A Song of Daenerys Targaryen and Dragon Fire
Understanding Complex Trauma and Why The Dragon Queen’s Story Ends In Ashes
By Chris Gearing and Dr. Sylvia Gearing
Hello, dear reader. First, a quick note – the following blog will contain a whole Clegane’s worth of spoilers from Game of Thrones throughout its entire eight season run including the most recent episode as of this writing, “The Bells” (season 8, episode 5). It may also include descriptions of graphic content and adult language. Please be warned.
Uh oh. She’s mad. As so many pundits, analysts, and haters have recently speculated, Daenerys has finally made her heel turn into full on villain right before the finale of Game of Thrones. In a fit of fire and rage, she decided to burn down the entire city of King’s Landing and the Red Keep atop her final dragon, Drogon. In the moment of her greatest triumph, she has foregone her ascension to Queen of the Seven Realms and instead plummeted to become the prophesied Queen of the Ashes.
However, to understand Daenerys’s descent – we must turn back the clock to understand her entire narrative arc and how all of the events of her life have led her to this moment and this final ruinous choice. Grab a snack because we have a lot of history to review. It’s important, I promise. If you’re completely up to date and remember the important points of her story, feel free to skip ahead.
A Brief History of Daenerys Targaryen
In true psychologist fashion, let’s start by discussing her childhood. Daenerys is barely an infant when she and her brother, Viserys, escape Westeros with their lives. They are barely able to survive as children in a foreign land living in the streets and barely scraping by. Everything she knows, she is told by her brother. He keeps her safe, fed, and alive, and in return she does everything that he asks of her no matter how awful. Speaking of which, when she is “of age” (the author types, silently grimacing in the cold light of his computer screen) her brother sells her to a powerful Khal without her approval or consent to essentially become a sex slave. Why you may ask? Viserys sells her so he can use the Khal’s army to reclaim Westeros and take back the throne for himself. A totally real promise that I’m sure will definitely be honored.
However to everyone’s surprise, Daenerys rises to the occasion. She demands “equality” (to a degree) from her husband and he gives it to her (again, to a degree). She learns the language, cultivates the love and affection of her people, and finds a place in this new world in the loving arms of her new husband. And then the worst thing happens. Khal Drogo is killed by an infection from a minor wound, and dramatic irony rules the day. To make things somehow even worse, her new baby is stillborn and she is told that she is no longer able to have children. She is once again forced into a life of scrounging, fighting, and running for her life.
She rebounds by freeing and leading the Unsullied and liberating the slave city of Meereen. The Dragon Queen is embraced by most of the population of Slaver’s Bay and hailed as a messianic figure with the new title of “breaker of chains.” Soon enough, politics and treachery threaten her rule and her safety. After getting her groove back with another stint with the Dothraki, she leaves Meereen and Daario behind in pursuit of her ultimate goal in Westeros.
A fresh start in a new land (“this time, it’ll be different!”), she quickly gains prestige and prominence with many power players of Westeros including a new suitor, Jon Snow. After multiple rounds of negotiations and flirting in caves full of dragon glass, the dragon queen falls hard for Jon Snow. She is so distressed by his suicide mission to retrieve a Wight north of The Wall for Cersei and the lords of Westeros to see, she flies her precious dragons into extreme danger and loses one of them in the ensuing clash with the Night King. She made herself vulnerable and lost one of her children in pursuit of protecting and rescuing Jon.
At the Battle of Winterfell, she loses another of her dearest friends and advisors, Ser Jorah. He sacrificed himself to save her as a final act of love and devotion. Even after defeating the army of the dead, Dany is withdrawn and upset with Jon’s recent disclosure that he is actually a Targaryen and has the most legitimate claim to the Iron Throne. Daenerys is a student of history, politics, and people, and she knows that these facts will take on a life of their own and end up destroying their relationship and her dreams. She takes his hand and says in one last desperate plea, “I’ve never begged for anything, but I’m begging you. Don’t do this. Please.” When he gives her an ambiguous response about how they can all learn to live together, she is obviously hurt and betrayed as she knows what he will inevitably do next. When she travels to Dragonstone to begin her siege of King’s Landing, she loses another one of her dragons to an ambush by the Iron Fleet (they were hidden behind some rocks, don’t worry about it).
That about catches us up.
Complex Trauma and Bad Decisions
You’ve likely heard of trauma and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), but psychologists have recently recognized a new form of trauma called Complex Trauma. Complex Trauma is when someone experiences trauma regularly and repeatedly over the course of their entire life. It’s extremely common when someone is severely traumatized as a child. Layer after layer, experience after experience their minds and belief systems are shaped by the ongoing assaults on their physical, emotional, and mental wellbeing.
Survivors of Complex Trauma share many of the same psychological struggles. Many complex trauma survivors narrow their lives to reduce any risk or vulnerability. They are focused solely on surviving any emotional storms. They often focus on achievements to define themselves, and they are often quite successful since they channel all of their energy into one goal. Survivors are often exquisitely sensitive to the thoughts and feelings of others and can easily understand the politics of any situation. Many times, these skills are the only reasons they survived their trauma. When they are triggered, they can experience their emotions intensely and rapidly (e.g., going from “zero to sixty” in seconds). This phenomenon can be very confusing and upsetting to them since they avoid or strictly control their emotions as much as they can. They tend to live with very rigid world views or interpret actions and events by a narrow set of rules. When they are overrun with emotion, they can badly misinterpret and overreact to events and people around them, and their subsequent emotional reactions aren’t effective as a result.
