After the fifth episode of the 8th and final season of Game of Thrones, there was a large amount of vitriol around what is arguably the most shocking plot twist in the whole series. Daenerys Targaryen—the Mother of Dragons, the Queen of the Andals, the Rhonyar, and the First Men, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, and Breaker of Chains—committed mass genocide, and everyone can’t stop talking about it. The protagonist of what is arguably the most impactful and popular television show of the last decade mercilessly burned down the capital city of Westeros, even after the city had clearly surrendered. Following the aftermath of the episode, many termed it grossly uncharacteristic for Daenerys to do such a thing, and attacked the writers of the show for butchering the character arc of one of the most famous cultural feminist icons of all time. And although I agree that the season was rushed overall, (and should have been spread out over more episodes), I believe that Daenerys’s drastic transformation fits very neatly into the larger thematic universe of George R.R. Martin, and that it was a very important and well-made choice on the part of the writers.
Throughout the show and the books, Daenerys has been molded and shaped as the true heiress to the Iron Throne, and leader of the Seven Kingdoms. Her father, the Mad King Aerys, was the last Targaryen king before he was deposed of by a military coup. Since the beginning, she believed that she was the rightful ruler, and did everything in order to gain what was hers by right. She freed countless slaves from what she viewed as violent oppression from aristocrats and tyrants by crucifying slave masters by the thousands. All-in-all, she gradually began to view herself as an all-saving liberator, a revolutionary who wanted to free all men, women and children from the clutches of the powerful. Throughout the show, Daenerys stated multiple times how she would use “fire and blood”, the words of House Targaryen, in order to “break the wheel” of the realpolitik and senseless war that plagued the Westerosi people.
She was the perfect leader, and was developed as true saviour of Westeros for seven seasons. This is Game of Thrones, however, and there has never been a definite line drawn between “good” and “evil.” Instead, there has only been complex interactions between nuanced characters in a morally gray landscape which is intrinsically founded on the internal conflicts of different people with different incentives. To have Daenerys become ruler would invalidate all the tropes that Game of Thrones is known for, and would weaken the message that Martin hammered over and over again in his works: innocent people die and always will die because of the Game of Thrones, even if the players are “good people.”
According to Vox.com, these sentiments stem from Martin’s famous hatred against Bush’s “War on Terror,” [a][b]an abstract counter strike against “evil” that has caused millions of innocent and good civilians suffering and horror. To him, the intention of war does not matter: its effects are the same, and will always be the same. Therefore, with this in mind, it is clear to see why Daenerys simply could not win the Game this easily.
Admittedly, the writers could have developed her descent into madness much better. Instead of attributing her insanity to the biological ramifications of being born a Targaryen (an incestuous dynasty that has produced a good number of mentally insane rulers), they should have focused more on the view that she was the sole and righteous judge of humanity she increasingly embraced. While they did touch upon this, I do not believe that it was developed as sufficiently and thoroughly as many would have liked. She is an extremely compelling villain and character as a whole because she truly believed that she was the hero. She had everything taken away from her: her family, her friends, her loves, her throne. All her life, she has laboured tirelessly for what she has believed is the greater good. Because of this, we were able to sympathise with her, and grow to love her. That is why it was so gut-wrenching and emotionally painful to see her turn mad. Her character shows that no human can be truly good; her pure intentions were corrupted and darkened by her character flaws, and we saw first-hand how the drive for absolute power can change someone.
The clues were always there. We always knew that she wanted to rule, even if ruling meant that she would have to take Westeros via fire and blood. Only now do we truly understand the grotesque ramifications of war, and the scale at which war, no matter the cause, is always horrible.