Daenerys was never The Mad Queen. Rather, she was Daenerys the Benevolent crushed by the wheel of Westeros into Daenerys the Unappreciated, the Unloved, the Betrayed, the Traumatized and the Heartbroken.
With only one episode remaining in the 8 season saga of Game of Thrones, the only thing hotter than the dragon fire that destroyed King’s Landing is the debate over Daenerys. But like many of our current debates, regarding Game of Thrones and otherwise, there is militant polarity and division, which in this case, fails to reconcile who Daenerys is with what she did. It appears that there are three primary factions of “fan” reaction: The Mad Queen Theorists who isolate a few spoken words and decontextualize a few actions to claim that Daenerys is and always was The Mad Queen, that her demolishing of King’s Landing was a foregone conclusion, and that this was foreshadowed, telegraphed or outright obviously inevitable all along. The opposing though only half-wrong counter-claim is made by The Good Queen Disciples who while right in believing Daenerys to be fundamentally benevolent and compassionate, mistakenly claim her conduct in “The Bells” was only a sudden, inexplicable, and wholly out-of-character “plot twist” or “heel turn” carried out for shock value, which blindly misses major developments and how they indisputably severely impacted Daenerys. A third faction somewhat in the middle but adopting fallacies from the other two camps are The Unearned Accusers who isolate evidence for both Goodness and Madness, but believe the shift from the former to the latter was “unearned” and/or “rushed” which takes the worst of the other two camps by overly interpreting Daenerys’ past words and actions as madness, and under-appreciating her history of goodness as well as the catastrophic nature of events since she arrived in Westeros.
The irrational (crossing over to ludicrous with a recent petition) focus of all factions’ ire, is as always, the under-appreciated writers and show-runners, who either made the fiery massacre a boringly predictable outcome, an outrageous blind-side, or an “execution” failure that lacked some undefined and unachievable standard of finesse. The fact that these inconsistent, even opposite viewpoints are promulgated with such rancor is really proof that this particular plot development had enough of a foundation to be justified but not enough as to make it obvious– the final battle involving King’s Landing could have gone either way or really ANY way and the writers and show-runners, as usual, deserve often-denied credit for weaving a narrative that creates excitement through unpredictability yet is grounded in enough development to be credible, or even apparent in hindsight.
But the “Mad Queen” moniker and the debate over whether it has always applied, never applied, or was just now earned (or unearned) discount the overwhelming evidence that Daenerys had an extensive history of demonstrating compassion, reason, judiciousness, and altruism; and that not only was she the very converse of madness, but a paragon of overt goodness, even greatness, possessing all the qualities desired in a benevolent monarch. And the “Mad Queen” label and the Unearned Accusations more significantly fail to recognize the enormity of the devastation caused by the recent heartbreak of rejection, betrayal and loss inflicted upon Daenerys by the very people she embraced, trusted and sacrificed for. From all the talk of how every time a new Targaryen is born, the gods toss a coin in the air and the world holds its breath to see how it will land (whether on the side of madness or greatness), the assumption is that Daenerys’ coin long ago fell on the side of madness (making the events of “The Bells “inevitable) or at least that the coin was still hanging in the air. But nearly everything we have witnessed over the entire series of Game of Thrones indicates this to be wrong– not only did the coin land, but it landed long ago on the side of sanity, stability, reason, compassion, goodness and even greatness, and that Daenerys was poised to become a benevolent, just, magnanimous queen. If that coin was flipped, it was turned over by the perfidious people and heart-breaking events around Daenerys that drove her to the isolation, despair and rage we witnessed in “The Bells.”
To be clear, nothing here should be read to excuse the torching of King’s Landing which is inarguably a horrific atrocity, but it is not the latest act of madness by an obvious Mad Queen nor is it an inexplicable reversal. But that it is, in fact, a reversal of behavior clarifies, not that her true history or identity is one of madness, but that it was the crushing weight of her recent experiences which caused, rationally or otherwise, this caring and self-sacrificing leader to commit a monstrous act.