To truly understand Complex Trauma, you must understand that it is fundamentally motivated by a deep feeling of powerlessness and immobilization. When traumatized people are truly triggered, they often get “stuck” psychologically. They lived by the beliefs and rules that enabled them to survive, even if those beliefs and rules no longer apply. In an effort to maintain their sense of safety, they may isolate themselves and avoid anything that makes them anxious (particularly relationships) while swirling with pessimistic and negative thoughts. They explain recent events in a pervasively negative way and view everything through the lens of their trauma and crippling fear. A major loss or wound when they are vulnerable (especially when it is interpersonal) could easily send them into a spiral with tragic consequences. To regain a sense of control, they may act out and choose destructive behaviors both towards themselves and others.
“I Don’t Have Love Here, I Only Have Fear”
The last few weeks have been some of the worst and most upsetting of Daenerys’s life. She has lost two of her three dragons – her main symbols of her empowerment, safety, and control and the closest thing she has to children. She has lost two of her closest friends and advisors with the death of Ser Jorah at Winterfell and the execution of Missandei by Cersei. She suspects that her remaining advisors are beginning to turn on her, and she knows that her relationship with Jon Snow is in serious trouble following his refusal to keep a very important secret. She feels that the entirety of Westeros has rejected her, and they will certainly want Jon to rule on the Iron Throne and push her aside.
As we arrive at Dragonstone, Daenerys has isolated herself, ignores the advice of her counselors, and even refuses food. When traumatized people are truly terrified, this is exactly what they do. Dany is right on the edge, and then Tyrion strolls in to inform her that one of her top advisors has betrayed her. However, she already knew she has been betrayed. Her heart is actually broken at the root betrayal of Jon Snow which has now led to the betrayal of Varys. She laments her current situation and privately says to Jon, “I don’t have love here, I only have fear.” Intentionally or unintentionally, she was also revealing how afraid she is that she is about to lose everything once again. In a final plea, one last bid for Jon’s affection and an attempt to repair their relationship, she makes a pass at reconnecting physically and emotionally with Jon. However, his polite refusal is the last straw. As this final injury settles in, she says to him, “All right then. Let it be fear.” She has made her decision.
Daenerys is an excellent example of how trauma plays out in the real world, even in the most powerful and successful of lives. Obviously, she has experienced regular and repeated traumas over the course of her entire life. She’s been fighting for her survival since she was a child, and every time she begins to feel safe, understood, and loved – she loses everything. At least, she experiences it that way. She’s always betrayed, disappointed, or loses those she trusts and loves the most. Her sense of safety and agency over her own life is regularly threatened. She is a classic example of Complex Trauma, and it has led her to make a terrible decision during the siege of King’s Landing.
Fire, Fury, and Dissociation
This is it. The moment of her greatest triumph. She has destroyed the defenses of King’s Landing and sits upon Drogon while the bells of the city signal surrender. She takes a moment and stares at the Red Keep in the distance. The Iron Throne, the symbol of everything that was stolen from her and her family, is within grasp. Anyone would be feeling a lot of intense emotions at this victory. However Dany is so overcome by the moment and feelings of rejection and betrayal, she decides to refuse the surrender of the city. Instead, she returns to the sky and burns the entire city to the ground killing tens of thousands of soldiers and innocent civilians in the process. She lashes out and tears down the remaining symbols of her rejection and lifelong pain.
Her emotional mind has overridden any vestiges of logic or mercy. Her negative thinking now frames her understanding of all of the events in her life including this moment. Surrender is no longer good enough. Everyone must burn. Her emotions took full control of her mind caused her to act impulsively and violently. This doesn’t further her goals. It is only pure destruction. The momentary positive feeling of destroying her enemies and the symbols of her rejection in Westeros restores her sense of empowerment and control. She has given up on her higher aspirations and has downshifted into a secondary set of emotions that have kept her alive and in power – fear, paranoia, and rage. This is exactly how many people experience the effects of severe trauma in their own lives. Dany is a trauma survivor, first and foremost. As the writers later confirmed, Dany made this decision in the moment. This one decision will likely define her.
The one-two punch of Jon’s rejection of her love when she was emotional vulnerable coupled with the resistance and seeming rejection of her by Westeros and King’s Landing likely put her into a dissociative episode. She lost touch with reality and was making decisions purely based on emotion and what felt good in the moment. Interpersonal relationships are already difficult for trauma survivors, but Jon was the first person she had truly chosen as a partner and actually made herself vulnerable to him. She begged him. The Dragon Queen doesn’t beg. She had gone “all in” on their relationship, but she needed one thing from him. His betrayal and rejection truly broke her heart and sent her spiraling. She has to reestablish control in some way, and she chose to do so by destroying an entire city and the one thing she has wanted her entire life, the Iron Throne.
In a single moment, she shifts from Queen of the Seven Kingdoms to the Queen of the Ashes.
All right then. Let it be fear.Back to Blog