Why ‘Game of Thrones’ ended the way it did, Part III

June 16, 2020, 6:24 p.m.

In the previous part of this article, we discussed the relationship between passion and violence in “Game of Thrones,” and how it is humanity’s deepest passions that drive us into cyclical patterns of violence. 

This brings us to Daenerys Targaryen — perhaps the most passionate character in the story. She’s not only strong-willed, but ambitious, proud, vengeful, very loving to some and incredibly hateful toward others. Of course, in being one of the most passionate characters in “Game of Thrones,” she’s also one of the most violent. Given our previous analysis of the roles of passion and violence in “Game of Thrones,” it should be clear why Daenerys could not have walked out of the story as the divine hero many thought her to be. While she frames her goal in Westeros as “breaking the wheel” in later seasons, she aims to do this by engaging in the same systemic violence that propels it in the first place. As Jon puts it to her in season seven: “If you use dragons to melt castles and burn cities, you’re not different. You’re just more of the same.” While Daenerys burning down King’s Landing was arguably the most controversial plot point of the entire show (and the one that drew the most hatred from fans), understanding her character through the lens of Martin’s thematic intentions will help us understand why this dark turn was not only thematically necessary but also far more true to her character than we may have realized.

To gain some context, it helps to examine other scenes in the show involving the burning of innocents. For example, recall the penultimate episode of season five, in which Stannis and Selyse Baratheon agree to allow the red priestess Melisandre to sacrifice their daughter Shireen to the Lord of Light by burning her alive. However, in the many previous scenes over several seasons in which we saw Stannis and Selyse, we were generally given the sense that their daughter was the one person they loved more than anything in the world. She was a soft spot for an otherwise incredibly hardened and determined couple, and for this reason, their decision to burn her came as a shock to the audience. But notice how no one complained that this plot turn had not been “properly set up” or that this “ruined” Stannis’ and Selyse’s characters. This is because the sudden, dramatically horrible action wasn’t recklessly written in out of the blue, but rather it served to recontextualize the characters we thought we knew. If we’ll recall Martin’s desire to depict “the human heart in conflict with itself,” this scene features an atrocity born of opposing forces within particular characters, and serves as the culmination of one force overtaking another. While both Stannis and Selyse have tremendous love for their daughter, they also have extreme commitments to the idea of divine right. The first scene in which we’re introduced to the two of them even involves the burning of sacrifices to the Lord of Light, showing the internal characteristics that would lead to their final heinous act many seasons later.

Now, in turning to Daenerys, we can see her in the same manner. While her final heinous act was incredibly shocking to us as an audience, this is not because her character was poorly developed, nor because her end was randomly written in to “subvert expectations.” Rather, the scene serves to recontextualize her character, and to get us to rethink her story. Why did she do this, and how does this event add to the thematic depth of “Game of Thrones”?

The first important thing to note here is that not only has this ending been planned since the early days of the series (see Dany and Bran’s vision from seasons two, four and six), but even fans had actually predicted this as a potential ending for years. While her decision to burn King’s Landing was shocking, this doesn’t mean that the signs were never there, nor that they were so subtle as to be imperceptible. If you look back over Daenerys’ story after knowing the ending, especially keeping in mind the thematic context we’ve discussed in this article, you’ll find that many of the actions that we’d previously cheered for as “badass” actually showcased her capacity for cruelty. One thing many fans have noticed in going back to previous seasons after having watched the finale is that Daenerys has long talked about burning entire cities down in her pursuit of power:

“When my dragons are grown, we will take back what was stolen from me, and destroy those who have wronged me, we will lay waste to armies and burn cities to the ground.”

  • Daenerys, Season 2

Dany: “One day your great city will return to the dirt as well.”

Hizdahr: “At your command?”

Dany: “If need be.”

Hizdahr: “And how many people will die to make this happen?”

Dany: “If it comes to that, they will have died for a good reason.”

Hizdahr: [Gesturing to Gladiators] “Those men think they’re dying for a good reason.”

Dany: “Someone else’s reason.”

  • Daenerys to her Mereneese Husband, Hizdahr, Season 5

“I will crucify the masters, I will set their fleets afire, kill every last one of their soldiers and return their cities to the dirt.”