A detailed examination of her decisions and actions throughout the series illustrates nearly endless examples of her reason, caution, moderation, compassion, and altruism. Indeed, throughout her young-adulthood, accumulation of power, experience as a queen, brushes with death, and early time in Westeros, Daenerys’ exercised fair judgment, a balanced temperament, benevolence, patience, mercy and other qualities that are the antithesis of madness.
Daenerys’ gentle nature was established early on. As she led a vagabond existence in her youth, fleeing from assassins, truly mad (or at least monstrous) characters were exhibiting their madness (or monstrousness) early in life. We learned Joffrey Baratheon was sadistic as a child, Ramsay Bolton stated people were afraid of him by the age of 12, as a child Cersei Lannister physically abused her infant brother Tyrion and as an adolescent she threatened to have a woman’s eyes gouged out for not providing the information Cersei demanded, and as a child Gregor Clegane brutally maimed his own brother. Yet supposedly mad monstrous Daenerys was timid in her youth. While her brother abused her, complained bitterly, and schemed (with other men) to “take my crown” by arranging to give Daenerys to the warlord Khal Drogo, she stated feebly “I don’t want to be his queen. I want to go home”, more the words of a lost child than those of a power-hungry madwoman. This is in sharp contrast to the aforementioned players in the Game and her own brother Viserys, who in response to her statement tells her he would allow her to be a victim to grotesque sexual violence “if that’s what it took” to get his army and presumed crown. Viserys was yet another who displayed amoral, borderline insane conduct towards others in his youth. Daenerys, by contrast, was meek.
Daenerys’ time in Essos further showed that she cared more about helping people than in acquiring power and that her acts of retribution were carefully measured and even justly deserved by the recipients. As wife to Khal Drogo, Daenerys had her first experience with power. Did she use it to inflict pain or suffering or to feed her ego? No, one of her earliest uses of power was to protect innocents who, to her disgust, were being ravaged by the Dothraki horde. In a culture where women have zero status, Daenerys asserted herself, in contravention of Dothraki norms, to rescue people she saw being brutalized. When she directly appealed to Khal Drogo to allow her to save the victims, it sparked an armed confrontation that mortally wounded him, her only love. This was perhaps the first of what would be many times that Daenerys put herself and those that she cared for at risk and suffered great loss as the result of her trying to save innocents.
Some Mad Queen Theorists cite Daenerys’ seeming indifference to the killing of her brother Viserys or, in a bizarre illogical reach, even blame her for it. Though his death was not her choice or her doing, it should be noted that he, armed with a blade, threatened to cut out her fetus, likely killing her in the process. Though she was innocent of his death, were she not, it would have been justified to avert her own murder.
Aside from establishing early that Daenerys cares for others, another result of the wounding of Drogo is her experience with the witch Mirri Maz Duur which many Mad Queen Theorists have used as evidence of Daenerys’ alleged mercilessness. Mirri Maz Duur was one of the people who Daenerys saved and then trusted with the health of her husband and unborn child. Duur reassured Daenerys that she could save their lives but deceived Daenerys and deliberately brought about the death of her unborn child and the vegetative state of her husband. (Mirri Maz Duur’s excuse that Daenerys didn’t save her soon enough was an early experience in the series of someone Daenerys sacrificed for being completely ungrateful.) Daenerys having had some agency, companionship and family for the first time had it taken away from her by someone she saved and then entrusted to help her– a horrific and murderous betrayal. That Daenerys added Mirri Maz Duur to Khal Drogo’s funeral pyre seems far more like an act of justice than madness.
Exhibit A in the weak case that Mad Queen Theorists try to make are statements Daenerys made while in Qarth. While the words (and they were just words) sound like clear statements of future intent in retrospect, they were clearly only idle threats made under duress at a time when Daenerys had nothing but three baby dragons, and suitors who wanted to steal them. Daenerys only bellowed about taking the Iron Throne and burning cities to the ground after being mercilessly mocked by the wealthy Spice King who belittled Daenerys’ lack of standing, essentially saying she had no power, no friends, and no identity. And he further denigrated her by condescendingly calling her “my little princess”. An angry, verbal only, response to the Spice King was clearly understandable and hardly qualifies as a promise or prophecy when Daenerys had neither the means nor the wickedness to follow through. These were mere words when Daenerys had no power– what is more indicative of her true temperament and character are her deeds when she actually had power which was to be compassionate and self-sacrificing.
