What the Hell Happened to Daenerys?
‘Game of Thrones’ has turned the most compassionate queen in Westeros into another tyrant
For years, Daenerys Stormborn, first of her name, mother of dragons, breaker of chains, and rightful queen of the seven kingdoms, has been the ruler we’ve been hoping would win the Iron Throne. Her goal has been to “break the wheel,” the cycle of oppression where the rich and powerful continually vie for rule, always at the expense of the common people. But now Daenerys is as ready to kill those common people in order to gain her throne as Cersei Lannister has been. It’s a shocking, heartbreaking change in one of Game of Thrones’ most beloved characters… and it’s also kind of perfect, too.
Daenerys’ transformation into someone cold and ruthless enough to kill innocent civilians in pursuit of Cersei at King’s Landing — as seen in last week’s episode, “The Last of the Starks” — has not only shocked the audience, but the characters on the show, too. Tyrion and Varys initially joined the Targaryen queen because of her compassion when she was the queen of Meereen, notably seen in her desire to free all the slaves in Essos. And while Daenerys occasionally got a little hot under the collar — as, say, when the slave traders she had put out of business launched an all-out attack on Meereen back in season six, and her instinct was literally to kill all of them and destroy their cities — she was also willing to listen to Tyrion, who reminded her that “kill ’em all” was also the policy of her father, the “Mad King” Aerys, which cost him (and, by proxy, Daenerys) the throne.
It clearly no longer matters to Daenerys who or how many people die, as long as Cersei is one of them.
For the past season and a half, Tyrion and Varys have spent a lot of time trying to convince Daenerys to show mercy — with less and less success. After last week’s episode, it seems no words can stop her. The multiple battles she’s already lost, the death of her dragon Rhaegal, and the murder of her friend Missandei will assuredly result in King’s Landing going up in flames. It clearly no longer matters to her who or how many people die, as long as Cersei is one of them.
That seems like an enormous transformation from the kind young woman of seasons three and four, but it might not be as big as you think. Daenerys has never been shy about administering justice through violence. Back in the first two seasons, she was all too happy to burn the witch who killed her barbarian husband and the wizards who kidnapped her dragons alive, and she also locked the merchant Xaro Xhoan Daxos and her own handmaiden Doreah in a vault after they betrayed her, guaranteeing a slow and agonizing death. She obviously never had sympathy for slavers, although she often promised to spare those who gave up their trade willingly. But when the “Great Masters” of Meereen crucified 163 slaves along the road to their city, just to show her their cruelty, she ended up crucifying 163 masters and lining them up on the same road. That was back in season four, and her Queensguard knight Barristan Selmy had suggested responding to injustice with mercy; her decision was to “answer injustice with injustice.”
Daenerys’ justice is very much in the eye-for-an-eye vein, but normally she exercised it on behalf of the oppressed and those she loved. Meanwhile, across the Narrow Sea, Cersei has also sought vengeance for those she loved, devising exquisite torture for Ellaria Sand of Dorne for murdering her daughter and trying to execute Tyrion when she mistakenly thought he had poisoned her awful son, Joffrey. But Cersei’s revenge has always been about herself, striking back against those who wronged her or threatened her rule. The most ostentatious example is, of course, her destruction of the Sept of Baelor. Only the Seven Gods know how many innocent people died as a result.
The two queens may currently have more in common than not.
By killing the dragon Rhaegal, Cersei has effectively murdered Daenerys’ child — but she’s also the main obstacle between the “Breaker of Chains” and the throne Dany believes is hers by right. Now, both Daenerys and Cersei are equally unconcerned about collateral damage to what Game of Thrones calls “the smallfolk.” Honestly, the two queens may currently have more in common than not.
This is a bummer, but it’s also fantastic character development. In a traditional fantasy story, Dany would be the daughter of a deposed king who starts with nothing and conquers evil by winning the hearts and minds of her subjects. But Game of Thrones shuns traditional fantasy narratives, which is one of the reasons the show (and the book series) is so popular.
We were agog when the show killed Robb Stark and his mother during the infamous “Red Wedding”, because sons avenging the unjust murder of their fathers is another major fantasy trope. So watching a good–hearted queen slowly get corrupted by the increasing power she amasses is completely on brand for Game of Thrones. Turning what would normally be the final battle between the forces of good and evil into a battle between two rulers who are so determined to kill each other that they don’t care what happens to the people they’re ruling is sort of perfect. Whether Daenerys wins or Cersei does, the smallfolk will lose, just as they always have.
Of course, Game of Thrones may still have surprises coming (how the hell is Jon Snow going to fit into the ending, anyway?) but with only two episodes left, it very much appears that Daenerys is no longer the savior people — the characters and the audience — thought she would be.
She came to Westeros to “break the wheel.” Now, here at the end, Daenerys has merely become another spoke.