Why Daenerys Targaryen Became A Tyrant
By Chris Gearing and Dr. Sylvia Gearing
Hail and well met, dear reader. The following contains spoilers for all of Game of Thrones including “The Iron Throne” (the series finale, season 8 episode 6). You have been warned.
However you may be feeling about the finale of Game of Thrones (Bran has the best story?? For real?!), virtually everything being said, written, or tweeted focuses on the tragic descent of our Khaleesi, Daenerys Targaryen. Recently, we discussed Complex Trauma and how that shaped her character and her ultimate choice to incinerate King’s Landing and all of its citizens. However, the scene that stood out in the finale is the final conversation between Jon and Dany. Having left a rather upsetting conversation with Tyrion, Jon is giving Daenerys one last chance to change his mind about her. He’s virtually pleading with her; give me something, anything to convince me that you’re not turning into a bloodthirsty tyrant. Question after question, Dany doubled down on her point of view.
Jon fulfills his oath to protect the realms of men one last time even though his duty leads to the death of his love. But how did we get here? Daenerys was a legitimate liberator and hero for 99% of the show. How did she end up becoming a mass murderer of innocent townsfolk in the final minutes? The weird thing is… it actually tracks psychologically. Before you break out your torches and pitchforks, hear us out. If you look at the show as a whole and view her as a person and not a story arc or wish fulfillment machine, Daenerys’s story can demonstrate how anyone can become the villain. Putting aside any narrative issues with Game of Thrones, Daenerys’s path is one we regularly see with survivors of severe trauma and particularly childhood trauma.
A Coherent Sense of Self
Once again, let’s start in true therapist fashion and return to Dany’s childhood for a minute. From a young age, Daenerys is forced to fight for her survival. Every day is a life and death struggle and the best person she has in her life is Viserys who is… not great. However when you’re in constant chaos and danger as a child (whatever form that may take), you lose out on the normal steps of childhood development. Childhood is a time for experimentation and consolidation of your personal story for the first phase of your life. We define ourselves by our experiences and things like our talents, our deepest interests, challenges we’ve overcome, relationships with others, what popular entertainment we like, how we like to dress, feedback from adults and peers, and more. All of these experiences and relationships converge with physical and neurological development into the first draft of the story of our lives.
While that may sound like common sense, it’s fundamental to understand what comes next. As we grow and have new challenges and experiences, we reference this internal definition of who we are to decide how to behave and what kinds of decisions to make. Our sense of self is the prism through which we view every event in our lives. Are we a good person or a bad person? Am I lovable? Maybe at least likeable? Who are my heroes and why? How would they act? Am I weak or am I strong? By answering questions like these and dozens more, we hold ourselves to a personal standard of who we are, how we should act, and who we want to be. Having a well-defined sense of self prepares us to face the challenges and difficult decisions of adulthood. This is one reason why adolescence can be so difficult – it’s the first time where we have some amount of independence and agency and our ideals and beliefs are being challenged by those around us. With a well-defined sense of self, we are able to make decisions based on our internal code instead of letting other people define who we are or how we behave.
However, if you skip these steps and don’t define who you are during the normal steps of childhood, you lack an internal compass for decision making as an adult. Instead, you make decisions by popular opinion and how external sources react to and view you. People like this tend to become over reliant on their environment to define who they are and how they feel about themselves. In order to define themselves in a confusing and frightening world, they often focus solely on achievement and external accomplishments. External praise is the only way I can feel good about myself instead of finding peace internally by grading my decisions against what I think and feel is right.
Now, everyone wants to succeed and at least partially define themselves by their accomplishments. However, this is on a whole other level. For those without an internal sense of self, accomplishment isn’t just an important thing in their lives – it is the ONLY thing. They will do anything to succeed and keep external praise rolling in to keep themselves afloat mentally. Since winning is their sole purpose, they are usually pretty good at it and are willing to do anything to accomplish their goals. Yes, anything. The only way they can feel good about themselves is by winning. When the praise and accolades stop or slow down, they begin to feel anxious and search for a new source of accomplishment. Nothing is ever enough. They must always climb the next mountain, defeat another opponent, and conquer another land. Even if it isn’t the “right” thing to do, they crave the sense of power and agency. Establishing a sense of control is everything, even if they have to set fire to the world.
This is the part where I do my impression of Michael Caine in The Dark Knight saying “Some men just want to watch the world burn.”
Daenerys The Conqueror
Due to her severe trauma and struggle to survive as a child, Daenerys likely skipped developing a sense of herself during her childhood. Before she marries Khal Drogo, her brother is in complete control of her. He is her sole source for how she feels about herself, how she behaves, what she thinks is good and right, and more. Once she becomes the Khaleesi, she discovers an entire community that embraces, loves, and defends her. When she frees the Unsullied and the slaves of Essos, she is hailed as a liberator and worshipped as a messianic figure. She’s on top of the world as the liberated masses call her “mhysa” which translates to “mother.” What a stunning transformation in such a short time. It would be difficult to not believe the hand of fate is involved.
