WARNING: FULL SPOILERS FOR THE FIFTH EPISODE OF GAME OF THRONES SEASON 8, “THE BELLS,” FOLLOW.
In the penultimate episode of the entire series, Game of Thrones’ Daenerys Targaryen took a hard left in her character development, as the once merciful and just Khaleesi turned her dragon on the surrendered populace of King’s Landing and burned it to the ground. Riding Drogon across the city, Dany sowed destruction indiscriminately, catching up both soldiers and innocents in her wrath. All seemingly without provocation.
But while Dany’s steep descent to Mad Queen may feel out of character, the potential was in her narrative arc from the first season. The warning signs about Daenerys have been slowly increasing as the years go by. Perhaps in a less truncated season, her character would have more time to emotionally pivot towards paranoia in a believable way. The sped up plotting only changed the journey, however, not the destination.
RED FLAGS, GET YOUR RED FLAGS HERE
Way back in the first season of Game of Thrones, Daenerys brought her Westerosi sensibilities to her husband’s khalasar. At her request, the captured women were treated with more respect, including Mirri Maz Durr . But when Mirri still sought vengeance against the man who destroyed her village and killed her people, Daenerys never saw it from Mirri’s perspective. Instead, she saw a vindictive witch who stole both Dany’s husband and unborn baby. She saw that Mirri Maz Durr needed to be punished. So Dany burned her alive.
Then, at the end of Season 2, Daenerys discovered her Qarth ally Xaro Xhoan Daxos and her handmaiden Doreah had betrayed her. Between them, they had assisted the warlocks in kidnapping the dragons. Furious, Dany at first demanded Xaro finally turn over the infamous treasure of his vault only to discover Xaro’s reputation was built on lies. In a snap decision, Daenerys had both Xaro and Doreah locked inside the empty vault and left them to starve to death or suffocate.
At the time, the narrative positions both of these actions as justifiable. After all, Daenerys did lose her husband. Xaro and Doreah did betray her. Did they not deserve punishment? But it’s not that Dany killed them, as nearly every character in Game of Thrones is a murderer. It’s that even in her early days, her character chose painful, cruel deaths over a swift execution.
TYRANNY IN SHEEP’S CLOTHING
By the time Daenerys arrived to liberate Meereen, she had a keen sense of justice and a penchant for punishment via painful death. One of her first acts as the leader of Meereen was to have 163 Great Masters of the city crucified, one for each child that was crucified to point the way to Meereen. What at first sounded like justice curdled when Hizdahr zo Loraq asked to bury his dead father. Hizdahr revealed Dany used no discretion in her decision, murdering Great Masters at random – even the elder zo Loraq, who had adamantly opposed the city’s decision to murder children.
Dany’s lack of discretion would appear again in Season 5 after the death of Ser Barristan Selmy at the hands of the Sons of the Harpy . Determined to uncover who among the Meereenese leaders are untrustworthy, Dany forced them into the catacombs housing Rhaegal and Viserion. One of the leaders is burned alive and eaten and all for nothing as Dany still did not discover who the Sons of the Harpy were working for.
Both of these actions showcase Dany’s slide from merciful and just to the ends justifying the means. While her intentions are still noble — in the former case wanting justice for butchered children and in the latter in grief over the death of a friend — the actions are concerning. Once Daenerys sees a person as her enemy, she no longer sees them as human, let only worthy of empathy. Seen in that light, her declaration in “The Bells” that the people of King’s Landing should have risen up and were complicit is her walling off. After that moment, the smallfolk of King’s Landing were her enemy and thus, worthy of punishment.
SECOND VERSE, SAME AS THE FIRST
One thing Dany’s father, the Mad King, was known for was his liberal burning of everyone that displeased him. The entire Stark family was altered forever when King Aerys II had Ned Stark’s father burned alive. The entirety of the Seven Kingdoms lived for 300 years under Targaryen royals with hair-trigger dragons. It was crucial that Dany distinguish herself from some of her ancestors in order for Westeros to put the daughter of the tyrant they rebelled against on the Iron Throne. Instead, one of her first actions were to burn the Tarly men alive for insubordination. Each step closer to the Iron Throne simply increased Dany’s belief that her destiny was to sit upon it and those in her way were the enemy.
BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE… PROPHECY
Even the metaphorical aspects of Game of Thrones have been telegraphing Daenerys’ transformation into the Mad Queen. In the first season, Dany eats a raw horse heart as part of a Dothraki pregnancy ritual. After succeeding at ingesting the heart, a Dothraki priestess recited a prophecy. Dany would birth a son, the “Stallion Who Mounts the World.” At the time, it was implied that son was Dany’s unborn child with Khal Drogo. In hindsight, however, the prophecy could be interpreted to mean Drogon.
Then there was the vision Daenerys had in the House of the Undying during Season 2. In this vision, Dany walked into the throne room of King’s Landing but it was destroyed. The room looked as if it had been on fire and the roof was caved in. What looked like snow fell silently on the abandoned Iron Throne. For years, many fans thought that implied Jon Snow would become king, but an alternative theory that began to take shape was that what we were seeing was ash, not snow.
All in all, Daenerys Targaryen’s action always foreshadowed a turn towards darkness. Mad Queen was always in the cards. With each loss both on the battlefield and in her personal life, Dany would have become more and more paranoid. As she lost even more of those she trusted to advise her, the eventual slide to tyrant could have happened by inches. As it played out though, the recent deaths of Jorah, Rhaegal, and Missandei, followed by the sound of King’s Landing’s bells, did the trick.