Daenerys, the twice betrayed.

Or the tropes of female fragility in military leadership

Homeland Security


“Out of fucking nowhere” -Emilia Clarke. Look at the Nazi theme, also out of nowhere, emerging this last episode (shown under fair use)

Daenerys Stormborn of the House Targaryen, First of Her Name, the Unburnt, Queen of the Andals and the First Men, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, Breaker of Chains, and Mother of Dragons was betrayed in the battlefield not once, but twice by the all-powerful and only true gods of Westeros: the showrunners and writers of Game of Thrones.

These betrayals matter, not only because they affect the outcome of what is probably the most important global cultural event in recent memory (Game of Thrones may be the one thing that unites in this country republicans and democrats!) but also because it affects the way in which we explain the political implications of mortal choices in warfare in general, and in particular female leadership in military positions of authority. Like many influential works of good fiction, Game of Thrones unveils the zeitgeist we use to explain the world.

Much has been said about the quality of writing of this last season. I will not say more as I think people more qualified than I have already published important evaluations of what was for many a “rushed” or unpolished conclusion to the epic story of the Seven Kingdoms. On the other hand, I will cite here one of my favorite quotes about the issue of plausibility that I often share with my students when I teach the topic of scenario planning or wargaming:

The question of plausibility is central when it comes to fiction. Can you induce the reader to believe? More precisely, to suspend her disbelief?

All readers come to fiction as willing accomplices to your lies. Such is the basic goodwill contract made the moment we pick up a work of fiction. We know Elizabeth Bennet isn’t a real person. But because Jane Austen describes her world (both internal and external) with such fidelity and elegance, Ms. Bennet comes to feel real.

All readers come to fiction as willing accomplices to your lies. Such is the basic goodwill contract made the moment we pick up a work of fiction. We know Elizabeth Bennet isn’t a real person. But because Jane Austen describes her world (both internal and external) with such fidelity and elegance, Ms. Bennet comes to feel real.

If the reader stops believing, even for an instant, you’ve broken the spell. As I suggested earlier, there are several common types of plausibility flaws that can cause this.

I consider that what lies behind the many complains about this last season is a plausibility problem. Somewhere, because of many artistic choices made by the production team of this adventure, a plurality of viewers felt the spell was broken. They stopped believing.

The spell was broken at different moments for different people. I count myself among those who were reluctant to abandon my complicity with the show. I accepted, for example, the poor strategic choices made in “the Long Night” as poetic licenses to increase the cinematographic quality of the story.

Even the non-verbal evolution of the character, when she’s preparing for war, avoided, until the very end, the totalitarian aesthetic of the final episode (shown under fair use)

Nevertheless, once we made it to “The Bells,” the penultimate episode of the show, I could not suspend my disbelief anymore. As the writers decided to convert Daenerys, the character we have seen evolved the most, into a war criminal for no good reason, it became impossible for me to follow them down that path.

As many have pointed out, the problem is not identity (yes, many of us wanted to see Khaleesi sitting in the Iron Throne) but plausibility. It is not that Daenerys cannot be corrupted by power. The problem is how gratuitous this act of genocidal violence was. Furthermore, for a show that insisted on showcasing the moral ambiguity of military leadership (nobody is completely good or bad), Daenerys became a caricature of evil. A Marvel supervillain with the ethical complexity of a Disney witch.

The problem is not only “turning to the dark side.” It is doing it gratuitously. Hundreds of memes captured the nonsensical nature of the “turn.” (shown under fair use)

Having won the battle, the same character we saw develop into a capable revolutionary is transformed into a genocidal maniac by the showrunners, for no apparent reason. This battle was over. The same woman that crafted the most powerful set of alliances of Game of Thrones and knew, perfectly well, when to inflict pain to keep her coalition together, forgot in one dragon joyride all the political lessons learned in 8 years of statewomanship.

But here is the deal: This unwarranted use of violence was just the first betrayal against the character. The worst one was yet to come. It was the cliffhanger between the penultimate episode and our series finale. How would Dany justify her actions?

Well, let’s see…

The showrunners admit having used two dramatic historical events as inspiration for “The Bells”:

An artistic interpretation of the allied bombing of Dresden does not shy away from the tragedy inflicted by the allies (shown under fair use).

The first one is the strategic bombing of Dresden by the Allied forces. Drogon’s fire is the equivalent of 1249 British and American heavy bombers obliterating a city from the skies in two nights.

The second one is the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Carthaginian destruction of King’s landing uses the same kind of consumed, dried bodies, scattered all over the streets of the capital of Westeros that we are all familiarized with after the American use of the nuclear bomb.

