When George R. R. Martin wrote his Game of Thrones series, a key point he was making was that every character has their own particular point of view. He presented his storylines not through an overarching omniscient point of view but rather through specific sets of eyes. When we looked through someone’s eyes we saw THEIR worldview. We took in all events from THEIR point of view.
Even if that character was mentally ill. Even if that character was Daenerys Targaryen.
We saw Daenerys Targaryen through Daenerys Targaryen’s eyes. We saw her as a victim. As innocent. When she lashed out in fury, we saw her actions through her point of view. Of course it was OK she brutally murdered someone. It was wholly justified.
Anything she did MUST be right, because it was her.
George R. R. Martin writes characters with depth. Every character has twists and turns and flaws in their life. We see glimmers of good quality in darker characters. We see the dark shadows in better characters. People are real. They aren’t cardboard cutouts. This is absolutely true with Daenerys.
So why do a small but vocal contingent of people recast the Khaleesi as a simplified version of a fantasy-age Disney Princess? One who will rise from her troubled childhood, vanquish those who hurt her, and win the prince’s hand?
Maybe it’s because our society is “trained” with Disney Princesses. Our childhoods are shaped by the notion that the teen girl who is abused and taken advantage of OF COURSE comes back and vanquishes all those who hurt her. OF COURSE the tormentors die and she gets the prince and lives happily ever after. No other solution is “right”.
George R. R. Martin doesn’t write fairy tales. He writes stories mirroring reality. And in reality, life rarely wraps up neatly in a bow.
Look at his path for sweet Shireen Baratheon. Shireen would be set up to be a Disney Princess in pretty much any other show. She was afflicted by a disease out of her control which caused people to shun her. She was good-hearted and loved to read. She helped others. In other worlds she would end up with a prince who loved her despite her face. In Game of Thrones? She is burned alive.
So with that in mind, let’s take a look at Daenerys Targaryen. Her parents and family are notorious for being inbred (sisters marrying brothers) and having madness. There’s a reason most locations have laws against siblings getting married and why animal breeders try to avoid inbreeding. It causes ALL sorts of issues with mental health, levels of violence, and more. It is into this genetic stew that Daenerys and her brother Viserys are born.
Let me say here that I know a number of people struggling with mental illness. This is a SERIOUS challenge and it manifests itself in a variety of ways. It rarely results in a person running around with a hatchet trying to kill every person they see. Instead, it’s about the brain sometimes making poor decisions. The person inside their head thinks they’re doing something completely rational. But the outside world sees it’s not what our society would approve of.
A person with Alzheimer’s isn’t “wrong” for trying to go to their childhood house. They think their house is still in location X and that their mom is still there waiting for them. Their brain is not working properly. We on the outside can see the mismatch. They on the inside see something different.
So Daenerys and Viserys were both born with mental illness. Their parents all had issues. This was normal for their extended family.
They both had a completely awful childhood. Her mother died in childbirth with her, and of course their father was murdered while insanely trying to kill thousands of people. They bonded with Ser Darry who then died when she was five. Another loss. So then it’s just her brother and her desperately trying to stay alive, wandering from place to place, obsessed with getting back their throne. This is their entire childhood. This is their focus.
Finally they reach an age where they have something to bargain with -Daenerys’s marriage. Yes, Viserys is a bit “crazy” in his obsession with regaining the throne, but we can see that trait runs in both of them through the series. It’s not just him. It’s the whole family. He’s overbearing in how he talks with her, but this is their last and only play. It is their one saving opportunity. And in the realm of men mistreating women in this show, what Viserys does is on the mild side.
So Daenerys is married to Drogo, and she falls in love with him. But Drogo and his group are quite disrespectful to Viserys and instead of being treated like the King he is treated like a laughingstock. He’s also lost the adoring love of his younger sister – when, remember, they have been alone together facing the world for pretty much their entire lives. His mental illness pokes through more and he lashes out. This is supposed to be about HIS rising to power and instead everyone’s just running around having parties?
This all leads up to one of the first real moments we see that Daenerys is saddled with the same faulty brain which burdens her entire extended family.
Yes, Viserys is let’s say throwing a tantrum. He has a mental illness. He can’t handle his challenges. He had been caring for his sister for YEARS – this could be when she found a way to take care of him. To tuck him away somewhere for his own safety until the army could be raised.
