Hundreds of YouTube videos, blog posts, think pieces and memes about Game of Thrones‘s final season have been made in the time since it concluded. Most of them have to do with either shouting praise, giving criticism about how the writing was handled or suggesting that the showrunners should have taken another season to flesh out the details and weave a more intricate net of plotlines. And some fans have even put in the immense effort to re-write several episodes or craft an entire season from scratch – and done a really good job of it.
But through the haze of polarizing views and an avalanche of details that I never would have noticed on my own (hello, sneaky water bottle), there is one aspect that I keep going back to in my own analysis of the show: the madness™.
(Spoilers for the entire show incoming!)
The Mad Queen has long become Daenerys’s alias and, like any phrase that you say over and over and over again, has lost all meaning at this point. A parallel is drawn to her father, dubbed ‘the Mad King’ for good reason, as we know. “Burn them all” is not command particularly close to sanity.
But was “I’m not my father” really just a throwaway line included for the sake of reminding us of this character parallel? Or did it imply Dany’s self-awareness as she slowly descended into the darkness within her own mind? Maybe it was the writers’ not so subtle clue that their understanding of subversion is to have the protagonists behave in entirely uncharacteristic ways
Petyr, Varys, Jaime.
Dany’s madness is always presented as her inescapable fate: genetically rooted in her deepest self, enhanced but not caused by hubris, the allure of power, or bloodlust. It seems to be situated almost in opposition to the madness exhibited by other characters who reveal it through their actions more than destiny.
Ramsay Bolton, for example, was a clear-cut psychopath who enjoyed torture and instilling fear in helpless individuals. But despite his blatant cruelty, he was never portrayed as irrational or incoherent. The audience read him as evil because of his continued evil actions. You might argue that Ramsay was fairly obviously a character to be hated and brought far less nuance to the story than Daenerys. So let me give you a less straightforwardly hateful player in the Game of Thrones who enjoyed the privilege of actual character development: Stannis Baratheon.
Having finished the series, Stannis, to me, is a character that I never rooted for, whose actions were clearly motivated by arrogance and entitlement. But despite his many flaws and, due to his rigidity, a lack of relatability, he was not a one-note guy at all. Some say he had the most legitimate claim to the throne (next in line before Renly, and Robert Baratheon technically had no children that could rightfully succeed him, if all cards were on the table). Were it not for Melisandre as his closest adviser, his ‘madness’ might never have taken shape so undeniably #ShireenDidNotDeserveThis.
When people talk about the instances of foreshadowing Dany’s madness, the execution of the Tarlys is always brought up. And it puzzles me every time that so many viewers read that scene the exact same way. Dany as the ruthless conqueror who obliterates everyone who shows an ounce of dissent. And I attribute the uniformity with which this scene is understood as ‘an act of madness’ solely to the framing, not to the events themselves. Because Dany had just defeated an enemy who was ready to kill her and still gave them the option to join her cause (last-episode-Grey-Worm-defenders, take note!). Was she supposed to let them go and thus help grow the ranks of her enemies? Should she have shown mercy to those who would not have done her the same courtesy? Taken them as prisoners to bargain with the Lannisters (although that would obviously not have worked)? Of course not. She had to stand her ground and stick by her word. Any show of mercy in that instance would have registered as weakness and you bet your sweet buns that Westeros would have had enough vultures to try and exploit that weakness. The only reason so many viewers saw it as a pivotal moment in Dany’s journey to madness is because Tyrion’s plea for mercy and Dickon Tarly’s “noble” act of loyalty provided a stark contrast.
But let’s not forget that Stannis treated his enemies exactly the same. He might not have killed Shireen out of a haughty sense of righteousness but the same can’t be said about Mance Rayder. Much like the Tarlys, Mance refused to bend the knee, fully aware of the fatal consequences. And yet the situation was treated by everyone like an unjust though not unjustified byproduct of Westerosi politics/warfare. I would even argue that Mance deserved death far less than the Tarlys given that
a) wildlings are not part of the Seven Kingdoms, so Stannis being king there doesn’t matter and
b) Mance an the wildlings were not and would never have been supporting another person’s campaign for the Iron Throne.
Stannis, however, is not called the Mad King’s reincarnation. Yes, he is influenced by Melisandre and, thus, causes heart-breaking suffering. But it is his unwavering, black-and-white understanding of justice, his ‘an eye for an eye’ world-view, that is shown to largely cause his acts of ‘madness’, not some predestined, biological tendency for mental illness.
Compare these three characters in terms of the good they have brought to the world. Ramsay killed his father, thus doing away with one of the Stark’s biggest enemies. Purely out of opportunism and a lack of humanity, so that does not really count as ‘doing good’. Stannis helped Jon and the Night’s Watch defeat the wildlings. Aside from a few small decencies, that was his only good deed throughout the plot of the tv series. Dany, on the other hand saved her Dothraki subjects from starvation by getting them into Qarth, she freed thousands of slaves in the cities of Essos, she unchained the Unsullied and gave them back their freedom of choice and swiftly aided Jon in the fight against the White Walkers in any way she could. Though the scales were clearly tipped in favor of Dany being a good guy for most of her journey, later seasons have neglected to showcase her benevolence and bravery and instead presented it as stupidity (flying her dragons beyond the wall to save Jon and his crew) or a relentless, crazy thirst for power. No transition period.
Why then are we treating Dany as a lost cause?
Because of the language used around her.
The gods flip a madness-coin when a Targaryen baby is born; she’s the Mad King’s daughter; she’s a conqueror not a ruler; she will burn cities to the ground; she can’t have children but she’s the mother of dragons… Lines like these categorically chip away at Daenerys, the just and (perhaps) rightful heir to the throne, who might have been able to rule with strength and sincerity but also with compassion and grace. Instead, such phrases continuously smack you in the face with her status as a ticking time-bomb until the audience all but licks their lips in anticipation of the earth-shattering carnage she can and will unleash – clever character development be damned. Not quite a gradual transition to madness, but pretty much just a complete 180.
To clarify, I am a big fan of Daenerys’s arch ending in her giving in to darkness, madness, rage and lust for power. It is such an intriguing and unique development for someone going through an otherwise fairly traditional hero’s journey. In most stories, we get to see the bad guys only after they’ve turned bad, so following Dany on her path to this dark end makes every fiber of my fresh-stories-loving soul sing. I just wish the writers had hyped up Dany’s good-guy side more instead of shoving clumsy ‘foreshadowing’ down our throats in every conversation. Ramsay and Stannis aren’t shown to suffer from ‘madness’ because their characters were unwavering and hardly ever conflicted in their actions (Shireen’s murder was horrifying but ‘Stan the Man’ was a never going to prioritize love over his birthright).
Dany, on the other hand, used to be presented as a flawed individual but nevertheless someone to have hope for. Had the writers continued Dany’s complex mixture of kindness and ruthlessness and inner conflicts of earlier seasons, her rise and subsequent downfall could have been that much greater, more dramatic and more impactful.
GRRM’s conclusion of the series will most likely blow my mind with Dany’s expertly crafted demise. I just wish the show had treated the character with the effort and care she deserved. Alas, she got the dumbed-down, rushed and far too Hollywood-ized approach that abandoned character and focused solely on moving from plot point to plot point. Emilia Clarke gave a stunning performance, I just wish she had gotten better material to work with.
People complaining to HBO about the ending