A long-debated theory among Game of Thrones fans sets forth the prediction that Daenerys Targaryen will become the show’s ultimate villain. The latest episode of the HBO drama, ‘A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms’, provided believers in this theory with new fuel for their interpretation of Daenerys’ actions as a “Mad Queen.”
But things are rarely so simple on Game of Thrones.
Instead of Daenerys becoming an “evil” queen, it’s much more plausible that the show has set her up as a tragic hero. Her entangled desires for both the Iron Throne and loving relationships are working against each other, and perhaps the cost will be her life.
For all its happier, tear-filled moments, ‘A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms’ ended on a bitter and ominous note when Jon Snow let Daenerys Targaryen in on the revelation that had him stumbling around Winterfell.
Jon avoided his queen the whole day, trying to feign normalcy and failing spectacularly until she found him in the crypts of Winterfell and he divulged the truth about his Targaryen parentage.
Just as Jon did on the season eight premiere when the news was given to him by Sam, Daenerys literally reeled when told that Jon Snow — the second man in the world she’s ever trusted wholly — is really Aegon Targaryen, Sixth of His Name, and Rightful Heir to the Targaryen dynasty.
She’s visibly angry, and her fury is entirely understandable given the series of events that led to that moment.
Daenerys has no place in ‘A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms’
Watching (and re-watching) the episode, it’s clear that the emotional gravitas of this intimate instalment almost goes out of its way to show how Daenerys has grown even more isolated in the time since she’s arrived in Westeros.
Despite her allies, despite her love for Jon Snow, and despite her years of work earning the loyalty of the most powerful army Westeros has seen in a long time, Daenerys found herself without a comforting person to turn to on the eve of a battle where most of our characters expect they’ll meet their end.
All around Daenerys are deep, sometimes decades-long, bonds between the Westerosi people.
The episode begins with Jaime Lannister‘s trial. Daenerys is front and center at the high table. In the place where Jon Snow once stood as he was crowned King in the North, Daenerys now sits as his queen.
This is her first time running the show in Winterfell, and things go poorly from the start. Jaime refuses to apologize, and Brienne (who Daenerys barely knows) stands to speak in his defense, which brings Lady of Winterfell Sansa Stark around. Seeking support, Daenerys tries to get Jon to engage, but he’s asleep at the wheel.
Daenerys is clearly bothered by the way Sansa pivoted the conversation into letting Jaime stay. She seems even more bothered when Sansa walks away from the table without so much as a backwards glance. And then Jon shirks her gaze too, and brushes past without a word. Daenerys is left standing in front of the Northern leaders looking unsupported, and she takes it out on Tyrion in the hallway later.
Later Jorah finds her alone, standing in front of a fire and looking morose. He urges her to make peace with Tyrion and Sansa, and so Daenerys goes and finds the Lady of Winterfell. They seem to bond … at first. But Daenerys didn’t account for Sansa’s desire to protect and lead the North as a kingdom separate from the realm Daenerys wishes to rule.
Their meeting ends with a new wall put up between them, and then comes another blow to Daenerys’ sense of leadership.
Daenerys is confused by Theon Greyjoy’s arrival to Winterfell, though she seems pleased by the sight of another ally sworn to serve her. But then Theon turns to Sansa and says he wants to fight for Winterfell. Daenerys witnesses their embrace, and sees a deep, emotional devotion no Greyjoy has ever shown her. Theon may be serving Queen Daenerys, but his heart is with the Starks and the North.
Ned Stark‘s memory and the fight for the North is the emotional heart of the coming Battle of Winterfell. The Hound once fought for Arya, and now he finds himself protecting her home. Theon’s entire arc has brought him away from Winterfell and the Starks and now back into their arms and service. Ser Davos found a leader in Jon Snow after Stannis was defeated, and Tormund will follow his “little crow” into any fight.
Jaime and Brienne seem to be there primarily for one another at this stage, but Brienne is loyal to the Starks first and foremost. The Knights of the Vale, the remaining brothers of the Night’s Watch, all the Wildlings — they are there because of House Stark.
What’s Daenerys fighting for?
