisoners. “Maybe all of you are, maybe none of you are. Maybe I should let the dragons decide.”

More recently, in season seven’s “Eastwatch,” Dany burned Samwell Tarly’s beloved brother and not-so-beloved father to death after they refused to kneel to her. Game of Thrones hammered home that this moment was important by bringing it up in again during the season eight premiere, as Sam learned what Dany had done.

There is similar foreshadowing in Martin’s books. “Madness and greatness are two sides of the same coin,” one character says, describing the Targaryen family. And because Dany is a point-of-view character, we get access to her thoughts as she struggles to resist her temptations to unleash retaliatory violence. At one point, she implies that her only fear is herself. She’s afraid of what she might do.

Just because Dany has achieved great and admirable things doesn’t mean she can’t eventually give in to her worse impulses. And turning a likable and sympathetic character into essentially a villain who must be defeated is a cruel twist fit for the creator of the Red Wedding.

But Game of Thrones’ execution of this twist leaves much to be desired

Despite all this, I agree with many of Alex’s criticisms about how Game of Thrones has handled this turn of events.

At the end of season seven, Dany made the choice to turn away from her quest for the Iron Throne, to focus instead on saving humanity from the White Walkers. She wholeheartedly devoted herself to that endeavor, and though she didn’t strike the fatal blow, her armies and dragons were clearly crucial to helping the living triumph in the Battle of Winterfell.

Yet in the very next episode, every major character arrived at a sudden consensus that Dany is dangerous and unfit to rule. Sansa told Tyrion, “You’re scared of her,” and he had trouble responding. Varys asked Tyrion whether he thinks Jon or Dany would be the better ruler — and Tyrion again couldn’t respond — before Varys jumped to outright plotting treason, saying, “I worry about her state of mind.”

But at that point, had Dany actually done enough to prompt that drastic turn?

The reason presented in “The Last of the Starks” was that Dany wants to attack King’s Landing and remove Cersei Lannister from power. Tyrion and Varys — wily pragmatists advising a conquering queen — expressed deep moral misgivings about this plan. But their hesitancy is unconvincing, as several past Game of Thrones characters have hoped to take King’s Landing by force without being portrayed as moral monsters. (Similarly, when it was Jon Snow hanging an insubordinate Night’s Watch member, that wasn’t presented as a sign of his unfitness as a leader or his “dark side,” but rather his savviness.)

Obviously, burning down the city entirely would be a far more appalling act, but at that point Dany seemed to be just talking about taking it with her armies, and it was tough to understand why this was so out of bounds considering what else we’ve seen in the world of the show.

In any case, the rest of last week’s episode piled tragedy after tragedy upon Dany in a rather heavy-handed effort to make her snap — and snap she did in “The Bells.” At first, she used her dragonfire mainly to target Cersei’s opposing armies. But once the city rang those titular bells and signaled a surrender, she rejected it, continuing the attack and eventually burning the city indiscriminately.

Was that believable for her character in the moment? To me, it came off a bit like Benioff and Weiss jumped the gun, trying to reach the denouement that Martin seems to have told them is coming without finding a convincing path there. But the results certainly were harrowing.