What up, my esteemed homies! It’s ya girl, Nikkie, and I’m dusting off the blog to share my thoughts on “The Bells,” the penultimate episode of Game of Thrones as we head into the finale this Sunday.
I’ve been seeing a lot of articles lately that are against nearly everything that’s happened in this current season of Game of Thrones. From the way Sansa and Daenerys interact with each other to the way we were deprived of a tender goodbye between Jon and Ghost (which is so, so, so valid that none of us will ever forgive showrunners David and Dan, aka D&D), people have taken issue with nearly every major or minor event that’s we’ve seen so far.
But nothing has caused more ire than how things with Dany are turning out. And I don’t think that’s fair at all.
A Shocking Twist, or a Fair Conclusion?
Last Sunday, the show reached the pinnacle of Dany’s arc: a seemingly permanent transformation into the Mad Queen. With the complete destruction of King’s Landing, Dany has cemented her intent to rule with fire and blood — the ominous words of House Targaryen. We’ve been waiting for the famed “Targaryen coin flip” to land, and it’s apparently landed on the side of insanity.
And people are furious.
For the entire run of the show, people have seen Dany as a feminist hero who deserves to have her ultimate goal — taking back the Iron Throne — accomplished. Ever since she emerged from her husband’s funeral pyre, naked with three freshly hatched dragons, she has been the epitome of taking control of her life. As she marched her way through Slavers’ Bay, liberating slaves and ridding the world of immoral rulers, viewers rooted for her with no qualms.
And that isn’t a bad thing.
Her story is absolutely one of overcoming the odds and finding triumph in upsetting the patriarchal system that most of Planetos — how people refer to the world in which this story takes place — operates under.
But, anyone shocked by recent events hasn’t been paying attention to who Dany is at her core: a conqueror whose only real goal has been vengeance.
I’m not trying to take away from the good that Daenerys is done. When the show began, and as I read the books, I was a full supporter. I got into a lot of arguments with my husband about Dany’s attempt to rule in Meereen, when she banned the fighting pits. How could she be wrong? It’s such an unnecessarily violent tradition. When he suggested years ago that he suspected Dany would end up being the main antagonist at the end of the story, with her return to Westeros uniting the Seven Kingdoms against her, I was actively enraged!
But, I’ve since come around to his thinking. Because the evidence is outstanding.
(Please note: I’ll be drawing from both the books and the show to support my argument.)
The Truth of Dany’s Personality
Dany has always been a little cold, stubborn, and prone to an impulsiveness that leads to poor decisions.
Consider her reaction when Khal Drogo killed her brother, Viserys.
The sound Viserys Targaryen made when that hideous iron helmet covered his face was like nothing human. His feet hammered a frantic beat against the dirt floor, slowed, stopped. Thick globs of molten gold dripped down onto his chest, setting the scarlet silk to smoldering — yet no drop of blood was spilled.
He was no dragon, Dany thought, curiously calm. Fire cannot kill a dragon.
— Daenerys V, A Game of Thrones
Her thoughts referenced the fact that Viserys always referred to himself as a dragon, often warning her not to “wake the dragon” by disobeying him. He was cruel and abusive (mentally, emotionally, and physically), and it makes sense that she wouldn’t care. There was a bit of conflict within her, of course, because Viserys was the only family she had growing up. But her overarching reaction was eerily calm.
Hatching Her Dragons Was Rash, Even Thought It Paid Off
Speaking of dragons, while the birth of hers was truly awesome, she still WALKED INTO A FIRE with no real evidence to ensure her survival.
This is a crucial moment of change between the books and the show. It’s widely accepted that the only reason Dany survived in the books is because the witch she was burning in the pyre, Mirri Maz Duur, was trying to cast a protective spell on herself but it backfired (haha word play). Targaryens are not at all immune to fire. Several Targaryens have died burning alive — most notably her own brother, as well as King Aegon V, or “Egg,” who burned down a vacation castle, and killed many people, when he tried to use wildfire to hatch dragon eggs.
So, the fact that Dany is proven to be fully fireproof in the show — even her hair survives the fire, when it was fully burned away in the book — is an invention by D&D. The reasoning most likely being that they wanted to imprint on us the idea that she is unbeatable and potentially immortal — mirrored in season six when Jon is resurrected after the Night’s Watch mutiny and then continually survives moments when he should have surely died.
(In the books, there’s also this situation going on in Meereen where a “bloody flux” is getting passed around in her encampments, and she walks among the people with no protection because the “blood of the dragon” makes her immune to disease . . . Girl, that’s dumb as hell.)
