How our interpretations of villainy reveal something about ourselves
I love when my favorite entertainment also gets me to think. Like great literature, poetry, and mythology, great entertainment is like a supersaturated solution full of potential meanings. It absorbs, integrates, and reflects back humanity’s deepest longings, fears, and ideas.
If you’re like me, the past nine years of Game of Thrones has been a rich experience of watching, rewatching, discussing, considering, and debating all manner of perspectives generated by “watching buddies” and the cottage industry of GoT Fandom across the interwebs.
Here I’ll be zooming way in for a close-up on one of the most pivotal moments in the entire series, and invite you to use it as a personality test.
Before I jump in, here’s your obligatory SPOILER WARNING for Game of Thrones, “The Bells” Season 8, Episode 5.
The choice Daenerys makes in this episode carried the most devastating consequences of any decision made by any character to date — not only in sheer body-count and destruction of property but in broken hearts for most, if not all, fans on “Team Dany”. It’s her choice to become the Mad Queen around which my entire exploration revolves.
Since watching this episode twice, I’ve been wrestling with understanding her motivation. There has been much debate this week as to whether this choice was earned (or if it was just poor screenwriting). Sure, it was foreshadowed aplenty arguably as far back as season one. Litanies of evidence spanning all seven seasons have been amassed, which you can read elsewhere.
The intimations of the Mad Queen leading up to “The Bells” were so not-subtle, I wondered if it would amount to nothing more than a feint despite our fandom’s years-long theorizing to the contrary in certain quarters.
Alas, she did turn. But was it a turn toward madness? To be sure, she turned to the dark side. Here’s the question that compels me — does she break bad by succumbing to madness or is it from an inexorable calculation in service of a greater good?
Does she break bad by succumbing to madness or is it from an inexorable calculation in service of a greater good?
It comes down to what you believe is going on in her mind in those crucial moments just after the bells of King’s Landing peel their signal of surrender to the queen invader, sitting atop her most faithful and powerful dragon, perched on a city wall.
On my first viewing, she appeared to give into rage. The enemy had surrendered. The victory was in her grasp. Yet some mix of highly combustible feelings caused her to snap and go berserker. Recent events had piled on her so much pain, loss, and betrayal, she broke.
In her moment of triumph, she looks toward the Red Keep and feels the Iron Throne slipping from her grasp. Her bid for the throne will ultimately be foiled once the Lords, Ladies (looking at you Sansa), and peoples of greater Westeros throw their support behind Jon’s more legitimate claim. Terrible devastation at her command seems the only way. She loses her mind in a fit of anger.
In a breathtaking sequence of facial expressions from Emilia Clarke, I saw a victory morph into the rage of a madwoman, afraid of losing everything she’d relentlessly pursued her entire life. At that moment, her lust for power and the restoration of her family’s dynasty won out over her aspirations to be a liberator of the oppressed. She gave into her meanest impulses.
I felt shocked, horrified, even betrayed by the mother of dragons, breaker of chains. That day she became the queen of the ashes, destroyer of cities, and mother of war-crimes.
How could she?!
On my second viewing, I saw something very different in her face. It’s as though she was choosing something awful that she must do, in spite of her better impulses.
If so, why must she?
This entails a different reckoning of the events leading to this moment.
In the days on Dragonstone leading to her final offensive, I saw things play out with a different emphasis. She stopped eating. She suspected someone was trying to poison her. Indeed, Varys was. He says to Martha, “We’ll try again at supper.”
When Tyrion comes to her, she asserts, “Someone has betrayed me… Jon Snow.” Tyrion protests, “Varys.” She spells out with perfect accuracy the pathway knowledge of Jon’s parentage took to Varys’s ears. At this moment, Tyrion remained the Queen’s Hand, even as she withdrew her trust in him as an advisor for his role the secret’s spread. Only Grey Worm remained in her inner circle.
She told Jon back at Winterfell how they could be together. Her predictions of what would happen if he failed to keep the secret turned out to be correct. She knew the information would be used against her by Sansa. Jon would refuse the throne. To her mind, this would ensure Westeros would remain divided in spite of Cersei’s defeat. Dany would fail in her mission to bring lasting peace.
She reminds him of this when he visits her once more. “Let it be fear, then” she concludes. Was this the moment she decided to torch King’s Landing? Maybe.
I rewatched the previous episode. Every bit of dialogue around Aegon’s painted table on Dragonstone in the wake of Rhaegal’s death sounds very different in light of her turn in “The Bells.” Acquiescing to Tyrion’s request to deliver terms to Cersei, she said, “They should know whom to blame when the sky falls down upon them.” It sounds like she’s openly considering the nuclear option though Missandei had yet to be murdered.
Varys soon hatches his poisoning plan. In parallel, Tyrion comes up with his ‘bells’ plan. They’re both scheming to prevent her planned annihilation of the city. Tyrion makes a final plea, “Please if you hear them ringing the bells, call off the attack,” to which she merely nods to Grey Worm. Is this approval? Or is she playing for appearances?
Through this lens, in that final pre-apocalyptic moment, she’s not going mad, snapping into a fit of rage. She is choosing the only path remaining to secure her position as the liberator of Greater Westeros and generations to come. It isn’t her lust for power that wins over her dreams of liberation. She was being consistent with her commitment to become the liberator.
