Game of Thrones’ Mother of Dragons has fans up in arms heading into the show’s final episode.
At the start of Game of Thrones’ penultimate episode, “The Bells,” Daenerys Targaryen sits high above the streets of King’s Landing, on the back of her beloved dragon Drogon. She hears the tolling of the bells — the sound she’s been told, over and over again, means surrender, acquiescence to her rule.
The camera holds on her face for a long, anguished moment, as actress Emilia Clarke rolls through everything from triumph to gutted despair. She is near tears, exhausted and overwhelmed. She looks upon the Red Keep, the castle her family built, which she was smuggled out of in her mother’s womb, the building she believes to be her birthright.
She takes to the air on Drogon’s back, and we are led to believe she’s flying to the castle. The episode cuts to Cersei Lannister, the queen for a few moments more, watching with grim inevitability as the dragon flies toward her. It cuts to Tyrion Lannister watching with dread. It cuts to the people running from the dragon on the streets below.
And then, instead of attacking the Red Keep, Dany begins to attack the people in the streets indiscriminately, burning soldier and civilian alike.
King’s Landing has surrendered. These people pose no immediate threat to her. But Dany wants … revenge? Fear? To feel something? It’s not immediately clear, and the camera never cuts back to Dany again. She becomes a faceless beacon of terror, lighting up a city with dragonfire. The city is in ruins. Thousands — if not hundreds of thousands — are dead, either turned to ash or crushed beneath the rubble.
Some Game of Thrones fans think that what happened in “The Bells” marked the show’s boldest subversion of tropes yet. Some Game of Thrones fans think it was barely explained or built to. Some Game of Thrones fans are really fucking mad. Some Game of Thrones fans (hi!) think Dany’s decision to burn King’s landing was a bold subversion of tropes that, nonetheless, was barely explained or built to.
How you interpret this scene — and I’m not joking about this — could open up serious rifts in your friendships. People are yelling at each other over Game of Thrones like never before, divided over Dany’s choice and the show’s depiction of that choice. And why they’re yelling at each other is grounded in very, very old discussions about women in power, the nature of art, and the most effective way to tell a story.
Who is Daenerys Targaryen?
I don’t mean the plot answer to that question — the only surviving child of Aerys, the former King of the Seven Kingdoms who went mad and was deposed and killed in a political revolution, and whose daughter, Daenerys, thus grew up a refugee on another continent entirely. Nor do I mean the simplest answer to that question (she’s the Mother of Dragons, duh). I mean, “Who is Daenerys Targaryen in our wider culture?”
And that’s trickier to answer, because she means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Those who first encountered the character in the pages of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels (hi!) seem to have markedly different reads on her — and her capacity for violence — than those who first encountered the character on the HBO TV show adapted from those books.
In the books, Daenerys has roughly the same arc as she does on TV (at least until season six, when the show passes Martin’s books right by). But the books do a better job of indicating just how preoccupied she is with the injustices perpetrated upon her family and on how, when push comes to shove, she chooses herself in the heat of the moment. (Here’s a great Twitter thread by Rowan Kaiser on this very topic.)
As on TV, she’s a rape survivor and a political reformer who does want to make the world a better place on some level. But the books take more care in showing how she frequently gets in way over her head and struggles to understand what it means to both possess absolute power and want to genuinely reform the system (since doing so would inevitably mean the end of the monarchy that gives her that absolute power in the first place).
This is not to say that Book Dany is an incredible creation whose story has been told perfectly. Far from it. (Martin is a little too fond of having her wander around in the middle of nowhere in search of an epiphany, and there are strong elements of white savior-ness to her character arc that the show — which has frequently been criticized for this element — has actually slightly toned down.) But it is to say that when Dany made her choice in “The Bells,” it was easy for me to look back at the books and see how Martin very well might be building to this crucial decision, even if he has yet to commit it to the page.
It’s harder — though not impossible — to do that with the TV show. Indeed, throughout its first several seasons, Game of Thrones largely portrayed Dany as a kind of wish fulfillment character, someone who started out incredibly powerless and then became incredibly powerful. The show also wove that idea together with Dany’s identity as a rape survivor. Here’s how writer Sady Doyle puts it, writing about how Daenerys is the first significant character on this series to be raped:
Character introductions define characters. An arc — a character begins as one person, meets an obstacle, overcomes it, and becomes a different person over the course of the quest — depends on the clear and illustrative contrast between who the characters originally are and who they become. … Daenerys’ defining scene, her perpetually relevant starting point, is “rape victim.” We understand, from her first moments, that this is a story about a woman who is powerless, and that her powerlessness stems largely from being female. The obstacle, then, is misogyny, and her arc, her radical change, will presumably be a journey from powerlessness to power. Women who expected Daenerys to become a benevolent feminist ruler, to break the wheel and end the cycle of oppression, were not stupid; they were following basic story logic. Their expectations didn’t spring from delusion or narcissism, they sprang from Star Wars.