In Qarth and beyond, on the rare occasions when Daenerys punished people, it was after a significant betrayal that threatened the life of Daenerys or her loved ones (as was the case with Mirri Maz Duur). When she locked Doreah and Xaro Xhoan Daxos in his safe, it was only after he pretended to court Daenerys and then conspired against her, killed her entourage, stole her dragons (her children) and tried to enslave her. When Daenerys’ baby dragons attacked Pyat Pree in Qarth, it was to free her from being his prisoner. Death for these treacherous and murderous conspirators is not a misuse of power or remotely evidence of madness, it’s justice and self-defense respectively.
Daenerys’ actions in Astapor further demonstrate that her use of power is fair and just and that she is willing to risk her ambitions for the welfare of others. In her quest to find an army, she was appalled by the abusive treatment that is inflicted on boys to create the Unsullied. With grave reservations, she purchased the army but her first act (in what this author still considers one of the most thrilling sequences in the entire series), was to instruct them to kill the men who profit from abducting, mutilating, torturing, and selling children into slave armies. It may not have been a judicial proceeding, but most reasonable people would call it justice. Her second act with this newfound slave army, was to risk losing them by granting them freedom. Her aspirations could have ended right there when her newly freed soldiers were given the opportunity to leave, but Daenerys cared more about ending slavery than her ambitions for power, and she only wanted rule over those who gave their consent. This moment is as clear as any as to her true priorities.
From Astapor, Daenerys leads her newly liberated army to conquer Yunkai, not for land, or treasure, or stature, but to free its people. Consider that if Daenerys only sought power, she could have easily forged alliances with a few powerful noblemen and purged any opponents among their ranks, a much simpler task than toppling the established order on behalf of the oppressed people. But Daenerys frees the people of Yunkai, who will neither be her soldiers nor her slaves, and who do not enhance her power, and she is moved as they embrace her as “mother”. These are not the actions of a mad woman or tyrant.
From Yunkai, Daenerys captures Meereen, not to bring her closer to the iron throne, but to free another major slave city. Mad Queen Theorists have cited the crucifixion of 163 Masters as evidence of Daenerys alleged cruelty when yet again it was not a random act of violence, but a deliberate proportional response for the murder of 163 children by the slavers. Then having freed countless slaves, Daenerys planned to return to Westeros but postponed this lifelong goal when she finds out Astapor and Yunkai have returned to slavery, yet another example of Daenerys putting her own ambitions aside to help others, in this case, the re-enslaved, who again need to be freed. The claim of Mad Queen Theorists that Daenerys’ rise in Essos was only driven by political ambitions is empty when considering that her extensive efforts to free people didn’t advance and at times risked her ability to return to Westeros. Her actions in Essos show her true humane priorities and self-sacrificing nature. Daenerys more than earned her title Breaker of Chains.
Staying in Meereen, Daenerys assumed the role of Queen but rather than rounding up opponents, seeking more power, and otherwise abusing authority as most monarchs would, she invited countless ordinary citizens to approach her with requests and concerns which she takes to heart. One of these citizens, Hizdahr zo Loraq, informed Daenerys that his father was a man of great deeds and clearly shocked her when he said his father was one of the 163 crucified in response to the 163 murdered children. He implores Daenerys to allow him to follow tradition and bury his father. Though Daenerys debated justice with him, emotion registered on her face as she rethinks and possibly regrets what had been done, and she allows Hizdahr to bury his father. Though it could be argued that the enslavers and murderers of children received justice, Daenerys showed compassion, contemplation and reason (literally the opposite of madness) in reconsidering the deaths and allowing Hizdahr zo Loraq to bury his father. (Later, despite her own disgust at the brutality, she acquiesced again to Hizdahr zo Loraq’s requests to open the fighting pits, further establishing both Daenerys’ revulsion at senseless violence and her willingness to listen to others and subvert her own views in favor of those of her citizens.)
