- Warning: Spoilers ahead for the series finale of HBO’s “Game of Thrones.”
- With Daenerys Targaryen’s rise to power and fall into violent destruction, George R.R. Martin crafted one of the most brilliant fantasy characters of all time.
- Her arc is about the inherent immorality and violence of warfare, no matter how “good” a ruler’s intentions are.
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The final season of HBO’s “Game of Thrones” brought Daenerys Targaryen, one of the show’s long-admired protagonists, into unprecedented horrific territory when she burned hundreds of thousands of innocent people alive as she destroyed King’s Landing.
By the end of the finale, the Mother of Dragons was murdered by Jon Snow because he and Tyrion Lannister were troubled by her method of rule and plan for world power.
Though the manner in which the show brought this devastating character turn to life has many issues, it wasn’t altogether a shock. George R.R. Martin, who wrote the novels “Game of Thrones” is based on, has written one of the most brilliant fantasy characters of all time in Daenerys Targaryen, layering in a message about the inherent immorality and violence of warfare no matter how “good” a ruler’s intentions are.
We were always meant to be wary of Daenerys Targaryen’s ascent to power. But the magic trick Martin, and by proxy “Game of Thrones,” pulled off was crafting an empathetic heroine we were rooting for – even as cheering for her success meant cheering for the death of thousands.
Daenerys has always had a problematic attitude towards violence
Many fans have rightfully taken issue with the show’s fast-paced portrayal of the Dragon Queen’s choice. But almost everyone agrees that this troubling turn will happen in George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” novels, even if the circumstances around the narrative are different. After all, Martin told “Game of Thrones” showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss the broad strokes of his planned ending.
In the week following “The Bells,” the penultimate episode of the series in which Daenerys attacks King’s Landing, discussion cropped up about how this dark turn was foreshadowed or hinted at from the very first season of “Game of Thrones.”
These moments we can point to are usually examples of Daenerys carrying out an act of violence which she considers to be justice. In the “Inside the Episode” segment for “The Bells,” Benioff uses Daenerys’ emotionless reaction to her brother’s death as an example of her problematic mindset.
“There is something kind of chilling about the way that Dany has responded to the death of her enemies,” he says.
But Viserys is a poor example to single out. Viserys physically and emotionally abused Daenerys for her whole life up until the moment he died. The way she responded to his death was reasonable.
It’s the way she responded to the actions of violence on the very next episode that was the real first sign of trouble.
The first real case of Daenerys showing a “chilling” response to violence happens not with Viserys, but when a wine seller attempts to poison her. Attempted murder of a pregnant woman is a horrific crime. But is tying that man naked to your horse and making him walk until he collapses and is dragged to death a reasonable punishment? That goes beyond justice. It’s a specific brand of vengeful violence.
Daenerys has a warped sense of justice, shown moreso by the pride she displays when Drogo makes his big speech about how he’s going to lay waste to Westeros in order to give Dany her throne.
“I will kill the men in the iron suits, and tear down their stone houses,” he said. “I will rape their women, take their children as slaves, and bring their broken gods back to Vaes Dothrak.”
Yes, once Daenerys sees Drogo’s plan in action, she has a change of heart and tries to rescue the women and children falling victim to this war. From then on, most of her violent actions are exacted against people who have wronged her first. But she never seems to feel conflicted or weighted down by the thought of killing these people.
“Game of Thrones” intentionally contrasts Daenerys’s physical and emotional response to killing people with Jon Snow’s. As INSIDER’s Megan Willett wrote during the sixth season of the show, “when he’s forced to take a life, Jon makes sure he’s the one to swing the sword, and he views it as a burden, not a pleasure.”
Even when they first talk outside of the halls of Dragonstone, Daenerys mentions how people enjoy what they’re good at.
“I don’t,” Jon says, implying his prowess at fighting and killing brings him no joy. Just like his father, Rhaegar Targaryen.
What Daenerys does, and how she feels about it, is no worse than what every other leader in Westeros has done. From King Robert to Tywin Lannister and Robb Stark and Walder Frey, we are shown again and again how the choices of men in power lead to brutal deaths and wreaked havoc on the country.
But unlike those leaders, Daenerys is introduced in a much more sympathetic way. We are first shown the abuse inflicted upon her by Viserys, and how she’s sold into a marriage and sexually assaulted. We were caught up in her righteous quest to end slavery and protect the innocent, and the entire fantasy realm of “Game of Thrones.”
It led people to believe that her particular acts of war or violence were being done for “better” reasons than most of the other characters. Her fight for the Iron Throne, and declarations that she will take what is hers with fire and blood, previously came across not as “chilling” but as thrilling.
But what if Martin’s whole point is that there’s virtually no way for war to be justified? What if the backwards way Martin wrote Daenerys as a sympathetic heroine was always meant to lead us down a conflicted path of feeling uneasy with the way in which she was achieving her goals?
George R.R. Martin’s objections to war in the real world is reflected in this tragic ending for Daenerys
Martin has spoken often about how he was given the status of “conscientious objector” during the Vietnam War, therefore excluding him from the draft. He’s said that he’s not a “complete pacifist,” citing World War II as a fight he would have participated in. But Martin does discuss how the reasoning behind waging a war is something people struggle with often, and is a debate he wants to spark with his readers.
