No, D&D didn’t mess up (for about the first time since Season 8 started). The writing was rushed- as per usual for this season- but it wasn’t nonsensical. Some people have commented that the showrunners are making Dany fit the ‘crazy wimmin’ stereotype and completely reverse Cersei and Sansa’s characters to make them less strong. I don’t see this either, and I’ll expand on that below. But first, let’s delve into why Dany’s massacre makes total sense.
Why did she do it?
Not for the throne. She could’ve flown straight to the Red Keep and either shish kebab’d Cersei or had hand-to-hand combat with her. (As they’re both untrained in physical combat, my money’s on a slapfight). But she didn’t. She brought fire and blood down on her own citizens. She destroyed her own capital. She damaged the Red Keep- her own seat of power. Why? Because maybe she doesn’t want the throne anymore. Dany now realises that what she thought she wanted is not what she actually wants. She grew up in war, that’s what she became- a warrior not a ruler.
“You weren’t made to sit on a throne and rule,” Daario Naharos said round about Season 6. “You’re a conqueror.” In A Song of Ice and Fire, the Iron Throne was Viserys’ dream and Dany kept it alive because it was all she knew. But having grown up, she might have shaken off his brainwashing. Dany also fantasised about how much more beautiful Westeros would be than the exotic cities she saw in Essos. But that’s very unlikely. She thought the pools of the Red Keep must be lovelier than her swimming pool in Meereen but as we know, the climate of King’s Landing (i.e. London) doesn’t often allow for open air swimming. Nor for tropical plants and exotic animals such as those Dany experienced in Pentos, Qarth, Astapor, Meereen and the Dothraki Sea. Dany has travelled extensively, even as a young child fleeing the Usurper’s hired knives. Staying for the rest of her life in a cold damp castle in a stinking city on a foggy island might not hold much appeal.
Dany doesn’t want power. She wants adventure. Dany cried when King’s Landing surrendered. Because she didn’t want surrender, she wanted to fight. Surrender gives her power but fighting gives her thrills. A long wait for victory- Dany waited all her life even to start fighting for her throne- accustoms you to war. Easy victory is boring because after a lifetime of scheming and preparing, now life is empty with no goal to work towards. So, for the conflict-deprived, violence becomes no longer a means to an end, but the end itself.
Dany had another motive for destroying King’s Landing. It was a mental torture for Cersei. Maggy the Frog’s prophecy says that Cersei will be queen until “there comes another, younger and more beautiful, to cast you down and take all you hold dear.” Cersei loved Jaime and Dany “took” him temporarily to fight the Night King. Cersei saw Dany destroy her military power (the Golden Company and Iron Fleet), her political power (the city surrendered), her most loyal lieutenants (brain yes-man Qyburn and brawn yes-man Zombified Mountain) and finally fears losing her unborn baby. She is literally goes downwards- first towards safety in Maegor’s holdfast then led by Jaime to escape Daenerys. They end up under the Great Hall. Obviously the valonqar part of the prophecy didn’t come true on Game of Thrones unless Cersei and/or Jaime climbed over one of the piles of rubble while the bricks were falling and are still alive.
Daenerys’ destruction of King’s Landing truly was a psychological torture for Cersei. At the beginning of the battle she was smiling and confident with her two yes-men standing behind her. With every defeat, she crumbled a little more and finally was almost weeping. At the very end she is scared and weeping which, while very out of character, makes total sense for a character whose confidence derives directly from her power. Some people are naturally confident but for others- especially those who’ve always had power or privilege, like Cersei, much of that bravado comes from the fact of their power. I have personally seen this in real life.
So, I don’t think the show is reversing the female characters. Sansa betraying Jon wasn’t a true betrayal; she wants him to claim his birthright. She’s actually his staunchest supporter- because they are family. And of course because she doesn’t trust Dany. Sansa told Tyrion not just because she felt like gossiping, it was, as Dany surmised, to spread the information and gather support for Jon’s claim. If anything the showrunners are strengthening Sansa’s character snd showing what a shrewd operator she has become by learning from Cersei, Littlefinger, Tyrion and Ramsay. She can now manipulate Tyrion.
