The promise (and premise!) of Game of Thrones was always that there were too many protagonists—for now. The show was a crowded field that, we understood, would be whittled down by the time the moment for throne-claiming arrived. To make that final conflict matter, the show needed us to feel strongly about the major players by aligning viewers with them as they went on their respective journeys. We watched Sansa’s struggles, Arya’s training, Jon’s adventures, Cersei’s humiliations.
But no one’s bildungsroman was more dramatic and fascinating than the story of Daenerys Targaryen, whose adventures began when she was sold into sexual slavery and raped as a girl, and who then schemed and scrabbled into the unexpected legend of her own power. Her messianic potential seemed to be endorsed not just by internal signs—her fireproof body, her dragons—but by the extent to which the show aligned her with contemporary values. Daenerys famously came closest to voicing something viewers might recognize as proto-democracy (as Elizabeth Warren herself has pointed out). She freed slaves and promised to “break the wheel” of the status quo. Dany seemed like the closest thing Westeros had to a revolutionary leader worth following.
In its final season, though, the show’s allegiance has changed. It used to be that almost everyone except slave traffickers and corrupt kings kept talking about how extraordinary and correct and wise Daenerys was. These days, the plot is side-eyeing her choices, and characters are chafing under her command. Sansa doesn’t like Dany, for one thing. Then there’s Daenerys’ scene informing Samwell Tarly that she executed his father and brother. That incident, which has been effectively re-litigated, has been cited—by fans and commentators and Sam himself—as evidence of her cruelty and unfitness to rule. (I will confess here that this particular decision—in which Daenerys gave defeated enemies a choice to serve her and keep their estates, or die—didn’t strike me as that egregious in a show that features, among other things, a beloved character feeding a man his own children.) Even two of Dany’s most ride-or-die servants, Grey Worm and Missandei, are wearily contemplating a life in her service and making plans to leave as soon as decency permits.
Game of Thrones used to love its nobler contenders, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that Daenerys—that sometime Chosen One—has been unchosen. It’s quite an interesting transition to watch the show attempt. It involves, among other things, some pretty extreme redefinitions. Daenerys’ ambition, which was once celebrated, functions now as brittle hubris. The awe she once inspired in people plainly isn’t working on the Northerners, the show’s current audience surrogate. She seems more jealous than benevolent, issuing veiled threats to Jon about Sansa not respecting her, and she seems to be vaguely aligned with male relatives (like her father the Mad King, or her brother Viserys, whom she cites approvingly) whose flaws she once frankly admitted.* And her pretty understandable questioning of Jon’s claim to being Aegon Targaryen—that it comes, rather conveniently, from his brother and his best friend—is made to seem a little ungracious and desperate because we know that Jon’s intel is correct.
Even her desire for the Iron Throne seems to be getting subtly reframed as unreasonable, grasping, and selfish. It seems almost—almost—like proof of her unfitness to occupy it. That’s pretty crazy for a show called Game of Thrones that has mostly been about people wanting to rule! It’s the kind of value judgment that only makes sense if the show is siding with someone who doesn’t want power—someone like Jon, who has always accepted it only reluctantly. It’s perfectly fine for the show to adopt this view of healthy leadership, but it’s a definite and striking departure from a universe whose earliest and most defining lesson was that the dim and good reluctant players, the Ned Starks of the world, can’t win.
Daenerys, in short, is stuck in what Greg Bales called a “plot trap”: Now that she’s been pitted against Jon Snow, it’s hard to imagine a way she could win the Iron Throne that would feel satisfying, rather than like further evidence she’s on the brink of that famous Targaryen madness. The good news, I guess, is that Daenerys was always headed for this trap. Anchoring your vision of a just and restructured society in a belief of your own right to rule is pretty “wheel-based” thinking, almost as retrograde as any arcane monarchic rule in the Seven Kingdoms. It’s weird to say you deserve to lead a semi-democratic uprising, based on the consent of the governed … because you’re the rightful heir and their divinely chosen queen! Put differently, a schizoid aspect of Daenerys’ character, which I used to think was bad writing, might actually have been a planned schism between her revolutionary, egalitarian promises and her equally forceful belief that she was chosen to rule—and not by the people.
The shaky hypothesis put forth by the show was that Daenerys’ character might productively bridge the gap between the rotten institution of monarchy and the cleansing revolutionary impulse her struggles made thinkable. Who else could be the abused girl, the charismatic proletarian, and also the conquering Khaleesi, the liberator, the Targaryen heir of the Seven Kingdoms, the playful lover, the dragon queen? It was always a lot to ask of a single character, but it was still easy to love her as she filled all these roles. Now that she’s having to simultaneously seduce and defend the North while mourning the death of one of her dragons, falling in love, compensating for yet another one of Tyrion’s failed plans, and preparing for one of the culminating battles that would propel her to her long-desired goal, the show doesn’t seem to be that into her.
That’s partly because she’s in Winterfell, where the Game of Thrones began, and that feels like a homecoming not just for characters but for fans. It clarifies allegiances. Setting the beginning of the end there was a big choice, and as the big animated map on which the show has spread its characters starts to fold in on itself, Daenerys feels a lot more like an unwelcome conquering power than the rightful queen many viewers once thought she could be. She does not belong.
For almost a decade, this show has been about people becoming. This has made it hard to judge characters’ specific actions, since we have never known for sure where their arcs were tending. Maybe Daenerys (who many suspect is becoming “mad” like her father) truly has become something different. But I’m not sure where the sudden agreement about her conduct unbefitting a monarch is coming from: We were invited to love her, after all, even when she was crucifying people, locking up enemies to die; and executing a loyal servant to demonstrate her commitment to fair trials, which ended up provoking a riot. That was arguably the show’s most complex interrogation of Dany’s abilities and priorities as a leader. Executing the Tarlys, in contrast, may be a great reason to convince Sam to oppose her and tell Jon why, but is it really the strongest case for why Daenerys shouldn’t rule? I don’t know. I think Dany’s character development only seems legible as a decline because the show itself seems to see it that way.
And anyway I still have no idea how this show’s moral compass works. Some characters have been clearly evil—Cersei and Ramsay have helped us stake out what leaders ought not to do (blow up hundreds, flay). Some, like Ned and Sam, are clearly good. But the middle ground is vast. Is withholding information and risking your brother’s life so you can kill your ex-husband proof of virtue or leadership or intelligence? Does executing the boy who stabbed you, because the wildlings you’ve created an alliance with killed his family, make you a good leader or a bad one? Is assassinating your enemies awesome or proof of a character’s irreparable brokenness? Was Olly—the kid who killed Jon to avenge his family—the Arya of his own story, and if so, how should we have felt about how his particular watch ended? Is it better to be led by a woman with a cruel streak and a vision who believes in breaking the wheel, or by a man with no vision at all who failed upward and is quite confused by his sudden legitimacy?
Westeros needs an ending, and Game of Thrones needs a winner. And just as a country’s people need to be prepared to accept a leader, Game of Thrones must prepare viewers to accept the endgame the show is laying out. A television show may be basically a monarchy, but it still needs the people’s buy-in. That’s why this specific point in a series’ lifetime—this crucial moment before the deaths begin and storylines end—is in some ways its most interesting moment. We’re about to learn what Game of Thrones has actually been about. The plot armor is down and the plot trap is set. I can’t wait to see whether Daenerys escapes.
Correction, April 24, 2019: An earlier version of this article misstated the name of Daenerys’ brother as Viserion. His name is Viserys.