This story contains spoilers for Season 8 of HBO’s Game of Thrones.
Game of Thrones has ended, and all is well — especially with the long-suffering Starks of Winterfell.
Arya has forsaken revenge and is off to explore new lands; Jon Snow is back in the true North with his faithful direwolf, Ghost; Sansa is the Queen in the North for a newly independent realm; and Bran the Broken is the near-omniscient ruler of the Six Kingdoms. Westeros is truly the land where dreams come true.
Of course, there is the small matter of why Jon is back with the Night’s Watch — he murdered his lover, queen, and aunt, Daenerys “Dany” Targaryen, the self-proclaimed Mother of Dragons who had finally just reconquered her family’s ancestral throne.
This incident (so traumatic to Dany’s fans) was justified in the show when Tyrion convinced Jon that Dany was now a crazed dragon-riding tyrant (apparently inheriting this touch of insanity from her father, the Mad King) who needed to be assassinated after she burned much of King’s Landing to ashes in the penultimate episode.
And really, the writers didn’t need Tyrion’s speech to make this point, given they’d just depicted Dany as a Disney villain (Maleficent) by framing her in front of her dragon’s outstretched wings while giving a “Triumph of the Will”-style) pep talk to her troops.
It’s tempting to go along with this notion of Dany as Mad Queen, and accept the good feelings that accompany the triumph of the righteous Starks. But what if, instead, Dany is the real heroine of the series, and Jon is the real heel?
Much of the case against Dany depends on the supposed insanity that fuelled her destruction of a city, but I offer another perspective — drawn from Renaissance political thinker Niccolo Machiavelli — to explain why Dany is not “mad” at all, but rather an avatar of cold-blooded realpolitik.
Hardly a “Crazy Lady”
This may be disturbing, depending on your view of power politics, but it isn’t unearned (her development had been long signaled), nor is it a sexist reduction of one of the greatest female characters ever to an emotional, irrational, “crazy lady.”
Dany is making the tragic choices that all political leaders face when it comes to using violence to achieve their goals. What’s disturbing, however, is that showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss chose to depict her acts as irrational, tyrannical, or insane.
Even her fans were upset that instead of bringing liberation from the cycle of rich oppressing poor (“breaking the wheel,” as Dany phrased it), she used her dragon to immolate most of the capital, even after the symbolic tolling of bells that indicates surrender.
And since she does this in the wake of losing two of her dragon “children,” her two best friends (Jorah and Missandei), and then being rejected romantically by Jon Snow (who is really a Targaryen and also her nephew), many saw her fiery actions as a response to psychological trauma, and the writers seemed to confirm this in the final episode.
Critics pointed out that yet again, we see a powerful woman who simply can’t handle her emotions, and who becomes the “Mad Queen” in a clichéd turn to villainy that can only be explained by her losing her mind. But is destroying a city the act of a crazy woman? Not necessarily, says Machiavelli. While it may be evil, there is a calculated reason for Dany’s decision to rain fire from the sky.
New Princes, Old Problems
Dany confesses her dilemma to Jon privately in terms that echo Machiavelli’s 1513 The Prince, when he discusses the problems a “new prince” faces when conquering a country.
She says: “I don’t have love here. I have only fear,” referring to the affection that the people of Westeros hold for Jon Snow (who is actually the true heir to the throne, but who doesn’t want to rule). And after Jon rejects her romantic advance, and by implication the possibility that they could marry and unite the realm using both love (of the people for him) and fear (of her army and dragon), she says simply: “Let it be fear.”
Machiavelli saw the basic problem of ruling in exactly these terms. In Chapter 17 of The Prince he asks whether love or fear is more important to a ruler, and concedes that while having both is best, at the end of the day, fear is the option to depend upon:
“Because men love according to their own will and fear according to the will of the prince, a wise prince should establish himself on that which is in his own control and not in the control of others.”
But why destroy a city that had already surrendered? Because Jon is her real problem, going forward. Since she would soon face a challenge from those who would prefer him and his more legitimate claim to the throne, only through an overwhelming spectacle of terror can she instil the requisite fear she will need to govern.
And so King’s Landing perished.
This falls under the rubric of what Machiavelli calls cruelty “well-used,” by which he describes a number of brutal rulers — Cesare Borgia, Agathocles, Hannibal — who maintained power despite committing barbaric acts.
Machiavelli gives Dany further cover when he urges a conqueror to do all their evil deeds at the beginning of the conquest, in Chapter 8 of The Prince:
“Hence, in seizing a state, the attacker ought to examine closely all those injuries which are necessary, and to do them all at one stroke so as not to have to repeat them daily. Thus by not continually upsetting the people, he will be able to make them feel more secure, and win them over by benefits.”
Is destroying the city really necessary? It looks reasonable given her growing problem with Jon. But Machiavelli argues that wicked deeds can be the foundation of a stable political order if a wise ruler follows the cruelty with mercy.
There is a feminist upshot to the finale. It is this: the fault for King’s Landing is Jon’s more so than Dany’s.
You read that right, Team Jon.
Jon’s Claim to the Throne
Because the secret of his legitimate claim is now widely known, his position (to support her queenship) is so unrealistic as to be utopian. He cannot hide from those who will push him to throne, but he thinks he can … and Dany sees just how hollow his profession of good faith will be.
She has little choice but to double down on fear, because she doesn’t have the privilege of counting on the love of a patriarchal populace (queens have little legitimacy in this world) as does he.
Jon’s choice, which seems on its face the noble one (being honest with Dany about his claim but also keeping his loyalty to her), is actually a naivete born of privilege. He’s not the hero here. He’s a fool who pushes the woman he supposedly loves into a fateful choice without recognizing what he is doing, turning into an accidental heel just as he bungled every other decision he made over the seasons.
His murder of her in the final episode is simply the icing on the cake he had already baked (no, Hot Pie was not involved in this baking).
Perhaps the wholesale destruction of the city would not have secured her rule, and it was certainly an evil act to burn innocents. But in this world, a woman like Dany is acting rationally when she decides to use terror to gain obedience.
A Killer Queen
Crucially, we know that earlier male Targaryen and Lannister rulers used similar brutality to maintain control, but no one accused them of madness simply because they killed thousands (Dany’s father, Aerys II, gained this label, true, but his violence was sadistic and/or paranoid, and had no discernible rational purpose).
Dany may have helped beat the Night King and ridden a fire-breathing dragon, but she was the one with ice in her veins. If you want to rule in Westeros as a woman, a foreigner, and an exile, you don’t have any other options (once your nephew turns you down). The Mother of Dragons knew these cold truths.
Why were we as an audience so reluctant to see them, too? Why did we need to see Jon kill her and the Starks go on their merry way? Dany defeated Cersei and helped wipe out the Night King, and the Starks didn’t get their happy ending without her.
But for her crime of clear-headed violence, the show could not allow Dany to live on. A woman who knows that to succeed in politics you need to crush your enemies? Madness, sheer madness.