- Warning: Spoilers ahead for “Game of Thrones” season eight, episode five, “The Bells.”
- On the penultimate episode of the HBO series, Daenerys Targaryen decided to ignore the Lannister army’s surrender and mercilessly destroy King’s Landing.
- Though Dany’s character has been surrounded by the “Mad Queen” theory for some time, her ultimate and sudden descent into madness ran disturbingly parallel to a variety of sexist tropes.
- By turning the final season’s climactic episode into “Mad Queen versus Mad Queen,” the showrunners played directly into misogynistic criticisms they’ve been facing for years.
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On the penultimate episode of HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” Daenerys Targaryen inexplicably and mercilessly destroyed King’s Landing, killing hundreds of thousands of innocent men, women, and children.
This deadly twist had been hinted at for some time, but its execution on screen reminded many fans of misogynistic criticisms the show has been facing for years.
It’s important to note that Daenerys becoming a “Mad Queen” is not an inherently sexist storyline. It’s actually compelling and realistic for a story to portray powerful female villains or flawed female leaders – as long as their shortcomings are not directly connected to womanhood.
Regrettably, the illustration of Dany’s sudden madness played into harmful stereotypes about women and female rulers. Here’s how.
Her last straw was getting rejected by Jon Snow
Daenerys had grown increasingly miserable and isolated since coming to Westeros. On season eight alone, she witnessed the murders of her dragon Rhaegal and her two closest friends, Jorah Mormont and Missandei.
But until episode five, Daenerys had kept it relatively together. It’s not as if right after Cersei executed Missandei she immediately hopped on Drogon and burned King’s Landing to the ground, which she apparently could have done fairly easily.
Earlier on episode five, Daenerys told Jon Snow that she felt no support from anyone around her. “I don’t have love here,” she said. “I only have fear.”
“I love you,” he replied. “You’ll always be my queen.”
When Dany tried to kiss him, however, Jon pulled away. (He seems to be grossed out by the revelation that Daenerys is his aunt, though he’s never expressed this out loud.)
“All right then,” she said. “Let it be fear.”
After getting abused by her brother throughout her childhood, sold to a warlord as a political bargaining chip, and being repeatedly raped, enslaved, threatened, and nearly killed, Daenerys is seemingly pushed over the edge because a man won’t return her affection.
As Melissa Leon wrote for The Daily Beast, the direct connection between this scene and Dany’s madness feels akin to giving her the role of “crazy ex-girlfriend – the laziest of sexist tropes.”
Of course, this may not have been what the showrunners intended, but that’s sure what it looks like – and it plays directly into the old stereotype that women are too emotional to rule, too sensitive, and easily swayed by the affections of men.
Dany’s decision to murder innocents had no clear goal or trigger
Daenerys has always represented tension and contradiction: In the medieval society of “Game of Thrones,” rising to power necessitates violence, and Dany is constantly torn between her gentle empathy and her desire to rule.
And so she has been brutal yet calculated. Her violent moments – whether it was crucifying slave masters or burning down a tent full of Dothraki khals – were always framed as acts of justice or political maneuvers. Daenerys didn’t always make the right decision, but her decisions always served a purpose.
But Dany decided to flatten King’s Landing and decimate its population after the city surrendered.
She could’ve flown directly to the Red Keep and confronted Cersei. She could’ve walked through the city with her victorious army, tending to the people she means to rule, as she did with the liberated slaves in Yunkai.
Instead, the camera trained on Dany’s face as she grew angrier and angrier. There was no clear trigger for her anger, no slight or betrayal by the citizens of King’s Landing, and no strategic reason to lay waste to an entire city.
Earlier on season eight, it seemed the show was preparing viewers to watch Dany make a difficult, deadly, and ultimately questionable decision: To take power, she would need to suspend mercy. Innocent people would become collateral damage. But in reality, Dany had already won.
Instead of presenting her with a moral conundrum and watching her deal with those consequences, the showrunners flipped a switch when she took off on Drogon’s back – the last time we saw the episode from her perspective.
After that moment, Dany was no longer a calculated political player, a traumatized person in mourning, or a complex human with conflicting desires. She became inhuman, nothing more than an object of destruction – all because she wasn’t able to control her incoherent emotions.
“By making Daenerys just ‘death from above,’ ‘The Bells’ once again sacrificed what made this show so powerful in the first place,” Jess Joho wrote for Mashable, adding, “Whether ‘hero’ or ‘villain,’ this was a story about regular people’s capacity for evil – how human flaws, rather than a giant evil eye in Mordor, are the root of extreme brutality.”
“But when showing that mattered most – when the hero we’ve been cheering on for over eight years became the story’s central bad guy – they decided to make her little more than a fire-breathing drone.”
Her Targaryen blood was used as an excuse to make her one-dimensional
It’s been widely noted that Daenerys is the daughter of the Mad King, who loved burning his enemies alive with wildfire.
Dany’s dangerous bloodline was repeatedly evoked as her advisers gradually lost faith in her. At the beginning of episode five, Varys reminded viewers of the saying “Every time a Targaryen is born, the gods toss a coin, and the world holds its breath.”
To hear the showrunners tell it, Daenerys lost all agency when she saw the Red Keep, the seat of power built by her ancestors. In that moment, she simply succumbed to her predetermined genetic code.
“I don’t think she decided ahead of time that she was going to do what she did,” D.B. Weiss said in a behind-the-scenes video.