Instead she is completely cold, uncaring, and one might say psychopathic in standing in front of her brother and watching while his HEAD IS MELTED OFF HIS BODY.
She is stone cold. There is not an ounce of feeling as he is tortured to death. This is the brother who stood by her and kept her alive for over a decade. She doesn’t blink an eye as he’s brutally murdered. She has no emotion.
This is not how a healthy human being would act. There’s a reason that tests for psychopaths look for a lack of human empathy.
She knows Viserys has a mental illness. She knows her family has a long history of mental illness in it. This is not how a person treats a family member with a mental illness. Especially not a family member who has been your protective father and mother for your entire life.
Let’s say we have a storyline where Arya grew up in a village full of love and joy. She becomes a respected, educated “godswife” of the village temple which helps to heal the sick and bring babies healthily into the world. But then the village is brutally attacked. Babies are slaughtered; women are repeatedly raped, including Arya. She finds a way to get to the side of the leader. She puts him into a coma so that he cannot hurt anyone else again. But instead of escaping like a hero, Arya is burned alive, screaming.
This is the story of Mirri Maz Duur.
Mirri is an incredibly strong woman. She’s an educated woman. A woman who has cared for and tended to her village for forty years. When the entire village is brutally demolished by Drogo, Mirri knows she is the only one left to seek an end to this. To bring Drogo’s brutal reign to a stop. And let’s note she doesn’t even kill Drogo! She just incapacitates him.
Daenerys Targaryen, protector of the weak, supporter of the victims, maliciously burns this woman alive. All of those innocent victims in the village don’t matter at all when it’s her particular ruthless-killer lover who is being blamed for something. And, again, there isn’t the slightest twinge of concern in her mind that maybe this woman had a reason for what she did. No, Daenerys is completely stone-cold in wanting a brutal death for a fellow human being.
We need to remember that we are seeing Daenerys’s story through Daenerys’s eyes. That view is “tainted” by a mental illness. We as viewers / readers have to be capable of taking that into account. It’s the beauty of George R. R. Martin’s writing, that we are seeing different points of view. Here he is taking us down a path of a woman with a mental illness who struggles against that. It is a tragic story in the truest sense of the word. Her fatal flaw is within her.
There are countless examples of Daenerys stating that she’ll kill people if they disobey her or disagree with her. She talks regularly about her gaining the complete power of the Iron Throne being the only thing that matters. She doesn’t say “someone compassionate should sit on the Iron Throne and I will support them.” She says “I and only I should sit on the Iron Throne.”
Let’s fast forward a bit to Meereen. Meereen is a city that has slaves. Daenerys is set on freeing them. That is an admirable goal. But let’s note that not every citizen of Meereen is a brutal butcher. Many are women and children who treat their slaves with love and kindness. Slaves are a normal part of their society and not every slave owner in a society like that thinks esoterically about how those roles play out. How many people in modern times give thought to how we treat prisoners in jails and should we do a better job of that?
Daenerys gets into Meereen. What happens? Do the victors treat the city with mercy and justice? No, they go on a killing spree where they rape and murder everyone in sight. And then Daenerys declares herself in charge of the city, to handle everything going forward. Part of that power is used to burn people alive without even knowing how they individually treated slaves.
Let’s note that Daenerys didn’t stop her brutal murder spree because of a touch of conscience. No, at this point Tyrion pleaded with his leader for her to show some humanity. Some mercy. And she backed down from her instincts.
This is a constant message throughout Daenerys’s journey. She has these urges within her, caused by her mental illness, to brutally kill people. But Tyrion Lannister carefully talks her out of it. Ser Jorah Mormont seems to spend half his time not defending her body but carefully redirecting her anger and psychopathic urges. Missandei is of course a key part of this support group. When Daenerys has Tyrion, Jorah, and Missandei around her, she is buffered. She is able to hold on to the humanity within her.
But we know well how George R. R. Martin crafts stories – and we know, ourselves, with the enormous problems we have with addictions and with PTSD how quickly a person can unravel when their support system is removed. The only real reason Daenerys lasts as long as she does is that she has three people dedicated full time to holding her back. When Jorah is killed, Missandei is killed, and Tyrion betrays her, the stress causes those long-held-in urges to grapple for power. And add to that Jon now refusing to sleep with her, just because they are nephew-and-aunt, and Daenerys says it for herself.
