There are a lot of complaints about last night’s episode of Game of Thrones, titled “The Bells.” The primary complaint seems to be that Daenerys suddenly becomes the “Mad Queen” when she torches everyone — citizen and soldier alike — in King’s Landing. Practically everyone has come to believe that Dany was going to be a benevolent dictator, an enlightened despot — but what I saw last night was completely consistent with what Dany has done for all eight seasons.
Daenerys believes it is her destiny to sit on the Iron Throne. The funny thing about believing something is your destiny: you are apt to do literally anything to ensure you in fact fulfill that destiny. We see this in Stannis Baratheon, who after being converted to the religion of the Lord of Light, is convinced it is his destiny to both sit on the Iron Throne and to introduce this monotheistic religion to the Seven Kingdoms. He is the prophesied hero, according to Melisandre, which only secures his belief that it’s his destiny to rule. This goes well beyond the right, as brother of the deceased king, to the throne, but involves a belief in fate, an absolute certainty about the future. What is Stannis willing to do to realize this destiny? Literally the worst thing imaginable: he sacrifices his own daughter. Naturally, such an action does in fact seal his fate, ensuring people turn against him, ensuring his death.
People will do terrible things to ensure their destiny is realized, and Daenerys is no different. She has never been any different. She has been absolutely cruel in her vengeance — burning people alive and crucifying them — that she calls justice. She continually talks about “mercy,” but how much mercy have we actually seen her exhibit? She is a bit patient with a few people she likes, but she has her limits with them. She does warn Tyrion that he cannot fail her again. At the same time, in the first few seasons she exhibits disgust at the way women, children, and slaves are treated, and she even offers water to a crucified slave. She also frees the Unsullied, but one has to wonder whether or not this was a ploy to ensure loyalty and to get an even more dedicated group of soldiers — after all, no matter how well-trained, slaves will not be as dedicated in war as will free men. Loyalty will get more out of men than will duty.
While Daenerys does end up releasing numerous slaves, she does so as a way (and excuse) to conquer cities to gain the ships and wealth she needs to cross the sea to invade the Seven Kingdoms. The freed slaves, of course, are unconcerned about ulterior motives, and only care that they have been freed.
It seems that many viewers are of the same opinion. Daenerys is using the slaves as pawns in her own game. The outcome is good for the slaves, but would Dany have released any slaves if she could have gotten the money and ships she needed? The answer should be obvious. She resorted to overthrowing the slave traders simply to gain access to their ships and money. Not actually caring about those cities over the long run, she left them to the freed slaves in order to pursue her destiny overseas. Yet, people seem to only remember that she freed slaves. Dany uses this in her list of titles, declaring herself, among other things, “Breaker of Chains.”
People’s shock at Daenerys’s actions in “The Bells” shows the degree to which people are willing to believe surface actions and rhetoric over what in this case should have been obvious ulterior motives and a pattern of behavior that should have belied her rhetoric. Here we have a situation where people in fact know what her ulterior motives are, and have seen a pattern of mercilessness and vengeance, and yet are nevertheless willing to still believe the rhetoric and the superficial gestures — and act shocked when she behaves in ways entirely predictable from her past actions, and from several comments just this season to the effect that she was willing to engage in mass murder, if necessary, to gain the throne.
People are equally bemused at Tyrion’s continued willingness to believe his sister will be reasonable. Yet, Tyrion’s credulity toward Cercei in the face of everything he knows about her is mirrored in the audience’s credulity toward Daenerys despite everything they ought to know about her. We wonder how he can be so stupid as to believe she will make the right decision in regards to the danger of the Night King, or to believe that she would ever surrender the throne, while almost everyone in the audience is making the same mistakes in judging the future actions of Dany.
The same things happens in the real world, of course. Republicans look upon Democrats as complete and total fools for not being able to see they are being manipulated by the power-hungry Democrat politicians in government, all the while being fooled by the power-hungry Republican politicians in government. And the Democrats do the same thing, and are equally fooled by their own politicians. There is no virtue in wanting power over others — and no virtuous person would want such power.
This is perhaps why people like Jon Snow. Jon Snow says he doesn’t want political power — though he keeps accepting it when offered to him. Everyone keeps believing him that he doesn’t want power, but he ends up being the leader of the Night Watch, and he ends up being King of the North. He’s always protesting he doesn’t really want power, but ends up with more and more. Is this, too, a ploy? Has everyone fallen for yet another trick — one used quite effectively by Ross Perot when he ran for President? Perot may not have won, but he garnered a great many votes. A lot of people were willing to believe he didn’t really want to be President, but felt compelled to run to save the country.
We are all fools when it comes to politicians. We want to believe that in a democratic country that the people running for office are doing so out of a concern for the people. They want to help us, and this is how they can help. We see government as an enforcer of virtue, and people in government as having good intentions for us. We see Trump raising tariffs to protect American jobs, and fail to see that this both raises prices for everyone and antagonizes the countries against whom we are raising tariffs, harming American consumers across the boards and increasing international tensions. We see Democrats raising the minimum wage in various cities around the country, while failing to see that this increases unemployment among those with the least skills and runs the smaller businesses barely surviving on the margins out of business — to the benefit of big businesses. We see politicians promising to protect us with business regulations, while failing to see that these regulations protect big businesses from small businesses, reduce competition, drive up prices, and protect businesses from consumers’ lawsuits by having a small set amount of a fine put in its place.
Fortunately, none of our politicians have any dragons, or else we’d find out how they really felt about us all. Daenerys has always been a tyrant — but worse, she’s a tyrant with a dragon, a weapon of mass destruction. Because of that, we are able to see exactly who she is at its most horrific. And yet, Dany is like everyone who wants power. She did many things that appear to be good, but always for some ulterior motive. She appears to be just, but is only engaging in vengeance. She says all the right things, but torches a city with a million people in it.
Let’s face it, her motivation for torching all of those innocents in the city is made extremely clear throughout this season. She makes it clear that since she’s not loved, she’ll have to be feared. She makes it clear several times that she is willing to kill everyone in the city to achieve her aims — and Tyrion several times begs her not to do it. She is angry that people (and dragons) she loves are all dead. She is feeling increasingly isolated, paranoid, and fearful. It’s clear that she’s looking forward to killing everyone in vengeance for the deaths of those she loves, and as a way to spread fear, and the bells ringing are a disappointment to her as well. The bells ringing and her doing what she was going to do anyway simply shows us the kind of person she always was, about which we’ve been in denial up until last night. It was perfectly predictable based on her past pattern of behaviors, if you paid attention not to the superficial things she did, but to her underlying beliefs and motivations.
We are surprised and disappointed at the writers of the show for making Daenerys into something she wasn’t — but that’s not at all what the writers did. Their portrayal of Dany is completely consistent with her character, only like with most politicians, we don’t actually pay attention to what she’s really doing, to herreal motives, but only pay attention to her rhetoric and to the things she does that look good. We shouldn’t be disappointed in the writers of Game of Thrones, and we shouldn’t be disappointed in Dany — we should be disappointed in ourselves for believing someone, anyone, who wants power over others could possibly be a good person in the first place.