clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Game of Thrones is spending its last hours ruining Daenerys Targaryen

For seven seasons, the show has told us how great Dany is. In its final episodes, it’s turning her into a villain.

Daenerys Targaryen isn’t the mad queen, she just keeps listening to fools.
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

The implication that Daenerys Targaryen is going mad is the greatest fraud Game of Thrones has ever perpetrated.

And in this Sunday’s fifth episode of the show’s final season, with the imminent incineration of King’s Landing by dragonfire after Missandei’s execution, I expect it to come to a full realization.

What makes this Mad Queen theory such bullshit is that’s it’s essentially a bait and switch.

For seven and a half seasons of the show, Game of Thrones has hammered home that Daenerys Targaryen is a ruler capable of compromise; a queen who listens to her advisers; a monarch who wants to destroy slavery and institute equality; and a hero who people believe in (hence the mainstream popularity of the title “Mother of Dragons”). While she has certainly let her anger get the better of her at times — RIP, Randyll and Dickon Tarly — Daenerys has consistently been portrayed as someone to believe in and a genuinely good person.

Now, in the last few hours of Game of Thrones’ existence, the show seems determined to die flailing on the hill that Daenerys is actually a maniac.

“Perhaps that’s the problem, her life has convinced her that she’s here to save us all,” Varys told Tyrion in episode four, “The Last of the Starks,” explaining that with Jon Snow’s claim to the Iron Throne now in the picture, Daenerys is suddenly the wrong choice to be queen.

Varys went on to paint a bleak picture of what rule under Daenerys might look like for the Seven Kingdoms, despite Tyrion’s insistence that they should believe in her.

“I will never betray the realm,” Varys says.

“What is the realm?” Tyrion demands. “A vast continent, home to millions of people, most of whom don’t care who sits on the Iron Throne.”

“Millions of people, many of whom will die if the wrong person sits on that throne. We don’t know their names, but they’re just as real as you and I. They deserve to live. They deserve food for their children. I will act in their interest, no matter the personal cost,” Varys replies.

Varys is considered one of Game of Thrones’ smartest characters. His word is wise — so when he warns of a great Daenerys Targaryen apocalypse, we’re supposed to take him seriously. And while the “The Last of the Starks” did contain comical flashes of Daenerys scowling at Jon Snow’s popularity, they weren’t enough to undo the past seasons of Game of Thrones portraying her as anything but the doombringer the show’s now making her out to be.

The idea that Daenerys Targaryen never listens to her advisers is a myth

In the last two seasons, Daenerys has put her trust in Tyrion Lannister, and all she has to show for it are a series of detrimental losses. At the height her power, she had powerful allies like Olenna Tyrell, the Sand Snakes, and Yara Greyjoy; a cavalry of Dothraki screamers and the Unsullied army; and three dragons. Nearly all of those allies and forces are gone thanks to Tyrion’s advice, which Daenerys heeded on multiple occasions.

His plan to attack Casterly Rock, the ancestral fort of the Lannister family, was a monumental blunder. It left Daenerys’s allies vulnerable, giving Cersei Lannister an opening to sack Olenna Tyrell’s Highgarden and ambush Yara Greyjoy’s fleet and the Sand Snakes by sending Euron Greyjoy after them.

But after the Casterly Rock plan backfired, Daenerys ultimately opted not to attack King’s Landing’s Red Keep — again taking Tyrion’s advice. When Tyrion told her about his plan gone wrong and how, in one fell swoop, it cost her all her allies, she naturally wanted to go after the Red Keep, ostensibly to kill Cersei and Euron.

“I have three large dragons, I am going to fly them to the Red Keep,” she told Tyrion at the time. “My enemies are in the Red Keep. What kind of queen am I if I’m not willing to risk my life to fight them?”

Tyrion said that move wasn’t smart, and that a blockade of King’s Landing was what she needed to be focusing on instead of attacking her enemies.

Not attacking the Red Keep allowed Cersei and Qyburn to improve their dragon-killing scorpions, which were eventually mounted on Euron’s ships and used to shoot Rhaegal out of the sky.

Euron also captured Daenerys’s friend and adviser Missandei, who was then beheaded by the Mountain on Cersei’s orders.

This isn’t exactly the outcome Daenerys was planning on when, despite the fact that Cersei had attacked and killed her allies, she still signed on to defend the North against the Army of the Dead, losing a dragon in the attempt to prove to that Cersei’s forces were also needed. Or when she trusted Tyrion’s insistence that his sister was true to her word and would assist in the fight, which saw Daenerys lose her confidante and friend Ser Jorah Mormont and countless Dothraki and Unsullied, all of whom defended the people of the North on her behalf, out of loyalty to their queen.

