Episode 5 of the final season of Game of Thrones showed us a vengeful fallen angle, Daenerys Targaryen, after whom thousands of children in the real world have been named. Even though her enemies had been defeated and surrendered, she nevertheless used her massive weapon, a fire-spewing dragon, to kill hundreds of thousands of civilians. We get to experience this from the point of view of the victims who are incinerated: men, women, and children.
I see this episode as the crowning moment of George Martin’s career. He wrote the books and scenarios on which the tv-series is based. He has shown us and told us about the cruel side of humanity time and time again, but many of us did not take this personally. To worm his way into our minds, he gave us a heroine who overcame sexual abuse and umpteenth set-backs to become a powerful ruler who did many good things.
Daenerys liberated the slaves of an entire region. She helped defeat an army of ice zombies who otherwise would have killed everyone on the continent of Westeros and turned it into a zombie wasteland, thus saving all the generations to come. She hence saved hundreds of millions of lives, losing many of her best friends and allies in the process, risks she knowingly took. Those are good deeds of the highest order. She was and to some extent will remain, on balance, a heroine.
But throughout her on-screen struggles these last 10 years she was ruthless, not blinking an eye when her brother was killed by having molten gold poured over him, crucifying hundreds of ‘slave masters’ as punishment for their actions. The noble side of her character was fanned by adulation of freed slaves and warm relationships with her closest friends, Melisandre and Jorah. Their influence tempered her continuous preparedness to use her children, three fully grown fire-spewing dragons, to lay waste to the bastions of her enemies.
When her closest friends died, two of her dragons were killed, and her role in saving the whole of humanity on Westeros did not bring her the adulation and love she so desired, Daenerys did exactly what she had promised to do and was foretold to do in all previous seasons. She broke the game of power in Westeros and turned its biggest city to ashes. She did it partly out of revenge, partly in order to instill fear and thus loyalty, and partly out of a ruthless bloodlust that ran in her family and in herself.
Letting us, the audience, get so close to Daenerys and all her emotional ups and downs throughout the years, has made many of us feel we have partly done all the good things she did. George RR Martin trapped us in her story by letting us see her develop and gain what we also crave: connection, appreciation, redemption, love, lust, and, above all, power. Many of us excused her excesses and coldness, ignoring all the warnings and prophesies, not because we did not recognise this potential in her or even ourselves, but because she was the symbol of how we want to see ourselves. We were made to trust that she would never give in to seeing everyone as expendable in her drive to rule.
Now George RR Martin has sprung his trap and confronted us with what I think he believes is the truth about humanity: in our desire for power we are prepared to do anything to anyone. All the rationalisations and moralising about who we are and why we do things ultimately will make way for our drive to power when the opportunity for power comes. Power blinds us and, particularly when the drive to it costs us emotionally, it estranges us from others and makes us do things we initially never imagine we would be capable of.
It is this shattering of the image of ourselves that is so unsettling. We are made to realise who was always behind the mirror.
There has been mass disappointment among fans. In their bewilderment at being told that this is not merely how their hero is, but how they themselves all are, they go through the phases of grief: denial, anger, bargaining. Continue reading