And many people have related to Dany deeply, seeing in her an avatar of feminine power they hadn’t seen elsewhere in pop culture when the show debuted in 2011. (Try searching Etsy to see just how thoroughly people tapped into this character.) HBO’s marketing has more than leaned into this in the past, playing up the aspects of the story that made Dany feel like a “chosen one” figure. (Meghan O’Keefe has written brilliantly about this.) No less than US Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren has written about how much she likes Dany.
The final image of both Martin’s first book and of Game of Thrones’ first season is Dany emerging from the fire with baby dragons on her shoulder. But where the book is at least a bit ambiguous about this, the TV show paints it as a triumph. Her nakedness earlier in the season meant brutal subjugation, but here it means she survived walking into a literal fire and emerged with three dragon children to boot. After several episodes of chaos and slaughter, finally someone who has truly seen what it means to have no power will have incredible power.
Over and over again, throughout the first six — maybe even seven — seasons of Game of Thrones, the show would acknowledge that, yes, Dany was sometimes vicious and often vindictive. She tended to like to roast her enemies alive. But the show always made those enemies deserving of her hellfire on some level. And then it would return to the idea of her fundamental principles, her desire to right wrongs and break wheels. Why wouldn’t people come to heavily identify with that character?
The problem is that identifying with any character on Game of Thrones is a mug’s game. Which brings us to how the series tells stories.
How Game of Thrones’ top priority — the element of surprise — informed its portrayal of Daenerys’s choice
If you go back and look at the scene where Dany attacks King’s Landing, you’ll note that it is a misdirect. The early shots lead you to believe that Dany is going to roast the Red Keep — and Cersei within it. This would be a violation of the spirit of surrender, but let’s presume that nobody in Westeros is bound by the Geneva Convention. Removing Cersei is Dany’s stated goal, so using Drogon to attack the Keep makes sense.
But then Drogon drops a bit lower, and the first time we see him breathe flame is from the perspective of the terrified people on the street below. (Director Miguel Sapochnik does a pretty amazing thing where the edits take us lower and lower, closer and closer to the ground, and then once we’re on the ground, that’s when Drogon begins to breathe fire.) You can watch the sequence and 100 percent know how it ends, and it’s still set up to make you think, ever so briefly, that Dany’s about to attack Cersei, not commit a wholesale slaughter.
This brings us to the central divide over Dany’s choice — was it “earned”? By which I mean: Did Game of Thrones’ storytelling properly set up and guide viewers to understand what was happening? And the reason this is such a divisive issue is that, well, every viewer is a different person with different expectations.
Game of Thrones, in general, privileges spectacle and surprise over everything else. If it can find a story turn that it can change into something that will shock you, it will do everything it can to present that change in as shocking a way as possible.
A good example of this is that when Arya and Sansa stopped fighting with each other and teamed up to kill Littlefinger in season seven, the showrunners decided to eliminate a scene where Sansa found out a key piece of information from Bran that led her to turn against Littlefinger instead of continuing to fight with her sister.
Without this scene, the storyline ends somewhat nonsensically, but it did create a “shocking” moment that subverted viewers’ expectations that Littlefinger’s ability to manipulate situations to his advantage was all-powerful.
The way that Game of Thrones privileges shock value is a big part of why it’s such a colossal hit and one of the dominant TV shows of its era. At a time when more and more viewing is being time-shifted and happening on streaming services, Game of Thrones gets millions of people to tune in to watch live because the second Daenerys decides to torch King’s Landing, you know it’s going to be all over Facebook and Twitter. So on the one hand, the bigger and more shocking the moment, the better.
But on the other hand, this approach forces the series to constantly obscure certain details from the audience. And while there’s definitely a story arc that conveys that Dany is feeling more and more isolated, Game of Thrones never really lets you in on what it’s doing. It’s not as if people didn’t guess this was where Dany was headed, and it’s not as if Dany hasn’t done horrible things before. But for many viewers, there’s a significant gap between the worst things the character has done and committing what would be wanton, unforgivable war crimes in our reality.