(Cersei, of course, did not show up.)

So: By listening to Tyrion, Daenerys has lost two of her closest friends and advisers, all her allies, at least one of her dragons (Viserion was killed during Jon Snow’s rescue, though one could argue he was a casualty of trying to convince Cersei to help fight the Dead).

With that track record, why should anyone still be listening to Tyrion?

There was even a crucial moment in season seven, in which Olenna Tyrell — who ultimately died because of Tyrion’s plan that left Highgarden vulnerable — told Daenerys that she needed to listen to herself instead of Tyrion Lannister.

“He’s a clever man, your Hand [Tyrion]. I’ve known a great many clever men. I’ve outlived them all,” Olenna said. “You know why? I ignored them. The lords in Westeros are sheep. Are you a sheep? No. You’re a dragon. Be a dragon.”

If Daenerys hadn’t attacked the Lannister army as it returned from Highgarden — a decision that happened off-screen, so we don’t know who made it, though Tyrion has always seemed reluctant to have Daenerys use her dragons — she’d be even more outnumbered now. Cersei’s forces, coupled with her hired Golden Company and new weapons, would be unbeatable.

Taken together, all of these events make it seem pretty understandable for Daenerys to be skeptical of taking others’ advice. Her skepticism is not only well founded, but painfully earned. To suggest that it’s a function of madness is silly.

Game of Thrones repeatedly told us that Daenerys is a good person who would be a good ruler. Now it’s throwing that characterization away.

I’d be more inclined to believe that Daenerys is going mad if Game of Thrones hadn’t spent basically its entire existence telling us entirely the opposite, and framing her as fighting for people who cannot fight for themselves.

Daenerys’s story began with her brother selling her to Khal Drogo, who raped her on their wedding night. That Daenerys knows the atrocity of slavery and hates it becomes one of her motivations in freeing others.

For example, when she acquired the Unsullied army, Game of Thrones paid careful attention to the detail that she wanted them to be free men. “You did not choose this life, but you are free men now,” she told the Unsullied in season three, when they chose Grey Worm as their leader. “And free men make their own choices.”

Slavery came back into play at Meereen in season six, when the former slave masters attacked the city after Daenerys liberated it. Tyrion explained to Daenerys that “the people are behind you,” but the masters were not, because they did not want a city without slavery to succeed.

Although she used force in that instance, it was to defeat the slavers, in order to protect free people:

Perhaps the most powerful testament to Daenerys’s character happened in season seven when Missandei, Davos, and Jon Snow talked about her rule and what they expected to come of it. Davos and Jon Snow were skeptical of Daenerys’s ability to lead, but Missandei explained that she was a slave, and Daenerys freed her and made her an advisor. Missandei also said that if she wanted to leave Daenerys’s side, Daenerys would allow her to do so and wish her good fortune. Essentially, Missandei affirmed that everyone who fights for Daenerys does so because they believe in her.

“All of us who came with her from Essos, we believe in her,” she told Jon and Davos. “She’s not our queen because she’s the daughter of some king we never knew. She’s the queen we chose.”

This could be commentary on Daenerys’s followers being brainwashed into believing that it is Daenerys’s destiny to inherit the Iron Throne, or about Daenerys being an imperialist. And that endpoint, with Daenerys as heartless ruler, is potentially where Game of Thrones wants to end up, by way of Varys and Tyrion’s conversations with one another about whether Daenerys is fit to rule.

I don’t mean to suggest that these conversations shouldn’t be happening. But Game of Thrones has rarely operated with that much nuance, nor has it ever asked us genuinely to think very critically about the desires and beliefs of the Unsullied, the citizens of Meereen, or the Dothraki.

Missandei’s argument for Daenerys is straightforward and earnest: She and the people who follow Daenerys know the queen to be a good ruler. The Unsullied and Dothraki are said to be free men, and the ones we’ve seen on screen have implicitly chosen to follow Daenerys. The same goes for the citizens of Meereen; in season seven, Game of Thrones devoted several episodes to Daenerys’s concerns regarding the city, and we were eventually told that Daario would help transition Meereen into a free state.

But in season eight, we’ve seen Daenerys lose two people who were extremely close to her, two of dragon children, and a lot of her army, all in the name of saving Northerners who don’t respect her or her people, and all because she listened to Tyrion’s poor advice. She will likely lash out at Tyrion’s sister Cersei in episode five (who, by the way is Game of Thrones’ true Mad Queen, complete with church-bombing and brother-loving), and many will take it as “proof” that she’s gone mad. But anyone who’s paid attention to what Game of Thrones has shown us since the beginning knows that it’s not that simple.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.