Warning: spoilers ahead for Game of Thrones season 8, especially episode 5, “The Bells.”
Game of Thrones has become increasingly divisive over the course of eight seasons, but Daenerys Targaryen’s descent into becoming the “mad queen” may be its most controversial turn yet. Some viewers are arguing that Daenerys has always been a mad queen. Others say the show failed her character entirely. Even those who accept the mechanics of her fall often doubt the show earned it properly.
But Daenerys’ actions aren’t the only things at the root of the fan divide. There are significant questions about the ways the latest episode, “The Bells,” depicted her through other characters’ eyes. In some ways, Daenerys’ abrupt King’s Landing rampage wasn’t uncharacteristic. What’s new is the way the episode hid her from the audience and focused on how the other characters, the audience’s window into the story, recoiled when faced with the reality of Daenerys’ destruction. The scope of Daenerys’ attack on King’s Landing is far greater than anything else she’s left in her wake, but the biggest pivot this season has been the abrupt shift to having other main characters deeply question her actions, ability to rule, and moral compass.
Throughout the show, Daenerys has been the single most beloved character. She’s been romantically attached to a string of devoted male characters — Khal Drogo, Jorah Mormont, Daario Naharis, and Jon Snow. Yara Greyjoy and Tyrion Lannister had lingering moments of seeming interest that led fans to speculate whether they’re in love with Daenerys as well. Countless characters have commented on Daenerys’ beauty as if it was her most significant feature. Not to debate Emilia Clarke’s obvious attractiveness (Esquire dubbed her the Sexiest Woman Alive in 2015), but an actress’s looks don’t often dictate her place in the story so clearly or suggest she’ll bewitch every male character she meets, as Daenerys does.
Some of that attraction is certainly due to Daenerys’ poise and power. She’s widely considered the last living Targaryen, and the supposed heir to the Iron Throne. She’s the mother of dragons and commander of an army of Dothraki and Unsullied. That kind of power attracts attention and respect, especially in a world as political, ruthless, and self-interested as the one depicted in Game of Thrones.
Other women on the show — Cersei Lannister, Sansa Stark, and Margaery Tyrell come to mind — all have the same kind of conventional feminine beauty as Daenerys, and they’ve all had their own familial or personal power. Their storylines have been focused on rape, loveless marriages, infidelity, ridicule, abuse, and neglect. They were each treated like livestock and traded for political gain for much of the series. Even after Cersei acquired the Iron Throne, the most powerful position on Game of Thrones, she had to deal with her beloved brother rejecting and retreating from her. And since Sansa took control of Winterfell, she has yet to entertain the idea of a romantic partner or even gain the barest romantic interest from someone who isn’t trying to manipulate her. Power itself doesn’t equate to adoration on Game of Thrones.
Daenerys hasn’t been immune to misogyny or abuse. She was also traded for political gain and raped in the first episode, though her husband and buyer went on to revere her in later episodes, unlike, say, Ramsay Bolton and Sansa. Daenerys has had her detractors as well, though mostly among her enemies and mostly quickly defeated — until this season, when suddenly no one trusts her, and every decision she makes is under question and seen as part of an ominous pattern.
That’s a major change that only seems minimally and abruptly motivated by the need to justify what she and her final dragon do to King’s Landing in “The Bells.” Until now, Daenerys has been surrounded by characters with unwavering faith in her ability to rule: Missandei, Grey Worm, Jorah, Tyrion, Varys, Ser Barristan Selmy. They frequently witnessed what her dragons could do on her orders and didn’t flinch. Neither did the audience because the characters were cueing them that Daenerys’ behavior was largely necessary — sometimes harsh, but a proper response to a harsh world.
Daenerys has made aggressive, murderous decisions, but they’ve consistently been aimed at people designated as evil and / or a direct threat to her. Season 4 does begin to reckon with the danger of her dragons, as Drogon kills a 4-year-old child. She also orders all the Great Masters of Meereen to be crucified as vengeance for the slave children they murdered in the same way, only to learn that at least one of her victims was secretly working to free slaves. But the reckoning for that mistake is minimal, just a way of establishing her feelings of guilt and the weight of power.
Had the show continued into a slow progression of having Daenerys’ victims be more and more sympathetic, perhaps her actions at King’s Landing would have been less jarring. But the leap to finding those victims sympathetic and helpless is also abrupt. The King’s Landing residents are the same people who cheered when season 1 protagonist Ned Stark was beheaded. The crowds there attempted to rape Sansa, and they tormented Cersei during her walk of shame. They’ve been portrayed as ignorant, vicious, cruel, and easily manipulated. Game of Thrones hasn’t exactly been conditioning its viewers to mourn their deaths. But “The Bells” focuses on their vulnerability and helplessness, turning Daenerys’ attack into the behavior of a vengeance-crazed tyrant.
The burning of King’s Landing symbolizes a final line Daenerys has crossed, and it seems like the obvious climax her story was building toward. Since season 1, she’s been power-hungry, with a penchant for burning people alive, among the other painful punishments she’s doled out to victims, like the godswife Mirri Maz Duur and the merchant prince Xaro Xhoan Daxos. She’s displayed a long proclivity toward severity, and King’s Landing was the climax, especially after watching her adviser Missandei be killed on its walls.
But as much as the viewer debates around Daenerys’ actions claim her heel-turn was internal, the real change was in the way the show portrayed her — as a distant, unapproachable, incomprehensible figure — and the way Tyrion, Jon, and Arya, the show’s most popular remaining characters, were shown responding to her with shock, terror, and disgust. It was an external shift in how the show sees her, not an internal one. Theories differ on whether the final episode will make any effort to redeem her, or if it will just show her as a monster, but the other characters’ reaction to her as a villain may suggest the answer.
Daenerys’ mad queen plot will likely keep dividing the audience long after the finale. But what might be more worthwhile and interesting to consider, rather than whether her shift to “mad queen” mode was earned, is just how deeply audiences are influenced by the characters’ perceptions of each other. How many times did the audience perceive Daenerys’ judgments to be just, wise, necessary, or even thrilling — not because of the face value of her decision-making, but because of how the characters surrounding her reacted? Their new shift to horror has pushed Game of Thrones in an entirely different direction, one not suggested by Tyrion’s worries about her executing the Tarlys or Varys’ feelings that Jon would make a better king. The characters’ new terror of her implies where the final episode is going to go: with her seen not as beautiful, wise, and sometimes expedient, but as an irredeemable monster.