  • Daenerys, Season 6

In response to quotes like these, as well as many examples of Daenerys engaging in gratuitous violence throughout the story, critics of the final season developed a mantra that states “foreshadowing is not character development” — in other words, simply peppering hints that a character will do something drastic later on in the story does not adequately show that character’s transition toward being believably able to commit that drastic act. However, what objections like this miss is that Daenerys never had an “arc” that was meant to take her from sanity to madness or from benevolent to malevolent. Rather, the complexity of her character ( as it is for the other characters of “Game of Thrones,”) is drawn from the continuous conflict between her competing impulses, and that, as seen in the quotes above, the impulses which propelled her to commit genocide in the final season were impulses that she always had. 

The first characteristic of Daenerys to notice in this regard is that she is incredibly proud — she has a devout belief in her own semi-divinity, in her alleged “right” to sit on the Iron Throne, and in the cult of personality that has developed around her. When she meets Jon Snow for the first time in season seven, she says that what’s kept her going through all her hardships is “Faith. Not in any Gods — in myself,” and ends with a declaration of “I was born to rule the seven kingdoms, and I will.” In many ways, this is an understandable belief for her to have: She’s the only person in the known world with dragons, she’s immune to burning, she’s worked her way up from property to queen and she has the likes of Jorah, Tyrion and Varys all at her side (people very slow to believe in any rulers at all).  

However, the unfortunate by-product of this is that Daenerys rarely questions her own decisions, and often has an inflated sense of confidence that borders on delusional grandeur. In the quotes above, notice that when Hizdahr objects to the idea that people who die in a city she conquers are dying for a “good reason” by pointing out that the gladiators in Meereen’s fighting pits think they’re dying for a good reason, she responds by saying “someone else’s reason,” — privileging herself as the one who knows best when it comes to who should live and who should die. This often leads her to dole out severe punishments without considering the broader implications of her actions nor the point of view of the punished. Some examples include her ordering every master in Meereen to be crucified (some of whom turned out to be innocent of the crime she was executing them for), having her advisor Mossador executed and causing a riot as a result and gathering the nobles of Meereen in a dungeon and burning one of them alive, with no trial, as a warning to the rest. This tendency becomes even more clear once Daenerys comes to Westeros. Tyrion and Varys repeatedly worry about the kind of ruler she might be, especially after she ruthlessly burns Samwell Tarly’s father and brother for not verbally surrendering in season seven, despite the fact that they were unarmed and their entire army had kneeled. Throughout season eight Tyrion and Varys have conversations about “tempering her worst impulses” and become increasingly concerned with her ability to exercise good judgement — so much so that they consider and attempt treason, even before she burns King’s Landing. Her delusional self belief, of course, culminates in her final scene, when Jon is trying to get her to be merciful and asks her, “What about all the other people who think they know what’s good?” She responds by saying, “They don’t get to choose.” She’s absolutely certain that she is the arbiter of what is good and just, and takes no time to consider other points of view.

In fact, Daenerys’ attachment to her own quasi-divinity is so strong that she sees it as just as, if not more, important than the survival of humanity. In season seven Jon takes her down to the caves on Dragonstone to look at the drawings of the White Walkers that were once made by the Children of the Forest. In doing so he hopes to convince her to help them fight the dead using her dragons. However, once she sees these drawings she says she agrees to help, leaves a small pause, and then adds “…when you bend the knee.” She makes the swearing of allegiance — from the king of a land that is politically operating just fine without her — a necessary condition for her to help prevent Westeros from being overrun by the dead. 

