I will do a separate Season 8 Review (spoilers up to season 8 included) after the series finale airs this Sunday. This is not a review of the season so far, so I will not be discussing things episode by episode except wherein it concerns Daenerys, nor will I dive into the arcs of other characters from Episode 5 at length, except as examples to further my point. This post is exclusively about Daenerys Targaryen. Also, THIS POST WILL BE FILLED WITH SPOILERS. STOP READING NOW IF YOU DO NOT WANT TO READ THEM. For those of you who are staying, let’s get into it.
It’s not an especially difficult or unpopular opinion to hold that this final season of HBO’s hit fantasy drama Game of Thrones has been sufficiently weaker than seasons past in terms of pacing, what with the drastically reduced number of episodes and no more (published) source material to base the scripts off of after around the middle of season 6. Only having 6 episodes total in the run up to the series finale to resolve or remove any number of still-progressing storylines isn’t a great place to start from. Some character arcs will be rushed to the finish and some will just be left to the wayside entirely. And yet, even when not everything works out to its most ideal end, there have been many shows and movies that earned those rushed arcs or dropped storylines by keeping the writing of their scripts as lean and as nuanced as any writer could possibly make them. So what happened to Game of Thrones? How did the show manage to flop so hard on its face concerning one of its flagship characters with just two episodes to go?
Up through Season 8, Episode 4, entitled “The Last of the Starks,” showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss seemed to have at least somewhat of a plan in going forward with the arc of one particular crowd favorite: the Mother of Dragons herself, Daenerys Targaryen. For a little while, it was foreshadowed in earlier seasons that were it not for the counsel of her most trusted advisors, Dany had the potential to go mad (as her father had), and more than enough resources to make that madness the most destructive of the Targaryen dynasty. But talk to anyone who’s been officially caught up with the show, and they’ll most likely tell you that Episode 5, “The Bells,” was one of the most frustrating in the series’ long and storied history. Why? How could it be so frustrating to see this character we’ve followed for almost 8 seasons now go mad when that turn of events was foreshadowed during most (if not all) prior seasons? I believe this frustration comes from the lack of a true arc in this direction throughout season 8, and that that lack of an arc is the fault of three essential elements that probably could have made it work if they were differently handled.
1) They Didn’t Foreshadow It; They Only Teased Its Potential
I am all for foreshadowing a turn to the other side for a very compelling and nuanced character, as Game of Thrones has been excellent at foreshadowing events that can go very, very wrong extremely quickly. The fate of Rob Stark and his family at the Red Wedding, the turning of Jaime against his sister, even the fate of Ned Stark in season 1. These were all elements of the show that either shocked or delighted people (depending on your perspective), but they were all indicated as things that most likely would happen at some point. The issue with Daenerys turning mad is that that arc for her was teased, but never foreshadowed. See, foreshadowing something requires a particular degree of certainty that not only can things go wrong, but that if all the proper pieces are in place, things will go wrong, like when the writers foreshadowed that the Crypts were actually not the safest place in Winterfell because the Night King can raise the dead to fight for him, as we saw in Season 5, Episode 8, “Hardhome.” In the case of the Mother of Dragons, however, there was never any level of certainty that Dany would, in fact, go mad if pushed to the breaking point. She was sometimes harsh, even to people she loved most, but all the flash forward scenes of her in a throne room of ash were warnings to her, not the audience, that she should practice caution in her efforts to take back Westeros. And in the end, she only punished those who punished others or betrayed her trust. The innocents of King’s Landing never betrayed her at all; they’d never even met her.
When the Red Wedding occurred, people were shocked, but there was a story-based reason backed up by almost a full season of Robb’s character journey: he betrayed Walder Frey, a tenuous relationship at best, and his family got slaughtered for it. For all the horror that was the Rains of Castamere, the show earned that episode by keeping that plot point in the background like an acute sense of dread, and they pulled the trigger at the most unexpected moment. It fit with the arcs of all characters involved. This, then, brings me to the second point of contention for why Season 8 failed Dany.
2) Daenerys Targaryen (For All Her Faults) Is a Liberator, Not a Conqueror
In almost every past season, without the counsel of her advisors, Daenerys has made some (at best) questionable decisions in her efforts to take back the iron throne, and those decisions have reflected poorly on her character as a whole, which makes sense, because that’s what human beings often do; we make questionable decisions, and face the social and personal consequences of those decisions. If Dany were to stay good all throughout the show without making any mistakes along the way, the character likely would have grown boring after a while because that’s not how the world of Game of Thrones works. This isn’t the MCU, Dany isn’t Captain America, and you don’t get to where you need to be by being nothing but good all of the time in Westeros (just ask Ned Stark). You do your best, and hopefully your best doesn’t compromise your moral values, even if it’s not quite enough in the long run. What’s disheartening is that all throughout the show’s run, Daenerys is shown to be not perfect, but good. Her entire arc up to this point was about how she would be the first Targaryen to break the cycle of shame tied to the family name, how she wasn’t her father, how her brother was unworthy of the throne because he saw himself as a conqueror first and a ruler second, and how (although she had the potential to go mad), she would be a just ruler, if not a perfect one. Now, all that good will has seemingly been thrown away for a shock factor that doesn’t fit with Dany’s overall character theme or arc.
