Daenerys Targaryen: The good guys on Game of Thrones wouldn’t be alive without her, but now they’re wondering if they can’t live with her, either. Sunday night’s “The Last of the Starks” devoted much of its run time to what’s quickly become the fundamental question of the show’s endgame: Is Daenerys truly the best choice to rule the Seven Kingdoms, or will she follow the path set by her father and tumble into madness and tyranny?
The issue has divided GoT fans like nothing else. Dany has been one of Thrones’ most sympathetic protagonists since the very first episode, and viewers have been with her through almost every sort of trial imaginable. Considering everything else she’s accomplished—birthing dragons out of stone, freeing thousands of slaves, helping the Starks defeat an army of ice-zombies—it’s only reasonable to root for her to end up on top. Yet in recent seasons, Daenerys has often been focused more on the “I, Me, Mine” of it all, rather than what she would use the Iron Throne to do.
With her campaign suffering from a string of improbable losses since the moment she stepped foot on Dragonstone, Daenerys has intermittently been tempted to fall back on the Targaryen house words and bring “fire and blood” to King’s Landing—a plan that’s reminiscent of her father Aerys’ crazed scheme to burn down the capital with wildfire before he could be overthrown by the armies of Robert Baratheon. Her advisers have always talked her out of it in the past, but Sunday night’s episode saw Varys and Tyrion wondering whether Daenerys was truly royal material, and the murder of Missandei, the closest person she had to a friend, seems likely to spur her even further toward dragon-based vengeance. (Particularly considering Missandei used her final words, “Dracarys,” to urge Dany to do just that.) Is everyone right to fear that Daenerys will become the next iteration of her father?
The show certainly seems to be setting it up that way. Thanks to a family tradition of incest, House Targaryen has often been plagued by mental instability; as Cersei once put it, “Every time a Targaryen is born, the gods flip a coin.” As characters openly speculate on Dany’s mental state, they frequently bring up Aerys, whose parents were brother and sister (at least in the books), and whose reign devolved into a murderous insanity that earned him the sobriquet “The Mad King.” Daenerys’ parents were siblings as well, and skeptics are wondering how a person with so much concentrated Targaryen-ness could ever be fit to rule.
(Curiously, at the same time the show has hammered home the message that all Targaryens have a bit of madness to them, it’s also gone out of its way to pin the blame for Robert’s Rebellion on Robert himself—as if Aerys did not grievously violate the social compact by murdering Ned’s father and brother, and Rhaegar did not implicitly endorse this by taking up arms against the rebels.)
And despite being the nominal leader of the winning side at the Battle of Winterfell, Daenerys has few natural allies left. Jorah Mormont is dead, and so are most of the Dothraki. Popular acclaim for the victory is accumulating around Jon Snow, even though he and Daenerys performed essentially the same role in the battle. A marriage alliance with Jon initially seemed like a perfect compromise, but that now looks to be a nonstarter on both ends: Daenerys won’t share power, and Jon won’t marry his aunt, especially now that his true parentage is becoming an open secret. With negotiations with Cersei breaking down and Daenerys now in sole possession of the world’s last remaining dragon, she may feel like fire and blood is her only way of staying at the head of the table.
Meanwhile, George R.R. Martin’s books contain plenty of foreshadowing that Daenerys will eventually be responsible for the destruction of King’s Landing. At the end of A Dance With Dragons, Aerys’ secret stores of wildfire hidden underneath the capital have not yet been discovered, and while the Lannisters still hold the Iron Throne, they’re being challenged by a surprising new addition to the game of thrones: a young man who purports to be Rhaegar’s son Aegon (but probably isn’t), who has invaded Westeros alongside the Golden Company as part of Varys’ plan to create the perfect monarch. Much of the Song of Ice and Fire fan community expects that Aegon will be the one in the Red Keep when Daenerys finally makes her way to Westeros, and she’ll be so furious at seeing her role usurped by “the mummer’s dragon” that she’ll unleash her dragonfire on the false Targaryen, which will have the unwelcome side effect of blowing up the entire city. Aegon was written out of the show to keep things simple, but the writers have retained vestigial remnants of his plot: Jon got his name, while Cersei got the wildfire and the Golden Company. You can see a world where the show borrows this climax for episode five, with fatal results for Cersei, King’s Landing, and, judging from what he told Tyrion on Sunday night, Varys.
But after an episode that contained dispiriting notes for both Brienne and Sansa, I don’t blame fans for blanching at the idea of a Daenerys heel turn. While the show has steered clear of endorsing the sexism that makes characters like Tormund prefer Jon Snow, there’s still something disconcerting about the way the writers cleared the decks for Dany to wind up an antagonist. As the blogger turtle-paced has noted, the series has trouble with asymmetrical conflict; since Daenerys started season seven at an overwhelming military advantage, the show evened the odds by handing her a string of ever-more-outlandish defeats, climaxing in Euron Greyjoy’s surprise naval attack that cost her another one of her precious dragons. The primary effect of these plot machinations is to make Daenerys, a woman who has triumphed against foes way more fearsome than Euron, suddenly look incredibly incompetent. Why would anyone follow someone whose plans continually go so awry? Why wouldn’t her claim that she’s the rightful queen feel fairly silly? Meanwhile, Jon Snow, a character who has made his own share of bad decisions, has managed to shake off any consequences since the moment he came back from the dead. It can’t help but feel like Daenerys is getting nerfed to set up an endgame where we all feel good about Jon taking the Iron Throne.
Daenerys’ future instability, too, seems like something that’s being slightly oversold based on what we’ve seen. For all the talk of her becoming the Mad Queen, the only signs of potential tyranny onscreen are: her being jealous of Jon Snow at the victory party (for good reason); her burning the Tarlys (as Jon points out, plenty of other kings have executed people); and her refusing to entertain the idea of Northern independence (which, yes, is wrong, but not that out of bounds for someone seeking to rule the Seven Kingdoms).
It’s also worth noting: As sure as we are that Daenerys will turn toward the dark side, we were equally sure two weeks ago that everyone would die in the Battle of Winterfell. Book readers anticipate that Daenerys burning Kings Landing will be the start of a Stannis-style redemption arc, where she learns the true meaning of being a ruler. While the show has foregone some of that possibility by wrapping up the Long Night plot early, it certainly wouldn’t be out of the ordinary for Dany to ultimately make a similar turn back toward the light. After all, not every Targaryen coin toss ends in badness—as the books tell us, on the other side of that coin is greatness. We’ve got two episodes left to see where Daenerys lands.