“Taking human life should always be a very serious thing,” Martin said in a 2014 interview with Rolling Stone.
He went on to discuss how modern warfare with drones and missile strikes has removed the personal nature of murder from the equation, and how people’s removal from the up-close horrors of war is not necessarily a good thing.
“You see this same moral struggle all through history,” Martin said. “It’s always the question, when you’re at war, do you do whatever it takes to win, or do you actually maintain your own moral standard and ideals?”
In a 2012 interview with Strombo, Martin expanded on the reason why his “A Song of Ice and Fire” novels are so full of brutal violence.
“I think if you’re going to write about war and violence, then show the cost,” Martin said. “Show how ugly it is, show both sides of it.”
One the most revered sections of “A Song of Ice and Fire” comes in the fourth book, when a godly man named Septon Meribald meets Brienne of Tarth and Podrick Payne. They’re discussing “broken men” (soldiers who have defected or deserted their armies) and what follows is one of the best commentaries on war given in all of Martin’s writing.
In a monologue, Septon Meribald describes the fathers and sons and brothers who were sent away from their homes to fight brutal battles on behalf of their lords. He describes the ways glorification of war through song and speeches leaves new soldiers unprepared for the reality of death and starvation and having to steal shoes from a corpse just to march another day.
People like Brienne should be wary of broken men, he explains, but she should also pity them. They’re not criminals for the hell of it, but traumatized souls reduced to their most base instincts of survival.
The broken man speech is Martin at his most melancholic and empathetic. The series spends much time turning around and around the highborn lords and ladies. It is in Martin’s broken man speech that we’re reminded of what the War of the Five Kings has cost the realm, and how, at this moment, it no longer matters who wins the Iron Throne. The suffering and pain and damage inflicted on a war-torn country cannot be undone.
For the most part in his books, Martin has thus far kept Daenerys Targaryen’s wagings of war isolated to attacks on slave masters or other people who have already wronged her or sought to harm her. She has yet to do what happened on the fifth episode of season eight, when she turned her destructive abilities on innocent masses of people.
Many readers of Martin’s story believe he’s bringing Daenerys into an inevitably tragic conflict with her goal of claiming the Iron Throne as her own, and that we’ll see this destructive and brutal side of her in the coming books.
Daenerys is a character designed to make us question whether the ends justify the means in warfare
The ways in which fans of “Game of Thrones” talk about Daenerys Targaryen was always often loaded. Sometimes loaded with emotional resonance, other times loaded with misogyny. She was unfairly compared to other men on the show, like her father the Mad King, or fairly critiqued for the way in which she played the role of “white saviour” while liberating slaves around Essos.
The high emotional stakes of rooting for Daenerys came directly from Martin’s intentional presentation of her as a heroine, a downtrodden protagonist who slowly amassed confidence and strength and power and turned those new abilities back onto those who wronged her or sought to destroy her.
Daenerys Targaryen is one of the most brilliantly complicated fictional characters ever written precisely because of the way we were rooting for her – and how that admiration was flipped to horror when we saw what the Mother of Dragons was capable of.
There’s much to be said about the way “Game of Thrones” poorly executed Daenerys’ turn down this destructive path. The show itself failed to do the extra character work required to bring the beloved heroine to this tragic choice, and instead wound up making many people feel as if Daenerys was reduced to a sexist trope.
But Martin was always trying to warn us all along that, no matter how good her intentions were, Daenerys Targaryen’s goal of conquering Westeros was going to result in the compromise of her morals and an unjustifiable amount of violence.
Daenerys herself even questions whether her violent ends justified her means when she’s ruling Meereen in the book series.
“Mother of dragons,” Daenerys thinks to herself in Martin’s fifth book. “Mother of monsters. What have I unleashed upon the world? A queen I am, but my throne is made of burned bones, and it rests on quicksand […] I am the blood of the dragon, she thought. If they are monsters, so am I.”
Fantasy series so often make clear to fans who the monsters and heroes are, and where we should place our emotional stakes. But Martin set out to do something different with his books.
“I don’t necessarily think there are heroes,” Martin said in the 2014 Rolling Stone interview. “That’s something that’s very much in my books: I believe in great characters. We’re all capable of doing great things, and of doing bad things. We have the angels and the demons inside of us, and our lives are a succession of choices.”
Daenerys Targaryen was both the Mother of Monsters and the Breaker of Chains. Her choices, one after the other, of both mercy and violence, brought her to an untenable point. Daenerys chose to burn the city of King’s Landing. She chose fear. And the consequence of that choice was her death.
Was it worth it? Would we have done the same in her position? Is there any such thing as a morally justified call to war? These are the questions we’re left with as “Game of Thrones” ended, and as we wait for the conclusion to Martin’s version of the story.
For more insights like these, preorder “The Unofficial Guide to Game of Thrones” by Kim Renfro here.
- Read more:
- How Daenerys Targaryen’s death was an imperfect fulfillment of the show’s biggest prophecy
- Jon Snow killing Daenerys might have been the last major surprise George R.R. Martin revealed to the show’s writers
- Every character who survived the entirety of ‘Game of Thrones,’ including 11 you might have forgotten about
- Emilia Clarke tried to warn fans last year about Daenerys’ final season arc on ‘Game of Thrones’
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