What does it take to kill a dragon on Game of Thrones? In Sunday night’s episode, “Beyond the Wall,” we finally got our answer.
With Jon Snow & Co. surrounded by the Night King’s army of the dead, Daenerys Targaryen and her three dragons leapt to action to save them. Drogon, Viserion, and Rhaegal quickly made mincemeat of the undead horde, but that’s when tragedy struck: The Night King whipped out a giant spear and hurled it right into Viserion, who died in a eruption of blood and fire before slipping into the icy waters below. (Making matters even worse, the Night King raised Viserion from the dead at the end of the episode.)
It’s a bit surprising to see a spear take down a dragon, even one thrown by the Night King himself, but at least he’s got magic on his side. When Qyburn unveiled his big plan for killing Daenerys’s dragons in the season’s second episode, “Stormborn,” he had no magical trick up his sleeve. Instead, his marvelous idea was a medium-sized ballista, which, if all went well, would shoot its bolts right into the skulls of the three flying beasts.
Of course, the touted weapon didn’t work so well: Bronn got off a solid shot at Drogon during the climactic battle outside King’s Landing — only for the dragon to shrug off the shoulder wound with hardly a second thought. Still, that failure laid the narrative groundwork for Viserion’s death: Qyburn’s gigantic arrow pierced Drogon’s hide, demonstrating that the dragons could actually be wounded and potentially killed with the right weapon. It just so happens that the right weapon is a spear thrown by a mythical ice creature.
Before Viserion, Westeros had seen a handful of other dragons die in combat, but it was a pretty rare thing. Over the roughly 150 years that the Targaryens ruled Westeros before the dragons died out, 18 of their dragons were killed in battle. Of these 18, 10 were killed by other dragons, mostly in the aptly named civil war the Dance of the Dragons. That leaves eight dragons killed by humans — a pretty poor ratio when you consider how many humans have been killed by dragons over the years, but I guess it’s better than nothing.
Coincidentally, the first Targaryen dragon killed in combat was brought down with a weapon like Qyburn’s ballista. Meraxes was one of the trio of dragons that came with the Targaryens to Westeros; she was ridden by Rhaenys Targaryen, Aegon the Conqueror’s beloved sister-wife. Though the dragonriders quickly defeated most of the Seven Kingdoms, Dorne held out, and the Targaryens’ continued attempts to force them to bend the knee resulted in a long guerrilla war. A few years into the war, Rhaenys and Meraxes were burning a Dornish castle when its defenders shot a scorpion bolt straight through the dragon’s eye. Meraxes crashed down in the castle’s courtyard and died. (What happened to Rhaenys afterward is one of Westeros’s great historical mysteries.) Having proven the dragons were not invincible, the Dornish were eventually able to end the war on their own terms. They sent Meraxes’s skull back to King’s Landing, where it presumably was one of the ones Cersei and Qyburn visited in “Stormborn.”
The Dance of the Dragons, 120 years later, saw the next dragons die in combat. Though most of the dragons who perished in the Dance were victims of dragon-on-dragon crime, a few fell to human efforts. One gigantic naval battle in particular saw the death of two dragons: The young dragon Stormcloud was mortally wounded after being struck by a storm of crossbow and scorpion bolts, while the larger Vermax crashed into the water, got caught in some wreckage, and drowned.
But the most dangerous day for the dragons came later in the Dance. As the war devastated the country, the commoners of King’s Landing rose up in mass revolt, and a mad preacher known as the Shepherd commanded them to focus their ire on the dragons chained up in the city’s Dragonpit. An angry mob broke into the pit, and from there things got just about as bloody as you might expect: Three dragons were killed while still in chains, while hundreds of rioters were burned, bitten, or clawed to death. One dragon was able to break its chains, but it had nowhere to go — it rained fire on the masses from above until a lucky crossbow shot hit its eye. As the rioters started to disperse, they were set upon by yet another dragon, which had been set free from the Red Keep in the chaos. After killing countless smallfolk, it, too, succumbed to the mob.
By the time the night was over, five dragons were dead, and the Targaryens’ power was immeasurably diminished: When the last dragons died years later, suddenly they were no different from any other lordly house. Knowing all that, maybe Daenerys should be wary of visiting King’s Landing for the time being. We now know that the Night King can take down a dragon with an ice spear, but it turns out a large group of bloodthirsty and committed citizens is enough to kill one too.