Even in the savage midst of war, as swords swing violently through the air and blood sprays from wounds where limbs used to be, there's one way no soldier wishes to die: by being burned alive. Being engulfed in a wave of fire is one of the most gruesome ways for anyone to die, a horror to avoid within a sea of horror. For Game of Thrones's Daenerys Targaryen, fire is her ultimate tool, her three dragons capable of making even the bravest combatant tremble and bend the knee.
Spoilers warning for Game of Thrones Season 7, Episode 5.
Up until recently, most of Daenerys's success came from the mere threat of her trio of fire-breathing dragons causing chaos. But over the past two episodes of Game of Thrones, that's changed; first, Daenerys flew over the Roseroad on the back of Drogon and ruthlessly decimated a number of Lannister soldiers. Then, in the opening scene of "Eastwatch," she carried out her most gruesome act of violence to date by burning Lord Randyll Tarly and his son, Dickon Tarly, after they refused to join her army.
The former event is just about excusable as an act of war, while the latter is cold, calculated and rationally executed. Regardless of the motivation, it's hard to avoid the impulse to turn away watching victims die in such excruciating agony. Further still, these actions have led some to believe that Daenerys has made the switch to Mad Queen, that as the maniacal daughter of the Mad King, Aerys Targaryen, it's in her DNA to burn her enemies without a hint of remorse. But are Daenerys's acts of violence a sign she has made the switch to murderous villain? Or is there more depth to why she's has decided to kill in this manner?
A Brief History Of Daenerys Targaryen And Violence
One thing that has always set Daenerys apart in the Great Game is her sound moral viewpoint. As a rightful heir to the Iron Throne, her intent to rule the Seven Kingdoms has always been strong, but her desire to do so in the right way is stronger. It's this viewpoint that has won her the backing of an eclectic mix of some of The Known World's key characters, including Tyrion Lannister and Lord Varys.
However, it'd be misguided to think she's only just begun to use violence as a means for her to achieve her mission. The Mother of Dragons identified early on that often, imposing a physical threat is the only way to gain an advantage. Way back in Game of Thrones Season 2, she locks Qarth merchant Xaro Xhoan and his lover Doreah in a treasure vault, leaving them to die. After being held captive in the House of the Undying by Pyat Pree, she commands her dragons to burn the warlock alive.
Clearly unnerved by the way in which the Unsullied are treated in Slaver's Bay, Daenerys agrees on an exchange: 8,000 of the enslaved warriors for her favorite and largest dragon, Drogon. But this wasn't to maintain peace. After realizing her new army were willing to follow her any order, the first thing she does is get them to kill their former slave masters, while commanding Drogon to kill the man who orchestrated the deal, slave-trader Kraznys mo Nakloz.
And then there's the deliberate fire she causes in the temple at a Khalar vezhuen, the gathering whereby Dothraki decide the fate of significant events. After they declare they have no trust in her, Daenerys responds by telling them that she will be the one to lead the Dothraki in her mission to sit on the Iron Throne. She then pushes over a flaming torch which sets the entire temple ablaze, leaving those inside no room to escape.
Morals: The Key Difference
All of the above instances of violence were enacted against victims Daenerys truly saw as morally bad. She was appalled by the way the Unsullied were treated, and wanted to see justice for them. The Dothraki khalasar wanted her dead. Others had directly attempted to betray her. Daenerys was keen that civilians were not caught up in death, she didn't want collateral damage and very directly aimed violence at those whom she felt deserved it.
Consequently, this led her to forming a substantial army based on one key ingredient: Hope. In Game of Thrones Season 1, after Khal Drogo's death, she gives a speech of hope to her Dothraki tribe, setting them free but asking them to support her through free will. Then, she sets fire to her late husband's funeral pyre and walks into the flames, only to remain among the ashes unscathed, a hatched dragon resting on her shoulder. This alone is enough to cause many witnesses (including Jorah Mormont) to bow in her honor.
The Unsullied, too, were free to leave but instead chose to support Daenerys for hope of a better future. She tells them: "You have been slaves your entire life. Today you are free," and then requests they fight for her, as free men and not as slaves. Similar events follow at the end of Season 3, after Daenerys liberates the slaves of Yunkai, she gives an impassioned speech on freedom, leading to the liberated holding her aloft while chanting "mhysa" — the Ghiscari word for "mother."
Ruling By Fear
But everyone has their own tipping point, and after big losses in the Narrow Sea and at Casterly Rock, Daenerys found hers. After losing faith in Tyrion's strategy to deliver results, she sees red, reasoning she should fly her dragons to the Red Keep and destroy her enemies. At this point, Jon Snow has the perfect retort, advising her that she has built a following based on being different, and that burning cities would show the masses that she is the same as all who ruled before her.
Attacking the Lannister army on the Roseroad was a compromise, albeit one that engulfed hundreds of soldiers in flames. Although that could be argued an act of war, the opening scene of "Eastwatch" is harder to rationalize; Daenerys had time to think over punishment. Standing above the Lannister army (who were portrayed as "normal" people caught up in war earlier this season) with Drogon brooding menacingly behind her, Daenerys tells them they have a choice: Follow her, or die. This is a significant transition, the first time Daenerys has earned followers through fear — the exact process she was trying to avoid.
The question is, is it too late, has she turned into the Mad Queen? Tyrion and Varys have clearly considered this option. Perturbed by her actions, they've reaffirmed the need to keep Daenerys in line as the lines between what is morally acceptable blur. Tragically, Daenerys has come to the realization that in order to win, she has to fight dirty. Playing nice has only got her so far.
In the world of #GameofThrones, Daenerys is playing the game the way it needs to be played — ruthlessly — without madness.
Was Daenerys right to kill Randyll Tarly and his son, Dickon Tarly? Or is she on the path to becoming the Mad Queen?