However, she finds much less success ruling over Meereen. Governing is a lot less fun than conquering. Daenerys obviously prefers situations where “black and white thinking” is encouraged – slavers are bad, so if I’m killing slavers then I must be good, etc. Governance is a deep and dirty mix of gray situations where very few people are completely right or wrong. She struggles for the first time in years, and she begins to lose her way and her sense of empowerment while political schemes and dissension spread through the city like wildfire. Her usual tactics of taking no prisoners and killing anyone who resists isn’t working like it used to. So, what does she do? She leaves. She climbs on the back of her dragon and flies away. She had not experienced a win in a long time and she was losing the love of her people, so she walks away. Daenerys soon gets her groove back when she kills the Dothraki Khals and absorbs the newly conquered Dothraki tribes into her massive army. She remembers that her ultimate goal is the reclamation of the Iron Throne in Westeros. Why is she wasting time trying to govern this one city when her destiny lies across the Narrow Sea? She makes a few deals and new political allies, and she decides to immediately sail away to conquer a new land. See a pattern developing?
As soon as she hits the shore, she demands loyalty from the lords of Westeros and an intriguing new suitor named Jon Snow. The only thing that matters is that they “bend the knee” and accept her as their new ruler immediately. Jon holds out for a while and advocates an independent North until he finally gives in when she pledges her help to fight the Night King and looming army of the dead.
She loses more dear friends and allies in the battle with the Night King, and she is also told by Jon that he actually has a better claim to the throne than her (also btw, he’s her nephew). She also loses two dragons along the road to King’s Landing. Most of her friends and allies are dead, disappointing, or plotting against her. She feels that she is about to become the conquered instead of the conqueror. Increasingly isolated and on edge, Daenerys is obviously losing her grip on the sense of control and safety she so desperately needs. So, she totally turns it around and figures out a way to make everyone happy, right? Nope, she destroys every last bit of King’s Landing and everyone who was in it during the battle.
Embracing The Flame
In a rare moment of clarity for Game of Thrones, Tyrion explicitly spells out Daenerys’ psychological development across the series when he is trying to persuade Jon Snow to assassinate her in the finale:
“When she murdered the slavers of Astapor, I’m sure no one but the slavers complained. After all, they were evil men. When she crucified hundreds of Meereenese nobles, who could argue? They were evil men. The Dothraki Khals she burned alive? They would have done worse to her. Everywhere she goes, evil men die and we cheer her for it. And she grows more powerful and more sure that she is good and right. She believes her destiny is to build a better world for everyone. If you believed that… if you truly believed it, wouldn’t you kill whoever stood between you and paradise?”
See? Even season 8 Tyrion gets it, and he can barely tie his shoes at this point.
Daenerys is not in a good head space before the battle of King’s Landing. Somewhere between burning an entire fleet, destroying the Golden Company in a few seconds, and scaring everyone in King’s Landing to death, everyone in King’s Landing throws down their weapons and begins to ring the bells of the city to signify surrender. But it’s not enough. Dany has lost too much, killed too many, and her mind is too overwhelmed with surging emotions to accept their surrender. Everyone must go. Everything must burn.
What is critical to understand this choice is how compromised Daenerys was before the battle. She felt far too vulnerable as the dragon queen, so she decided to remind everyone who is in charge. Her rage fueled destruction of the capital was her fastest route to reestablish control and a sense of safety in an increasingly complex and isolated world. As Tyrion observed above, she also believes that if you stand against her, then you must be evil and deserve a painful death. Anyone who was present in the city must have stood with Cersei, so they all deserved to die in her mind.
Since she has felt so powerless recently, the destruction of the city makes her feel like she is back in control. You can see it in her changed attitude when she addresses her troops. She is no longer the doubtful, paranoid Dany at Storm’s End trying to figure out a way to make everyone like her again. She has become the dragon and embraced Fire and Blood as the way to further her control over Westeros. In fact, the Iron Throne and the Seven Kingdoms are no longer enough. During her speech, she states her intentions to begin her campaign to conquer everyone and everything in the world. If they don’t bend the knee, they burn. Based on the events of that day, it’s not a stretch to say that King’s Landing will probably not be the last city she burns to the ground with all of its citizens trapped inside.
This abuse of power and wanton destruction obviously reinvigorates Dany. Her army cheers her on as she tells them that they are going to conquer the entire world! We’re going to cleanse the world of all evil people together! Anyone who stands against us is evil and deserves to die! She’s essentially playing the hits of the “Tyranny For Dummies” handbook. All of these external factors – the assertion of her power in an act of destruction, the cheering armies hungry for the next war, the achievement of all of her goals in reclaiming the Iron Throne – reinforce Daenerys down her dark path into true villainy. She is embracing the darkness because it feels good and all of these people love it! Whatever she thinks and feels must be right, and anyone who says no must be evil and should die.
Jon Snow struck her down to protect humanity from the Mother of Dragons turned Mad Queen. The queen is dead, long live the queen.Back to Blog