Last night, millions of us watched — mostly in horror — as Daenerys Targaryen heard the clamoring of bells, which signalled the surrender of King’s Landing, and took it as a cue to torch the city. For years now, A Song of Ice and Fire author George R.R. Martin and showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have been telegraphing loudly that Dany would go insane like her father did, and potentially burn the city, like her father wanted to do.
But what if she’s not crazy? What if she’s doing what it takes to truly “break the wheel?”
“Daenerys: Baratheon, Stark, Tyrell: They’re all just spokes on a wheel. This one’s on top, then that one’s on top, then on and on it spins.
Tyrion: That’s a beautiful dream: stopping the wheel. You’re not the first person who’s ever dreamt it.
Daenerys: I’m not going to stop the wheel. I’m going to break the wheel.”
King’s Landing, the capital of Westeros, was founded when Daenerys’ ancestor, Aegon Targaryen (Aegon the Conqueror) landed at the mouth of the Blackwater Rush and built a fort of earth and wood. He conquered Westeros and named himself king of the Seven Kingdoms. As the city of King’s Landing grew up around his settlement, he ordered the construction of the Red Keep, a stone castle to honor House Targaryen. He also built the Iron Throne, said to be constructed of the swords surrendered by his enemies and forged with the breath of Balerion the Dread, one of the Targaryen dragons.
Targaryens held the throne until Danaerys’ father, Aerys II (often called the Mad King because he became increasingly unstable and prone to outbursts later in his life), was killed by Jaime Lannister. After Aerys’ death, Robert Baratheon, who led a rebellion against the Targaryens, assumed the Iron Throne. When Robert died, he was succeeded by his sons Joffrey Baratheon and Tommen Baratheon (both of whom were actually the children of Robert’s wife, Cersei Lannister, and her brother, Jaime). After all of her children died, Cersei assumed the throne.
Dany and her older brother Viserys grew up in hiding, knowing that Robert Baratheon wanted them dead. But she was told all her life that the Targaryens were the rightful heirs to the Iron Throne, and that the people of Westeros yearned for her family to return and rule. None of that appears to be true, but those stories built the foundations of Danaerys’ confidence, especially after Viserys — who was cruel and power-mad in his own way — was killed by having molten gold poured on his head.
“I am here to rid the world of tyrants, and I will serve it no matter the cost.”
Things don’t go well for Dany after she arrives in Westeros. The people don’t immediately fall at her feet, as she’d been told they would. She agrees to fight the Night King’s army and loses half of her warriors — the Unsullied and the Dorthraki — in the battle. She discovers that people naturally flock to Jon Snow (who also turns out to be a Targaryen, but most of his friends don’t know that yet), and he gets much of the credit for sacking the Night King’s army and even for flying on a dragon, when she’s been overthrowing tyrants and riding dragons for years. And, behind her back, some of her advisors are scheming to put Jon on the Iron Throne, even though he‘s not interested.
She’s lost two of her dragons and two of her most trusted advisors — Ser Jorah Mormont and Missandei. And she finds out her lover has a better claim to the Iron Throne than she does.
Daenerys is furious at these developments. “Propping up a male candidate to the throne over a woman who has worked her butt off to get here feels like an especially Machiavellian scheme,” Meher Manda writes for Bustle. “By projecting Daenerys as too emotional, unpredictable, and uncontrollable for the throne and Jon as too tempered, the show reminds us of the mental gymnastics people go through in the real world to declare a woman unfit for power.”
Women’s anger has long been unacceptable. Last year, journalist Rebecca Traister released her newest book, Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger. Just as it came out, Christine Blasey Ford was testifying before the senate about her teenage sexual assault at the hands of Supreme Court Candidate Brett Kavanagh. As Kavanagh raged and wept, Ford kept her temper under control; if she’d shown her fury, people might have been less likely to believe her. Meanwhile, Serena Williams was vilified for shouting at an umpire at the U.S. Open — something her male counterparts in the world of tennis get away with regularly.
Traister told NPR, “My argument is not that women’s anger is always righteous. It’s that it’s very often politically potent, and yet we’re told not to take it seriously, still.”
