People who think Daenerys Targaryen’s turn to the dark side came out of nowhere in the penultimate episode of “Game of Thrones” are flatly wrong, for reasons I explain in the latest “Low Key” podcast. You can listen on Apple or right here.
The podcast episode includes Aaron Lanton, Keith Dennie and me in a (dragon-) fiery debate about whether Dany’s bloodlust came too fast or without warning, as some critics of the episode, entitled “The Bells,” have argued. Many feel that the show’s writers didn’t properly set the stage for her suddenly awful behavior. But they did.
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The warnings about Dany have been hiding in plain sight: She’s genetically predisposed to madness (for reasons we spend wayyyy too much time discussing on the podcast) and we’ve seen Cersei flagrantly reject Dany’s multiple attempts to wage peace.
But also: What Dany did to King’s Landing is completely consistent with what almost every army does at the end of almost every war. Because history is a series of overreactions.
Killing civilians is obviously wrong. But Daenerys Targaryen was considerably more restrained than, oh, let’s say… the United States at the end of World War II. Japan killed 2,403 Americans, mostly military, in the Pearl Harbor attack that forced the United States into the war. The United States killed at least 129,000 Japanese, mostly civilians, in the atomic bombings that forced Japan out of the war. It’s a horrific, real-life example of how actual war works.
The morality of that decision has been debated for decades. One common defense is that the U.S. did the right thing to end the war decisively, and might even have prevented future loss of life on both sides. Dany uses a similar justification for the devastating she brings to King’s Landing. But all arguments for mass killings tend to feel cold, at best.
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There’s no equivalence, of course, between a fictional world and our own. But if you don’t think “Game of Thrones” is pulling from our world to reflect our culture back at us, you haven’t been watching “Game of Thrones.” The show wants to provoke moral debates, and make us think about our own history. And our own future decisions.
For those of you who haven’t disappeared down a Google rabbit hole about World War II, let’s return to the pretend-world comforts of Westeros, where Dany’s destruction of King’s Landing seems less capricious when you consider her life experience, particularly with Cersei.
Last season, Dany offered Cersei a treaty. Cersei committed to help Dany against the White Walkers, immediately broke her promise, and sneakily raised an army and navy to fight Team Dany, even as Team Dany bravely battled the White Walkers. Dany lost one of her dragons — which she considers children — in a sneak attack mounted by Team Cersei. Cersei subsequently beheaded one of Dany’s most loyal friends.
This is on top of Dany losing her entire family, Khal Drogo, Ser Jorah, and everyone else she’s ever loved. And after the double letdown of Varys’ betrayal and Jon Snow’s decision to keep their relationship strictly business. She had few people left to ground her in reality.
We don’t agree with what Dany did. But it’s wrong to say the show didn’t lay the groundwork for her transformation from hero to Mad Queen. It did, and so do countless examples from real life. (We get into a few more of them in the podcast. Things get dark.)
It’s interesting that the show abandoned Dany as a point-of-view character just before she began her attack. Do the writers want us to abandon any empathy with her? It would seem so.
My one criticism of “The Bells” is that I would have liked to see more of how Dany self-justifies her transformation from freedom fighter to tyrant, in order to more easily recognize such justifications in real life.