‘Game of Thrones’ Needed to Earn Daenerys’ Decision; It Failed

     May 13, 2019

Over the course of the last two seasons of Game of Thrones, fans have argued about Daenerys. As recently as last week, I wrote about how the show had failed to justify Daenerys’ trajectory. The show was pushing her to be more volatile and insane, but also had done little in the way of her actions to make that turn believable. The series has felt insanely rushed in its closing seasons (a baffling decision since I don’t think anyone at HBO was saying, “Please, wrap up this hit show”), and nowhere is that clearer than in how muddled Daenerys’ arc has become. You could run two competing articles where one person claims that the show hasn’t earned Daenerys’ heel turn and another where you can say it’s been headed in that direction the whole time, but even to the latter point, it didn’t stick the landing.

Sometimes it’s good for a character to be enigmatic and leave viewers guessing, but Daenerys is not that character. She’s not some unknowable being. She’s a queen fighting to take the throne. However, her actions have been at cross-purposes so there’s no clear descent into madness or build up to her actions in “The Bells.” The Daenerys of previous seasons was in a heroic mold. She could be brutal against her enemies, but she had an affinity for the downtrodden. Slaves like Missandei and Grey Worm became her closest advisors. But because the show needed to push her towards a darker path, she started to rely more on “destiny” and entitlement for the throne even though her actions for the majority of the series were about trying to rule fairly and justly. When there were uprisings in Essos, she didn’t indiscriminately burn the people until they fell in line. She had to wrestle with upheaval and find solutions.

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Image via HBO

At some point, showrunners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff made the decision that the dramatic tension of Daenery’s character should be based around unpredictability. They pursued this by making her more isolated. She loses her dragons, she loses her advisors, and she’s betrayed by some of the people closest to her. Then in “The Bells” they reiterate the line about how when a Targaryen is born, “the gods toss a coin in the air and the world holds its breath to see how it will land.” That may be great for dramatic tension, but it’s horrible for character development; it says that what you’ve done is create someone who doesn’t have a core set of values as much as they have a 50/50 shot of behaving one of two opposite behaviors. Everything this character has been through gets tossed out the window in favor of random chance. Maybe you could get away with that if we had never met Daenerys Targaryen before. It doesn’t work when have eight seasons of spending time with the character and knowing how she relates to other people.

You can see in “The Bells” how the writers are straining to explain Daenerys’ eventual choice. Her close advisors Missandei and Jorah are dead. Varys and Jon have betrayed her. Even though Machiavelli doesn’t exist in this world, she chooses that it’s better to be feared than to be loved because the people who loved her are either dead or betrayed her. Let us set aside this is a shockingly myopic view for someone who has literally ruled in Essos. This isn’t Daenerys’ first rodeo, but if this loss and betrayal was supposed to transform her, then we needed to see that transformation, not have it be two episodes after she was willing to risk her life for the fate for the world in “The Long Night.”

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