Spoilers follow for Game of Thrones season seven, episode six, “Beyond the Wall.”
This season on Game of Thrones, characters have been poisoned, left to rot in a dungeon while watching their daughters die, torched like the crispy top of a crème brûlée, and mauled by ice zombies. But the only death I really cared about was that of a CGI dragon.
Viserion’s death in “Beyond the Wall” is the only time so far this season that I’ve gotten legitimately emotional over Game of Thrones. It’s like the show reached into my mouth, down into my chest, and pulled out my heart. I screamed at my screen, shaking my fist, and cursed the Night King and his dragon-killing spears and bionic Peyton Manning arm. I grunted a manly negative grunt, then I screeched a screech at a frequency that would put Janet Leigh to shame.
Angry questions roiled in my brain as I tried to comprehend what I just saw. Shouldn’t dragons be able to melt ice spears? Since when has the Night King and his zombie ass been able to throw like that? What, he’s just carrying these dragon-piercing, probably super-heavy spears for fun? How could this have happened?
And then I realized the visceral, emotional reaction I was experiencing may actually the best thing to happen to the show in a long time.
Daenerys needed to become vulnerable to make her story interesting
For the last few weeks, and arguably the last couple of seasons, Game of Thrones has positioned Dany as not just a protagonist, but also an unbeatable one: Her dragons are the most powerful weapon, her army lead by Grey Worm is the most disciplined military, and her Dothraki cavalry are the most fearsome warriors.
Dany’s unstoppability combined with her ostensible position as one of the good guys has made her war with Cersei Lannister feel one-sided, even when she suffers a setback.
Just look at what happened in the fourth episode of the season, when her army crushed the Lannisters. Her plan to take Casterly Rock was a dud and her allies were captured, but she managed to swing the war immediately back in her favor by swooping in on a dragon and incinerating the Lannister forces. Dany’s massive firepower can sometimes make watching this show feel like watching a kid play with his or her favorite action figures.
And though that made for fun television, the story being told, especially on Dany’s side, wasn’t very compelling.
What good are Tyrion’s speeches and advice if Dany doesn’t listen to him and still comes out on top? How are we supposed to make a connection with Dany if all she does is win? How are we supposed to develop a connection with a character who’s invulnerable? What’s there for Dany to learn in her quest for the Iron Throne if everyone she faces folds so easily? And perhaps the ultimate question: Why keep watching if we know Dany is the most powerful being on the show?
But watching Viserion take that hit and then plummet from the sky completely changes our relationship with Dany and the power she wields.
The whole Viserion sequence — the cut to Dany’s horrified face, Drogon’s screech, Viserion going perpendicular and crumpling onto the icy, blood-stained lake — is terrifying, beautiful, and heartbreaking all it once. There’s visceral pain in watching Viserion die. In that instant, Dany and her dragons become mortal.
After the battle, when she’s reunited with Jon Snow, she talks about how much these dragons mean to her and how much the loss affects her. Dany’s reaction makes crystal clear that her dragons aren’t just the world-ending weapons she’s used them as — they’re her children. After the Night King showed us how easily he could kill and zombify Viserion, she’s probably far less inclined to risk riding another one of her children into battle. And as for the overarching story, with one dragon out the equation and Dany being less willing to use them in the future, Cersei is at slightly less of a disadvantage against the Dragon Queen.
To be clear: There are a lot of conveniences in “Beyond the Wall” that extend and reinforce the weaknesses of this season, like Dany teleporting from Dragonstone in record time to bail everyone out, or the Night King suddenly taking up javelin as a hobby. Viserion’s death in no way absolves Game of Thrones of those kind of narrative shortcuts. But the dragon death was the most emotionally painful thing that’s happened this season, and it makes Dany’s story and this series finally feel like they have some actual stakes.