Cersei took a lifetime to get to where she is- from daughter of a powerful lord to wife of the king to Queen Regent to ruling Queen- and saw it destroyed in about five minutes. Even her home (the Red Keep), her seat of power (her capital) and her objects of power (the people of King’s Landing, whom she wields power over) were destroyed. Dany wanted Cersei to lose everything just as she had.
Dany might also have little love for the Red Keep. It’s a symbol of her Targaryen heritage, and it was that heritage which caused all of the bad experiences in Dany’s life. Viserys was driven insane by his goal to retake the throne and became cruel to her. Dany’s unstable childhood, assassination attempts throughout her life, marriage to Khal Drogo, and most of what followed were indirectly related to her status as an exile Targaryen.
Another possible motive for Daenerys was that she believed the bells were a trap. Dany would indeed be a fool to believe Cersei. Cersei doesn’t exactly have a great track record for keeping promises; she said she would send her army north to help defeat the Night King but didn’t, meaning Viserion died for nothing attempting to rescue those who had captured a wight to show Cersei. However, this doesn’t explain why she aimed at civilians instead of Cersei, throwing only two cursory fire-blows at the Red Keep’s edges.
Another explanation is that Dany lost control of Drogon. Drogon did incinerate a little girl called Hazzea in Meereen. He also doesn’t obey Dany at other times such as when he flew her into the Dothraki Sea. His ancestor Balerion the Black Dread (hinted in the books to actually be Drogon in a previous life) carried Aerea Targaryen to Valyria against her will in Fire & Blood. I don’t think Game of Thrones is going this way, though. It wouldn’t have been necessary to show Drogon going berserk for as long as the showrunners did. The massacre took up that amount of screentime because it was an important plot point.
Daenerys was flying Drogon, shooting targets like a helicopter or fighter jet pilot. According to On War by Carl von Clausewitz, combatants who kill hundreds of innocent or helpless people from above don’t feel guilt or develop PTSD versus combatants who kill soldiers in self-defence face to face. It’s all psychological. Shooting tiny targets doesn’t feel like murdering a human being. The pilots knew they shot down their targets and the enemy pilot probably died; they knew the bombs they dropped killed hundreds in a second. But to our brains- which evolved in an environment which only had face to face killing- this wasn’t death. The same issues apply to Dany on Drogon. She saw ants on the ground and roasted them. She aimed fire at buildings, knowing there must’ve been people inside some of them, but not seeing them burn as Arya did.
Dany’s childhood wasn’t the best. In today’s terms, she grew up a refugee with an unstable home life and frequent moves, often homeless (just not street homeless) with an emotionally and physically abusive brother as guardian. She constantly feared for their lives as they often had to flee Robert Baratheon’s assassins. When the pair joined the Dothraki her brother became more abusive and abdicated any parental responsibilities, giving tacit consent for Khal Drogo to sexually abuse his underage 13 year old sister (she contemplates suicide in the books, and though Game of Thrones depicts a loving relationship more akin to statutory rape than actual rape, the comment Dany makes to Jon about being sold, raped and enslaved is likely referring to a side of Khal Drogo that we didn’t see onscreen.) Dany saw Viserys murdered, and though she enjoyed it, it couldn’t have been great for her psyche. She saw multiple violent crimes and was almost assasinated during her time with the Dothraki, culminating in her miscarriage and killing of Mirri Maaz Duur at age 14. Then follows a starvation in the red waste, flight from Qarth, war and an assassination attempt where she meets Daario Naharis. Book Danaerys is fifteen years old when she takes Meereen so presumably reaches 16 there. However, legal adulthood for some things in the UK, and almost everything in the USA, is 18- meaning that unless Dany spends around three years in Meereen- also chock-full of political intrigue, civil war, and foreign threats- she’s probably still a minor when she reaches Westeros. Psychological adolescence is now thought to end at 21 or 22. We don’t even know if Dany will survive that long.