Her Dangerous Predilection for Death and Destruction
I’ve already covered how she burned Mirri Maz Duur alive, which was retribution for the death of Dany’s unborn child and Drogo’s catatonic state thanks to Mirri’s blood magic. This was the first of Dany’s fiery vengeance and a clear indicator of things to come.
Almost any obstacle that Dany has faced since her dragons were born has been met with fire and blood. In the show, she locked Xaro Xhoan Daxos (and a traitorous former servant) in an empty vault to die. She burned the slaver who sold her the Unsullied army. She ordered or inspired the ransacking of every major city on Slavers’ Bay. She crucified the Wise Masters of Meereen. In the show, to assert her rule in the city, she killed one of the remaining Masters by having Rhaegal and Viserion burn him alive in front of the other Masters.
She burned every Dothraki khal alive — which is a very clear reference to Khal Drogo’s death, as she emerges from the fire once again unburnt — and quelled the Wise Masters’ coup by destroying their fleet and armed forces. In the infamous “Loot Train battle” of season 7, she destroys the goods that the Lannister army plundered from Highgarden and kills a lot of soldiers in the process. When demanding allegiance, she nearly ends House Tarly because Randyll refuses to kneel (and his idiot son Dickon thinks it’s his duty to stay with his dad). And finally, in “The Bells,” she burns Varys for his treason.
Now, I’m not trying to say that all of these acts of violence are unwarranted. Takeovers are rarely bloodless — hats off to Jaime Lannister for his bloodless conquest of Riverrun, which is much less upsetting in the books by the way — so of course she’s going to wreck some shit. But the killing of the Wise Master and the execution of the Tarly men are taking things a bridge too far. It shows that Dany has little patience for people who don’t submit to her immediately (a trait she learned from Viserys, who became more and more of an unstable mess when the Dothraki didn’t immediately set sail for Westeros after Drogo and Dany wed).
Which is why no one should be surprised that she has alluded to killing Sansa for her refusal to relinquish Northern independence.
The “Right” to Rule
One of Dany’s biggest flaws is her continued belief that it is her birthright to rule the Iron Throne.
On the one hand, she’s right: the throne was stolen from her family, and as the last remaining Targaryen (to her knowledge), it’s her right as heir. However, the throne itself was created by her ancestor, Aegon I, whose only right to rule was the fact that he decided to take over Westeros and won. So, really, the idea that anyone has a right to be the king or queen of Westeros is questionable at best.
All that aside, while this belief began as Dany’s anchoring motivation, it has become a sick obsession. In the podcast Binge Mode’s episode on “The Last of the Starks,” hosts Mallory and Jason compare Dany to Gollum from The Lords of the Rings. The Iron Throne is her Precious, and she will pursue it at all costs, even if she dies trying to get it. The main difference being, of course, that she can’t even conceive of a future where she doesn’t win.
(She’s kind of like Cersei in that regard: willfully ignorant of her own mortality.)
What Is Her Actual Plan?
In addition to her inability to have a backup plan, it seems like Dany doesn’t have a plan at all. This applies purely to the show’s portrayal, as Dance with Dragons left off with her about to face the coming khalasar, Drogon by her side. But, the show has shown several instances where she put off discussing the future, choosing instead to focus on the progress of her conquest.
Obviously, one in the midst of a war should have their strategy at the top of their mind. But, Dany needs to think of political strategy as well.
To put it in the context of our political system, it’s like she’s come into the candidate landscape all sizzle but no substance. She’s got no platform and no plan for how to accomplish the (vague) promises she’s making. She wants to break the wheel—but what does that mean? And does she understand the clear contradiction of wanting to be the reigning power in Westeros while also wanting to do away with the way power is held?
At the End of the Day, She Doesn’t Know How to Rule
There are a lot of people who don’t like Dance because of all the political shadiness taking place while Dany attempts to rule in Meereen. She wants to already know how to be a queen before she returns to Westeros, and I don’t think anyone can argue against that desire.
The problem they have is that she is terrible at it.
I happen to love this about the book. It makes sense because, first of all, she’s only 15. What 15-year-old knows anything about anything? Then, there’s the fact that, behind the scenes, she is being manipulated and undermined by everyone around her (other than Barristan and this guy with him who isn’t in the show, Strong Belwas). There are the Sons of the Harpy fucking things up for her, there are “warring” Master houses that are likely conspiring against her—she’s even being given the wrong things to wear (clothing is a major aspect of station and occasion) to make her look even more like a novice outsider.
And not only is all of that happening, but the other cities in Slaver’s Bay that she “liberated” devolved into chaos the second she left. Yunkai returned to slavery, and the council she left in place in Astapor was murdered, with a ruthless dictator taking their place. As a result, EVERYONE hates her for her actions—so much so that the Yunkai’i lay siege to Meereen, as we see Tyrion, Varys, and Jorah trying to handle in the show after Dany is whisked away by Drogon.
