Warning: spoilers ahead for Game of Thrones season 8, episode 5, “The Bells”
Throughout the last season of Game of Thrones, writers and showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have been rapidly building toward the idea that madness runs in the Targaryen family, and Daenerys Targaryen might at any moment snap and become a dangerous tyrant. They say they’ve been seeding that ending since season 1 when she reacted with cold calm to her husband Khal Drogo executing her brother Viserys in a ghastly fashion. But given how the latest episode, “The Bells,” accelerates her madness, it’s hard to see the connection. Failing to show compassion for the abuser who sold her into sexual slavery doesn’t exactly feel like the first clear early warning sign that she’s capable of burning an entire city to the ground out of sheer jilted spite.
It’s certainly a dramatic turn: the “Breaker of Chains,” the empathetic woman who prioritized freeing slaves and valuing the little people of the world, turning around and deciding to kill them en masse. But in “The Bells,” she and her dragon burn King’s Landing, strafing the streets with dragonfire and mowing down huge crowds of fleeing, terrified civilians. Benioff and Weiss make sure to emphasize the women and children caught in the fire and focus on their terror and helplessness as they burn. The destruction of King’s Landing is a thrilling, awe-inspiring sequence, like season 7’s infamous loot-train burning, the show’s previous wholesale dragon-on-human massacre. But it also felt out of character for Daenerys, despite all the hints and attempts at a lead-up. Season 8’s accelerated pace has meant that nothing about Game of Thrones is particularly subtle anymore, and “The Bells” goes straight from Varys predicting that Dany is dangerous to Dany fulfilling his prophecy — first by killing him, then by killing literally anyone she can see.
Fan reactions to Daenerys’ murder spree largely seemed disappointed, mostly because it seemed so unnecessary. Dany and her forces had already taken King’s Landing efficiently and cleanly, with minimal civilian bloodshed. The city had already surrendered when she decided to burn it. And typical for season 8, she didn’t take time to reveal her motives; she just abruptly started burning things.
But in the episode’s behind-the-scenes featurette, Benioff and Weiss reveal that her decision was even more abrupt than it seems. They say Dany spontaneously decided to destroy the city when she saw the Red Keep, the King’s Landing castle built by the Targaryens.
“I don’t think she decided ahead of time that she was going to do what she did,” Weiss says. “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.”
It’s manifestly unclear why “making this personal” didn’t just involve tearing down the Keep to get to her enemy Cersei Lannister, who just executed Dany’s friend and adviser Missandei, and instead involved massacring women and children. She’s obviously suffering because her lover Jon Snow has pulled back from her after realizing she’s his aunt. She’s watching the process of her closest confidants disappearing — Jorah dying to save her from the undead, Missandei murdered, Varys betraying her, Tyrion failing her for the millionth time — and she clearly sees that the men of the North love Jon more than they love her, and they will rally to his side and support him as king, rather than embracing her, a woman and a foreigner in their eyes.
But taking that rage out on the weakest, most helpless people available still feels frustratingly out of character for her. It’s a betrayal not just of her people, but of all her ideals and goals. “I am not here to be queen of the ashes,” Daenerys tells her ally Olenna Tyrell in season 7. Now she’s exactly that — though probably not for long since it falls on the last of her allies to punish her for what she’s done.
There’s one thing worth considering: the lead-up to Daenerys’ massacre may feel rushed and clumsy, hinging on Varys’ not particularly compelling claim that madness runs in the Targaryen family, and that when a new Targaryen is born, the gods flip a coin to see whether they’ll be stable or monstrous. Her supposed dark side has never been all that evident. Evidence like her lack of sympathy when her awful, vicious brother earned his grotesque fate, or her willingness to execute Randyll Tarly and his son Dickon for grossly betraying her, seems weak at best. But one thing has been consistent about her character: she wants to be loved. She believes she’s the rightful heir to the Iron Throne and that she comes as a liberator to her people. Even in “The Bells,” in the depths of her depression and despair, she talks about freeing Westeros from tyranny — even if she’s focusing on saving future generations at the expense of the current one.
When she arrives in King’s Landing, she truly believes the people will take up arms against Cersei and welcome her as the rightful heir. They don’t. They surrender, but they aren’t glad to see her, and they don’t fight for her. Maybe her sudden decision to “make it personal” isn’t because Jon rejected her or because the North is about to. Maybe it’s because she’s spent all this time fighting for people she thought should love her, and when she realizes they never will, she’s willing to let their world burn to punish them.