Warning: Game of Thrones spoilers for the “The Last Of The Starks” will be found below.
If you’re concerned about the direction Game of Thrones is steering one of its main female characters, you’re not alone.
Season eight has been packed full of epic battles, shocking deaths, and meaningful interactions between core characters, but for all the fan service David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have given us so far, they’ve also struggled to define one of the key remaining players in the game.
Daenerys Stormborn of House Targaryen has spent the past seven seasons fighting to reclaim her birthright. In that time, she’s suffered, sacrificed, and saved many. She’s been abused, raped, and sold into slavery. She’s lost friends, family, her followers, and her children. She’s freed the oppressed, liberated entire cities, and ignored her own selfish interests to risk her life for a people she’s never even met.
She’s also, admittedly, an imperfect leader and a deeply flawed human being, as are many on this show. She’s entitled, arrogant, quick to anger, and ruthless when it comes to her enemies. Daenerys has struggled because of those character flaws, choosing to trust the wrong people and act before thinking, to seek revenge instead of justice, and to fail to understand her people’s needs simply because they do not align with her own.
She has been, in short, a problematic choice for a monarch.
She was not, however, on her way to becoming the Mad Queen. And she shouldn’t be now.
Game of Thrones has always struggled to do right by their female characters, a fact that’s glaringly obvious in how the writers have treated Dany’s downward spiral this season.
In the span of just four episodes, the show has managed to undo years’ worth of character development and complex storytelling to give us a truly vanilla showdown between an ambitious woman on a quest for power and a mediocre white man attempting to avoid the responsibility of a leadership position at all costs. Daenerys began season eight as a woman willing to sacrifice her armies, her children, and her self for another man’s cause. She rode North at the behest of Jon Snow, she entered a foreign land where she was deeply unwelcome, withstood quiet jabs at her character and her claim, and lost her closest advisors and friends in the process.
Despite all she’s given to the North, to the Starks, to the Seven Kingdoms, the final season’s fourth episode — “The Last of the Starks” — would have us believe her increasing paranoia and defensiveness is a sign she’s become an unfit ruler. When we see her defy Jon Snow’s battle plan in episode three, she’s impulsive; when we see her argue with Sansa, she’s a cunning bitch; when we see her burn her enemies by using the best weapon she has, she’s bloodthirsty and evil.
Canonically, there’s plenty of evidence to support Dany’s descent into madness. Her family has a history of mental illness, no doubt a by-product of centuries of strict inbreeding. Her father, Aerys Targaryen II, was known as the Mad King, a moniker he more than earned after indiscriminately killing his fellow nobles — a pair of Starks among them — and threatening to burn King’s Landing to the ground. Were it not for Jaime Lannister’s betrayal, he very well might have.
Then there’s the more immediate example of Dany’s older brother, Viserys, who was abusive and cruel, yes, but also exhibited signs of madness — chief among them his persistent distrust of those around him, his jarring mood swings, and his debilitating narcissism. Were Viserys to have assumed the throne, we might’ve seen him follow the same path as the Mad King, but Dany has never been characterized like her brother or her late father. In fact, she’s always been set up as the foil to their insanity, proof that the Targaryen family wasn’t full of only crackpots and monsters and power-hungry bullies.
The show has spent years building her to be something more, something better than her heritage, which is why this sudden turn to madness feels completely unearned. A handful of episodes in which your female lead is hit with devastating losses, world-altering news, and faced with immense heartbreak — she’s watched her dragons, her friends, and her armies die, and now she’s learned she may have a challenger to the Iron Throne in the form of the man she loves — isn’t enough to justify this hasty mental illness subplot.
If we’re going to argue that Dany has been becoming the Mad Queen for seasons, we need to see the proof — an impulsive charring of the Tarlys after they fought against her armies and refused to bend the knee is not sufficient. We need more than four episodes to explore whether this new persona is a by-product of her family line or whether the recent loss and adversity she’s faced are pushing her to act against her better judgment.
If it’s the first, that she’s been doomed to madness because of her familial history, four episodes is a paltry amount of time to do that arc justice. Instead of always presenting her as a savior-type, a woman destined for greatness with a gentle heart, the show should’ve spent time exploring how difficult she found it to rule, how the isolation of her position and her quest for power began to wear thin on her mind and emotions. Until Dany came to Winterfell, until she learned of Jon Snow’s claim, we just didn’t see that, at least, not to a degree that would account for where the character’s currently going.
If it’s the second, that she can’t handle the pressures of conquering and ruling now that a man with a better claim to her throne has emerged, well, we can all agree that’s just lazy, quite frankly sexist writing. Dany’s been conquering and ruling for eight seasons, much longer than her easily-manipulated, leadership-averse counterpart. She’s struggled and overcome far worse challenges to her power and authority than a weak-minded man with no designs on the crown and no idea what to do with it. Even if we were to believe this eye-rolling excuse that Jon Snow is the better choice because he “doesn’t want the throne” and, as Varys so eloquently put it, he “has a cock,” the writers need to give us a better reason to support him over Dany, a reason that doesn’t rest on arguments of how “emotional” or “angry” or “ambitious” she is.
No matter who we back for the coming battle for the Iron Throne, each challenger deserves more time, and better storytelling, to suss out their motivations, to confront their limitations, and to convince us they’re either worthy of leading the Seven Kingdoms or they aren’t. What’s worrisome about Dany’s current trajectory is that it feels like an easy way out for the writers, as if Benioff and Weiss knew we’d be presented with the hard choice of picking between Jon Snow (a Mary Sue type hero who embodies all the noble traits we associate with good leadership) and Dany (a woman who’s overcome adversity and earned her right to lead Westeros), and so, to make things simpler, they’ve decided to stack the deck against the female lead, forcing her to become the villain through sloppy storytelling and careless character building.
A woman wanting power is not inherently bad, a woman who’s angry and vengeful is not inherently mad. And a man isn’t fit to rule just because he doesn’t want to. We’re not doing the story or these characters any favors by categorizing them so strictly, by confining them to archaic tropes.
The choice of who should rule, who should govern, is never an easy one – let’s quit trying to make it that way.