Game of Thrones has depicted Daenerys Targaryen's ruthlessness long before season 8

Rohini Nair

May 06, 2019 19:05:02 IST

Among the observations viewers of Game of Thrones season 8 have brought up, based on the episodes thus far, is whether or not Daenerys Targaryen — so long a champion of all that was good and fair — was turning into her father, Aerys II, also known as the "Mad King".

The evidence episodes 1-3 of season 8 have presented is admittedly thin, and mainly involves Daenerys wanting Sansa Stark to acknowledge her queenly status, and also get the North to fall in with her Iron Throne capturing programme. Episode 4 did some more spadework in pushing this narrative forward.

Many viewers have cried foul over Daenerys being tarred with the same brush as her father merely because she's roasted a Tarly or two, and wanted everyone she came across to engage in mass knee-bending. It is sexist, they believe, to call out a woman for being ruthless in a show that abounds with male characters with similar propensities. (We'll leave aside for the moment the counterargument to this, which is none of those ruthless men were deified either.)

Game of Thrones has depicted Daenerys Targaryens ruthlessness long before season 8

Daenerys Targaryen has always had to grapple with questions of tempering her vengeance with mercy, justice with compassion, idealism with pragmatism. Image from Game of Thrones season 8. Helen Sloan/HBO

Others have noted that even the noblest of Game of Thrones creatures have dirty hands (metaphorically; we're sure everyone follows whatever passed for handwashing hygiene in a medieval high-fantasy universe). Jon Snow, for instance. Didn't he sentence Olly — just a boy — to death for being a traitor? Didn't he execute Jonos Slynt for refusing to obey his commands? (We'll leave aside for the moment the counterargument to this, which is Olly stabbed Jon, and Jonos Slynt was, well Jonos Slynt.) Why shouldn't Daenerys then execute Randyll and Dickon Tarly for failing to swear fealty to her?

The difference is perhaps a subtle one. Jon, raised by Ned Stark to live by a strict code of honour, was also taught: "the man who passes the sentence must swing the sword". Jon doesn't sentence men or women to death and then leave someone else (or his dragons) to carry out his bidding. He carries out the sentence himself. It's a tenet Robb Stark follows. (As does Theon, in his terribly misguided way.)

Daenerys, on the other hand, has always had someone else mete out her justice: Drogon, Viserion and Rhaegal; Daario Naharis, the Dothraki and the Unsullied. Maybe that makes her more willing to sentence people to death?


It may be drawing greater notice now, but Daenerys Targaryen has always had to grapple with questions of tempering her vengeance with mercy, justice with compassion, idealism with pragmatism.

When her power was not absolute (with the dragons symbolising her growing strength) this grappling wasn't quite as high stakes as it later came to be.

Controlled by Viserys and married off to Drogo, the Daenerys we initially come across is a frightened young woman. All she wants, as she tells Viserys and Magister Illyrio, is "to go home". She is not, however, naive.

She quizzes Ser Jorah Mormont early on about what he thinks of Viserys' chances of taking back the Iron Throne. While Jorah hedges his reply, Dany has no compunctions in speaking her mind: Her brother is weak, and he could never lead the Dothraki in battle. Her desire to go home is one she must fulfill on her own, she recognises.

She begins to throw off Viserys' influence over her. She draws closer to Drogo.

Witness a conversation she has with the Khal, in which she attempts to convince him to declare war against the Seven Kingdoms. Drogo is unconvinced, and the momentarily nonplussed expression on Daenerys' face — as he tells her kings do not need thrones/chairs to sit on, only horses — is revealing. (Drogo later pledges to attack the Seven Kingdoms after a wine seller attempts to poison Daenerys in Vaes Dothrak on Robert Baratheon's command.)

Daenerys confronts for the very first time the collateral damage her desire to win the Iron Throne will inflict, when Mirri Maz Duur throws her "charity" back at her. Daenerys thinks Mirri Maz Duur's inability to save Drogo and her baby is a betrayal, and that the healer should have been grateful to Daenerys for saving her.