There’s a bit of Hollywood-speak that usefully describes what I’m talking about here: “tracking on.” The idea is that when you watch a movie or TV show, your brain has to work in a certain way to follow it. You can’t easily flip back a few pages like you could in a book, so the filmmakers have to think about how to present information so that it sticks in your head.
“The Bells” contains a good example of this in the way Sapochnik films the short-haired woman and her little girl, who keep appearing in the King’s Landing scenes. You don’t know who they are, but you recognize them as familiar faces making their way throughout the chaos. As a viewer, you’re “tracking on” them, following their importance to the overall story because their repeated appearances have encouraged your brain to latch onto them.
The problem with the Dany arc is that Game of Thrones is so intent on hiding her ultimate decision until the very last moment that it leaves literally no space to process why she makes her choice. Emilia Clarke’s performance is remarkable, and the way Sapochnik films the sequence so that we gradually detach from Dany’s point of view is amazing. But the work of figuring out why Dany does what she does — that’s all on the audience. Watching “The Bells,” we’re either tracking on Dany’s state of mind, or we’re not. And for many, many viewers, they simply weren’t.
A big part of tracking on a character or storyline requires not just the character’s psychological arc, but also the emotional arc, in order to land. And even people who are skeptical of Dany’s turn seemed to be at least tracking on the psychological aspects of her story — her despair, her rage, her possible madness. (And if you weren’t, the Previously On segment for “The Bells” was set up to do it for you, with an incredibly clunky moment where a shot of Dany was accompanied by voices from her past hinting that she might have succumbed to the Targaryen madness.) (Yes, this show treats madness a little like heart disease.) (No, we don’t have a lot of time to get into it.)
But emotionally, even those who have accepted Dany’s decision seemed to struggle with finding their way into her head to feel what she was feeling. Yes, intellectually, we can understand that she’d lost her friend Missandei and her dragon child Rhaegal just one episode prior, that her control of the kingdom was slipping away from her, and that she was increasingly isolated and boxed in. But because Game of Thrones made the choice to gradually disengage us from Dany even before it turned her into a force of fire and fury, it’s really hard to empathize with her in the moment when she makes her terrible choice.
To be clear: This could be a huge positive in the episode’s favor! And making it difficult for viewers to empathize was, perhaps, intentional. Game of Thrones is not in any way obligated to hold our hand and explain everything it’s doing. Sometimes people are mysterious, and they do big, horrible, awful things in ways that mean we can never again understand or empathize with them.
And some of my favorite writing about this episode — like this LA Review of Books piece by Aaron Bady and this Fanbyte piece by Gretchen Felker-Martin — has taken the view that Dany’s choice is a bold artistic portrayal of this character doing what she must.
But it’s telling that Bady situates Dany’s choice in the character’s political reality, while Felker-Martin situates it in her legacy of trauma. Sometimes, it’s a sign of an artistically challenging work when nobody can quite agree on why a character does a thing. And sometimes it’s just a sign of sloppy writing. (Plus, my example of sloppy writing may be your artistically challenging work — and vice versa.)
Which brings us to the elephant in the room: A lot of people just don’t like Game of Thrones’ final season as a whole.
A grand, unified theory of Game of Thrones disappointment
In 2014, when Game of Thrones was wrapping up its fourth season, I wrote a piece for the A.V. Club about how Game of Thrones’ storytelling had subtly shifted between its first three seasons and its fourth. I wrote:
Game Of Thrones’ solution to [its increasing sprawl] is to make every scene its very own episode. Now that the cast is dispersed all over the wilds of the series’ universe, it’s possible that a check-in with Bran will be all we see of that character for an episode or two. That means any scene with him has to count in a way that it wouldn’t on most other TV shows. Every scene with every character not only has to remind viewers of where they’ve been and where they’re going, but also suggest the forward momentum a full episode might elsewhere — while also telling a tiny story of its own. Structurally speaking, it’s a monstrous challenge. … The overall feeling is almost of mixtape storytelling, rather than more typical episodic television. Every episode features a little Arya here, a sprinkle of Tyrion there, in hopes of getting just the right mix that will achieve true storytelling resonance.
Going back and reading that piece, it becomes ever more clear that everything that now divides Game of Thrones fans was already seeping into the show even back then. Privileging moments over the larger story made the series a cultural sensation. But it also made the larger story murderously difficult to end, because on some level, ending a story is about whirling up a sense of inevitability.