On second viewing, just before Drogon took flight to rain down fire, I saw something different in her face — a stern look of determination. And just before that, a sob of heartbreak. Perhaps this was one final reconsideration. Would she go through with it? However premeditated, she still had to pull the trigger. It was as though she was thinking — I don’t want to do this, but I must.
It turned out to be too little too late. Her situational assessment remained unchanged, just as she had anticipated. No summation of decisive military victory and peaceful surrender could counter the inexorable sequence of events which would doom Westeros to years more of Wars for the Iron Throne. Only annihilation now would secure the peace later.
You could debate the legitimacy of her rationale, but her logic is worth considering.
She’s convinced that the good of many yet to be born under her reign is worth the sacrifice of the citizens of King’s Landing today. A horrific trade-off. She cites this calculus to Tyrion back on Dragonstone, “Mercy is our strength. Our mercy toward future generations who will never be held hostage by a tyrant.”
Nobody else is willing or able to pay this price. Only she can. Only she will. It might sound crazy to mere mortals like you or me, but to her, this terrible mercy sounds like destiny. It’s who she was born to become.
This was the utilitarian logic of the United States military that brought nuclear doom to Nagasaki and Hiroshima. The body count was comparable. Debates over the ethics, and if it saved more lives than would have otherwise been lost, continue, as do the peaceful relations between Japan and the United States in the days since. I’m not weighing in on either side of that debate, I’m just pointing out this real-world analog of Dany’s Choice in “The Bells.”
Argumentation over fictional events can be fun. I made an extra effort on this second interpretation because it’s a little harder to perceive or to believe. Even D.B. Weiss said in Inside the Episode, “I don’t think she decided ahead of time.”
Others join me in rejecting Weiss’s take, like Aaron Bady who writes “Daenerys Was Right!” for the Los Angeles Review of Books, as does military strategies Robert Farley in for Slate, “The Strategic Case for Burning King’s Landing”.
Megan Garber offers her thoughts on “whether Dany acted out of a lost mind or a cruelly sharp one” in her article for The Atlantic “The Only Thing Worse Than a ‘Mad’ Daenerys.” Garber writes —
“Maybe her decision is the result of madness … or maybe … [she] has answered a Westerosi version of the trolley problem, deciding that some innocents must die in the present so that many more can live peacefully in the future.“
These lines of debate often wind around themselves, as we argue from confirmation bias to rationalize something that turns out to be more about ourselves, than about any facts (whatever that even could mean) about a fictional tale.
Truth is, events of the final episode could demolish either interpretation or both. This could render these arguments here somewhat moot. We shall see.
Right now, before the final episode, our interpretation serves as a convenient personality test.
I like a complex villain. I like to wrap my mind around their motivations to sense somewhere deep inside is a part of me just like them, even if it feels hard to admit. These psychological overlays on our fictions explain their appeal. They refract the colors of human nature, amplify them, and reflect each back to us one character at a time. Villains put us in contact with the more nefarious aspects of our own psyches.
What makes Dany’s choice in “The Bells” so interesting is that there are two distinct shades of villainy she may be reflecting back to us depending on how you interpret her motivation. Let’s think of them in the Targaryen colors. In red, Daenerys the Vengeful, and in black, Daenerys the Cruel.
So here’s your personality test
If Danearys the Vengeful, the “Mad Queen”, is your queen, then you prefer to think she snapped, lost her mind, and flew into a genocidal rage in a moment of desperation born of loss and betrayal.
Sometimes we lose it. Something comes over us. We can lose control and throw a tantrum. We become possessed. We get angry. We behave rashly. We rage. We see red. We want retribution. We raise our voices and make loud noises. Maybe we throw things. We say spiteful things we’ll later regret, hurting each other’s feelings. We may resort to physical violence in our most desperate moments. Maybe you’re not like this, but wish you could be sometimes. Or perhaps you feel like if you don’t maintain careful control of your faculties, you would be.
If Danearys the Cruel is your queen, you prefer to think she’s doing what she believes she must even if she hates herself for having to do it.
We may face a terrible choice — between something bad and something worse. Our choice will hurt people one way or the other, but we cannot avoid having to make it. People may think we’re cruel or sociopathic. Instead of fiery rage, we feel black, cold, or numb inside. Or we seek solace in finding ways to believe our choice was just and right given the circumstances. Maybe we’ll end up hating ourselves, forever second-guessing. Perhaps facing this kind of decision feels too terrible to contemplate.
This dichotomy came from conversations I had with friends as we debated how to interpret Daenerys’s motivations. Though I don’t approve of her actions, I find Daenerys the Cruel to be more sympathetic and understandable. She seems both more respectable as well as more tragic to me. My heart breaks for her. She’s easier for me to love than Daenerys the Vengeful. Also, I think this serves as the motivated reasoning that has me believe this is the more accurate interpretation of what we have seen on-screen.
Amongst these friends, I’ve found some prefer Daenerys the Vengeful. For them is it’s easier to sympathize with someone who is lashing out in a moment of weakness and pain. The idea that she would be carrying out her plan according to her final available option is far more distasteful.
Our stories, at their best, bring us into more intimate contact with ourselves. They aid us in fulfilling the timeless maxim, temet nosce — “know thyself”.
Which Dany do you prefer?
One or the other version of Dany will likely be more compelling, interesting, and sympathetic. Nothing will justify her choice as a good one, but one will seem more understandable than the other. In your preference, you may see something new about yourself.