All that is left is fear and hate.
This wasn’t a “snap”. It wasn’t sudden. It was always there from the very beginning. We have always seen it. We now just see it more clearly, because all those filters have been removed. We are looking at her with open eyes.
Part of what happens for some viewers and readers is they get drawn in by her charismatic personality. We see the same thing happening with Ted Bundy or Charles Manson or Jim Jones. A background story lures you in. They have idealistic aims. They are good looking. We want to support them. We vicariously live through them.
Look at the burning of the Khals. Again, remember we are seeing this through HER eyes. She goes to a community she intimately knows and understands. She KNOWS they will not accept her as a leader. She KNOWS what is expected from a female. But her drive to accept only one outcome – with her sitting on the Iron Throne – cannot be reined in.
Heck, she could have gone to that retirement community and then escaped from there. She could have done a thousand different things. Instead she deliberately lures the leaders into a situation where she knows exactly what they will do. They will act just the way her beloved Drogo would have acted. And for that, she burns them all alive.
Let’s point out that the Dothraki had an ages-old culture with customs, rituals, and traditions. Each leader watched over countless men, women, and children. Daenerys kills them all not to lead those cultures into a flowering of their art, music, and horsemanship. No, she kills the leaders solely to get her hands on an army to march across to get her onto the Iron Throne. And not only that, but when it came time to USE this army, she sent them as a first wave at the zombies in the stupidest manner possible so that they would all die horrific, completely meaningless deaths.
Many people cheered at the Daenerys-burns-them-all-alive scene. Watchers loved the spectacle of a fiery burning alive for leaders who were doing what they’ve always done; what the Khaleesi knew they would do. She set them up to be burned alive and she was absolutely stone-cold uncaring about the action. About the consequences for their culture. All she wanted was their army.
Why did we cheer? If, back a few seasons, someone had strode in and tried to burn Drogo and Daenerys alive, wouldn’t we have called that person a villain?
It’s all about whose eyes we look through. It’s about how we find ways to justify actions which should not be justifiable.
Let’s think about the scene with Randyll and Dickon Tarly. Let’s remember that this entire giant area of land was brutally used under the thumb of the mad Targaryen king. Now we have a fresh Targaryen threat coming from over the seas with armies and dragons threatening to take control. It’s brave and noble for the Tarlys to stand up against this threat. When Daenerys turns her dragon toward the forces. EVERYONE ELSE kneels and cowers. But Randyll and Dickon show courage.
These men are brave and say they will stand to defend their weak and innocent against this threat. If they were in Winterfell we could call them the bravest of the brave. Tyrion tries repeatedly to do his best to save them. He even pleads, “Your Grace, stop beheading entire families!” But at this point Daenerys is not listening. She simply burns them without any emotion at all.
A few people think Daenerys’s dragon-fire at King’s Landing was solely done in order to give Jon a new enemy to fight. What??? It feels incredibly disrespectful to reduce this amazing, powerful, tragic descent of a key character into just being a moment for Jon to react to. Daenerys’s story is HER story. SHE is the key one here. Yes, Jon is an important character, but he’s not somehow more important than Daenerys. He only came into her life late in the game. Her storyline, arc, and changes are all about HER and HER progress. I find it concerning that anyone would now try to treat her as a “supporting character to Jon” with how key she has been to the entire series. If anything Jon is a small blip in the overall challenges and hurdles that Daenerys has struggled with on her path. Just one stop in a long line.
What really happened? Well, first, she completely screws up the entire defense situation of Winterfell and causes her entire legions of Dothraki and Unsullied to be killed in an incredibly stupid and wasteful manner. I could write chapters upon chapters of how poorly she did at Winterfell, but fortunately I don’t have to, because countless other military historians have done that for me. And in the end her most loyal protector, Ser Jorah Mormont dies. At least here she has support. He died for an important reason. His death is treated with honor and respect by the entire community. She can properly mourn him.
So now she’s failed most of her Dothraki troops, she’s failed most of her Unsullied troops, her zombie-dragon Viserion was killed, and her best knight died protecting her. But at least she still has two healthy dragons, a current boyfriend, a military adviser, and a true-blue best friend.