This helps recontextualize her character. While we might’ve been inclined to see her liberation of slaves in Essos as a sign of her benevolence or kindness, this actually shows that her capacity for “kindness” primarily appears when it’s convenient for her. Her “liberations” are not as much about the people as they are about her higher goal of taking the Iron Throne. She “liberates” the Unsullied and gains an army. She “liberates” Yunkai, Astapor and Meereen, and immediately gains control over those cities, increasing her power and resources. This is not to say that she did not care about the enslaved peoples at all; it makes sense that she would have a soft spot for the downtrodden and powerless, given that she herself once was. However, her compassion for a very particular group of people comes at the expense of many others, and rather than leading her to create a better world it leads her to simply re-inflict the cruelty on the perpetrators. This is an intuitively understandable motive — after all, slavers who crucify children deserve to be crucified themselves, right? But if we take this as an end-all-be-all principle, then we have to consider that Dany’s best friend and right-hand-man, Jorah Mormont, was also once a slave trader. Yet Dany doesn’t ever once question whether or not he should also be crucified. This shows that Dany, like many of the other characters in the story, is not ethically consistent. She punishes people purely based on her intuitive judgements of whether or not they deserve to suffer. This brings us to another toxic characteristic of Daenerys: her chosen brand of justice is always purely retributive, and often excessively so, rather than restorative. Her punishments are never aimed at correcting systemic ills or making the world a better place; rather, they’re simply seen as either means of instilling fear to cement her rule or as worthy ends in and of themselves. Given what we’ve divined about the role of revenge in “Game of Thrones,” it should be clear that this kind of ethic can’t lead to peace — only to more violence. 

Another sign that Daenerys’ ambitions in Westeros were doomed is this: if you dissect her campaign, the only real reason she has for believing that she is destined to rule Westeros is that it’s her “birthright.” But given that heirs and birthrights have been the system under which Westeros has chosen new rulers for thousands of years, and consequently have served as some of the primary forces propelling Dany’s proverbial wheel, why would we expect her plan to forcefully take the throne she believes she’s owed to end in peace when it didn’t end that way for the countless others who tried to do the same thing? With this as her motivation, she’s really not any better than the players in the War of the Five Kings. With the exception of Robb Stark, every potential ruler in the conflict was fighting because they believed it was their divine birthright to sit on the Iron Throne. Stannis Baratheon, Renly Baratheon, Balon Greyjoy and King Joffrey all believed they had a right to the throne simply because of their bloodline, and were willing to have thousands die in pursuit of that destiny. What about Daenerys’ “destiny” is any different from theirs? She was only ever more of the same. She seeks to break the wheel — to end the game of thrones, the feudalistic system that continuously invites violence and oppression, by playing it, just as all the other “rulers” throughout the story have tried to do. This could never have ended well.

However, this doesn’t quite answer two crucial questions: Why does Dany engage in such cruelty, and what made us mostly blind to it? This brings us to Daenerys’ core toxic trait: She finds pleasure in violence. We could see this as early as season one, when Khal Drogo pours molten gold onto the head of her brother Viserys. Rather than looking at this scene in horror and fear, her look is one of lust. She reveled in the taste of revenge — finally seeing the man who repeatedly bullied and objectified her, who sold her off for profit and who hit her for disobedience die a horrible death. This is a pattern that continues. She finds immense pleasure in burning Mirri Maz Duur, the witch who killed her husband, in burning the original owner of the Unsullied in Astapor, in burning a master of Meereen to instill fear, in burning the Dothraki Khals who re-captured her, in burning the Lannister army to ashes, in burning Lord Varys for treason and so much more. She enjoys such violence not only because it offers the primal satisfaction of revenge, but also because it reinforces her God complex — it reaffirms to her that she’s the true arbiter of justice. In season five, Barristan Selmy captures this succinctly when he advises her to give a potential member of the Sons of the Harpy a fair trial, rather than going straight to execution, and draws a parallel between her and her father: “The Mad King gave his enemies the justice he thought they deserved, and each time it made him feel powerful and right — until the very end.” Tyrion also captures this point in season eight, when he attempts to convince Jon to kill Daenerys: “Everywhere she goes, evil men die and we cheer her for it. And she grows more powerful and more sure that she is good and right.”