Another citizen that Daenerys heard which demonstrated her sympathy and sacrifice was a grieving man carrying the bones of his daughter who was incinerated by Drogon. Daenerys was horrified and as a result, banished her other two dragons, her children, in catacombs, which was a deeply painful sacrifice she made to prevent further harm to innocent people.
In addition to compassion, other qualities that demolish the argument that Daenerys was always a Mad Queen in the making are temperament and mercy. One of her most painful episodes in Essos was learning that her trusted companion Jorah Mormont had previously been spying on her, nearly resulting in her assassination. This deep betrayal, which Jorah never revealed, would have been punished by death by any other ruler in the known world. But Daenerys spared his life and merely sent him into exile. This will be the first (second if we count Barristan Selmy) of many times that people who had previously served her enemies or directly harmed her family are spared or even welcomed and elevated rather than being executed.
Continuing to exercise sound judgment and reason even when it weakened her power, Daenerys sentenced a former slave to death for murdering a member of the Sons of the Harpy who was to be brought to trial. Though it was a deeply unpopular decision and she sympathized with former slaves more than the murderous master-affiliated Sons of the Harpy, Daenerys adhered to a principle of equal justice resulting in an uprising that nearly caused her bodily harm. A decision like this is an act of fairness and political courage, which are qualities of great leaders, not tyrants and madmen.
As Meereen descended into more violence, Daenerys continued measured responses and resisted more authoritarian approaches. Perhaps as the result of her restraint, she suffers yet another personal and political loss when Barristan Selmy is killed and Grey Worm is seriously wounded after an attack by the Sons of the Harpy. When Daario Naharis then urged Daenerys to round up and execute all the wise masters who were likely behind these attacks, Daenerys once again was repulsed by the idea of being a “butcher” and refused. This results in her near death when the Sons of the Harpy attack Daenerys and her entourage in the fighting pits, another example where Daenerys took a more moderate approach and resisted violent measures causing great risk to herself and those she cared about.
It should also be noted that before this attack, Daenerys again showed mercy for former enemies. She talked with Tyrion, accepted his counsel regarding Jorah (who she again mercifully refused to execute), and welcomed Tyrion into her service along with Varys who had previously spied on Daenerys and sent assassins after her. The only indication of madness in these actions is that she was too trusting and forgiving, but these are doubtlessly not the qualities of a Mad Queen.
Saved by Drogon after nearly being killed by the Sons of the Harpy, Daenerys was found by the Dothraki and became their powerless possession once again. Mad Queen Theorists point to the burning of Dosh Khaleen as more evidence against Daenerys, but consider she was a prisoner in a room full of warriors who just informed her, after she mocked their lack of aspirations, that they intended to rape and kill her. That she instead killed her captors before they could assault and execute her is as clear a case of self-defense as can be, and is only evidence of her will to survive, not an embrace of or tendency towards violence.
In a final act of self-sacrifice in Meereen, Daenerys informed her lover Daario Naharis that he can not accompany her to Westeros. Though a loyal and trusted companion who guarded her with his life, Daenerys gave him up for the good of the realm who she knew would not accept him. But before leaving for Westeros, she also made sure to place him in charge of Meereen so slavery wouldn’t return, delivering on her promises to leave the world better than she found it.