Danaerys has been through a lot in her 24 years. Much of it helped make her the strong, capable, compassionate leader we know her to be. Some of it made her furious, not least of which is the fact that she had a bounty on her head from childhood or that she’s been betrayed multiple times by people close to her. She’s also always had a steely side, which sometimes drives her to torch her enemies with dragonfire.
Above all, she’s a survivor. You can’t convince me that the losses she’s faced this year made her go crazy. And yet, that’s what Benioff and Weiss are trying to do.
They depict her as pale and disheveled, holed up in Dragonstone without eating or talking to anyone. She looks young and fragile, heartbroken and grief-stricken. All traces of makeup have been washed away, suggesting she doesn’t care enough to keep up her appearance anymore — a clear signal in a male-gaze-oriented culture that she’s gone crazy.
The name of last night’s episode is “The Bells,” likely a reference to Edgar Allan Poe’s poem of the same name, which describes a descent into madness or the coming of Death. Poe, like Benioff and Weiss, liked to depict women as pale, fragile and mad.
Depicting women’s anger as insanity is hardly new. One of the largest insane asylums in the world was Central State Hospital, founded in Milledgeville, Georgia, in the 1840s. Some of its earliest patients were angry women. One was a “45 year old housewife; nervous and homicidal for 17 years; started with a loss of interest in housework; became violent and hallucinatory, ‘requiring for nearly the whole 17 years rigid confinement of her hands and arms, feet and legs,’” according to early records.
Another was a “38 year old housewife; furious; hostile; destructive; second time in hospital; had been discharged as restored; treated with douches, cold showers and nauseants; the superintendent considered bleeding her but she was resistive; put her in a straightjacket and followed this up with ‘soothing moral appliances;’ this did not help and to the previous treatment was added ’20 grains of tartarized antimony all disguised in her drink;’ lucid intervals after a month and in a few more months she was recovered.”
These women weren’t crazy. They were furious — a word that brings to mind the Greek Furies, those goddesses who dealt out vengeance, particularly “on men, whosoever hath sworn a false oath.”
Unfortunately, last night’s episode (and this season overall) didn’t just make the mistake of depicting Daenerys as crazy instead of angry. It’s also poorly written, leaving book-reading fans grasping at straws based on what they know from the written series, and leaving television-only fans truly stumped as to why Danaerys would do anything but calmly take over a city that surrendered. “A Daenerys heel turn from hero to villain was always going to hurt no matter what, and it makes for bad, gendered optics when coupled with Cersei’s terrible leadership and Sansa’s austere suspicion of Daenerys’s (and her paranoia in return),” Joanna Robinson writes for Vanity Fair. “But could the show have given viewers a bit more warning?
“We’ll rip her out, root and stem.”
Even as HBO’s Game of Thrones strains to depict Daenerys as fragile and insane, it’s clear something else is going on. Just before Missandei is executed, Cersei asks if she has any final words. Missandei was born in Naath, but captured by raiders and sold into slavery in Astapor. She begins working with Dany when she arrives in Astapor, and eventually becomes Dany’s translator, advisor and friend. Missandei knows where tyranny leads, and what slaves endure. When asked for her last words, this is what she tells Daenerys:
Burn it all down.
Missandei knows — and Dany realizes — that the only way to “rid the world of tyranny” is to burn it all down and start over. To truly break the wheel, she has to wipe the slate of King’s Landing clean. She has to get rid of everything her ancestor Aegon built, and erase everything that followed. The walls of the city crumble. The houses are in ruins. The Lannister army and the Golden Company are defeated. The Red Keep collapses. And it’s very likely that the Iron Throne itself is destroyed, and in the very same way it was created.
Daenerys said she would rid the world of tyranny — no matter the cost. She warned everyone that she would likely kill innocent people, and this act is the strongest argument that she’s more insane than angry (never mind that President Harry S. Truman was never considered crazy for dropping atomic bombs in Japan). But I think she also knows that the act of destroying King’s Landing, of destroying the seat of tyranny in Westeros itself, is likely to have another cost — her own life. Maybe she recognizes she’s not the leader she believed she was, and she sacrifices herself to wipe the stain of the Iron Throne from the world.