“Remember who you are, what you were made to be… ‘Fire and Blood,’ Daenerys told the swaying grass.”
In what’s sure to be one of the most divisive episodes of Game of Thrones, Daenerys’ moment of reckoning for the people of King’s Landing last night has yielded a flood of critiques arguing that it was out of character, that it actually was in character but just “too rushed”, or that it ruined a “good-hearted” character by making her into an antagonist she supposedly already wasn’t. But none of that holds up to scrutiny.
It could be that the misconception of Dany as a benevolent soul stems from her public persona as the “breaker of chains” that she’s worked hard to build. I don’t argue that she lacks empathy for those she freed. But her sense of mercy has always been contingent on successfully conquering her enemies. Yes, that came with liberating the oppressed, but with what fine print? That she’d remain their ruler, just not one that kept them in physical bondage.
It’s notable that for all her talk about “breaking the wheel”, there was never any subsequent talk about what that would mean. Many believed the show would end with self rule for the people, and that they might play a part in an uprising against Cersei — that, like in our world, feudal monarchy and god-given birthrights would be supplanted with democracy. Never was that even considered for the former slaves she freed. And as far as we can tell, Dany’s idea of breaking the wheel in Westeros simply means the same thing it did in Essos — that she’ll be the one to control which way it turns. A benevolent dictator is, after all, still a dictator.
All of Dany’s motivations came back to ego and taking back what she mistakenly believed was “hers” to take. Don’t be fooled by the fact that she liberated slaves along the way. They were just as much a stepping stone in her ascent to power as the rulers she slaughtered to achieve it. Consider for a moment the somewhat emotionally manipulative power dynamics of her conquests in Slaver’s Bay. To free people from bondage — people who have had all agency stripped from them for most of their lives — and then to accept their fanatical loyalty in the midst of the emotional intoxication of sudden freedom borders on Stockholm Syndrome.
Yet it was never enough for Dany just to be Queen. Her self-anointed title is telling: Daenerys Stormborn of House Targaryen, the First of Her Name, Queen of the Andals and the First Men, Protector of the Seven Kingdoms, the Mother of Dragons, the Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, the Unburnt, the Breaker of Chains. It’s the kind of verbose self-righteousness we associate more with real-world authoritarian dictators than with altruistic leaders. Rather than leading by example and avoiding cults of personality, as a character like Jon does, her leadership style has been characterized by the flaunting of her power, prestige, and notoriety. And she’s not afraid to let others know it:
“I spent my life in foreign lands. So many men have tried to kill me, I don’t remember all their names. I have been sold like a broodmare. I’ve been chained and betrayed, raped and defiled. Do you know what kept me standing through all those years in exile? Faith. Not in any gods. Not in myths and legends. In myself. In Daenerys Targaryen. The world hadn’t seen a dragon in centuries until my children were born. The Dothraki hadn’t crossed the sea. Any sea. They did for me. I was born to rule the Seven Kingdoms, and I will.”
A defining feature of Dany’s dialogue is the reliance on one word: “I”. Not even Cersei has a penchant for this, instead opting to revel in quips about harsh world lessons she’s learned from experience. This isn’t to deny Dany the legitimate trauma she’s endured. But it does stand in stark contrast to someone like Sansa, who’s suffered similar abuse. At the start of last night’s episode, Varys reminded us of an old saying in Westeros: “Every time a new Targaryen is born, the gods toss the coin in the air and the world holds its breath to see how it will land.” Their pathology is well established, and Viserys’ own malignant narcissism is what led to his downfall in the first season. That Daenerys might fall victim to the same genetic heritage, albeit subtler and requiring a slower burn to witness its full potential, has been hinted at for quite some time.
Since her liberation of Slaver’s Bay, she has been obsessively fixated on her “right” to the Iron Throne and unconditional loyalty from those she rules. She didn’t have to ask for it in Essos. But in Westeros, where loyalties are deeply entrenched in a feudal system of honor to the various houses, and where there are no slaves to free, it meant she’d have to take it by force: bend the knee, or be burned alive. That brutality has always been there— when she lined the streets of Meereen with crucified Great Masters, when she subjected the Tarly men to her dragon’s fire for refusing to bend the knee, when she executed Varys for treason without trial.
When she arrived in Westeros, she was baffled to find that she was greeted not as a liberator returning home, but as a foreigner and a colonizer, even up against an unpopular ruler like Cersei — an expectation grounded in nothing more than an arrogant belief that she was entitled to their loyalty. Hoping to win their trust, she enlisted in Jon’s war against the undead. But in the aftermath of their victory in Winterfell, she continued down this paranoid spiral after witnessing them celebrate their own native son as the hero of the living, rather than the Breaker of Chains and her dragons. Dany’s charm offensive also falls flat with Sansa, who has been a constant victim of manipulation and immediately sees right through it. Sansa’s resistance to Dany’s right to rule over the North is enough for her to begin questioning even Jon’s loyalty.
Still, the real nail in the coffin was the realization that this entire failed PR campaign was all in vain, and that it’s Jon who has the true birthright to the Iron Throne as the male descendant of House Targaryen. A narcissist’s strength relies on their continued belief that they are are above others in skill and ability. So when narcissists are confronted with their own failures , their own humanity, what do they do? They explode.
Dany was faced with the harsh reality that she’d never sit on the Iron Throne, even with Cersei’s surrender. She lost her most loyal advisers, and word of Jon’s heritage had already spread beyond her sphere of control. If she couldn’t have King’s Landing, no one would. To relinquish power to someone else would mean acknowledging another mortal’s superiority over her, and that has never been an option for Dany. Burning it all down — just as her father tried to do when he faced impending defeat — was all that was left to do.
There’s plenty to critique the writers about this season, but this isn’t one of them. Dany’s ego has been a defining component of her character. Her descent into violence has been gradual but consistent. And if you don’t think it’s what GRRM had in mind for her character, take him at his own words.