Madness in literature and film is a powerful and gripping theme at the center of many classic tragic stories. The psychology of anti-heroes moving towards their seemingly inevitable downfall raises deep questions over our minds’ capacity for self-destruction. Daenerys Targaryen from Game of Thrones very much follows this character arc in her transformation from a just and lovable Khaleesi into the Mad Queen. The burning of King’s Landing in Season 8 Episode 5 had all the ingredients to fulfil a descent into madness worthy of Shakespearian plays. While shocking, Dany’s turn nevertheless failed to hit the mark and did not have the emotional impact an event 8 years in the making should have had. While fans have had many gripes with the hit series’ last outing, there are small changes that could have been made to offer a more compelling and meaningful resolution for the Mother of Dragons.
Prophecy and Destiny
Daenerys’ fate had been coming, if you were paying attention. The ruthlessness — and pyromaniac tendencies — she displayed against enemies throughout the show were only matched by her repeated desire to avoid the sins of her father. In her failed struggle against determinism, Daenerys’ story follows a classic tragic archetype. Like Macbeth or Oedipus, she fought to avoid a path that had been set for her in prophecy. But like Anakin Skywalker, she could not escape her destiny and “became the very thing she sought to destroy”. All these characters share an internal chaos, which they translated into a lethal external one that ultimately led to their demise.
Where GoT succeeded in planting the seeds for a destructive destiny, it is in building up Daenarys’ final inner turmoil that the show fell short. Despite her taste for fire and retribution, Dany was consistently portrayed as a stubbornly just ruler who was deeply sensitive to protecting the weak. The desire to turn the tables on the rulers and the ruled - “to break the wheel” - is at the core of her person. The burning of innocent townsfolk, including children, was therefore a sudden and confounding departure in character from the “Breaker of Chains”. Her state of loneliness and the deaths of her beloved Rhaegal and Missandei as they are shown are not enough to justify such a mistargeted and out of place reaction.
The Ones She Had Lost
As many have already pointed out, the latest season in the series has suffered from uneven pacing and could have benefited from having more than just 6 episodes to work with. Still, there are a few minor changes in the current plot that could have done the trick. I am no screenwriter but here’s what I propose:
- Albeit badly hurt while protecting Dany, Jorah Mormont survives the Battle of Winterfell.
- Slowed down by his injuries, he is captured alongside Missandei by Cersei.
- They are both brought to the “peace negotiations” with Daenerys’ side, but importantly, the King’s Landing mob is present and revelling at the sight of these captured invaders. As it did during Ned Stark’s beheading, the crowd is delighted in anticipation of a public execution.
- Tyrion’s speech is cut off by the Mountain obeying Cersei’s sudden command to decapitate Missandei. Dany’s silent shock is contrasted by the crowd’s raucous cheers. Daenerys moves forward to threaten Cersei, in her familiar tone, only to be replied with “Ser Gregor, now the other one”. While Dany can only look in horror, Jorah is calm and smiling at his Queen, as if to say that “everything will be OK”. He too dies under the applause.
- The battle of King’s Landing can now unfold as it did in Episode 5. The moment where Daenerys loses control is already played brilliantly by Emilia Clarke but now takes an entirely new dimension. As Drogon is perched on the walls where Jorah spent his last moments, Daenerys relives that trauma with the city’s cries echoing in her head.
Madness and Guilt
Having the capital’s inhabitants present during Missandei’s and Jorah’s executions is not only a no-brainer way to explain Dany’s resentment towards them, it would have also been pertinent to the larger themes of the show. Ever since Ned Stark’s death in the first season, King’s Landing has repeatedly been shown in a state of decadence with its people left to rot by ruling tyrants. As they do in ours, all civilisations reach their tipping point in the World of Ice and Fire (i.e. the Doom of Valyria). It would have been fitting for the series to come full circle and for the execution of another loyal Northman to be the final act that leads to the fall of King’s Landing.
Jorah’s reimagined death under Cersei’s orders not only works as an impactful finishing blow for Dany’s mind, it also creates a cathartic conclusion to his otherwise unfulfilling journey. While sad, the end to his story as it was shown - i.e. killed by the undead in Winterfell - did not serve a real narrative purpose and seemed somewhat offbeat. Jorah is nothing if not the personification of unconditional love and support for Daenerys. He travelled continents, became a gladiator, and even came back from the dead (contracting greyscale) for her. A brutal and unjust death would only have been more deeply felt by Daenerys and the viewers because of the incredible lengths he has gone to be by his Queen’s side. There is no bigger “last straw” that could have pushed Dany’s mind over the cliffs of sanity.
The show as it is seems satisfied to explain Dany’s actions based on a desire for vengeance. That is not enough. Other works of fiction have been much more convincing in portraying madness by also incorporating the protagonist’s sense of responsibility towards their own hardship. I already mentioned Macbeth for example in which guilt is a key theme, slowly eating away at the main character. The same goes for King Lear whose madness is not only caused by the cruel actions of his daughters, but also from the remorse he feels over his own errors. Daenerys had her own King Lear moments. Just as Lear disowned his only honest daughter Cordelia, Dany banished Jorah (twice!) long after his loyalty was no longer in question. Despite the rejections, he continued to prove his willingness to sacrifice himself for her.
Dany therefore had grounds to feel guilty that she not only could not protect Jorah in return, but also that she indirectly had a hand in his death. Instead, she tells Jon in Episode 4: “I couldn’t love him back, not the way he wanted, not the way I love you.”…That doesn’t sound like remorse to me. I can think of two films that better illustrate how it is also the guilt a character feels over a loved one’s murder, and not just their loss, that helps justify their subsequent acts of madness:
- Se7en (1995) - David Fincher
- The Dark Knight (2008) - Christopher Nolan
Game of Thrones missed out on a great opportunity for the poignant final chapter it was after. Nevertheless, there may have been deciptively little to change to address most of the larger issues in the conclusion to Daenerys Targaryen’s story. The ingredients were there but a closer look at the psychology of madness in previous works could have helped to better blend them together.