With each city or area she conquered, Daenerys was always liberating slaves or children under oppressive regimes. She did not use them as canon fodder for people who didn’t care about them, as bait for dictators that couldn’t care less if their city’s citizens burned alive, because she knew that wouldn’t work. She was smart enough to know that, and compassionate enough to recognize that children under dictators don’t have a choice in who rules them. They are innocents, as Tyrion wisely points out multiple times in “The Bells.” To turn Daenerys Targaryen, Breaker of Chains, into the Mad Queen in a matter of minutes simply because she thinks the people of King’s Landing would not accept her as their queen is not only tragically misplaced storytelling, but an utter betrayal of everything she has stood for up to this point. Why not go straight to the Red Keep and take out Cersei alone, and have the people react to that destruction for a little bit before Dany goes mad? The issue is not that the arc doesn’t make sense as a finishing point for the character; it would if given enough time to gestate. The issue is that it isn’t earned, which brings me to my biggest and final point.
3) Six Episodes Is Not Enough
This, by far, is the largest and most obvious hiccup in the plan to turn Daenerys into the “Mad Queen” the showrunners were apparently so eager to show off. With the battle for Winterfell barely under their belt, and one dragon slaughtered at the end of Episode 4 (by an enemy, by the way, who the people of King’s Landing also hate), Benioff and Weiss either did not prepare (or weren’t given) enough time to earn that arc for the end of the season. As we’ve already discussed, foreshadowing is not character development, and Dany’s character development thus far this season has not been a focal point of these episodes so far; the first three of them were all about preparing Winterfell for the coming army of the dead, and the next was basically a filler episode for different characters to hook up (or fail to), so Episode 5 comes out and we’ve essentially only spent time on Daenerys when other people are skeptical of her. We’re only seeing their perspectives about her; what we don’t get is a sufficient amount of personal time with her to flesh out this arc that she’s supposedly heading for. That’s why the turn to madness at the end of “The Bells” feels so abrupt – it is. A turn to madness enough to destroy innocent lives with no remorse for those you would have fought for and freed only a season or two ago is not an arc that can be properly handled in 15 minutes (just ask Star Wars) or even 5 episodes, hour and a half length or not. If, perhaps, the showrunners or HBO were to have ordered a full 10 episodes for seasons 7 and 8 (and I like season 7), this arc for Dany could have been fleshed out and felt more nuanced, or, well, earned. As it stands, it doesn’t, and although not entirely an unfair place to take this character, it is rather disappointing.
Game of Thrones has a long and troubled history regarding its female characters. Some of that actually is simply the attitudes of the time in which it’s set; almost no one did right by women at that time, and the world of this show is unjust and cruel, so it’s not entirely out of the question that the women would get the brunt of the cruelty in that world. But with Daenerys Targaryen, this show had a chance to finally put to rest a narrative that women cannot rule or lead simply because they are too emotional, that their own pride would get the better of them. This is not simply me saying that I would like Dany on the iron throne. To tell the truth, I know Jon is technically the rightful heir, but I would rather see Gendry Baratheon or Sansa Stark seated there (and Jon doesn’t want it anyway). This is, however, me saying that Game of Thrones had the opportunity to do right by its women and subvert expectations at the same time by having Daenerys reject the call to madness and defeat Cersei in a far different, less gory fashion: by turning her people against her through speech and the promise of freedom, as she has done in city after city before this.
In closing, I don’t hate this turn for Daenerys. I don’t hate that the show committed to it, and for what it’s worth, “The Bells” is one of the most beautifully directed episodes of the entire show. But Game of Thrones needs to be more than beautifully directed; it has to be precisely written in order to justify a turn like this. And what season 8 fails to do, above all else, is earn its “Mad Queen” moment. It doesn’t break the show entirely (and the petition to get season 8 remade is utterly ridiculous), but at the end of the day, when the dust settles, and Game of Thrones is no more, we will not look back kindly on the way this show, and more importantly, its writers, failed Daenerys Targaryen.
- The Friendly Film Fan
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Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time. Writer for Bitesize Breakdown.