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The Tragedy of Daenerys Targaryen

Photo: Helen Sloan/HBO

“I have come … But I do not choose now to do what I came to do. I will not do this deed. The Ring is mine!”

Frodo Baggins broke bad. After a journey spanning thousands of miles, hundreds of pages, and a trilogy of books, the hero of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings did the one thing he’d aimed to prevent anyone from doing ever again: He claimed the One Ring, the ultimate weapon of the evil Sauron, as his own.

This betrayed everything he and his friends had fought and suffered for, but, fortunately for the hobbit, no mere mortal could hope to harness and wield the Ring’s power. All Frodo really succeeded in doing was alerting Sauron to the jewelry of mass destruction’s presence in the one place it could be destroyed, the volcano where it was originally forged.

Of course, this too would spell disaster if the Dark Lord were to reach Frodo in time to reclaim the Ring and turn it on the good guys amassed at the gates of his wasteland kingdom. Only dumb luck and Frodo’s own prior kindness saved him in the end. The mutated hobbit called Gollum, whose centuries of solitude with only the object’s dark magic for company had turned him into a hopeless Ring junkie, bit off Frodo’s finger to take the Ring back. He then promptly fell into the lava, destroying himself, the Ring, Sauron, his minions, his castle, and his impregnable kingdom all in one go. If Frodo had killed the vicious but ultimately pathetic creature during his many earlier opportunities to do so, all would have been lost.

But still: Tolkien chose to bring his magnum opus — the fountainhead from which the entire epic-fantasy genre has flowed — to a climax by corrupting his virtuous protagonist and giving him no agency in his own redemption. I first read The Lord of the Rings 33 years ago, and to this day I can’t hit that part of the book or watch that part of Peter Jackson’s film adaptation without gasping, “No, goddammit, no!” The character whose pure heart and noble intentions made him the ideal vehicle for bringing the most dangerous weapon in existence to its appointed place of destruction was, in the end, neither pure nor noble enough to resist trying to use the loaded gun he’d been carrying all that time. In the parlance of our era, you simply hate to see it.

Unfortunately for Daenerys Targaryen, there’s no Gollum present in Game of Thrones to knock her off her dragon’s back and then, I dunno, fly the thing directly into the side of a mountain at full speed. Her hero’s journey ends in villainy that no one — at least, perhaps, until Sunday’s series finale — has the power to stop.

The big difference between what Frodo did when he reached Mount Doom and what Daenerys did when she reached King’s Landing — refusing to accept the city’s surrender and burning it to the ground in the most divisive act of violence in Game of Thrones’ history — is that Dany wasn’t drawn into darkness by any magic ring. Magic genes, however, may have played a role: Centuries of inbreeding to maintain the sorcerous X factor that enables the Targaryens to ride dragons has made mental illness, often manifesting in unbridled narcissism and extravagant cruelty, endemic to the family.

But the bottom line is that Daenerys faced a Machiavellian dilemma. Is it better for a ruler to be feared than loved? Would she allow her enemies to live, or would she pay them back for the life of exile and abuse they forced upon her? She chose the path of House Targaryen’s words: “Fire and Blood.”

So a terrible crime was committed but not by showrunners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff against the character or the viewers. Rather, with the Dragon Queen’s sacking of the city, Game of Thrones gave us something more powerful than a plot twist: a tragedy. And for all that Dany’s actions represent a shocking break from the hopes and expectations she generated with many of her words and deeds, this tragedy has been hiding in plain sight for years.

Now, you can hardly swing a dead Flea Bottom stray without hitting an article arguing the contrary. Claims that this “heel turn” came out of nowhere, that it represents a gross betrayal of the story, the character, her “arc,” and even her gender, are so thick on the ground that I won’t recount them here. Even on this very website, they’re just a few short clicks away.

Refutations of these claims are nearly as easy to find, too. This pushback usually involves a litany of examples of her ego, her excesses, and her enthusiastic and often gratuitously horrific murders of those who’ve wronged her: her midwife Mirri Maz Duur (burned alive), her handmaiden Doreah (walled up alive), the slavers of Meereen (crucified), Randyll and Dickon Tarly (burned alive again), and so on.

I’ll note in addition that the earliest examples (Dany’s dead-eyed, glib response to the painful execution of her abusive brother Viserys; her endorsement of her forced-marriage husband Khal Drogo’s plan to, and I’m quoting here, “kill the men in iron suits and tear down their stone houses,” “rape their women [and] take their children as slaves”) predate the sorcery-induced stillbirth of her son, her subsequent infertility, and the birth of her monstrous surrogate children. Whatever’s going on here can’t simply be attributed to a sloppy, offensive conflation of cruelty with the failure to live up to some motherly feminine ideal. (If it were, how to explain Cersei Lannister, a mother or mother-to-be during the commission of all her crimes?)