There are so many reasons why Dany is failing at her first official attempt to be a queen, and she is blind to just about all of it. It’s so intriguing!
But, underneath all of that, there’s just the fact that she doesn’t know what ruling means.
She’s spent her time thus far being a conqueror. Her mission in Slaver’s Bay, while noble by our real-world standards, is akin to the Crusades: she uses war and violence to force people to submit to her way of thinking. As a recent piece by Bustle says, Dany is really a colonizer wrapped in a guise of feminism and justice.
The Breaker of Chains / White Savior Duality
A lot of people love Dany because of the only other constant in her arc besides wanting the throne: she is anti-slavery, and she actually does something about it.
As Khaleesi, she ordered the men of Drogo’s khalasar to stop raping the women they capture. (Sure, women are still being captured, but baby steps.) She freed Missandei and the Unsullied by killing the master who was going to sell them to her. She inspired or facilitated uprisings all across Slaver’s Bay. She certainly earned the “breaker of chains” moniker in her titles-titles-titles.
But, as that same Bustle piece brings up, it can’t be denied that the whole thing smacks of white saviorism. This white woman—and an argument could be made that the Targaryens/descendents of Valyrians are the purest white—is coming in and saving the poor people of color from their terrible lives.
Sure, Viserys sold her to Drogo, so she “knows” what it’s like. But she was the First Lady of the khalasar—and, you know, her family used to be royalty—so her capacity to understand a lifetime of servitude is pretty low.
Still, we as readers and viewers let it slide because we want her to succeed!
As you’ll remember, Dany grew up in Essos, a country with a very different set of cultural norms compared to Westeros. Moreover, her ancestors are from Essos; what remains of Valyria is actually around the corner from Slaver’s Bay. So, it’s not like Dany was on vacation, saw one slave girl, and decided she was going to save everyone. This is the only home she’s known, and she’s had a lifetime to build a moral code that drives her desire to end slavery everywhere. She truly cares about this cause, and we care about it too because we see her become a symbol of freedom and courage for many of the formerly enslaved.
But, what makes her a white savior—and as I think about it, I should’ve compared her to the US aiding in many a regime change in other countries—is the fact that she’s 1) barreling ahead without thinking of the consequences and 2) ultimately being self-serving by doing this.
In Dance, after she’s set up camp in Meereen, Dany regularly holds court. One day, a former slave comes to her and asks permission to become a slave again. Freeing him from his master left him homeless and hungry—something she clearly wouldn’t have wanted and obviously didn’t think about. So, she enacts a policy where slaves can return to their former masters provided the masters pay them a wage. This is a really good plan, and probably the only way to peacefully transition out of slavery. So, why didn’t she think of that in the first place?
Because her narrative is one of the championing liberator. She doesn’t negotiate with terrorists; she busts in and kills them all to protect the people. Or she inspires the people themselves to rise up and kill the masters.
She likely wouldn’t admit this out loud, but let’s call it what it is: good PR for her return to Westeros. Look at her, ending the barbaric act of slavery in a country that was built on it. Jorah was disowned and exiled from Westeros for trading in slaves. So, she’s showing her “roots” as a Westerosi-minded leader. That, in addition to her dragons and the army that chose to fight for her, must look so good to the Westerosi smallfolk who are tired of Lannister rule. After all, Viserys and Illyrio told her for years that so many people secretly hoped for the return of the Targaryens. So, this has got to work for her, right?
And, I’m not gonna knock her for believing them. Since she’s wrapped it all up in her real belief in the end of the slavery, it’s an easy pill to swallow. You just have to take it with some grains of salt rather than a spoonful of sugar.
The Rocky Return to Westeros
Want to hear the craziest thing ever? Back in the early seasons of Game of Thrones, people used to complain about Dany being too perfect! Theoretically, her struggle to make a big, splashy return to Westeros should be welcome.
So, why isn’t it?
The Truth Fans Refuse to Face
The simple answer is that the show’s writing got sloppy, and her failures are made to look like someone else caused them (mostly Tyrion). The complicated answer is that a feminist leader isn’t allowed to have flaws, and whatever flaws she has can be smoothed over by the fact that she’s a pioneer.
(I won’t get into the following, because that would be a whole OTHER long post, but this belief is why people think Cersei is a feminist icon. She’s trash. The show has made her a bit more sympathetic, but in the books, she is straight-up garbage. She actively hates women and the fact that she’s a woman. Whatever. I’m not getting into it.)
