“Game of Thrones surprised virtually no one in Season 8, Episode 5 by turning Daenerys Targaryen into a bloodthirsty ‘Mad Queen’.” – Inverse.com
“With that rise has come the hardest fall, and the penultimate installment of the series finds Daenerys Targaryen consumed by anger and paranoia, turning into the Mad Queen that her ancestry has foretold.” – Thrillist.com
“How could the daughter of the Mad King who promised to break the wheel, to be better than those who came before, become the same evil that these characters have fought so hard to destroy?” – IGN.com
“Daenerys was always a Mad Queen.” – ScreenRant
So, the consensus is in. Daenerys Targaryen, Breaker of Chains, Mother of Dragons, is now Burner of Cities and Mad Queen. Ninety percent of the internet is up in arms decrying this volte-face in the character of the Khaleesi we’ve all come to love. The other ten percent are rationalising, pointing out that this character turn has been well signposted along the way, Daenerys has always been a bit of a ruthless tyrant in waiting, and we shouldn’t be surprised that she’s now gone blotto.
They’re all wrong.
It doesn’t help that the writers, D.B.Weiss and David Benioff, don’t appear to be singing from the same songbook in their post-episode interviews and commentary. Benioff leans towards the “ruthless dictator” end of the spectrum: “I think that when she says ‘let it be fear’ she’s resigning herself to the fact that she may have to get things done in a way that isn’t pleasant… A Targaryen choosing violence is a pretty terrible thing.”
David Weiss, on the other hand, fully buys into the ‘brain snap’ approach. “I don’t think she decided ahead of time that she was going to do what she did. And then she sees the Red Keep, which is, to her, the home that her family built when they first came over to this country 300 years ago. It’s in that moment, on the walls of King’s Landing, when she’s looking at that symbol of everything that was taken from her, when she makes the decision to make this personal.”
Regardless of whether Dany chose to raze King’s Landing as a level-headed, reluctant, strategic decision – to sow fear in the Seven Kingdoms and establish her reign in the face of continued opposition and a possible Jon Snow-led insurrection – or whether it was a spur-of-the-moment thing, classifying the inhabitants of King’s Landing indiscriminately as enemies due to them not bowing to her when they had the chance – in either case, Dany’s approach here does not qualify her for the moniker of “Mad Queen.”
She sacked a city. She killed the inhabitants indiscriminately. Her followers, on the ground, aided and abetted with rape, looting and pillaging of their own. Grey Worm and his Unsullied skewered unarmed, surrendered Lannister soldiers. The remnants of her Dothraki horde swept through the city slaughtering women and children, looting treasures (and, presumably, taking slaves) just as they have been doing for hundreds of years back in their homeland.
None of this is special. This is just what happens, when a city falls to a conqueror.
In fact, it could be argued that of all the major characters in the series, Daenerys is the only one who’s acting rationally in this moment. Every other character seems to somehow think that the Lannister soldiers throwing down their swords means the war is over, Dany can sit on the Iron Throne and everybody from all the Kingdoms will start kow-towing to her. They’re all wrong. Dany knows that she doesn’t command the loyalty of the people – she’s known that since the first season. She knows the people here will never love her the way the freed slaves of Meereen do. She knows she’ll never command the respect and love someone like Jon Snow does – and now she knows that he has the better claim to the throne, regardless of whether he wants it, and if she accepts King’s Landing’s surrender, her reign will never be free of insurrections aiming to put Jon Snow (or anyone else) on the throne in her place.
“Let it be fear, then,” she says earlier in the episode. She’s clearly planning to make King’s Landing an example. This is no brain snap.
“If the sight of the Red Keep suddenly causes her to fly into a rage … then why does she immediately start torching the city instead of the Red Keep? … [She demonstrates] that she is completely, totally, and unstoppably terrifying, someone so vengeful and destructive (and maybe even crazy) that you really don’t want to even think about coming close to considering getting anywhere near her bad side.” – lareviewofbooks.org
It’s terribly sad to see King’s Landing succumbing to such depredations after Daenerys made such a point of painting herself as different to the dictators that came before her. Probably she still has a noble intention to “break the wheel”, to save the innocents of future generations from living under the heel of a tyrant, but she hasn’t made a great start of it. How she gets from where she is now – the ruthless destroyer of King’s Landing and a great proportion of its inhabitants – to where she wants to be, a benevolent ruler of peace and freedom, is not a clear path. I would guess that next Monday’s episode will put paid to the idea once and for all, whether Daenerys continues her path to dictatorship or whether she’s killed by Jon, Arya, or the half dozen or so others whom the writers are setting up as potential Queenslayers.
But choice or reflex, the sack of King’s Landing does not in itself make Daenerys a Mad Queen. The madness that afflicts Targaryens is much more insane than mere tyranny. Aerys suffered schizophrenia and paranoia, and ended up burning people alive for fun. Aerion believed drinking wildfire would turn him into a dragon (spoiler alert: it did not). Aegon II fed his sister to his dragon and forced his nephew to watch. Rhaegel had delusions and was known to randomly take off his clothes and dance naked through the halls of the Red Keep. (Source: https://gameofthrones.fandom.com/)
Next to these behaviours, Daenerys’ attack on King’s Landing was rational and deliberate. It will have the intended outcome, of building Daenerys’ reputation and suppressing any thoughts of resistance. It is neither the most brutal nor unwarranted action in the long War of the Five Kings, but it will certainly put an end to them.
The only reason we (the viewers, and the Internet) consider this action to be a “descent into madness” is because we’re viewing it through modern eyes. Judging by the standards of today, in our world where war and violence are remote and bloodless things, ignoring a surrender is unthinkable, the height of vicious savagery. But Game of Thrones occurs in a world where there is no Geneva Convention. There are no accepted limits to behaviour: Power is Power, and Daenerys has the ultimate power in the form of her dragon. Who will gainsay her decisions? She can have detractors Dracarys‘ed and call it stability, for the good of the realm, and she wouldn’t be entirely wrong.
I imagine that the writers, in the final episode of the series next Monday, will commit fully to Daenerys’ advisors being horrified enough at her actions to fall away, to betray her. It won’t be true to that world, but it will be true to ours. It is likely that, finding herself further betrayed, Daenerys will turn some more of our favourite characters to cinders. The show will portray these as evil acts, further cementing Daenerys as a villain and Jon/Arya/Sansa/whoever else as honourable and just.
If I were writing the show, I would have Daenerys ascend what remains of the Iron Throne and rule as the just and virtuous Queen she always imagined herself to be. With a council of advisors ruling over the various Kingdoms, she could put the events of The Bells behind her and bring a kind of peace to Westeros. Daenerys has always shown herself to be a caring and compassionate ruler, locking her dragons, her children, in a dark cellar because they killed one little girl. That Daenerys is not one to willingly burn her advisors and laugh as they die. That Daenerys is one willing to kill in the name of peace and stability, in the furtherance of her rule, but to regret and lament each time she’s forced to it. That Daenerys, after last week’s episode, is not yet lost.
It doesn’t look likely that this is the way the series will end. Whichever way it goes, Daenerys is not a Mad Queen, and perhaps never will be. She’s not a Mad Queen until she starts burning people and enjoying it.