No: While Daenerys’s spectacular brutality is unusual for heroes of sweeping fantasy sagas when they reach the high point of their story, brutality itself is the rule among the rulers of Westeros, rather than the exception.

Robert Baratheon was an abusive, obsessively vindictive drunk. His son Joffrey was a butcher of children and a budding sexual sadist. Joff’s uncle Stannis attempted to sack King’s Landing himself and burned his own daughter alive in a quixotic attempt to draw down power from a fire god to capture Winterfell. Tywin Lannister orchestrated a systemic campaign of war crimes under Gregor Clegane, then teamed with high-ranking lords Walder Frey and Roose Bolton to slaughter hundreds of unsuspecting, unarmed Northerners at the Red Wedding. King-Beyond-the-Wall Mance Rayder and his lieutenant, good ol’ Tormund Giantsbane, oversaw the slaughter of entire Northern villages. Lovable Night’s Watch lord commander Jeor Mormont looked the other way as the wildling chieftain Craster raped his daughter-wives and sacrificed his sons to the White Walkers. Balon and Euron Greyjoy … well, they were Greyjoys. Littlefinger and Ramsay Bolton existed. Jon freaking Snow hanged a child for treason. All the characters who are the show’s supposed consciences — Davos and Varys and Tyrion and Sam and Sansa and Jorah and whoever else — worked for one or more of these assholes at one time or another.

And though Daenerys and Drogon did the most damage during the sack of the city, they were hardly alone in sacking it. Tenderhearted Grey Worm, leader of the Unsullied super-soldiers, started the slaughter of the surrendering Lannister troops. Dothraki horsemen cut down civilians. Northmen and knights of the Vale sexually assaulted women in the streets. A fighting force drawn from all over the world and led by Dany, Jon, Davos, Grey Worm, and Tyrion — five people better equipped to argue for the protection of civilians and liberation of the oppressed than almost any others on the show — turned into a rainbow coalition of war criminals. Dany was unique only in that she fired the first shot from the biggest gun.

What the Mother of Dragons did in King’s Landing is hard to stomach not because it was anomalous but because it wasn’t. For all her tough talk against tyranny, she opted to become a tyrant. She proved unable to transcend the damage done to her psyche by wartime terror (Robert Baratheon waged his war against the Targaryens with spies and assassins for years after the last battle was won), by a lifetime of sexual and physical abuse, by the pain of brutal defeats, by the bloody catharsis of equally brutal victories, by the deaths of the dragons she considered her children, by the murder of her best friend Missandei, by devastating personal setbacks from Varys (who betrayed her) and Jon (who broke up with her), by seeing her suspicion that the people she’d come to save would betray her begin to come true, by learning that her Iron Throne birthright actually belongs to someone else, by the sheer infuriating frustration of people attempting to deny her the thing she’d spent her entire life trying to get.

Daenerys’s cruelty is unique in Game of Thrones only in that her rhetoric, and often her actions, were head and shoulders above those of many of her contemporaries. Given similar circumstances, would they have behaved differently?

To take things back to the text that most directly influenced Game of Thrones godhead George R.R. Martin, would Frodo have behaved any differently had he somehow managed to turn the Ring on its maker and become its new master? No Lord of the Rings characters who, if they’d used the Ring, might have had power comparable to Dany’s on dragonback thought so. That’s why the corrupted ones — Saruman, Boromir, Denethor — wanted to take it. And that’s why the stalwart ones — Gandalf, Galadriel, Aragorn, Elrond, Faramir — refused to take it at all. In the end, the only thing separating Daenerys Targaryen from Frodo Baggins is that she had the power to tame her dragon.

Because of all this, I wasn’t outraged by what she did in “The Bells.” I was heartbroken. I wanted to believe, just like so many of her followers and so many people in the audience wanted to believe. I hoped humanity would triumph over its own inhumanity, just as it had triumphed over literal inhumanity in the form of the Night King and his army at Winterfell. I hoped Good Queen Daenerys and Good King Jon would reign happily ever after. I hate that I was wrong.

But I don’t hate Game of Thrones for it. I’m glad, and grateful, for the chance to feel something that deeply. Despite her many faults, her crimes, and her messiah complex, this woman had a moral framework light years ahead of so many others, plus the will and ability to put it in place more often than not. Things could have turned out so differently had she not succumbed to the wicked desire to extract pain and revenge from her perceived enemies. It’s a tragedy that she didn’t. Now the Ring, for better or worse, is hers.