Daenerys Turning Into The Mad Queen On 'Game Of Thrones' Isn't A "Plot Twist" — She's Been A Tyrant All Along
Spoilers for Game Of Thrones Season 8 Episode 5. The penultimate episode for the entire Game of Thrones series has come and gone and it left some fans completely shocked. Ignoring the Lannister army's surrender, Daenerys became the Mad Queen and burned King's Landing to the ground. Some saw this as a complete betrayal of Dany's character arc as compassionate liberator, an unearned heel turn that was written in by David Benioff and D. B. Weiss to make a path for Jon to be king. Others were unsurprised by the turn of events, pointing to hints laid out in earlier seasons. That fans are divided on whether Dany's tyranny was foreshadowed from the beginning or not speaks to the show's writing.
Benioff and Weiss continuously kept Dany's preference for violence over peace, imperialism over democracy, as just subtext, favoring a late series reveal over a long, developed storyline that could have seen Dany become as nuanced and morally grey as Cersei. Instead they chose to portray Dany as an almost one-note savior, refusing to fully critique her actions at almost every turn. As a result, she was everyone's feminist icon, until she wasn't.
The problem with the show writers' portrayal of Dany is that even in the books the HBO series has strayed from in recent seasons, it's clear her story always ends here. Take it from creator George R. R. Martin himself: at a Life in Fandom panel at Archipelacon, GRRM praised Adam Feldman's essays about Dany's final moments in A Dance with Dragons, the last published book. "I was really pleased with them, because at least one guy got it. He got it completely," said Martin. Feldman writes that by the end of the novel, Dany's madness has taken over. She rejects Meereen and the endless difficulties of keeping the peace and fully embraces her propensity for destruction — because in the end, war is easier.
"It seems that Martin started off by giving Dany a seeming moral justification for her violence, that he always later planned to undercut," writes Feldman. "Now, Dany’s in it for herself — for her own power, for her own throne, and for becoming who she’s made to be...This is the tragedy of Dany. She achieved peace. And then she decided war felt better."
In Dany's final book moments, Martin writes, "Dragons plant no trees. Remember that. Remember who you are, what you were made to be. Remember your words." To which Dany responds, "Fire and blood."
A Dance with Dragons was adapted into Season 5 of the show; after that, the story is mostly Benioff and Weiss' own writing. From that point on, at the very least, they should have steadily built on Martin's twist until Dany became who she was likely meant to be in the end: a Mad Queen who sees collateral damage as acceptable as long as she's able to rule over the ideal society that she created. The dragons aren't supposed to be just awesome CGI flying nukes we cheer on (although I get it, it's hard not to); Dany embracing Drogon after he saves her from the pits of Meereen is supposed to signify her giving in to her worst, most base impulses to achieve her goals.
This all goes largely unmentioned in the show up until Season 8. Dany always had the makings of a dictator who's in possession of the equivalent of three nuclear weapons; the show just dressed up all her nuanced actions as empowering and feminist. The narrative continuously worked to discourage thinking on the wider implications of her actions: Dany watches her brother die, but he was abusive. She destroyed the city of Astapor and caused suffering in Meereen, but they were owned by slave owners, and the leaders called her sexist slurs. She destroyed the central Dothraki city of Vaes Dotrak and burned all the khals, thus reducing their culture to rubble, but they were misogynistic and perverse anyway. Dany essentially colonized Essos by attempting to enforce Westerosi ideals everywhere she went, but we're shown repeatedly that they were a terribly backward society, so they need to be saved.
In Season 3 Dany was literally held up by a sea of brown hands as a white savior, an incredibly problematic image that not once did the show attempt to really deconstruct. The writers never fully show that Dany's attempt to free Slaver's Bay ends in widespread disaster; outside a scene in Season 4's "First of His Name" where her advisors mention most of the cities returned to slavery after she left, we're allowed to forget about the suffering Dany has unintentionally caused before she moves on to Westeros. As Charlotte Ahlin writes, "Martin's version of Dany is a tragic hero...In the show, Dany is a good guy with a few flashes of villainy, meant to be redeemed by her magical pedigree and her good intentions."
The truth is, Dany's belief that violence solves problems was built right into the blueprint of her character from Season 1, and the fact that the show writers didn't build upon that from the get-go is the reason fans feel so betrayed going into the final episode. Dany's always believed in her own divine birthright to sit on a throne, which itself is incompatible with any noble ideas of having a free and happy people. She was married to a warlord. Her son was going to be the most powerful warlord, the "Stallion Who Mounted the World". When she burns Mirri Maz Duur, the slave who kills Drogo and her unborn son to save others from pillaging, rape, and destruction, it's not because Dany believes it will make the world better. She does it because she's vindictive and furious, and Mirri personally wronged her.
Repeatedly we were shown scenes that should have been concerning and left us questioning Dany's propensity for violence, but Benioff and Weiss buried that point completely. Many fans of color have pointed out that we should have seen this coming, and on one level they are right: Dany is and has always been an egotistical conquerer, and her bulldozing in Essos has worrying, real-life parallels to the ways in which white Western countries have colonized other nations. It's unsurprising that marginalized people were able to sniff out what Dany was long before the show writers decided to tell us.
On the other hand, Benioff and Weiss' writing and positioning of Dany as an unequivocal feminist hero allowed fans to remain in the dark, and uphold their queen as something that GRRM always meant to undermine. It's not the fans' fault that the show's writers kept Dany's dual nature as subtext, leading to Khaleesi becoming a popular baby name and politicians like Hillary Clinton co-opting Khaleesi imagery. It's the show writers' fault for actively misleading everyone to begin with. And for what? Final season shock value? Yawn.
To be more blunt about it, in the end Benioff and Weiss were comfortable with painting Dany as a kind and rightful savior as long as her victims were mostly brown people, and that what needed reforming was a foreign culture that we were told was inherently savage and misogynistic. It's only when Dany turned her dragons on King's Landing, populated by a lot of white people, that they suddenly acknowledged the subtext that should have been clear to all viewers all along. Rather than a slow build that showed Dany's descent into madness and increasing belief in might makes right, we were given a milquetoast romance with Jon, scenes of empowerment that failed to be intersectional, and a sudden heel turn that seems to be now hinged on Dany being a woman too emotional to be fit to rule. That says something about Benioff and Weiss, and unfortunately, that many bought into it until this point says something about the fandom, too.
As someone who has always distrusted Dany, I can't say she deserved better. But we as fans certainly did.