Throughout Sunday’s episode, Daenerys seems to realise how weak her bonds with the leaders in the North are, and how isolated she is from the reason why everyone else has come to Winterfell to lay down their lives in a fight. In this darkest hour before the battle, she has no one to spend those final moments with (we’ll get to Jon again in a bit).
Missandei and Jorah are arguably the two people in Winterfell Daenerys is closest to, but their final pre-battle moments are shared with Grey Worm and Sam, respectively, instead of with their queen.
During the war room meeting, Sam and Bran talk about the Night King wanting a never-ending night, and to erase all memory of humanity.
“That’s what death is, isn’t it? Forgetting, or being forgotten,” Sam says just as the scene cuts to Daenerys.
Which is what it all comes down to, really. What is everyone fighting for? Earlier on the episode, Daenerys says she’s fighting “Jon’s war,” but this surely means more to her than that? Stannis famously brought his armies north once to help Jon Snow and the Night’s Watch when Davos made him see that he should save the kingdom to win the throne, and not win the throne to save the kingdom.
Is that what Daenerys thinks she’s doing right now? If it was, the events of Sunday’s episode seemingly pushed that motivation to the back of her mind. By the time the war horns were blown, Daenerys was left with the shock of Jon’s parentage and appeared angry over the order of succession to the Iron Throne.
Emilia Clarke said in a recent Entertainment Weekly interview that the incest part of Jon’s revelation was not what was bothering Daenerys in that final scene, it was the possibility of him usurping her position.
“This is [Daenerys’] whole existence,” Emilia Clarke told EW.
Since birth! Dany literally was brought into this world going: RUN! These fuckers [in Westeros] have fucked everything up. Now it’s, ‘You’re our only hope.’ There’s so much she’s taken on in her duty in life to rectify. There’s so much she’s seen and witnessed and been through and lost and suffered and hurt to get here … and Jon doesn’t even want it!
Jon Snow was one of the only people Daenerys ever trusted, and now that’s been taken away
Daenerys spent her entire childhood and early teen years in exile under the supervision of an abusive brother. She never had a permanent home, nor did she ever feel safe with or loved by the people around her. That began to change after her marriage to Khal Drogo (which itself began with traumatizing assault), the death of Viserys, and the birth of her dragons.
Daenerys rose to power, and took on the task of abolishing slavery in Essos while still trying to steer her path towards Westeros and fulfilling the dream of reclaiming the Seven Kingdoms, the goal Viserys burned into her psyche from the day she was born.
Ruling is lonely business. When Daenerys left Essos at last, she told her lover Daario to stay behind because she needed to keep herself available to marriage proposals.
“Do you know what frightens me?” she said to Tyrion after breaking things off with Daario. “I said farewell to a man who loves me, a man I thought I cared for. And I felt nothing.”
But then she arrived in Westeros, and things went awry. Her fleet was destroyed, her new allies in the Reach were killed.
And then came Jon Snow, the King in the North.
Daenerys fell in love with Jon, but didn’t necessarily want a new husband and a king at her side — she wanted a loyal ally. But neither of them predicted falling in love, and Daenerys speaks on this episode about how that changed things for her.
“All my life, I’ve known one goal: The Iron Throne,” she told Sansa. “Taking it back from the people who destroyed my family and almost destroyed yours. My war was against them, until I met Jon. Now I’m here, half a world away, fighting Jon’s war beside him. Tell me, who manipulated whom?”
While seeking peace with Sansa, Daenerys notably refers to Jon by his first name only for the first time on the show. She’s revealing a level of intimacy she shares with him, but we at home watching know the truth and why Jon is avoiding her gaze at the moment.
“I’m here because I love your brother, and I trust him,” Daenerys said. “And I know he’s true to his word. He’s only the second man in my life I can say that about.”
But then hours after saying this out loud for the first time, Daenerys is told by the man she loves that her claim to the Iron Throne, the biggest motivating factor in her life for the last several years, was a lie. Unhelpful to the revelation is Jon calling her “Dany” — the nickname most used by her abusive brother Viserys (who was killed by the last man Daenerys trusted while she stood and watched).
