Game of Thrones season 7: Why Daenerys Targaryen's losses in war make perfect sense
Three episodes into Game of Thrones season 7, and we're seeing Daenerys Targaryen in a decidedly unfamiliar position.
Sure, Daenerys had troubled beginnings — a refugee as early back as she can remember, subject to the whims of her brother Viserys, married off to Khal Drogo. From that time however, and despite several setbacks — the loss of Drogo and her unborn child, the troubles in Qarth, the attacks by the Sons of the Harpy in Mereen, the brief capture by the khals — Dany's star has been on the ascendant.
With her her dragons by her side, Dany's been well nigh invincible, blazing a trail from Astapore to Dragonstone. We haven't seen Dany lose a single battle since her dragons were hatched. Which is why her situation in season 7 is an unfamiliar one.
Since she landed on the shores of Westeros, not much has gone Dany's way. Her all-women war council may have marked a giant stride for feminism, but just days later, nearly all of the women she had parleyed with, were dead, or taken captive.
Ellaria Sand is shut up in a dungeon below the Red Keep, Yara Greyjoy is in Euron's none-too-loving custody, and Lady Olenna Tyrell is dead with Highgarden annexed by the Lannister army.
There was a sad scene in episode 3 — The Queen's Justice — where we saw Dany in her war room, Tyrion and Missandei the only two advisors by her side, which brought home how quickly her forces had depleted.
Dany came to Westeros at the head of a fleet, an army of Unsullied and Dothraki behind her, with three strategic alliances, and her dragons soaring overhead.
Now, all three of those alliances have been blown to smithereens, her fleet is mostly destroyed, the Unsullied are trapped at Casterly Rock. At one time, Dany would have hopped on to Drogon's back and simply 'Dracarys-ed' anyone or anything that stood in her way. Bound by her advisors' fears for her safety, however, and not wanting to become 'Queen of the Ashes', Dany isn't going to use her dragons (or the Dothraki) just yet.
Seen from a purely storytelling point of view, Dany's initial losses — and constraints — are very essential to preserve the drama.
As things stand, DB Weiss and David Benioff have approximately 10 hours (four pending episodes in season 7 and the six from the final, eighth season) to wrap up two major wars in: The battle for the Iron Throne, and the one between the White Walkers and Azhor Ahai (the prince/princess who was promised). They also need to wrap up, satisfactorily, the fate of a slew of characters: Jon, Dany and Cersei — yes. But also Tyrion and Jaime; Sansa, Arya and Bran; Littlefinger and Varys; the Greyjoys — Yara, Theon and Euron; Briene, Tormund, Sam Tarly and Gilly; the Hound and the Mountain; Maester Qyburn; Missandei and Grey Worm, to name just a few. It's fair to assume that these are the minimum number of characters audiences are invested in and would like to find out, where their paths led. In recent times, Weiss and Benioff have shown a propensity for summarily 'shedding the flab' — all characters who won't be involved in the two ultimate battles are being killed off, in a way that doesn't always seem organic. Even Game of Thrones' bloody history seems to pale in comparison with the current exigency-ordained kill rate. The deaths of Dany's allies are par for the course.
Say Dany didn't have all of the constraints she now finds herself faced with, and had chosen to launch an attack on King's Landing the moment she sailed within sight of Westeros: With Dorne and Highgarden supporting her, her fleet still intact, and Euron Greyjoy out of the picture, it would have been — with all of Cersei's power — a swift, one-sided battle. Definitely not the high-stakes, tense, drawn-out saga we're now promised, with a more level playing field.
From a non-behind-the-scenes point of view, there's the fact that Dany has never faced an enemy like Cersei — or any monarch with a formal army really. A quick review of Dany's successful military campaigns thus far shows that it's quick thinking rather than careful strategising or sustained warfare that helped her triumph:
1. Astapore was Dany's the minute she gained control of the Unsullied and ordered them to kill all the slave masters, while Drogon burnt Kraznys to a crisp.
2. Yunkai was captured when Dany sowed dissent among the sellswords who were hired to protect the city. Daario Naharais brought the Stormcrows into Dany's service, as did Ben Plumm with the Second Sons.
3. Mereen was by far the toughest of Dany's conquests, and here, Ser Barristan Selmy and Jorah Mormont's storming of the city's sewers to open its gates from within, proved to be a winning decision.
Interestingly, we see Dany (through Tyrion's planning) using the same tactic in laying claim to Casterly Rock — Grey Worm and a few of the Unsullied use the sewers to enter the holdfast and open it up for the rest of the army — but it's a hollow victory as Cersei and Jaime have already moved the bulk of the Lannister army (and provisions) out. To make matters worse, they've annexed Highgarden — the most prosperous of all the regions in the Seven Kingdoms, ensuring they have a bountiful supply of food grains, wine ('the finest Arbor gold') and plenty of real gold to pay off those troublesome Iron Bank of Braavos debts.
Dany's previous campaigns have all seen her face up against (usually) a single enemy — most of them merchants and traders — fighting on a single front, and usually without any allies to offer support or watch out for.
Even with the advice of Tyrion, Varys and whoever else makes it to her council, Dany has never been in a war of this scale — with Seven Kingdoms in the balance, rather than just a single city; against armies this well-trained; and battles being fought simultaneously in several areas.
Dany's previous battles have also involved quick, furious bouts of fighting. She hasn't had to hunker down to a long-term war — and with Highgarden's loss (and Mereen a goodish ship-ride away), she won't have the resources to wage one.
Dany's dragons are her trump card (although we're not dismissing Maester Qyburn's crossbow out of hand just yet. Cersei's advisor is a wily, wily man). Apart from the dragons, what Dany does have now — to balance out her recent losses — is Jon Snow, and help from the North (if Littlefinger doesn't convince Sansa to betray her half-brother/cousin). There's also trusty Jorah Mormont, cured of greyscale thanks to the efforts of Samwell Tarly, who is sure to have sound advice, and a much-needed sword to fight for his Khaleesi.
Will those be enough for Dany to take on Cersei — and win the Iron Throne? Perhaps taking a leaf out of Littlefinger's book, in this case, would serve her well.