Villain Profile: Daenerys Targaryen’s Descent into Madness
Villains are many things: vile, vicious, vindictive. But they also stick with us. Villains are a driving force in the plot, they compel the protagonist forward, and, if written well, they inspire the audience to confront their own dark sides.
Game of Thrones brought us many villains, from the stereotypical evil queen Cersei Lannister to the preternatural Night King. Each episode was rife with betrayers, murderers, criminals, and threats of every shape, size, and sigil. Foreshadowing was there from the start. House Stark’s “Winter is coming” was a warning. “A Lannister always pays his debts” was a threat. And despite fans upholding their faith in Daenerys Targaryen through it all, her iconic promise, “I will take what is mine with fire and blood” prophesied the character’s absolute corruption as she laid waste to a city full of innocent civilians in season 8.
Below, let’s document Daenerys’ downfall, exploring how and why our supposed heroine turned into the final Game of Thrones villain.
Daenerys’ introduction into Game of Thrones is as a victim. Timid, demure, and abused by her brother in myriad ways, she doesn’t have control over her own body or life. Intending to sail to Westeros to reclaim the throne their father, King Aerys II Targaryen, her brother Viserys sells her to the Dothraki in order to gain their powerful army, but Daenerys is then abused by her new husband. Later, handmaidens from the khalasar teach Daenerys to find her voice and confidence, and she starts to take charge. She has her brother killed by the Dothraki. She makes Khal Drogo respect her. All of these choices and developments are powerful, and the audience did and should celebrate Daenerys’ victories in these early episodes.
Her villainy does blossom here, however. When Khal Drogo is poisoned by a witch that Daenerys herself sought out, Daenerys can’t understand why her khalasar would turn against her. Instead of respecting the Dothraki culture or wishes, she comes up with her own solutions including blood magic, and then punishes the dark-magic wielder for taking her unborn child despite knowing there would be a high cost. She amasses loyal followers through fear after emerging unscathed from her husband’s funeral pyre. Now the mother of three dragons — Drogon, Rhaegal, and Viserion — Daenerys shows the extreme lengths she’s willing to go to in order to keep her command.
Daenerys spends most of this season starving, wandering the desert, and desperately clinging to scraps of power with the help of Jorah Mormont. She is learning how to navigate royalty and politics, testing both her influence and intelligence in the city of Qarth. When her dragons are stolen from her, Daenerys displays some of the madness of which we’ve been warned. Sure, it’s totally fair and logical that she would react violently to her babies being taken. We’d expect that of any mom. But Daenerys utters “Dracarys” for the first time in the show in wrath, using those babies as instruments of murder. This is why the people of Westeros are terrified of the Targaryens. We understand her motivations a bit more, but that doesn’t help us separate her from the scary rumors about her family legacy.
Wrathful. Spiteful. Vengeful. These are the words to describe Daenerys Targaryen in Season 3. It’s difficult to discern too many villainous inclinations through these episodes, though, as this is her most heroic season by far. She frees thousands of enslaved people. She shows mercy to dying beggars, tricks a vile man into giving away his army in one of the best scenes of Game of Thrones history, and establishes her pattern of telling her soldiers to never kill innocents. But … she also convinces herself that the men who follow her have more free will than they do.
The Unsullied were bred as slaves. They are extremely loyal, and Daenerys holds the golden whip, or the symbol of mastery. She gives them the choice to leave, but what else do they know beyond battle? So the soldiers follow Daenerys, celebrating her as the Breaker of Chains. Yet all she’s done is conquer these people and called it freedom, and again burned a man to a crisp before asking for people’s loyalty. These impoverished civilians have better lives than before, but not for long; soon Daenerys will leave them to continue her conquest, and a special parade through the streets of Yunkai won’t ultimately help anyone but herself.
In Season 4, Daenerys is more aware of the consequences of her actions. Everyone she freed while she was blazing her warpath is, obviously, back in chains. Pausing her quest for the Iron Throne, Daenerys Targaryen rules Mareen and the other two cities of Slaver’s Bay. She does so without much mercy. Again, her ambition and ruthlessness are kind of admirable, but also slightly concerning.
Although a slave master’s pleas to have his father’s body back give her pause, she ultimately seeks to purge this world of her enemies, not simply pacify. And she cites her rule over these cities as a type of practice for Westeros, justifying that she is not yet strong enough to rule a larger kingdom. While Daenerys still mostly sounds like a philanthropist, her desire for power seems to be warping what she considers justice, and her gut reaction is always to solve problems with force or aggression.
The once celebrated queen of Mareen is collecting more and more enemies. Her go-to punishment is execution. She hardly listens to the people, insisting she knows better than them. Her superiority, condescending attitude, and savior complex are showing us a far less empathetic Daenerys. She even kills a man without holding a fair trial; this angers the people she once vowed to protect, and they express their dissent to her chagrin.