Notice one thing?

Both events, Dresden and the nuclear attacks on Japan were acts of war by the winning side. The allied forces, the good guys in our history books, are the inspiration for Daenerys’ attack on King’s landing. Much has been discussed about those military choices. There is a great body of literature that attempts to explain the decision-making process, for example, to drop the bomb.

But here is the thing: while some have either called the use of the bomb by the Truman administration a war crime, others justify it by expressing how, in the end, it saved lives by shortening the duration of the war (an argument articulated by Daenerys herself one episode before!) or avoided a communist invasion of western Europe by deterring Stalin. What almost nobody does is to frame Dresden of Hiroshima as the result of the shattered, broken emotions of Roosevelt or Truman.

We study those events to understand how people in positions of authority make life and death decisions. How kings, admirals, and presidents send people to die or kill in the name of, what they consider, a greater tactical or strategic good.

This is the second act of betrayal against Daenerys, and it is the most toxic one: Not only the writers made her commit needless war crimes after the battle was won, but a week later, in the season finale, far from framing this event as a strategic choice performed by her in her role of Commander in Chief of an immense revolutionary army to achieve some kind of political objective (questionable or not), we were presented with a broken Dany, half bloodthirsty Adolf Hitler in front of a Nuremberg youth rally, half Bond villain when talking with Jon Snow…. No grand strategy. No master plan. She just went bananas.

Truman explains his strategic choice to raze two cities to the ground.

We could have gotten a Napoleonic Daenerys, justifying the use of decisive force to consolidate a modern Westeros.

We could have gotten a Truman Daenerys, who orders Drogon to destroy one city to make sure every great family understands that the fight is over.

We could have gotten a Machiavellian Daenerys, justifying the use of violence to counteract the weak position Jon Snow placed her in when he revealed to everybody he has a better claim to the Iron Throne given the patriarchal rules of Westeros.

But we got none of that. We did not get Truman or Napoleon; we did not even get a Che Guevara or Mao either. We certainly did not get Joan of Arc.

The implausible version of Daenerys that Jon Snow betrayed to become the new queen-slayer was a broken damsel in distress. Broken because her knight in shining armor (ok, crow in dark feeders) did not love her, her friend who braided her hair was murdered, and her subjects did not show her enough adoration.

Not only her unwarranted turn to evil came “out of fucking nowhere” as Emilia Clarke put it herself, but the show-runners have no better way to explain it that the mother of dragons is throwing the mother of all teenage tantrums. D&D (David Benioff and Dan Weiss) could go and find inspiration in Dresden and Hiroshima, but in their research, they did not read the part that says how the men who ordered those attacks were victorious and, in their time, were called strategic geniuses. Apparently, producing a work of art where the main character is female and takes the same morally ambiguous choices in the name of military victory is a bridge too far still today. It is simpler to say the lady with a broken heart went crazy… one could even say, hormonal. She’s just a girl with a high-school crush, a broken heart, and a big, big dragon. Military strategy be damned.

This show has always dealt with the intricacies of warfare and institutional violence in the name power better than any other, ever. We saw the brutality of violence directly, without penumbra. If somebody lost a hand, we would see the amputation; when horses died on the battlefield, we would see them bleeding and limping.

But, in the end, the show did shy away from an important truth: War is hell and the winners, as well as the losers, make brutal choices in the name of victory. Dresden and Hiroshima were not the results of the politics of a broken leader with a big bomb. They were well-reasoned choices taken by men who knew what they were doing. If you disagree with them, you call them war criminals; if you agree with them, you call them heroes. You don’t call them “broken.”

Many female military leaders have shared with me, outside of the context of Game of Thrones, how much they have to fight against the stereotypes of being “emotional,” “frail” or “mercurial” when issuing commands. A show that for many seasons accustomed us to seeing powerful women making tough logical choices succumbed to the easy tropes in its conclusion.

Dany did not need to become a genocide in “The Bells” to establish the good and evil nature or power. Her flipping came, indeed “out of fucking nowhere.” That is the first betrayal. The character could be cruel but not fatuous.

But once she did take a brutal military choice, the character deserved a better, more plausible, explanation than that of the archetypical feminine mental fragility. She was a Commander in Chief, not a gossip girl.

This is why, like Emilia Clarke, I stand by Daenerys, the twice betrayed.

The author is a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) and teaches at the National Security Affairs Department and the Center for Homeland Defense and Security

(originally published at this URL, but because the login system in medium, I had to repost after login in with the wrong system: https://medium.com/@rodrigonietogomez/daenerys-the-twice-betrayed-9caf5d7ff43c )