“Ultimately, she is who she is, and that’s a Targaryen,” David Benioff added in “The Game Revealed.”
But you’ll notice that no one is concerned about the coin flip in Jon Snow’s genetic code. When his friends and family discovered that Jon is actually Aegon Targaryen, the grandson of the Mad King, they all simply took it as more evidence that Jon would be a great ruler.
Varys said he was “certain” about the side Jon’s coin had landed on – but he was pretty certain about Daenerys too, as recently as, like, three episodes ago.
You can argue that we’ve seen more evidence of Daenerys being bloodthirsty and brutal, which is true. She also craves power, whereas Jon has only ever accepted it reluctantly.
But if it’s true that being a Targaryen descendant is simply a toss-up between pure good and pure evil, it should give someone – anyone? – pause when it comes to Jon as well. Maybe if he watched two of his “children” and two of his best friends die in quick succession, his dangerous Targaryen genes would suddenly activate too.
Framing the ultimate showdown as ‘Mad Queen vs. Mad Queen’ compels us to believe that women shouldn’t rule
It’s not inherently sexist to have Daenerys become a Mad Queen. But in the execution of this long-hinted twist, we are led to believe at least one of these explanations:
- Daenerys decided to murder innocents because she was pushed over the edge by Jon Snow’s rejection.
- Daenerys is impossibly hot-headed and cruel. The only reason she didn’t show “madness” sooner was because her emotions were kept in check by her (primarily male) advisers.
- Daenerys has no agency in her own story at all. She was always destined to repeat her father’s mistakes and fall victim to the faults in her DNA.
These explanations play directly into a variety of sexist tropes that historically are especially prevalent in period pieces and fantasy stories, a point that Varys makes explicit on episode four when he says Jon Snow is “a man, which makes him more appealing to the lords of Westeros,” adding, “Cocks are important.”
It’s easy to assume that a strong female character is inherently empowering for female viewers. But when that character is depicted as “a threatening deviation from the natural order,” as Chris Winkle, the creator of Mythcreants, wrote in 2016, it implies that we should maintain patriarchal systems and societies.
Dany’s evil twist is even more damning when you consider the enemy she was pitted against: Cersei Lannister, another cruel and arguably “mad” queen.
Again, having a cunning and twisted villain like Cersei is not in itself sexist. But one line on episode five directly connected her villainy to womanhood, exposing the show’s utter disinterest in developing the motivations of its female antagonists.
“The child is the reason she’ll never give an inch,” Jaime Lannister, Cersei’s twin, told their brother, Tyrion. “All the worst things she’s ever done, she’s done for her children.”
Jaime, who was the father of those same children, saw Cersei’s motherhood as the root of her murderous, hateful actions. Jaime, who also lost three children, insisted that Cersei would’ve never done such monstrous things if she hadn’t given birth to them.
Though “Thrones” would never explicitly endorse the idea that women are unfit to rule by design, these moments implicitly add fuel to that bias. They strengthen the convictions of people who already hold that worldview.
Cersei’s motherhood was once seen as her one redeeming quality. Now the showrunners see it as the source of her cruelty, disregarding her traumatic path to power and sucking the remaining humanity out of her character.
I really just feel so let down that after years of empowering messages & Bad ass women characters #GoT #GameofThronesseason8 is really reduced down to
“Women are unfit to rule & if you give them too much power they will inevitably go crazy”
— Brooke (@wonderland449) May 13, 2019
Considering Cersei’s role on season eight was reduced to 30 minutes of staring out windows and drinking wine, it’s even more disappointing that this should be our last impression of her. She, like Daenerys, became less than human – absent of the grief, rage, and fierce protective instincts that once made her so compelling.
‘Game of Thrones’ has always been criticized for its treatment of women
On earlier seasons, the show was accused of promoting rape culture and using violence against women gratuitously.
After Ramsay Bolton raped Sansa Stark on their wedding night, which doesn’t happen in the books, the National Center on Sexual Exploitation denounced “Game of Thrones” for “turning brutal sexual violence into mainstream entertainment.”
As the show’s female characters gained more and more power, this criticism appeared to die out. But “Thrones” simply replaced its overt degradation of women with more subtle misogyny.
On season eight alone, Brienne of Tarth has been reduced to a jilted lover, used to service Jaime’s internal struggle and heighten the emotional stakes for his final decision; Sansa gave credit to her rapists and abusers for making her the woman she is today, a line of dialogue that’s been roundly condemned; and Missandei, the show’s only prominent woman of color, was put back in chains and brutally executed in front of her boyfriend, leading to accusations of fridging, a storytelling trope in which a person’s death is used to fuel their partner’s motivations.
Sansa thrived DESPITE her trauma, not BECAUSE of it. That's what is frustrating about the scene and what so many people are missing here.
— Gennifer Hutchison (@GennHutchison) May 7, 2019
Rather than learning from their mistakes, the showrunners have played directly into misogynistic criticisms they’ve been facing for years.
Nearly every woman on the show has been sidelined or sabotaged, used as mere plot points, or turned into one-dimensional stereotypes. Their complex and dignified character arcs have been all but erased.
Now, as the series finale draws closer, we have Jon Snow and Tyrion Lannister poised to become the heroes who unseat the Mad Queen, an outcome that Sansa and Arya repeatedly tried to warn them about. “Game of Thrones” has made it very clear which characters it prefers to listen to.
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