In a vital scene, Ser Barristan asks Daenerys to consider the blood-soaked history of her father, the “Mad King.” This tyrant burned the people of Westeros with wildfire, delighting in the torment of the people he considered his enemies. Daenerys insists she is not like her father, and Barristan reminds her that Aerys thought he was sane and just, too. Visibly shaken, Daenerys reflects on her actions and vows to show more mercy, though she rescinds that pretty quickly by punishing a man for disobeying her … by executing him. Having lost the trust of her subjects and the love of her dragons, Daenerys retreats to her royal apartment — lying in her lap of luxury while her city falls to turmoil. Some queen, right?
Daenerys’ other questionable decisions in Season 5 include letting her dragons tear apart and burn leaders of Mareen’s noble families, flying away on Drogon to abandon her people to the mercy of assassins during a literal massacre, and ignoring most of the sound advice that comes from trustworthy advisors such as Tyrion Lannister.
We don’t see much of Daenerys this season. She’s been captured again, but she angles her way to the top anyway and overthrows another regime to command another army of Dothraki. Super cool. We really are rooting for her, cheering when she laughs at would-be assaulters and desperately hoping she makes it across the Narrow Sea in time to solve the mess that is the battle for The North. There’s just a lot of murder, fire, and blood on her hands to forgive.
There’s also the question of her rule over Mareen, which is re-established yet abandoned once more to possibly sink into chaos in her continued absence. And, let’s face it, playboy Daario probably isn’t the best choice of governor. Daenerys doesn’t negotiate, compromise, or soften, and if she’s going for the Iron Throne, she knows she can’t afford to hesitate or sympathize. This will make her a powerful queen, but what stains does she now carry on her character?
In Game of Thrones Season 7, Daenerys Targaryen finally arrives in her birthplace of Dragonstone. She is reminded of the plight of her ancestors, how they were violently ousted, and it must sink in quite fully that she’s the last of her bloodline. Caught between her past and ideal future, Daenerys’ impulsive decisions and slippery grip on reality — suspecting her advisers of treason, advocating dragonfire as the first course of battle action — illustrates her inability to live properly in the present.
We can view all of this as foreshadowing toward her demise; Daenerys is burdened by House Targaryen’s legacy and mistakes, and further weighed down by the concept of a throne she doesn’t even hold yet. Thus, the person she intends to be from day to day, with all her altruistic titles and love, simply can’t exist.
The blood shed for the Iron Throne was a price Daenerys was willing to pay — as long as it wasn’t her own. Remember, Daenerys is The Unburnt. She knows she can walk through flames unscathed, yet she puts mere mortals on the front lines. She has survived innumerable battles from the back of her dragon, allowing her Unsullied army, Jorah Mormont, and Jon Snow to risk their lives to preserve her. While Daenerys’ early hardships and circumstances explain this selfishness, it doesn’t excuse the obvious dichotomy between her words about freedom versus her unrepentant sacrificing of the people she’s allegedly saving.
Audiences reacted with shock when Daenerys, upon hearing the bells strike in King’s Landing, turned on its innocent citizens. Far above the burning city, she succumbs to the fated Targaryen madness. In the heat of the battle, with massive amounts of adrenaline running through her victory-charged veins, it’s not actually too surprising that a single sound could trigger horrible memories or bring up traumatic associations as well as generational trauma. She’s consumed with grief for her dead dragons — grief that made her starve herself, which is hardly indicative of a healthy mental state — and she’s not able to trust the city’s surrender when she fears sabotage from those closest to her.
Also, in this season Daenerys knowingly engages in a romantic relationship with her nephew, an extremely uncomfortable decision which signifies a lot of that Targaryen lineage’s historic insanity. Finally, Daenerys has been descending into new levels of bloodthirst and violence since the season 1 finale; this was not so much a huge turn as it was a culmination. It was the final crossing of a line she was already pretty closely toeing. If we look at her entire arc in retrospect, every time she increased the scope of her rule, she made poor decisions to keep her iron grip.
Daenerys Targaryen wanted power. She got a small taste of it, and could never have her fill. In the end, she had to die for her desires to be sated. Was she always a villain? The answer to that question is complex, and will divide the Game of Thrones fandom for an eternity.
How did you react when Daenerys Targaryen became the villain? Were you shocked, or did you suspect it from the beginning? Let us know in the comments, and don’t forget to Let Your Geek Sideshow!
There’s a chill in the air. The leaves tremble in a skeleton dance and shadows seem just a little darker. Channel the spirits and revel in Sideshow’s Spooktacular 2021 — a celebration of all things sinister, scary, and downright spooky.
Join us from October 25-31 by visiting side.show/spooktacular and don’t forget — Sleep is for the weak!