WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for Game of Thrones Season 8 episode "The Bells," which premiered Sunday on HBO.
Daenerys Targaryen has been a primary protagonist of Game of Thrones from the very first episode, when she was introduced as little more than a pawn in her brother's scheme to claim their birthright. Fans rooted for her as she took control of her own destiny, becoming the Mother of Dragons and the Breaker of Chains on her way to crossing the Narrow Sea in pursuit of the Iron Throne. However, she's never been a perfect protagonist.
Daenerys has trusted the wrong people, and she rarely shows mercy. She prefers to burn enemies and buildings to assert her power. And sending out the Dothraki and Unsullied on the frontlines of the Battle of Winterfell was an extraordinarily poor decision. She was a hero in earlier seasons, but not in these final episodes of the HBO drama. In learning Jon Snow is the true heir to the Iron Throne, Daenerys' love for him is replaced by paranoia. Combined with the losses she's suffered, she now prefers to be feared rather than loved, which makes her a danger to to the Seven Kingdoms. Daenerys is no longer the hero queen that so many wanted, which is so frustrating considering her journey.
From Meek Princess to Mad Queen
The first episode of Game of Thrones established the Targaryens as a nearly dead house, but one that could still be powerful if the blood of the dragon were to return to Westeros. However, Viserys was an arrogant and cruel older brother whose only concern was seizing the Iron Throne. To do so, he essentially sold Daenerys to the Dothraki in exchange for promise of an army. Daenerys did as Viserys demanded: She wed Khal Drogo, suffered through her wedding night (and many others like it until she took control of her body), and, little by little, she became empowered as the Khaleesi of the Dothraki.
Viserys didn’t expect the Dothraki to love her so much, and he became jealous of the power she possessed. Jealousy over who hold power runs in the Targaryen family; that's what led to the Dance of the Dragons, the long ,bloody battles between Targaryen family members for the crown. Viserys died with an ironic “golden crown,” because he grew impatient about sailing to conquer Westeros.
Daenerys worked for everything she has. At the beginning of the series, she had nothing but the dress she was married in and the presents she received, including the dragon’s eggs. That same wedding dress burned as she stepped into the flames at Drogo’s funeral. Although her sun and stars died, her dragons were born in the funeral fire, as was her resolve to conquer the Seven Kingdoms.
There was something appealing about watching Daenerys slowly amass more power — probably because we can identify with the underdog. We watched her following grow as she traveled through Essos, from Qarth to Meereen, reforming the cities as she went.
The frustrating part about Daenerys’ journey is that she tried to be just. Conquest results in bloodshed, but Daenerys’ intentions were good. She wanted to free the slaves, so she did. She was willing to listen to what her people wanted. She reopened the fighting pits of Meereen, even though she opposed the tradition. When her dragons began burning and eating people, she locked away Rhaegal and Viserion. Because she considered her dragons as her children, that was a symbolic gesture of putting her people above her family.
Daenerys’ resolve was forged in fire, and she never allowed anyone to forget that she would bring "fire and blood" to those who stood in her way. That mentality comes naturally to her, and it's needed to defeat enemies. Yet, once Daenerys crosses the Narrow Sea to Westeros, she begins to make the mistakes of her forebears.
The Targaryen Tragedy
Like Viserys before her, Daenerys has also made grave mistakes through her haste, especially this season. Although Sansa warned her it’s too soon to attack King’s Landing, Daenerys refused to wait. She instead led her army from the Battle of Winterfell directly into the waiting Iron Fleet. Her ships sank, Rhaegal was killed, and Missandei was captured and executed.
Daenerys has believed for so long the Iron Throne is her birthright that she can't see any other options for Westeros, despite the people’s love for Jon Snow. Her lust for power, coupled with blind rage over losing everyone she really loved and trusted — Viserion, Rhaegal, Jorah, Missandei — awoke something in her. Viserys used to warn Daenerys not to “wake the dragon,” which meant not do anything to incite his temper. When he died, Daenerys said Viserys wasn’t a dragon after all, because fire cannot kill a dragon. In truth, it’s Daenerys whose dragon wrath the people needed to fear.
Like her father King Aerys, Daenerys wanted to “burn them all” — only she succeeded. Jaime Lannister murdered the Mad King before he could go through with his plan to ignite wildfire throughout King’s Landing. Daenerys refused to recognize the surrender of the Lannister army in "The Bells," and instead unleashed fire and blood, killing thousands of innocents.
The tragedy of Daenerys’ arc is that she knew what her family could be like, and not only because of Viserys’ cruelty. In Season 5, Ser Barristan, who served in Aerys’ Kingsguard, told her the truth about her father. The Mad King wasn't a lie made up by her enemies; he set towns and castles aflame and laughed as innocents burned alive. Daenerys assured, “I’m not my father,” but her actions in Season 8 say otherwise.
Ser Barristan also said, “The Mad King gave his enemies the justice he thought they deserved, and each time, it made him feel powerful and right until the very end.” That could be a prophetic statement for Daenerys, as she is following in Aerys’ footsteps. As we look to the final episode of the series, we can assume she will not be remorseful for the unnecessary damage and death in King’s Landing.
In the end, Daenerys Targaryen was a victim of her own bloodlust and family history. Perhaps her arc could have played out differently on Game of Thrones if there were more female writers and directors involved, a major criticism for the series, especially this season. There’s also the question if this is the ending for Daenerys that author George R.R. Martin had in mind. What's made clear in this penultimate episode is Daenerys was fated to make the same mistakes as Targaryens before her.
Tragically, she is not the princess, or queen, that was promised.
Airing Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO, Game of Thrones stars Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as Jaime Lannister, Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister, Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen, Sophie Turner as Sansa Stark, Maisie Williams as Arya Stark and Kit Harington as Jon Snow.