Once she finally arrived in Westeros, Daenerys formed alliances and wisely considered the counsel of her advisors. She was eager to take King’s Landing but Tyrion, who seemed to cling to the idea of a bloodless war and feelings for his family, advised delay to which Daenerys acquiesces. For those who argue that Daenerys is blind with ambition, here she again exhibited patience and restraint instead. The resulting military defeats on land and sea are a significant setback. When the Lannisters capture Highgarden, Tyrion again advised restraint but Daenerys, recognizing (as perhaps Tyrion does not) that they are at war and are losing, evened the odds with her attack on the Loot Train, a perfectly reasonable tactical strike in warfare, not an inexplicable random act of destruction. Tyrion’s distaste for bloodshed during war and sympathy for his family did not cloud Daenerys’ clear thinking that battles need to be won to win the war. And armies need to be defeated as Randyll Tarly’s was. Daenerys offered Tarly a choice to join her (as, remember, he once joined her father and brother) but his blind hatred of foreigners everywhere from Essos to beyond the Wall was stronger than his will to live. Daenerys offered him mercy but Randyll Tarly chose hate and death. Nonetheless, she pardoned the rest of his troops.
In Dragonstone Daenerys continued exhibiting a balanced temperament. Though Jon was disinterested in her ambitions or royal status and somewhat hostile, Daenerys considered Tyrion’s counsel and forged an alliance with Jon (one of Tyrion’s only successes as her advisor). It is this partnership with Jon that lead Daenerys to a series of sacrifices for others that provides some of the strongest evidence of her altruistic nature. At great risk to herself, Daenerys flew north beyond the wall to rescue the Jon and the wight capture team and in the process suffers the murder of Viserion by The Night King. Despite the trauma of the murder of her child, Daenerys nonetheless recognized the terrible threat to humanity posed by the army of the dead, and yet again set aside her quest for the Iron Throne to pledge to put herself and her loved ones in grave danger fighting to protect an innocent population to whom she has no connection. More than just for the purposes of a practical alliance, it was likely Jon’s appreciation of Daenerys’ altruism and willingness to risk everything for others, that prompted him to pledge his support and convinced him “she’ll be a good queen”.
Yet additional demonstrations of Daenerys’ patience and reluctance to use force is her participation in a meeting with Cersei, with whom she is at war. Daenerys, who critics claim has a single-minded obsession with taking the Iron Throne, instead deprioritized her aspirations, and accepted the commitment of her enemies (with Tyrion’s assurances) to work with her to fight an existential threat to the realm. This favoring of the good of all over her own personal goals, allows Cersei to strengthen her forces while Daenerys’ were weakened and sacrificed.
It is at this stage that the magnitude of devastation to Daenerys really compounds. Despite her near endless sacrifices for others, recently and all along, The North doesn’t trust her, doesn’t accept her, and treats her with undeserved icy contempt, as personified by Sansa Stark, who stayed safely underground and complained about Daenerys while she, her forces and her friends risked their lives to save Sansa’s people and home. Sansa’s extreme ingratitude was a greater expression of madness than anything Daenerys has ever said (and bravo Missandei for vocalizing how Sansa and The North would perish without Daenerys). In her efforts to save Winterfell, Daenerys lost half her army and her oldest friend and advisor, Jorah Mormont, both major blows to her politically and personally.
In another sign of conciliation, when Jaime Lannister (the man who murdered Daenerys’ father, led armies against her, and personally tried to kill her) stood before her, Daenerys, rather than have him executed or imprisoned, tempered her understandable lifelong anger and deferred to her colleagues as to whether to let him join her alliance. Additionally, Daenerys forgave Tyrion once again for strategic blunders and warmly approached Sansa who again treated Daenerys with undeserved hostility and unfounded resentment. The whole reason Daenerys was at Winterfell was to save it which she did at great personal cost, yet everyone around her still unjustifiably mistrusted, misled, and mistreated her. Still, Daenerys, with amazing inner-strength and stability, responded with measure and reason.
Although in The North she suffered so much personally and strategically to help everyone around her, she is failed by her advisors, and the people she saved rejected her, Daenerys nonetheless showed her generosity and forgiving nature by legitimizing Gendry and granting him lordship. This was not the behavior of an unstable, power-hungry tyrant– consider how her three immediate predecessors dealt with potential claimants to the Iron Throne– the potential heirs were methodically identified, hunted and executed, even if they were children or infants. But not Daenerys; she was a conciliator.
