The night is dark and full of spoilers! In this case, for Game of Thrones Season 8, Episode 5.
First of all, holy crap. I guess we know why this season of GoT took so much time and money to film — the epic destruction of King’s Landing is unlike anything we’ve seen from this show so far, even the Battle of Winterfell two episodes ago.
However, like many fans, I came away feeling unsatisfied by Daenerys Targaryen’s heel turn. While plenty of people predicted she might be on a path toward villainy, the moment itself felt unearned and out of character. Already, dozens of essays explain how this is a betrayal of the fans, a betrayal of Dany, a betrayal of feminism…the list goes on. In the end, I think there were subtle failures on the parts of the writers that left viewers unprepared, and more importantly a real betrayal of trust between the show runners and Emilia Clarke, who portrays Dany on screen, that sabotaged her ability as an actor to fully present her character.
It’s inaccurate to say there weren’t signs earlier in the series that foreshadowed Dany’s impending madness. Taking inventory of the series from a purely objective, by-the-numbers perspective, we find abundant examples of Dany’s bloodlust:
- She burns Mirri Maz Duur alive as punishment for what she did to Khal Drogo;
- When the Thirteen of Qarth refuse to open their gates, she threatens to return and burn their city to the ground;
- To obtain her army of Unsullied, she tricks Kraznys mo Nakloz into “buying” one of her dragons, then burns him alive, sets fire to the city, and orders her new followers to kill the leaders of Astapor;
- After capturing the city of Yunkai, she has the Wise Masters crucified along the road to the city;
And of course she repeatedly makes speeches throughout the series declaring her intent to burn all who oppose her or wronged her family, and repeatedly pushes to burn King’s Landing to the ground in her effort to defeat Cersei Lannister. The pieces are there. The problem is, in every instance, the writers balance Dany’s brutality against mitigating circumstances that make her seem justified.
The writers themselves, in their behind-the-scenes segment, cite Khal Drogo’s execution of her brother Viserys as an early example of her bloodlust — but Viserys was a sociopath who just prior threatened to cut her baby out of her womb, and violated a law of the city of Vaes Dothrak for which he knew the penalty was death. He’d also repeatedly threatened her, molested her, and assaulted her throughout their scenes together. In the context of that scene, Dany’s cold stare reads not as madness or desire for vengeance, but as the detached observation of a victim of trauma.
As for those other instances? Mirri Maz Duur deceived her, not only killing her husband and baby, but leaving her to die without her Khalasar — and Dany doesn’t just burn the old woman, she herself walks into those flames. The Thirteen of Qarth stand between the life and death of the people who have entrusted Dany to lead them. Kraznys mo Nakloz is another sociopath, who relishes in describing the abuse and brutality in training Unsullied — Dany is presented as a savior, freeing slaves. The Wise Masters of Yunkai experience nothing worse than the exact treatment they used against their own slaves.
So even though those things all happened, the audience in each step was entirely on Dany’s side. We were led to see her not as someone on the edge of madness in her lust for revenge, but a reasonable person meting out harsh justice against those who deserved it — no different from Ned Stark, swinging the sword to behead a man he sentenced to death.
At the heart of the audience’s response is Emilia Clarke’s performance in each of these scenes, and here lies the real injustice of the series. Clarke’s performance in Season Eight has been terrific, but it feels sudden and abrupt, because just like the audience, she only learned this season where Dany’s arc was heading. Had she known earlier, she could have played those earlier scenes differently, to give us more hint of Dany’s personal desire for “fire and blood.”
Season 7 is a perfect example, as Dany’s advisors repeatedly talk her out of a three-dragon frontal assault on King’s Landing and Cersei Lannister. In none of those scenes does Dany come across as bloodthirsty or even motivated by revenge. Her attitude is cold, calculating: She wants her throne, and thinks a direct approach is the best strategy. Had Clarke known then where Dany was destined, she could have shown us more fraying in Dany’s composure, given us some subtle signal that burning King’s Landing was more than a means to an end.
For contrast, consider Bryan Cranston’s performance in Breaking Bad, one of the greatest in the history of television. The genius of that performance is how Cranston begins to show us Walt’s true motivations, his lust for power and notoriety, long before he completes his transformation into Heisenberg. Cranston would have been hamstrung if he were kept unaware of Walt’s destiny until the relevant episodes — or worse, left to think of Walt as a hero.
Game of Thrones really did Emilia Clarke dirty. She’s certainly not to blame — she has done yeoman’s work this season portraying Dany’s very sudden descent into madness, and her performance in the scene where Dany pulls her heel turn is brilliant. With little more than facial expression, Clarke shows us the moment where Dany realizes she’s won. The city has surrendered, the throne is hers for the taking. All she has to do is fly to the Red Keep, dismount her dragon, and her lifelong quest will be achieved.
But as she lays eyes on the Red Keep, Dany realizes the end of that quest will mean the end of her war, and realizes her quest has never really been for the Iron Throne at all. What she’s always really wanted, what the Iron Throne has meant to her, was revenge against the people who harmed her family, who drove her from her home and left her only with the abusive sociopathic brother who sold her as his property. Alone, without her advisors to talk her down and feeling isolated by the murders and betrayals of those she trusts, Dany makes a choice that would make sense…if it didn’t feel so out of character for the woman we’ve spent ten years coming to know.
This same twist will make more sense in the books — assuming there are more books, and that this plot point remains the same — because George R. R. Martin has gone to pains in the books to keep all his characters from seeming purely heroic or purely villainous, but maintaining everyone in shades of gray. The books don’t work so hard to make Dany’s actions feel justified, and very importantly the books spend chapter after chapter showing us how Dany, despite her talent as a conqueror and leader, is a lousy ruler. At that moment when the choice is so binary — dismount the dragon and rule, or take wing and conquer — the decision to conquer makes perfect sense.
It’s a shame the show’s writers didn’t do a better job preparing us for that, and a crime that they sabotaged Emilia Clarke’s performance. Properly prepared for the role, she could have stood Daenerys Targaryen alongside Walter White among television’s greatest anti-heroes. Instead, Game of Thrones fans will mostly come away unsatisfied, feeling the show has betrayed their Dragon Queen.