The Only Thing Worse Than a ‘Mad’ Daenerys

The late-breaking plot shift in Game of Thrones’ penultimate episode was sudden and swift and senseless. That is precisely what made it so terrifying.

What did she just do? Why did she just do it? (HBO)

This post contains spoilers through Season 8, Episode 5 of Game of Thrones.

Daenerys Targaryen, first of her name, has spent more than seven seasons of Game of Thrones accumulating power aided by a quirk of biology and magic: Her children have doubled as weapons of mass destruction. In “The Bells,” the penultimate episode of the series, the ruler who would be queen of the Seven Kingdoms brought that fact to a horrifically literal conclusion. She chose the nuclear option. Riding—wielding—Drogon, Daenerys thoroughly dracarysed King’s Landing, burning noncombatants alive and ensuring that many others would be crushed under the toppled stones of buildings felled by dragon fire.

There are many ways to interpret that monstrous turn of events. You could read it, in a show that is deeply concerned with questions of nature and nurture, as the forces of genetic inheritance exerting their inevitable gravities: “The gods flip a coin,” Cersei observed of the Targaryens, and here is Dany’s, breaking mad. You could read Dany’s behavior as well, in a series that has often failed in its treatment of would-be queens, as an endorsement of tired and dangerous tropes about manipulative women, and emotional women, and ambitious women. You could read it as a person, reeling from rejection and grief, acting out on her heartbreak. You could read it as yet more evidence of pacing problems: the story the writers want to tell whittled down to the story they have time for, resulting in an arc that, for Dany, scans as a sharply jerking parabola.

What is striking about Daenerys’s newly Walter White–inflected trajectory, though—and what also saves an episode that is otherwise punctured with plot holes—is that you can read it in so many ways. Maybe her decision is the result of madness—the apple settling, after all this time, right at the trunk of the tree—or maybe it’s … ruthlessness. Maybe she got the crazy edit, yes; or maybe the leader who has justified so much under the auspices of the broken wheel has answered a Westerosi version of the trolley problem, deciding that some innocents must die in the present so that many more can live peacefully in the future. Or maybe, having recently lost her second dragon and the apparent loyalty of those left in her orbit, she simply made a blunt calculation about power and what will be required to attain it. Rhaegalpolitik: “Let it be fear,” Dany tells Jon, before making all too good on her word.

Ambiguity is a powerful tool in storytelling; it is also a difficult one to wield well. While the writers and showrunners of Game of Thrones have not always landed on the right side of things, the uncertainty in this case provides its own kind of conclusion. Here is the horror lurking in the fiery rubble of King’s Landing: Whether Dany acted out of a lost mind or a cruelly sharp one makes no difference in the end. The effect of either is precisely the same. Innocent people, crushed and snuffed and burned. Terror, raining from the sky. Game of Thrones has always operated on two levels: political intrigue on the one hand and horror on the other, King’s Landing here and the Night King there. In “The Bells,” though, just as one element has apparently resolved—the ghosts defeated by heartfelt humanity—a new threat has come. And it is all the worse because it has emerged from the side of the humans. Dany is a savior, and Dany is a monster, and it is impossible to know where one ends and the other begins.

In that foundational ambiguity, there is despair. This is what happens, after all, when individual leaders accumulate strength that refuses to be questioned or moderated: Everyday people become subject, in the most intimate of ways, to the workings of leaderly minds and hearts and spleens. The world and its inhabitants get shaped by the fickle emotions of the powerful. The outlines of the known world exist as they do because Robert Baratheon, all flesh and fiery synapse, was so deeply in love with Lyanna Stark that he couldn’t imagine—couldn’t allow himself to believe—that she would leave him for Rhaegar Targaryen. Robert warred, he told himself, in the name of love, and he bent the fate of the Seven Kingdoms as he battled. The history of our own world, of course, has been shaped in similar ways: by misunderstandings, by insults, by vengeance that is backed by the weapons of war. He “tried to kill my dad,” George W. Bush said of Saddam Hussein, and the common folk are living, still, with the consequences.

Daenerys’s own weapon cruises over the homes and businesses and lives of King’s Landing, toppling towers and breathing fire, and the scenes that follow—the aftermath of the carnage—are uncomfortably familiar: the rubble. The smoke. The blanket of ash covering the dead and the survivors alike. The Clegane brothers, their broken bodies tangled, plummeting to the chaos below. The sense that history has been altered, irrevocably, on its path. Arya, bloodied and covered in the dust of destruction, awakens from unconsciousness and surveys the scene that surrounds her. Ash flutters down from above, and the airborne remnants of dragon fire resemble, at certain angles, snow. By way of the leader who helped to defeat the army of the dead, another kind of winter has come.

The Night King could not be reasoned with, because the Night King was a kind of monster; Daenerys could not be reasoned with, for reasons that remain unclear. The illegibility of her motivations is itself uncannily resonant. Americans are living in a moment in which the notoriously fickle presidential mood becomes the stuff of breaking news, and in which tyrants and despots around the world keep their own fiery dragons in wait. Are those shapers of the human arc angry? Are they insulted? Are they strategic? Are they sane? That these are the questions that have to be asked—and that the asking will make so little difference—is the horror at the heart of it all. Logic won’t always win. Justice won’t always save the day. You can stop the wheel. You can break the wheel. You can even incinerate the wheel. But the wheel, as long as it is propelled by human folly, will find a way to keep on spinning.