How the Game of Thrones writers misjudged Daenerys Targaryen’s final arc


It sounds like the writers on Game of Thrones thought Daenerys Targaryen was coming off a lot more tyrannical and disturbing than she actually was.

Fire Cannot Kill a Dragon, James Hibberd’s extensive oral history of Game of Thrones, is out on shelves now, and we’re getting all kinds of fascinating looks beyond the scenes, from insight into the failed original pilot to the making of “Blackwater” to how awesome Diana Rigg was on set and well beyond.

All of this stuff is great, but let’s be honest: even over a year out, what most Game of Thrones fans want to know is what the creative team was thinking when writing and producing those final two seasons, which were heavily criticized for having characters act in ways that didn’t really jibe with what came before. And no character was criticized more than Daenerys Tagaryen (Emilia Clarke), who in the penultimate episode abandoned her dream of being a just and good queen to massacre innocent men, women and children in the streets of King’s Landing.

It’s true that the show had been trying to build to this. Daenerys was no stranger to violence. She sacked Astapor, she crucified the Masters in Meereen, she burned down a Dothraki meeting place…I get where they were going, but I am far from the only fan who doesn’t think they got there. Dany had taken extreme measures before, but to go from killing slavers who had themselves committed atrocities to randomly burning people at will…it was a jump I don’t think the show’s writing team quite made.

But they did try. Reading Fire Cannot Kill a Dragon, there seems to have been a disconnect between what the writers thought we would take from Dany’s actions and what we actually did. For example, look at this quote from co-executive producer Bryan Cogman, who penned some of the show’s best episodes, including “Kissed by Fire” and “The Laws of Gods and Men.” He’s talking about the scene in the season 7 episode “Eastwatch” where Daenerys, after having defeated the Lannister army in battle, burns Randyll Tarly and his son Dickon to death:

"In our minds, we thought the Randyll Tarly scene was disturbing. Then I watched it with a crowd of people at a friend’s house and they were cheering. Weirdly, the audience just didn’t care. They loved Dany."

I think this quote says so much. To the writers, this was enough to set up Dany’s genocidal about-face in “The Bells.” And I can’t speak for the rest of you, but it me is just…wasn’t.

I think it’s a good scene, party because of its ambiguity. I watched this episode with people who thought Dany was a little disturbing here. She’s ordering two men, one of whom seems like a decent enough guy, to be flash-fried. Of course it’s disturbing.

But from another angle, her decision seems pretty reasonable. These guys had just defeated her ally Olenna Tyrell in battle, and then killed her. And then Daenerys defeated them in battle, and killed them. And she only killed them after they refused to acknowledge her authority as queen of Westeros. Since Dany is queen, you could argue this was a proper execution with due process (or at least what passes for due process in Westeros). Should she, as Tyrion suggested, have gone easier on these guys? Maybe, but her choice wasn’t out of step with what we’d come to expect of rulers on this show.

For example, remember when Jon Snow killed Janos Slynt at Castle Black for essentially throwing a tantrum and refusing to obey an order? There were other options there, but Jon jumped to execution and we weren’t expected to take it as a dark omen of his genocidal future. And what about Ned Stark executing the Night’s Watch deserter in the first episode of the series? The deserter had good reason to do what he did, but Ned still killed him for breaking the law, and the whole thing is framed as a leader simply doing his duty.

Or what about Sansa Stark feeding her abusive ex-husband to hungry dogs and then smiling as she hears them rip him apart? That’s unquestionably disturbing, but Sansa didn’t end up a mass murderer. And then there’s her sister Arya, who actually is a mass murderer. Arya killed people, cooked them into pies, fed them to their relative, killed the relative, and then killed his entire family at a feast. And she gets a redemptive moment where the Hound keeps her from going “too far” while Daenerys descends into madness.

Every case is different, but considering all the times Game of Thrones had framed acts of violence as redemptive or cathartic or even admirable, it seems a stretch to expect us to look at Daenerys executing a known asshole for refusing to bend the knee to her after she’d defeated him in battle and take it as, “She’s losing it.”

I wish the writers had solicited some different perspectives so they could have caught this kind of thing earlier on — maybe then they would have realized they needed to ramp up to Dany’s final genocidal snap more gradually. But ultimately, we don’t want to pick at the wound too much. Dany’s final arc left me wanting, but if you loved it, I’m happy for you, and I look forward to seeing what Cogman and the other writers do in the future, not to mention HBO’s Game of Thrones prequel series House of the Dragon.

As for Fire Cannot Kill a Dragon, it’s available to buy now!

Next. Game of Thrones showrunners explain why they chose to diverge from the books. dark

To stay up to date on everything fantasy, science fiction, and WiC, follow our all-encompassing Facebook page and sign up for our exclusive newsletter.

Get HBO, Starz, Showtime and MORE for FREE with a no-risk, 7-day free trial of Amazon Channels