After eight seasons of rooting for the girl who became the “Mother of Dragons” and “Breaker of Chains,” accepting heroine Daenerys Targaryen’s descent into genocidal madness and ultimate doom was tough to take for many of the millions of viewers who tuned in to the final episodes of “Game of Thrones.”
Perhaps it was inevitable that a lot of people were going to be unhappy with whatever outcome the writers choose for the world’s most popular television series. But it probably says more about our Internet culture than the program’s perceived shortcomings that less than 24 hours after the finale aired, nearly 1.3 million people had signed a Change.org petition demanding that HBO redo the show’s final season and give the audience whatever it is they think they want.
A Steady Stream of Political Analogies
In addition to finding something else to do than to concoct theories about the characters, GOT fans will also have to stop making analogies between the plot and contemporary politics. As much as the deep dives into the lore and minutiae of George R.R. Martin’s book series has provided people with a lot of free time the chance to speculate about the meaning of everything in the story, the chattering classes have also periodically sought to use the show as a metaphor or stand-in for whatever they normally write about politics.
That gave rise to the effort to depict Daenerys as a neoconservative during the seasons when her portion of the show was devoted to the would-be queen’s efforts to rid Martin’s fictional world of slavery. While such a quest would seemingly have endeared her to liberal political writers, the difficulties of such a universal mission reminded them more of recent efforts to spread democracy around the globe than of Abraham Lincoln.
Most viewers were thoroughly enjoying Dany’s arc in season three when she frees the Unsullied mercenaries from the evil masters of Astapor (“Dracerys!”) while surprisingly demonstrating fluency in the Old Valeryian tongue in which she had been insulted throughout the episode. But the editors at the liberal publication Vox thought she was channeling George W. Bush.
As that plot line progressed in the next three seasons, Daenerys’s battle to hold onto Mereen, another city where she had freed the slaves only to find out that it was more complicated than just breaking their chains, that also became a stand-in for rehashing the debate about the American invasion of Iraq.
There was something to be said for analogizing that quagmire to the real-life problems faced by those who had liberated Iraq from a tyrant only to discover that other sinister forces had been unleashed and that not everyone in that country was so happy to try Jeffersonian democracy (a suggestion that also provided comic relief when it was proposed in GOT’s last episode).
The Futility of the Quest for Glory
The universality of GOT’s popularity has always made it a natural outlet for this kind of commentary. Martin created a fictional world that he later said was directly inspired by “The Accursed Kings,” a series of novels by Maurice Druon about 14th-century dynastic struggles in France and England. Others have pointed out with some justice that the depth of his characterization and the fact that there are no clear-cut good or bad guys in his books meant Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” also invoked William Shakespeare’s history plays, albeit with zombies and dragons lurking on the margins until the last seasons.
But at a time when politics has come to essentially replace religion for many people and dominate virtually everything about American society, it was hardly surprising that a lot of us preferred to view GOT through that prism.
As enjoyable as these games may be to play for GOT fans, tagging politicians you don’t like as the show’s villains and the ones you support as its heroes and heroines is always as much of a stretch as imagining Daenerys getting her inspiration from copies of Commentary magazine.
A lot of them were simplistic and malicious, with the liberals who think we’re re-living the last years of the Weimar Republic comparing Donald Trump to everything from the Night King (who threatens to end human existence) to Daenerys’s father, “The Mad King” who wanted but failed to commit mass murder.
But like Shakespeare, who even in the play that most consciously glorified war — “Henry V” — included a famous passage depicting the horrors of the battlefield and the despair of the dying, there’s no question Martin’s series seeks to inform of us the futility of the quest for such glory.
An Important Message Remains
Yet in their final episodes, it’s just as clear that the showrunners’ decision to have the Targaryen heir give in to the megalomaniacal side of her personality sends a message that is just as important.
Daenerys doesn’t merely believe her claim to the Iron Throne is just and that contenders from competing houses are illegitimate usurpers. Her personal journey and magical abilities to hatch dragon eggs, survive fire, and overcome every personal and political challenge convince her that she is not only invincible but also uniquely good. Having conceived of the necessary idea of “breaking the wheel” of conventional Westeros dynastic politics and replacing it with something less arbitrary and cruel, her faith in her cause has taken on the aspect of a messianic crusade.
That is why the plot twist in which Daenerys lays waste to Kings Landing, killing hundreds of thousands of innocents in an act of genocidal rage, makes perfect sense. The dragon queen may have been feeling vulnerable after losing her closest followers —Ser Jorah Mormont and Missandei — as well as learning that her lover Jon Snow is the true Targaryen heir and is no longer interested in canoodling with the woman who turns out to be his aunt. But her problem isn’t so much that leadership is a lonely profession but that her quest for total power rests in a belief that she alone offers the truth and that those who resist must be eradicated.
Transformation Into a Totalitarian
Far from a decision merely to keep surprising viewers with the unexpected, Daenerys’ transformation into a totalitarian was foreshadowed throughout previous seasons. As Tyrion Lannister points out during the scene in which he convinces Jon Snow to assassinate the triumphant queen, they — and the audience — had cheered when she mercilessly ordered the slaying of demonstrably evil people. But that bred in her a belief that she had the right to murder anyone in the name of her truth even if meant calling mass murder a form of liberation.
The danger to civil society is not just from the likes of Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot, or even minor-league versions of mass murderers like Nicolas Maduro or Saddam Hussein. It comes from any person or cause that claims an omnipotence that gives them the right to commit any crime in the name of their higher truth.
Her quest for total power rests in a belief that she alone offers the only truth and that those who resist must be eradicated.
Socialists, fascists, and theocrats always think their version of the higher good or paradise is so compelling that it overrides not only the rights to property, free speech, and dissent. In the end totalitarians always murder any resistance to their vision. To those possessing the kind of vision that GOT’s Daenerys possesses, opponents are always counter-revolutionaries or heretics who are obstacles to utopia and therefore must be destroyed mercilessly.
Count me among those who think the conclusion to the series was logical even if not consistently entertaining. I do understand those who didn’t like anointing Brandon Stark — the least interesting and compelling of a delightful panoply of characters inhabiting fictional Westeros — to the melted-down Iron Throne. But any other outcome would have been worse.
Having fan favorites Daenerys or Jon the ultimate victor would have made it a conventional show. Taking that route would have been the real betrayal of GOT’s viewers.
But the pundit class also needs to understand that, in the end, GOT wasn’t so much about the politics of the first decade of the 21st century but of the tragedies of the 20th century. Those inclined to place their trust in discredited causes that masquerade as objective truths such as socialism or in theocratic constructs like radical Islam should see that Daenerys’s act of mass murder in the penultimate episode is where their true faiths will always lead them.