I’m not trying to revoke Dany’s feminist badge by saying this. I really do think she believes in cultural equity (which is better than equality, by the way), and the patriarchal system of Westeros is a fucking disaster. See: the Dance of Dragons war, when a dying king named his daughter the heir to the Iron Throne, and her brother was coerced into challenging her. Countless people have died because of the patriarchy, and Dany wants to fix that.
But she’s bad at it!
As detailed above, she doesn’t know how to rule. She assumes that people will hear her last name, find out about her devotion to freeing slaves, and just give her the throne. She is a MESS, and that has been woven into the foundation of her character since the beginning. And few people want to admit to that.
Dany Can Still Be Upset About All This
Now, just because Dany has consistently overreacted to her lukewarm reception—positively icy in the North—doesn’t mean she’s not allowed to be angry about it.
We’ve all felt that frustration of something not going according to the careful plan we’ve laid out. She’s experiencing this, just at a very extreme and personal scale.
Her attempt to undermine Cersei’s rule by capturing Casterly Rock failed because she (thanks to Tyrion) underestimated how much the Lannister family castle actually means to Cersei. She lost the support of Highgarden, the Iron Fleet, and the opportunity to have the Dornish armies join her cause at the same time. Taking back the throne was not off to a good start.
Then, there’s Jon, who has been crowned the King in the North, making him a rebel in her eyes. He shows up at Dragonstone, seemingly the first person to formally accept her as queen, only to refuse to bend the knee AND ask for help in the same breath. The nerve!
But, he’s a cutie, so it’s fine. He convinces her (as was really needed narratively) to put her plans on hold to fight the Night King’s army of the dead. While saving his ass from a mission that basically proved futile, she lost a dragon.
Despite knowing the great cost of her allegiance, the North—Sansa especially—doesn’t care for her. Here is another “Southern” ruler, in their eyes, who refuses to grant the North the independence it basically already has. This is very unfair of them! She saved the life of their king; was it really so crazy for him to bend the knee? (Yeah . . . but I don’t have time to get into that either.) THEN, she finds out that Cersei means to betray her, even though she was legitimately freaked out by that wight.
What a mess!
Dany’s feelings of frustration and her desire to lash out are completely valid; they’re earned. But, she’s come to rely too much on the devil on her shoulder, not the angel. And it may be because she has decided they are one in the same. To foster peace, she must create war, as James Spader’s Ultron said in Avengers: Age of Ultron.
A “Butcher Queen”
I know it’s so snobby to say that the books are better; I get that about myself. But in this case, the books really ARE better. First of all, we get to see the internal thoughts of all these major characters. Secondly, things unfold at a pace that makes sense. And finally, people remain very complex.
In Dance, as I said, we see Dany struggle with her rule in Meereen. She’s spent her time in Slaver’s Bay causing destruction and chaos (though the latter is unbeknownst to her), and she knows deep down that that’s not how one rules. When she takes Daario as a lover, they regularly get into fights because he thinks she should just take her dragons and blow everyone to smithereens. She doesn’t agree because she wants to be seen as a just ruler, not a “butcher queen.”
(We see this, like, once in the show, when Daario tells her that “all rulers are either butchers or meat.” But not nearly to the extent we see it in the books.)
Her desire to be a true queen is what leads us to support her. The problem is that she’s already made herself a butcher queen in the eyes of those who oppose her. So, that concept is already out there. And not only that, but there’s been a major turn away from magic in Westeros. This had been going on since the last of the dragons died out.
Dragons are, like, the poster children for the existence of magic. They’re also fucking terrifying.
Not everyone is going to be comforted by the fact that she has dragons. Especially Drogon, who can only be described as a loose fire cannon—he’s basically Charizard from the first Pokemon season, throwing temper tantrums and never listening. And when the smallfolk hear that she uses those dragons to get what she wants on a regular basis, they’re going to react appropriately: they’re going to fear her.
So, while the show took a bad shortcut to get to that point, it’s now showing her the way the smallfolk would realistically see her: an invader with WMDs that can literally go and do whatever they want without her knowledge. We’ve already seen them go off script. Think back to the little girl that Drogon burned to death because, I dunno, he felt like it? A little girl who, in the books, Dany swore to herself she’d always remember to stay mindful of innocent lives, but by the time she and Drogon are approached by the khalasar, she can’t recall that girl’s name.
This is an apt comparison to where Dany is now in the show. She has forgotten the person she wanted to be—a queen who cares for the people by upending the system that keeps them down—in favor of what she wants—the Seven Kingdoms.
So, Dany has her throne, however briefly as the finale will surely see too. But, it’s come at a cost that, years before when she emerged from the fire as the Mother of Dragons, she wouldn’t have thought possible. She is mad, she is a butcher, she is a monster. And it doesn’t matter to her anymore.