As Mirri Maz Duur asks, "What did you save me from?" The Lhazareen (lamb people) were slaughtered or enslaved by the Dothraki to fund their military campaign against Westeros. The path Daenerys is on would have ensured more carnage. Enraged, Daenerys sentences Mirri Maz Duur to die, and has her tied to Drogo's funeral pyre, which she herself ascends with her dragon eggs.

The dragons hatch, and grow. Daenerys faces down the Qarthians (Dracarys-ing Pyat Pree), then gets her Unsullied at Astapor (Dracarys-ing Kraznys mo Nakloz), and moves on to Yunkai (where Daario Naharis is able to circumvent the need for any Dracarys-ing). The slaves Daenerys frees give her the moniker of "Mhysa" (mother).

By the time they are on the road to Meereen, Daenerys' dragons and her power have considerably grown. She now has two advisors in Ser Barristan Selmy and Jorah, a friend in Missandei, and soon enough, a lover in Daario. The dynamic is interesting, and one that can be examined through Sigmund Freud's concepts of the id, ego and superego.

Daenerys' advisors at varying points represent the forces of the id (primitive, impulsive), ego (realistic) and superego (idealistic).

To begin with, Ser Barristan is the superego, while Jorah is the ego. If Ser Barristan counsels taking the high road, Jorah is the one who points out that Daenerys' ambitions will not be won by some bloodless coup — many innocent lives will be lost before she sits on the Iron Throne. Daario, on the other hand, is the id: he is attracted to Daenerys because of the power she wields and encourages her to use it.

Looking at the advice these three figures give her can be illuminating.

To begin with, Ser Barristan is the superego, while Jorah is the ego. Image from Game of Thrones. Helen Sloan/HBO

To begin with, Ser Barristan is the superego, while Jorah is the ego. Image from Game of Thrones. Helen Sloan/HBO

For instance, after Daenerys takes Meereen, she orders 163 masters to be crucified on the mileposts leading to the city, just like the slaves they condemned to the same fate. Ser Barristan is aghast, and reminds her that the masters are now as much her subjects as the freed slaves. He beseeches her to "answer injustice with mercy". "I will answer injustice with justice," she replies, before the masters are taken to their deaths.

When Yunkai is taken back by the slavers, she initially sends Daario and the Second Sons to offer the masters the choice of living in her new world, or dying in their old one. While Daario is only too ready to carry out her orders, it falls to Jorah this time to argue that there is room to attempt a less violent solution.

He points out that it is only because Ned Stark was just and merciful that he (Jorah) is still alive — in exile, but not dead. Daenerys is convinced, and asks for Hizadhr Zho Loraq to accompany Daario and parley with the masters of Yunkai to reach a settlement. The mission is a success.

The discovery of Jorah's initial betrayal of her leads her to banish him from Meereen. During this time, Daario's "id" like influence is discernible. He wants her to open the fighting pits (as Hizadhr has proposed, on behalf of the other great houses of Meereen), he wants her to unleash her dragons (now chained in the catacombs below the pyramid) even though Daenerys admits that she can no longer control them. He also wants her to kill all the former masters. "I'm not a butcher," she tells Daario, shocked. "All rulers are either butchers — or meat," he counters.

That Daenerys is pulled in different directions by her advisors — just as her instincts are at war within herself — is made evident in a scene where she discusses what is to be done with a Son of the Harpy Daario has apprehended. Against all the others, Ser Barristan once again pleads for some semblance of fairness.

As her other counsellors leave, Ser Barristan stays back and tells Daenerys about her father. At first, she refuses to believe that "Mad King" was anything more than a lie spread by Aerys II's enemies, but Ser Barristan disabuses her of that idea.