Or, put another way: If you spend an entire series setting up a certain character as a would-be liberator or a would-be tyrant — and many viewers would argue that Game of Thrones spent way too little time on the latter half of that dichotomy with regard to Dany — it’s still going to be jarring when that character makes her final choice and viewers aren’t permitted into her head as she makes it.
You can respect that choice. You can even love it. But to many people, it’s going to feel like a betrayal, because we want, on some gut level, to understand it. It is this sense of betrayal that unites essentially every controversy that has bubbled up in the show’s final season, every complaint about how the series is no longer good or is making a hash of its reputation.
Much of Game of Thrones season eight seems designed, ultimately, to deny us the kinds of closure we might want. That’s an artistically valid choice, and one that could be immensely powerful in the right hands. But its potential impact relies on viewers’ belief that the choice to forgo closure is a deliberate one on the part of the artist, and not one made accidentally via clumsiness.
Everything in the moment when Dany decides to burn King’s Landing hinges on Clarke’s face, and she’s so good that I more or less buy what happens next. But the rest of “The Bells” — the rest of this final season — has done an exceptionally poor job of tracking on just what Dany is thinking and feeling, beyond what she directly tells us she’s thinking and feeling. Her motivation ends up feeling more elemental than real, which may be why “The Bells” drags in the notion that she’s simply “gone mad.”
And crucially, there’s also an entire larger conversation happening that centers on the idea of madness as a trope applied to women, and especially to women who lead. But in the interest of brevity, I’m going to leave most of it to Vulture’s Kathryn VanArendonk, who wrote my very favorite piece on this topic, and to Joanna Robinson at Vanity Fair, who touched on how both the books and the show have handled this idea. Suffice to say, making Game of Thrones a story about how a woman who has long wanted power going a little crazy the closer she gets to it has rubbed many people the wrong way.
But there’s a common denominator to all the current conversations around Daenerys, in that each one is also a conversation about Game of Thrones’ final season as a whole, and about all the ways that it is trying to (or failing to, depending on your take) offer a final summation of what the series is even about.
The longer the final season has gone on, the more its pacing has sped up to such a degree that it’s more or less sprinting now, with little time for connective tissue. In other words, it really does seem as if the season was indeed adapted from a very rough outline that Martin provided to showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, because it feels more like a bullet-points version of a story than a fully fledged tale.
But I wouldn’t blame this adaptation process too much, beyond how little time the showrunners had to work with. Instead, I think the reason the final season has been so dogged by uproar stems from how little the show still resembles its old self. Game of Thrones started out as a series with rich psychological realism. It started out as a series that featured lots of different women who wielded power very differently from each other. And it started out as a show about what it means to be a good ruler and how systems of oppression can be broken.
If you are disappointed in the Daenerys turn, it’s likely because you feel that Game of Thrones has somehow violated one of the core promises it made at its start. The moment when she burns an entire city reveals that the show no longer cares about rich psychological realism, or it would have invited viewers in to better understand her thinking.
It reveals that the show doesn’t quite trust women in power (the sequence with Dany’s dragon ride even explicitly links Dany and antiheroine Cersei, both via editing and costuming). And it reveals that the two people that Game of Thrones positioned as potentially good rulers who could break the wheel have either gone mad with power (Dany) or are just sort of sweet and dumb (Jon).
You don’t even need to believe that Game of Thrones has betrayed all three of those themes to be angry. For instance, I tend to side with Slate’s Willa Paskin in thinking the Dany turn is not anti-feminist, but I do sort of think the scene violates the show’s former attempts at psychological realism. Game of Thrones has simply gotten so big that its spectacle overwhelms everything else.
This show used to be about the moments between the spectacle, the moments that made us understand why a character would do what they did, even as their ultimate action proved shocking. We understood why Ned Stark lost his head. We understood why Catelyn Stark and Robb Stark died. But do we understand why Daenerys does what she does? On a visceral, gut level?
I would argue we don’t. At some point, Game of Thrones became all about the spectacle, with less and less room for the little moments. Its evolution is not without merit — massive spectacle has an operatic emotionality of its own, and clearly the fact that I’ve written nearly 4,000 words about roughly 60 seconds of television proves something of merit happened in that scene.
But somewhere along the way, Game of Thrones fundamentally stopped being the Game of Thrones many people fell in love with and became something else, something bigger and louder and just a little bit dumber. Its awe-inspiring spectacle made it the biggest show on television, but it also distanced the series from what made it so addictive and engrossing in the first place. The uproar over the final season isn’t a fluke. It was inevitable.
Learn more about Game of Thrones’ lasting impact, on the May 17 episode of Today, Explained.