Daenerys becomes angry with Jon in her disbelief. She doesn’t even acknowledge what he told her as the truth. She is skeptical that this truth has come from Jon’s own brother and best friend.
“If it were true,” she says (emphasis ours). “It would make you the last male heir of House Targaryen. You’d have a claim to the Iron Throne.”
In her state of shock, Daenerys isn’t even outright admitting that Jon does have the stronger claim. And Jon looks abashed by her reaction.
“In the crypt, Jon is taken aback when essentially the first thing she says is acknowledging that he has a claim to the Iron Throne,” the episode’s writer, Bryan Cogman, told Entertainment Weekly. “And Jon’s immediate concern is the fact that that’s her immediate concern.”
When they reach the ramparts of Winterfell, Jon tries to give Daenerys a little nod indicating “OK, it’s go-time.” She doesn’t return the gesture, but only walks away, clearly still bothered.
Where does this leave them as the biggest fight of their lives is about to start?
Daenerys fits the trope of a tragic hero in the story of ‘Game of Thrones’
“It’s just rejection on every single level,” Emilia Clarke said while talking about Jon’s reveal in the above behind-the-scene video from HBO. “For however much strength Dany has as a character, she’s not immune to the person that she loves taking that away from her.”
“There were so many things we weren’t saying whilst saying them,” Clarke continued. “And then you’ve still got the passion that brings them together, and you’ve still got the need, on both sides, to be loved […] and to be taken care of. And both characters have that exact thing. And they just can’t. It’s like the ultimate star-crossed lovers.”
The use of the term “star-crossed lovers” directly invokes William Shakespeare’s phrase from ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ indicating that the romance between Jon and Daenerys will end in tragedy.
Daenerys’ current head-space is not ideal when more than 100,000 undead ice zombies are descending on your entire army and important allies. In the teaser for the coming battle, Daenerys appears still angry with Jon as she says “the dead are already here.”
If Daenerys can’t find a way to untangle the devastation she’s feeling over Jon’s identity before her fight against the Undead, she may wind up making a critical mistake that backfires on her entire plan to help Jon in this war. This would work well within the scope of Daenerys ultimately being a tragic hero on Game of Thrones.
Eliana, co-host of the Girls Gone Canon and Maester Monthly podcasts, laid out the case for Daenerys as a Shakespearian tragic hero in a thorough essay.
“Daenerys’s true idea of home centers the feeling of belonging through love and companionship,” Eliana writes in her essay. “If Daenerys sees Westeros as home […] then she ultimately hopes that returning to Westeros will bring her that sense of belonging.”
George R.R. Martin‘s books contain many narrative details about Daenerys’ longing for the comfort of a home and loved ones, but as we see on season eight of Game of Thrones, she’s going to find neither of those things in Westeros.
“And therein lies the rub, the internal conflict so central to the Shakespearean tragic hero: Returning to Westeros means ruling Westeros — and ruling means loneliness,” Eliana writes. “Power at the cost of personal relationships occurs throughout the series.”
Daenerys’ struggle and potential inability to merge her two desires, the Iron Throne and the comfort of Jon Snow’s love, could lead to her death in the most Shakespearean manner. Most tragic tales in Shakespeare’s catalogue, like King Lear and Hamlet, end in the death of our protagonist due to a series of events created by an internal human conflict.
The conflict for Daenerys is rooted in her desire to be loved and her desire for the Iron Throne. With those two things at odds as the battle begins, will she make a grave mistake? Will her inner turmoil lead to devastating consequences for the fight in Winterfell?
The manner of Daenerys’ potential death is up for debate, but with four episodes of Game of Thrones left, there isn’t much time for drawn-out conflict between herself and Jon. Will one, or both, of our Targaryen protagonists fall? Is Game of Thrones setting us up for this trope only to subvert Shakespearean expectations and have them resolve their conflict in the nick of time?
Regardless of Daenerys’ ultimate tragic fate, the belief that she’s turning into the show’s villain doesn’t take into account the complexity of her position and character arc that led her to that moment in the crypts of Winterfell.
Our hopes aren’t high for her getting a wholly happy ending, but neither does it seem as if we have a Mad Queen on our hands.