So next she decides to fly to Dragonstone with her remaining two dragons. Let’s keep in mind these dragons fly HIGH in the sky and can see for miles and miles. Also let’s keep in mind that ballista are notoriously inaccurate and are normally used on FLAT solid land shooting at a STATIONARY land object. Even then it can take a few tries to sight them in.
These ballistas (ballisti?) are on a ROLLING SHIP in Euron Greyjoy’s fleet and the dragons are MOVING. Plus, the dragons would be able to see that ship fleet from a far distance away! And these are dragons – they are incredibly acrobatic in the air. A ballista bolt heading toward them? They simply slide left or right to dodge it. How in the world could a bolt actually impact a dragon after just a shot or two? And how could the dragons not just swoop to a different angle, come in, and roast them all alive? Clearly Daenerys has done something incredibly stupid here to cause this result. And now she’s caused the second child-dragon of hers to die in two days.
And somehow just Missandei gets captured. Further idiocy. I have great admiration for George R. R. Martin’s CHARACTER development, but these on-screen military tactics (we don’t have the books yet to compare them with) are beyond silly.
And then Daenerys’s best friend in the world is killed. Many women might agree that boyfriends and lovers come and go, but a best friend is what truly matters.
Still, Daenerys still has Tyrion and Jon, right? Well, no. She realizes Tyrion has betrayed the one and only thing that has ever mattered to her – her quest to get onto the Iron Throne.
She burninates Varys for telling people the truth about Jon. Let’s remember Varys wasn’t spreading lies. He was simply telling everyone who Jon really is, which a number of people already know. And somehow she thinks this is going to stop Sansa from telling people the truth. Daenerys tells Jon:
“Now she [Sansa] knows what happens when people hear the truth about you. Far more people in Westeros love you than love me. I don’t have love here. I only have fear.” When Jon says he loves her and she will always be his queen, she says, “Is that all I am to you? Your queen?” She tries to kiss him, but he’s just not able to any more. “All right then. Let it be fear.”
Daenerys is being clear and explicit here. She is going to use fear as her weapon. She is giving up on love and mercy. It has failed her at every turn. Now she is going to use her true remaining strength – her ability to crush without any emotion. She is going to GET that Iron Throne no matter what, and she is going to make sure the world fears her.
So it is no surprise at all what happens next. Tyrion and others plead with her REPEATEDLY to respect the bells ringing. If they trusted in her sanity they wouldn’t have to even say it once. For some reason everyone around her feels it necessary to state and state again that she needs to stand down when the bells ring. Because they all have strong suspicions she will not.
They have seen it countless times before. Daenerys’s wanton destruction of a captured city.
The bells start ringing. Everyone looks up pleadingly to Daenerys. But she isn’t looking at them. She isn’t even looking at the innocents beneath her. She sees one thing: The Red Keep with Cersei in it. That is all she sees.
It’s not that she’s in a good mental space and says, “Let’s have some fun target practice with women and children.” That’s not what her mind is doing at all. She is filled with rage and fury and vengeance and all the thoughts of how her family has been wronged. She’s thinking about Jorah being dead, Missandei being beheaded, Tyrion betraying her, and Jon abandoning her. And now Cersei is right there hiding in a keep and all these city-dwellers were helping Cersei out. Sure, they rang a bell, but they still deserve to be punished. They deserve to be hurt for all these years they supported Cersei.
Daenerys isn’t actively seeking them out, though. It’s more like she’s plowing a fiery path to the Red Keep. She’s raining down shock and awe on her way to take down the Evil Queen. She is embedding fear in the locals so those locals grovel before the Iron Throne.
In a Daenerys world view, this makes perfect sense. It’s how she’s always handled stress. She destroys whoever is in her path. If anything, this time she now has emotion, too, with the fury and hate pouring out.
Think of it this way. She has sacrificed everything in her entire life to sit on the Iron Throne. She has faced death countless times. She’s been told her entire life that all the locals ADORE her and her family and will welcome her back with open arms. Now she gets to Winterfell and people hate her. She travels south and people hate her. Her loyal armies are destroyed and her support group has been slain or turned on her.
All she has left is fear.