Warning: This feature contains book and TV spoilers. You’ve been warned.
How the mighty have fallen. Daenerys Targaryen, the first of her name, Stormborn, Queen of the Andals, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, Breaker of Chains, and Mother of Dragons has had a rough season, and there's been over her character and her arc in . Some people seem to finally have caught up to my feelings on her (Totally. Over. Her.), while others are reacting against this shift with their own anti-anti-Dany backlash. Both sides are missing a vital point that George R.R. Martin is trying to make. Ready for it? Hold onto your dragon butts. You aren't suppose to like Dany. At least, not anymore. In fact, the show’s narrative is working very hard to try and make you think she might be the villain of the show.
In interviews, Martin has talked about how Thrones is very much a response to another famous fantasy epic: Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. However, unlike LOTR, Martin is trying to move away from a medieval philosophy on ruling and kingship. In a 2014 interview, Martin said: “Tolkien can say that Aragorn became King and reigned for a hundred years, and he was wise and good. But Tolkien doesn't ask the question: What was Aragorn's tax policy? Did he maintain a standing army? What did he do in times of flood and famine? And what about all these orcs? By the end of the war, Sauron is gone but all of the orcs aren't gone – they're in the mountains. Did Aragorn pursue a policy of systematic genocide and kill them? Even the little baby orcs, in their little orc cradles? In real life, real-life kings had real-life problems to deal with. Just being a good guy was not the answer… just having good intentions doesn't make you a wise king."
Martin’s novels, instead, take a much more realistic approach to high fantasy. The whole idea of ruling, being fit to rule, and what makes someone a good king is completely central to the entire Thrones series, even right from the beginning. Remember King Robert, all the way back in ? He was good at conquering, but he was far from good at being a King. But I think Martin is using another character to hammer this point home across the series as a whole: our little Mother of Dragons.
Dany's very introduction in the series was the stuff of medieval legend. She's born amidst a giant storm, she is soon reborn through fire and given dragons, and initially is an exciting character that is easy to root for, especially compared to everybody else in the series. She's the underdog character you can rally behind. Her family was the , and now she's in exile (another similarity to Aragorn) trying to regain said power.
To make viewers sympathize even more, she's given horrible situation after horrible situation right off the bat: both Drogo and her brother treat her horribly (at least at first). Her entire family is dead. She's sold into a marriage she doesn't want, and overcomes this. It's easy to feel for Dany. She's someone you want to succeed. She has dragons! She should be on that throne, dangnabbit! But Dany's tale the past few seasons paints a much different story. Her character arc has shown she is good at one thing: taking over cities. As for ruling them? Eh. Not so much.
Let’s go city by city, and use Slaver’s Bay as our litmus test for Dany’s ruling ability (which it pretty much is, narratively). In Qarth in , Dany’s hand was mostly forced. Her dragons were taken from her, and let’s be honest, Pyat Pree was a prick. She acted out of defense here, plain and simple. Things start to get a little murkier once she hits Astapor. There’s no argument against the fact that slavery is wrong, and Dany did the right thing in freeing the Unsullied. But this is also where she somewhat starts her path to turn away from the ‘good girl’ image she had before. After securing the Unsullied, she goes back on her deal to trade Drogon, burning the masters and then sacking Astapor. It’s all very similar to Martin’s comments about Aragorn hunting down the remaining orcs, isn’t it? Dany shows some of her, well, true quality, here. It’s no wonder that most of Slaver’s Bay is now trying to do anything possible to get her the hell out. It’s the Dany way, or the highway.
Later, in Mereen in , after capturing the city and freeing the slaves, Ser Barristan begs her to not kill the masters responsible, and to instead start to be a ruler and show mercy. Insead, Dany responds with her usual: “I will answer injustice with justice” spiel, and has the masters nailed to crosses. She also almost sends the Second Sons back to Yunkai to kill every Wise Master left remaining in the city until Jorah talks her out of it. Then she dismisses Jorah when she learns he betrayed her, again showing her stubbornness to forgive, and a staunch ‘us versus them’ mentality that results in her banishing one of her closest advisors. Sigh.
Dany does grow up a bit in , taking some steps toward actually ruling, not conquering: she reluctantly opens up the fighting pits - bowing to local custom, not her own ideals - and plans to marry Hizdahr zo Loraq… but only after she takes all the leaders of ruling families of Meereen captives, threatens them with her dragons, and burns one alive. One step forward… a few burnt bodies back? Meereen, meanwhile, continues to crumble beneath her, and she struggles to control a city that is rejecting a rule that she continues to impose over it. She may be doing the morally right thing by freeing the cities, but she fights every step of self-rule they try to take, and even Barristan warns her of her ever-growing similarities with her father, the Mad King. Ouch.
This season, Dany has regressed. After being taken by the Dothraki, she again has shifted to the role of conqueror, violently taking over the entire clan, claiming the army for herself, and again preaching the same fire-and-brimstone speeches about her right to Westeros. She continues to answer injustice with her version of fiery justice. I’m not going to defend Moro’s actions at all, but Dany did break Dothraki law. As usual, she is unwilling to accept or bend to any law but her own. And Dany has shown how she deals with people who break her laws… why would she expect anything different in return?
And herein lies the problem with Dany. She’s idealistic. She won't budge. She has dragons, so everybody should just listen to her. That's how she rules. Dragons are her trump card, her giant-fireball-of-a-solution to every problem she has. She's the George W. Bush of Westeros… let's just go to war and burn shit down, and ask questions later. Dany is, if we've learned anything from Meereen, not a good ruler, and would not be a good Queen for Westeros, either.
To be fair, it’s the only life she has known up until this point, and her circumstances have been less than ideal for a Queenly education, but the show doesn’t paint a picture of Dany as the hero Westeros needs. That’s ok though, because I don’t think that’s where her story is going at all. She’s going to be the villain instead. Yep, Dany is being turned into the bad guy.
It wouldn't be the first time that the show (or books) has taken a character and flipped the viewer's perception of them on their heads. It's a trick Martin likes to pull out quite often, actually. Who would ever have thought that the Kingslayer himself, Jaime Lannister, would have redeeming qualities? Even Cersei… you hate her at first, but eventually the show (and the books, too, both to varying degrees of success) reveals more and more layers to both of the lil' Lannister twins to at least make them morally grey. There's no clear cut good and bad in the Thrones universe, a response to Tolkien's very black and white version of mythical morality.
Tyrion's appearance in Meereen is another part of this. Unlike Dany, Tyrion is shown to be damn good at ruling, and very quickly cleans up the messes that Dany has been making. The contrast here is as clear as the doors of the House of Black and White: Tyrion knows what needs to be done in order to effectively rule a city. Dany does not. Instead, she's Martin's stand-in for a divinely appointed ruler. If anything, she shows how little the author believes in the notion that just because someone is supposed to rule, they should.
Of course, before the show wraps up, Dany may take the Iron Throne. That doesn't mean she'll be good at sitting on it. She may treat with the Ironborn, board some ships, and land safely on Westeros, but what happens once she does take control? Will she exterminate her enemies, just as Robert and the Mad King did? Will she finally be able to adapt and switch from the role of conqueror to ruler? What happens when she finds the people of Westeros don’t want her - in the same way the people of Essos didn’t? She’s been trying to impose her will on people who don’t want it for so long, it may be the only thing she knows how to do, even to the homeland she so desperately hopes to save. She may have to save it from herself.