In a prescient speech, he tells her:

Daenerys agrees to give the Son of the Harpy a fair trial — although her councillor, a former-slave-turned-freeman Mossador, murders the man in his jail cell that same night. Daenerys is forced to do what Robb Stark once had to, with Lord Karstark (for killing their young Lannister hostages): she has him publicly executed by Daario.

Unfortunately, Ser Barristan's counsel soon comes to an end, with his death fighting against the Sons of the Harpy.

But if she has lost two of her trusted advisors, fate (or the combined efforts of Varys and Jorah) bring Tyrion to her. Tyrion plays both ego and superego to Daenerys' id. From being skeptical about her rightness (and right) to rule, he becomes a convert to her cause. Like Jorah, he sees the best of Daenerys' motives — until he begins to see the other side too.

When Daenerys returns from Vaes Dothrak (having burnt all the khals there to a crisp), Meereen is in the throes of its second siege. The peace Tyrion negotiated with the masters of Astapor, Yunkai and Volantis has been short-lived and their ships bombard Meereen with cannonfire. Daenerys' response is to threaten to burn their cities to the ground (a threat another queen — Cersei — is also fond of making). Tyrion argues that this would make her no better than her father, and proposes a different solution.

Unsurprisingly (in that he is among the more idealistic characters in Game of Thrones), Jon too plays a superego-like role in advising Daenerys at a critical juncture. They are on Dragonstone (and she's promised him her help against the Army of the Dead — if he bends the knee) when Tyrion comes to her with bad news. They've captured Casterly Rock, but the Lannisters have already moved everything of value out of the family seat; Euron Greyjoy has laid waste to the Targaryen fleet, capturing Yara, Ellaria Sand and her daughter Tyene; Highgarden has fallen, and all its riches have passed into Cersei's hands.

Jon advises Daenerys not to use her dragons to spread fire and fear. Image from Game of Thrones. Helen Sloan/HBO

Jon advises Daenerys not to use her dragons to spread fire and fear. Image from Game of Thrones. Helen Sloan/HBO

Daenerys, understandably, flies off the handle. Not-so-understandably, she questions Tyrion's loyalty (a track that is repeated on subsequent occasions). Then, while he counsels that they stick to their plan of a mounting a blockade against King's Landing, she says she could just as easily fly her dragons to King's Landing and torch her enemies within the Red Keep. She turns, suddenly, to Jon — "What do you think I should do?" she asks.

Jon points out that people follow her because she made something impossible happen (the dragons). "Maybe it helps them believe that you can make other impossible things happen, build a world that's different from the shit world they've always known. But if you use them to melt castles or burn cities, then you're not different, you're more of the same," he says.

She does ride Drogon into battle — but not against the Red Keep. Instead, she takes to the field against the Lannister and Tarly armies, and decimates most of the troops (returning from the Sack of Highgarden). Post-battle, she sentences the Tarlys — father and son — to death by dragonfire for refusing to bend the knee, a development that deeply disturbs Tyrion, who confronts her about her decision later.


Among Game of Thrones' (or rather George RR Martin's) niftier tricks is in how people are contrasted to better etch their characters.

Tyrion's wits meet a sharp match/complement in Cersei, Varys, and Bronn. We begin to see Jaime in a different light only when he is paired with Brienne. Arya's metamorphosis into a cold-blooded killer is initially masked somewhat because she is accompanied by a very violent man — the Hound; the Hound in turn appears softened because of the gruff care he extends to Arya.

Being the Queen's Hand isn't easy. Image from Game of Thrones season 7. Helen Sloan/HBO

Being the Queen's Hand isn't easy. Image from Game of Thrones season 7. Helen Sloan/HBO

Daenerys isn't "paired up" with anyone for the express purpose of revealing all the facets of her nature, but as a ruler, you would compare her to other rulers. There's Robert Baratheon, a drunk who wasn't interested in ruling. There's Joffrey, a monster. Tommen, who is too docile. Renly, whose status as King is as dubious as it is short-lived. Stannis, who is too rigid. Balon Greyjoy — too isolated, too much of a nut. Mance Rayder, whose "Beyond the Wall" status ends up having too little bearing in Westeros (apart from the North). Cersei, who is well, Cersei. And on Essos, the fierce khals, and grasping masters.