This brings us to her final atrocity. Many complained about Daenerys’ decision to burn King’s Landing because she had no reason to. And they’re absolutely right — she doesn’t burn the city because she has to, she burns it because she wants to. Surrender and the ringing of bells isn’t nearly enough to satisfy Dany’s lust for revenge — especially not after she’s had both Missandei and one of her dragons killed by her enemies — nor does it give her the satisfaction of receiving the love of the people and being hailed as a divine Queen. Unlike Essos, Westeros has no slaves for her to “liberate.” The Westerosi don’t see her in a positive light at all; rather, they see her for what she is: another conqueror. Burning the city down is an act of pure passion — lashing out in rage for all the wrongs done to her at people who don’t deserve it, trying to find the catharsis in violence that she’s always sought out. But the pursuit of this catharsis, as it has over the course of the rest of the show as well as the entire history of Westeros, has only ever led to greater and greater violence. If this seems like an unrealistic length for someone to go to simply as an act of lashing out in anger, think about all the other times people have engaged in horrifically gratuitous violence purely for personal gratification. If we remember Cersei’s quote about invasion from season two — she knew that a successful siege of King’s Landing would end in the mass murder and rape of innocent civilians, because that is what happens when a city is sacked. The Dothraki don’t rape and murder villagers when they go on raids because they have to in order to secure surrender, they do it because they want to. When they come to King’s Landing, they do the same thing, simply because they want to. The Northmen also do this in King’s Landing because they want to. When King’s Landing was sacked during Robert’s Rebellion, the Mountain didn’t rape and murder Elia Martell because he had to, but because he wanted to. In fact, we can see Daenerys endorsing such actions as early as season one: when Khal Drogo made it his cause to invade Westeros and put Dany on the Iron Throne, this is what he promised: 

“I will take my Khaleesi west to where the world ends, and ride wooden horses across the black salt water, as no Khal has done before. I will kill the men in iron suits, and tear down their stone houses. I will rape their women, take their children as slaves, and bring their broken Gods back to Vaes Dothrak.”

And rather than being horrified, Daenerys looks at her husband with lust and pride as he says this, and even echoes this same speech back to her armies in seasons six and eight. Some of this exact language is used in her speech to the Dothraki after she takes King’s Landing. But we never question these actions of completely needless violence as unrealistic, because they’re not. This is not far removed from what happens in real life – innocent members of invaded societies have had horrendous violence inflicted upon them for thousands of years, for no reason other than the gratification of the invaders. One need only look at the atrocities regularly committed by the Vikings, by colonizers, by the armies of Genghis Khan and so on ad infinitum. Such acts of violence are not the result of particular “bad apples,” but rather they are endemic to humanity — born of internal impulses and capacities that we all share. Daenerys’ decision to fire bomb an entire city is not at all unprecedented — the only difference between her violence and these other examples of it is that she has a fully-grown fire-breathing dragon, which allows her to enact such violence and destruction on a scale that no one else in the story ever could.

The real question is how we didn’t see it coming. And this brings us to the most profound, and perhaps scariest, part of Daenerys’ story: the reason we were blind to this cruelty in her for so long is that we also find pleasure in violence. Think back to your own reactions over the course of the entire show — did you cheer when Viserys had molten gold poured onto his head? Did you cheer when Dany burned the former owner of the Unsullied? Did you cheer when Joffrey was poisoned to death at his wedding? Did you cheer when Ramsey Bolton was gratuitously beaten by Jon Snow after the Battle of the Bastards, or when Sansa had him eaten by his own dogs? Did you cheer when Arya murdered all of House Frey as revenge for the Red Wedding? Were you upset that Cersei died cradled in the arms of her lover rather than getting viciously torn to shreds by a dragon?  These felt like very reasonable things to cheer for — after all, they deserved it, right? But this sense of “justice” is not born from a place of restorative intention, rather, it merely seeks the primal gratification of revenge, and sees retribution as a worthy end in and of itself. It also only serves to make us, on some level, feel better about ourselves. It gives us people to look down upon, rather than understand, and it often makes us blind to the systemic issues that might have led to those original acts of violence in the first place.

This is one of the many things that’s so brilliant about Daenerys’ story — Martin was able to illustrate these thematic points by hoodwinking us with our own humanity. A budding tyrant was slipped under our noses for eight years because there was so much in her that resonated with all of us, and now that we’ve all witnessed her final atrocity it seems that we should be questioning our own internal impulses, and asking ourselves about the ways in which we normalize cruelty and brutality. 

Contact Isaac Vaught at ivaught ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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