In Westeros, your heroes will always disappoint you.
Warning: this article contains major spoilers for Game of Thrones Season 8, Episode 5 “The Bells”!
The penultimate episode of Game of Thrones will almost surely turn out to be one of the most divisive in the series’ history. This episode marked the exact moment where one of the greatest heroes in the entire Game of Thrones saga, Daenerys Targaryen, transformed from liberator to destroyer. When given the chance to spare thousands of innocent civilians from a destructive battle, Dany instead embraced her darkest impulses and burnt King’s Landing to ashes. Dany has made it clear she isn’t the ruler Westeros deserves. That’s a bitter pill to swallow for anyone (fans and GoT characters alike) who’s been a hardcore member of Team Dany for all these years. But that’s exactly what makes it true to the spirit of Game of Thrones in the first place.
There are plenty of qualities that distinguish George R.R. Martin A Song of Ice and Fire books, including their massive cast of characters and rich, intricately plotted mythology. But above all, the books stand out because they offer readers a bleak, nihilistic fantasy universe very much unlike the ones found in classic sagas like The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia. Not only is Westeros a place where good doesn’t always triumph over evil, there barely even exists a distinction between the two. It’s mostly a matter of perspective. And if you’re one of the countless unlucky grunts called on to fight and die for House Lannister or House Stark, none of it really matters much in the end.
One of the core themes of Martin’s books is that people can be terrible when given half a chance. As far removed as the world of Game of Thrones is from our own when it comes to culture, geography and technology, mankind’s propensity for violence and cruelty is all too familiar. Characters in this world commit the most unspeakable crimes simply because they have the power to do so. And sometimes the brightest heroes turn out to be little better than the villains they oppose. Occasionally you do get men like Ned Stark and Jon Snow that try their best to be decent people in an indecent world, but we saw how little that benefited Ned in the end.
That’s a quality the series has sometimes struggled to channel, especially in these last couple seasons as its progressed beyond the point where the books leave off. Without the source material to guide it, HBO’s Game of Thrones has started falling back on more traditional fantasy tropes. The series has become too preoccupied with delivering the sort of fan service-focused moments that used to happen so rarely. Characters are being given satisfying, dramatically appropriate conclusions to their arcs. Villains are being defeated and fallen heroes are being granted redemption. That was never meant to be the point. Game of Thrones was always intended to be one of those stories that doesn’t give fans what they want, but rather what this particular story demands. No one wanted the Red Wedding to happen, but they certainly remember it.
Dany’s fall from grace is exactly the return to form Game of Thrones needed this close to the end. From the beginning, the series has been setting up Dany to be the noble savior Westeros needed to finally bring about an end to countless generations of suffering and oppression. Seeing Dany live up to that responsibility would have been a satisfying and rewarding ending to the series in some respects, but it also wouldn’t have felt true to the nihilistic nature of the source material.
Again, there’s a thin and sometimes nonexistent line between good and evil in this fantasy universe. When given all the power she needed to finally end Cersei’s reign and create something better in its place, Dany instead gave in to her paranoia, fear and hatred. She became exactly the sort of tyrant she wanted to overthrow. Not only did she prove herself to be no better than her father, the Mad King Aerys II, she’s actually worse. Aerys was killed before he realized his plan to burn his kingdom to the ground. Dany did it before she ever even sat on the Iron Throne. There’s no happy, tidy ending to be found here.
There are definitely complaints to be made about the execution of Dany’s character arc this season and the rushed transition from heroic queen to corrupted mass-murderer. Most of that build-up was crammed into these last two episodes rather than allowing Dany’s downfall to unfold over the course of multiple seasons. But to be fair, showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss point out that Dany has always shown traces of cruelty and sadism in the series, noting her reaction to the execution of her brother Viserys as one example. Dany has never shown any compunction about imposing her will on rival cities or burning her enemies alive. Her fiery execution of Randyll and Dickon Tarly alone shows Dany was never as benevolent as she pretended to be.
Regardless of their thoughts on the road to Dany’s downfall, fans should be coming away from this episode hollow and unsatisfied. They put their faith in Dany to be the one source of light and goodness in a terrible world. Now we’re all in Jon Snow’s shoes, wrestling with the realization that the Mother of Dragons is not the divine arbiter of justice she made herself out to be.
That disappointment and disillusionment is the fuel that propels this saga along. And now that we’ve tasted one last, bitter dose before the end, Game of Thrones can finally bring this sweeping saga of not-so-good and not-quite-evil to a close.