Against these specimens, Daenerys seems like a positive goddess. A liberator, just and conscientious. The only kings who might show up in a somewhat favourable light would be the ones in the North — Robb Stark and Jon Snow. But Robb's power and dominion are too limited for him to accomplish much beyond harrying the Lannisters for a while. And Jon — who has had command thrust upon him twice (at the Wall and at Winterfell), unlooked for — hasn't "ruled" in the traditional sense at all.

With his newfound identity as Aegon Targaryen, a lot changes. Daenerys' reaction has showed us her displeasure at the revelation, and that she's desperate for Jon to keep it quiet.

In isolation, what does Daenerys' track record as a queen look like? She liberated Astapor and Yunkai, only to have them fall back into the slavers' hands. She liberated Meereen, only to have the city plunge into civil riots. That those situations were resolved satisfactorily has much to do with her power as the Dragon Queen — but also owes something to the counsel of advisors like Tyrion. Daenerys is, as Daario once points out, "a conqueror".

She can be distrustful — although it is not a wholly irrational reaction — of her advisors/allies, including Tyrion, Varys and later, Jon.

She has made compelling speeches about wanting to "break the wheel", but what does this entail? Daenerys does not explain, but going by her assertions of queenliness, a future where the monarchy is abolished and the people rule themselves through elected representatives doesn't seem to be on her mind. (Side note: Valyria — where the Targaryens originally hailed from — was not a monarchy. The dragonlords chose leaders from amongst themselves. On the other hand, they did engage in slavery on a scale not seen since the glory days of Valyria.) Tyrion's practical questions to her about a successor (since the world she proposes to build isn't the work of one lifetime, as he points out) are also shrugged off.

All of which makes her season 8 progression seem not so sudden.


When Sam finds out that Daenerys has executed his father, it is a shock, but one he would have made his peace with in time. Randyll Tarly was no one's favourite person, least of all his eldest son's. But to hear that his brother too has met with the same fate is a blow too hard for Sam to reconcile. (The parallels with Aerys Targaryen's burning of Lord Rickard Stark and his son Brandon cannot be missed.) As Sam later asks Jon, "You gave up your crown for your people, would she (Daenerys) do the same?"

The short answer seems to be, no.

As we have posited in other columns, Daenerys is on a path that will lead to the complete and utter devastation of King's Landing.

The moral will be about the nature of power — and how it can seem most hollow just when it is finally within your grasp.

It is a lesson Daenerys will need to learn, if she is indeed to be a good Queen (of whatever is left to rule). Her dragons, as the mysterious Quaithe once pointed out in Qarth, are "fire made flesh. And fire is power". It brings to mind the adage that "power corrupts", and its attendant caution about absolute power (corrupts absolutely).

Daenerys has been far from "corrupted", because her intention is still to create a fairer, more equitable, just society. The "Mad Queen" scenario — of ordering King's Landing to be burnt down — is far likelier to occur with Cersei, than Daenerys.

What does give us some cause for worry? The constant assertions that Daenerys "is not her father". Game of Thrones takes a perverse delight in telling us XYZ will never occur only to turn around and present us with a scenario where XYZ has in fact occurred ("The Wall will stand through it all" anyone?). Daenerys will have to prove with more than just her words that she is better than her ancestors.

That's of course, if Game of Thrones season 8 doesn't throw up some very nasty surprises.

Ahem. We won't take that as foreshadowing. Image courtesy r/gameofthrones

Ahem. We won't take that as foreshadowing. Image courtesy r/gameofthrones

Suggested read: Game of Thrones season 8: What comes next for the Lannisters, Targaryens and Starks?

Updated Date: May 12, 2019 10:47:28 IST

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