To summarise, her entire development was one of fearing for her life and being subjected to, witnessing and eventually committing violent acts. More specifically, the idea of war is normal to her. Not only was the threat of war ever-present in Meereen, but Viserys indoctrinated Dany with the desire for vengeance and a raison d’etre of reclaiming their throne. Dany owes a lot of what she is to Viserys. Without him, she might well be content to live in a simple house with a red door. Perhaps that’s how her story will end, if she’s lucky. The foreshadowing points to Daenerys not getting the Iron Throne.
Mass murder might not seem so bad when you consider war and violence as just another thing people do.
Emotionality vs Logic
As Machiavelli said, it is better to be loved than feared, but if a ruler cannot be loved, they should try to be feared. A Song of Ice and Fire does include homages to Machiavelli, such as a description of Tywin Lannister as being “as much the fox as the lion.” (Machiavelli stated that rulers must be “a lion to drive off wolves, and a fox to detect traps.” Danaerys says she does not have love of the people in Westeros, unlike in Essos. “Then let me have fear,” she declares once she realises that public support through love is hopeless as not a single person loves her- not even Jon. Thus, Dany’s barbeque is partly rooted in political strategy. She cannot rule by love so must rule by fear. If only she’d remembered that Machiavelli also cautions against being hated.
The more obvious catalyst for the mass murder is the brutal kidnapping and murder of Dany’s best friend Missandei, an unarmed noncombatant. Perhaps Dany felt justified in killing civilians knowing Cersei had done the same. She may also simply have been moved to rage through grief and wanted revenge for her loss. Grey Worm was obviously deeply affected by witnessing his girlfriend’s beheading, and as Dany and Grey Worm are more friends than monarch and general, her sympathy for him may have been a factor.
What will happen in the books?
It’s possible Dany will turn Mad Queen in ASOIAF. But it will be done more carefully, built up more slowly, and therefore seem realistic. I suspect that Dany will be driven to madness by the loss of her dragons, the ‘loss’ of her people, and the loss of Jon.
Viserion- named for her treacherous brother- could bond with fAegon, and Rhaegal bond with Jon as in the show. Drogon has already bonded with Dany but could have his will overridden by Dragonbinder. The Westerosi people may already have fAegon as king by the time the ever-delaying Dany finally arrives, and see her and her hordes of Dothraki and Unsullied as foreign invaders. Tyrion did warn against this in Season 7, preferring to take King’s Landing with Westerosi armies but ultimately Dany had to attack with mostly foreign armies in Season 8 Episode 5; this could play out in ASOIAF. Jon Connington had hoped fAegon and Dany would marry, but presumably this won’t happen- especially if he bonds with Viserion or even teams up with Euron who may have Drogon. Dany feels she has lost her people’s support as they all rally behind fAegon, who is unlikely to be a tyrannical ruler due to his youth and the levelheadedness of his probable Regent Connington.
Dany may ally with, or even marry, Euron as he has a dragon. Euron is likely to subject her to mental, physical and sexual torture (Book Euron is a serial murderer, serial rapist and child molester who imagines he’s a god and enjoys mutilating people). Dany finally defeats fAegon, kills Euron and gets Drogon back. Viserion is a casualty of the battle. But she has defeated the fake Aegon only for a true Aegon to rise up in his place- Jon. Bonded with Rhaegal, Jon contends with Dany for the throne and the common people of King’s Landing support him. This could be enough to drive her over the edge, given all she’s endured for the throne only to have it taken from her at the very last instant.
A pregnancy and miscarriage or SIDS could also be another factor. Or perhaps the child survives but Dany feels torn at having Jon’s baby since he is now her enemy. I believe Dany will be pregnant again in the books as it has been foreshadowed heavily. I also believe the pregnancy- whether or not it results in a birth- is important, as otherwise it wouldn’t be foreshadowed.
D&D finally delivered George R.R. Martin’s vision. He said he was inspired by the Vietnam war to write fiction that portrays good & evil on both sides and moral shades of grey. He wasn’t messing.