As the second-to-last Game of Thrones episode ended on Sunday night, the biggest question for many viewers had nothing to do with what would happen next, or whether a character really did die, or why a strategy played out the way it did. The dominating question about “The Bells” was a much more essential one: Did it feel earned? More specifically, did Daenerys Targaryen’s swift descent from benevolent despot into vengeful war criminal make sense, and had the show laid enough groundwork so that when she finally snapped, the moment felt consistent for her character?
In Variety, Daniel D’Addario describes Daenerys’s madness as “perfectly in character,” situating it within her history of tactics that have been “more deeply rooted in dominance than in empathy.” Her motivations have always “pivot[ed] around the idea of revenge,” and so it’s unsurprising that given the opportunity for absolute dominance, for total revenge for what’s been done to her and her family, she might forget everything she ever said about the lives of innocent people. Indeed, the early seasons did a lot to point to Daenerys as a cold-blooded killer, someone who ultimately cared more about power than about goodness. Vanity Fair’s Joanna Robinson has been anticipating Dany’s madness for years, which on its own suggests that close reading supports Mad Queen Dany as something “earned” that Game of Thrones has been building toward all along.
In the show’s last two seasons, though, that sense of being earned starts to look a little shakier. As Riley McAtee lays out in the Ringer, Dany has always tried to temper her family’s legacy with her own sense of mercy, the idea that a queen could be loved for being good rather than feared for being all-powerful. “In the chaos of ‘The Bells,’” McAtee writes, “the show forgot about the empathy that has been as fundamental to Daenerys’s character as her ruthlessness.” About Daenerys’s tyrannical massacre, McAtee suggests that “the broad strokes may have been suggested earlier, but the specifics came out of nowhere.”
Robinson places much of the “earnedness” conundrum at the feet of Game of Thrones’ increasingly inept book adaptation. The show has never been able to replicate George R.R. Martin’s use of multiple narrators, a structure that lets us peek into the innermost motivations of all the major characters. As a result, the events in both the books and the TV series may be the same — the same major deaths, the same twists, the same relationships — but in the TV adaptation, we have less grounding for why any of this happens, why any character feels anything, or how any of their minds work when they’re not putting on a dramatic show for the benefit of others. Daenerys could’ve been fated to go mad from the very beginning; it may well have been a plot George R.R. Martin gave to showrunners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff as the “broad strokes” for how he planned to end the book series. But the thing about madness is that you can’t necessarily see it from the outside. (The best “The Bells” was able to do on this topic is loosen Dany’s regal braids and smudge up her usually pristine make-up.) As a TV series, Game of Thrones may have gotten the “right” answer — that Daenerys would go mad, that this was always her destiny — but without a richer exploration of Dany’s internal life, the series failed to show us the work that got it there.
There is a different way to read this development for Daenerys. The conversation about whether this plot feels “earned” is an important one, a useful way to think through the things that have long been Game of Thrones’ strengths and weaknesses. It’s a helpful crucible for all of the biggest conversations about the show’s final season: what themes the series wants to land on, concerns about its pacing, thinking through its character arcs. But at some point, the debate over whether Daenerys’s madness is a well-constructed story becomes secondary to a broader concern, a deeper disappointment. It’s possible to see Daenerys’s madness as a well-constructed endgame, or at least long-planned element of Martin’s vision for Game of Thrones, something destined from the beginning of the series, while also feeling disheartened by it.
Disheartened isn’t even the right word. I am exhausted by Mad Queen Dany, with the kind of fatigue that leads to jaw-cracking yawns and deep, resigned sighs. The notion that this sprawling story about epic political gamesmanship, the corruption of power, the things we inherit from our families, the people we choose to love, and the inevitable inescapable march of death would ultimately hinge on a trope as painfully stale as “and then the scary powerful woman goes crazy” is, to be frank, boring. That Dany’s madness is preordained only makes it worse because it extends the umbrella of Game of Thrones’ unoriginal obsession with the emotional instability of women over a longer time frame.
Mad women have a long fictional history. They leap from fiery balconies, having been trapped in secret attics for most of their adult lives. They lose their minds after having children, or having failed to have children, or after their children die. It may not be not hard to find evidence that Dany’s madness is seeded from the beginning, but that does nothing to counteract the implication that Game of Thrones is a story about hysteria. If it’s always been pointing toward Dany’s madness, then it has always been a story about a woman who tries to take command, and whose ambition, trauma, and inability to have nice, chubby, living human babies, makes her mind unfit for the task.
Game of Thrones does establish that Dany’s madness is inherited. It’s the Targaryan family curse, not a specifically female complaint: As Cersei once said, “Every time a Targaryen is born, the gods flip a coin.” But that doesn’t change the point that this is the story the TV series (and possibly Martin himself) have decided to tell, a story that focuses on Daenerys and her hysteria. For the creators of this narrative, the most interesting, foundational cycle in Westeros’ long-imagined history is the bit where a lady absolutely loses the plot. That’s the story worth telling. In the event that Jon ends up on the Iron Throne or he’s called upon to destroy Daenerys in the series finale, it will mean that Game of Thrones is a show about a lady who’s, sadly, just not cut out to be leadership material. It will be a show about how a nice, dumb, male Cincinnatus-type has to take her down to save the realm.
The sum total of Game of Thrones is what happens inside an episode, and it’s not very sporting to judge a show on what its showrunners say in a post-mortem interview. But if you watch Game of Thrones on HBO’s digital streaming service, a conversation with showrunners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff, who are also the writers of “The Bells,” begins autoplaying immediately after the episode ends. That seamless continuity basically begs viewers to consider the creators’ summaries as part of how to read each episode; it’s not the story itself, but it is the officially sanctioned interpretation. Watching their interviews about the episode, I wondered if they would attempt to describe Dany’s villainous turn as something other than madness, or whether they might try to emphasize her ruthless cruelty as something like twisted, empathetic logic. For me, the most compelling version of Dany’s story would be one that sees her as committing matricide, burning the world because she’s decided there’s no way for any of them to be happy and whole. I wondered if maybe Weiss and Benioff saw in Dany a core of curdled empathy, something that just did not translate onto the screen.
But no. “I don’t think she decided ahead of time that she was going to do what she did,” Weiss says about the instant when Dany cracks. “It’s in that moment … when she’s looking at the symbol of everything that was taken from her, when she makes the decision to make this personal.” This is no misguided interpretation of justice, in other words. Dany is not killing everyone in a broken attempt to save them. She’s not seeking bigger themes, or trying to wipe the slate clean, or operating on some tragic but predetermined plan. She’s just a crazy, vengeful, unhinged chick on top of a dragon, a woman who once had grand goals but got distracted by her emotions, a woman who used to have father figures and cannot operate without them, a woman who could’ve had it all if she hadn’t gone and made things, ugh, personal.