WARNING: FULL SPOILERS FOR THE FOURTH EPISODE OF GAME OF THRONES SEASON 8, “THE LAST OF THE STARKS,” BELOW.
As Game of Thrones hurtles towards its series finale, there were bound to be some rushed narrative choices in order to tie up loose plot threads. Much digital ink was spilled over the Season 8 episode “The Long Night” in which the combined forces of humanity made a series of battle decisions that felt rather amateurish. While the Dothraki swords winking out of existence made for tense visuals, it also made no tactical sense to have them rush forward at that point. Plus, putting the Unsullied and their spears in front of the fire break instead of behind it where they could stab through the flames was an odd choice. But the bad tactics didn’t stop there…
THE TACTICAL KRAKEN
In the Season 8 episode “The Last of the Starks,” Daenerys and her fleet were caught unawares by Euron Greyjoy and his ships, which were armed with dragon-killing crossbows. Coming within sight of Dragonstone before the ambush, one assumes Daenerys chose her birthplace as the staging ground for her war against Cersei Lannister. Instead, Daenerys’ forces walked right into a trap. One that got Rhaegal killed and decimated whatever remaining naval forces Dany had. A trap that could have been avoided if Daenerys had shown more of an interest in studying the history of her people, or even her own family. This scenario has happened before. It’s a strange world when Euron Greyjoy is the master of strategy, but it appears the erstwhile King of the Iron Islands had at least a passing knowledge of the Targaryen civil war that all but destroyed the remnants of the blood of Old Valyria.
The Targaryen civil war, also known as the Dance of the Dragons, consumed the Seven Kingdoms slightly less than 200 years before current events. The family feud raged for only two shorts years but the ramifications would reverberate through history down to Westerosi present-day. Without getting lost in the weeds, here are the pertinent highlights: When King Viserys I died, he left his eldest child Rhaenyra as his heir. Her half-brother Aegon II fought this proclamation and the Targaryens split in half as to who should rule the Seven Kingdoms. Much bloodshed ensued. So much, in fact, that neither the dragon population nor the Targaryen royal line would ever truly recover. By the end, both Rhaenyra and Aegon would be dead, along with all but a handful of the other claimants.
For the purposes of Euron’s ambush though, we’re focusing on a specific betrayal during the Dance. As the eldest child and presumed heir, Princess Rhaenyra ruled from Dragonstone in preparation to take the Iron Throne. When the war with her half-brother Aegon began, she left Dragonstone with a very small contingent of guards. In her arrogance, Rhaenyra assumed Dragonstone would be safe. She, like Daenerys, was wrong.
A TRAP RECONFIGURED
Much like Daenerys, Rhaenyra was caught unawares while returning to Dragonstone, though the specifics are very different. Rhaenyra was fleeing King’s Landing after holding the Iron Throne for little over half a year. A series of increasing taxes, as well as the suspicious deaths of several royal family members, found Rhaenyra ousted and isolated. Dragonstone was to be her safe harbor. Instead, her half-brother and rival, Aegon Targaryen, had slipped into the castle months ago with his dragon, Sunfyre. Both scarred and injured from battle, they and a handful of loyal Kingsguard quickly dispatched the Dragonstone guards. Then, they waited.
It is said when Rhaenyra realized she had been betrayed and death was upon her, her final words were “Dear brother. I had hoped that you were dead.” As Sunfyre lit the queen ablaze, Aegon II replied, “After you. You are the elder.”
Without dragons, a land-based ambush was beyond the scope of Euron Greyjoy. But he was able to take the best pieces of the trap and repurpose them. Instead of laying siege to the mostly abandoned castle — and risk a bold Maester getting a raven of warning out — the Iron fleet hid like the pirates they are. Euron and Cersei calculated the risk of sending so many ships away from King’s Landing on the hunch Dany would return to Dragonstone. An educated guess that paid off in droves.
With Dragonstone left virtually empty, and Daenerys’ dragons apparently having oddly limited range of sight as well as the Targaryen fleet not sending out scouts, it was easy enough to park the Iron fleet, have a few drinks, play some cards, and wait.
HISTORY REPEATS ITSELF
This isn’t the first time Daenerys has failed to study the history of Westeros and learn from it. From the moment she set foot on Westerosi soil, even a simple grasp of past military campaigns would have altered the course of the war. Choosing Dragonstone as the staging point for her forces may have had symbolism for Dany, but it also put her in a precarious place. The island sits in the mouth of Blackwater Bay, directly in the heart of lands owned by Lannister allies. With both House Martell of Dorne and House Tyrell of the Reach staking their claim for Queen Daenerys Targaryen, a less ostentatious but more strategic landing would have been Dorne.
A cursory history of the Seven Kingdoms shows Dorne was never conquered by the Targaryens, even in the height of their dragonlord power. A combination of geographical factors — mountain ranges, marshlands, and massive deserts — gave the Dornish the home advantage. Targaryen kings and queens lost tens of thousands of soldiers trying to take Dorne by force. The country would not join the Seven Kingdoms until 187 years after Aegon’s Conquest, when Prince Maron Martell married King Aegon IV’s daughter (another Daenerys). Cersei Lannister could not hope to breech Dorne with her forces, which would have given Dany time to gather more allies to her cause as well as a tactical place to retreat to if necessary.
The other early ally of Daenerys’ claim was House Tyrell. Known as the “Breadbasket of Westeros” the massive lands of the Reach feed Westerosi nobility and smallfolk from Sunspear to The Wall. Armies win or lose on the strength of their supply train. Landing Tyrell support was a massive achievement for Dany. With the Reach connected to Dorne, her armies could have swept up from the South, protecting the fertile farmlands and strangling Cersei’s supply lines as they went. The only other member of the Seven Kingdoms to border Dorne is the Stormlands, which was in disarray and lord-less when Dany crossed the Narrow Sea, and not a threat to her military power.
Instead, by choosing symbolism over practicality, Daenerys left House Tyrell wide open to be sacked by Lannister forces while she sent her navel fleet to the far side of Westeros to be torched at Casterly Rock. This would be the second time in living memory that Euron Greyjoy trapped military ships in the town of Lannisport outside of Casterly Rock and set them ablaze. The first being during the Greyjoy Rebellion, a fact Dany would know if she bothered to study history at all.