After all this sacrifice and with little acceptance or gratitude, Daenerys wished to finally take King’s Landing but is again hindered by her advisors. Jon reveals his lineage (a blow not just to Daenerys’ claim but to her very identity) but refuses Daenerys’ modest request to keep it secret, which she wisely predicted will have uncontrollable consequences. Sansa broke her oath to Jon resulting in Varys betraying Daenerys and Tyrion exhibiting wavering loyalty. Daenerys’ execution of Varys was no act of madness; he committed treason as Tyrion acknowledged and reported, and Varys himself had previously told Daenerys he would “expect” a fiery fate if he betrayed her which doubtlessly, and admittedly, he did. Despite all she lost, even at this late stage, there was no madness in this decision by Daenerys’ to follow through on her mutually agreed to promise.
Now surrounded by hostile ingrates, doubters and traitors, and having endured the death of her fighters and friends on their behalf, Daenerys finally set a course for King’s Landing but along the way witnessed the brutal killing of a second child, Rhaegal. Any of these individual traumas involving betrayals, deep sacrifices, or witnessing the deaths of loved ones separately would be more than anyone could or should bear, yet Daenerys endured all of these severe ordeals in rapid combination and somehow continued to have sound judgment. While the above analysis of Daenerys’ record of compassion easily demolishes the feeble position of The Mad Queen Theorists, it is the extensive sequence of profound trauma inflicted on Daenerys that is absent from the consideration of The Good Queen Disciples and The Unearned Accusers. A more careful review of all she had suffered in her short time in Westeros makes clear that there was an enormous foundation of anguish established for Daenerys leading up to “The Bells.”
In a final effort to take King’s Landing, Tyrion yet another time, persuaded Daenerys to attempt a more pacifistic course. And yet another time, Daenerys somehow found the fortitude to exercise patience and moderation, resulting in her witnessing the deliberately horrific beheading of her long-time trusted friend and advisor Missandei, the last of her close companions from Essos. Few could endure watching a close friend brutally executed, and this final act, again as the result of Daenerys’ measured restraint, and greatly compounded by endless betrayal, sacrifices and suffering as a stranger alone in a strange land, logically takes its toll on Daenerys. It would be a mistake (made by some Unearned Accusers) to cite Jon rejecting her affections as the cause of Daenerys’ attack, it was just the final conclusive proof, and a symbol for the viewer, that she was all alone and had sacrificed everything for a land and it’s people who refused to appreciate or love her back.
Though virtually destroyed by now, Daenerys amazingly was capable of a final act of restraint and mercy. Jaime attempted to leave Winterfell and essentially defect to the enemy by returning to Cersei, a clear case of treason, yet rather than have him executed, he was merely captured. Even at this end stage with all Daenerys had endured, she spared the life of a betrayer, likely in sympathy for her last remaining advisor, Tyrion (who has likely been subconsciously betraying her on behalf of his family, sympathies that are more clearly expressed when he frees Jaime and tries to arrange for an escape with Cersei). Before the attack on King’s Landing, Daenerys agreed, probably sincerely, to honor the surrender indicated by the ringing of the bells. But by this point, Daenerys had sacrificed and suffered far too much.
While suffering is plentiful and widely dispersed on Game of Thrones, Daenerys arguably suffered more than any major character; she was homeless, penniless, and hunted as a child, and then she led a life of service and sacrifice as an adult. It should be repeated that the massacre of King’s Landing was an atrocity of horrific proportions and nothing justifies it. But after great personal cost to herself, those she saved and suffered for rejected Daenerys and betrayed her. Alone, heart-broken, and having her friends and children (dragons) murdered in front her, if (and that is an “if”) she lost her mind that doesn’t make her The Mad Queen. It would be natural or even expected for someone who saved and profoundly sacrificed for a people and place that only rejected and betrayed her, to be, perhaps temporarily driven mad. As James Hunt said in a section of multi-part piece on what culture, with all she endured, “it would have been stranger if she hadn’t snapped” which is perhaps the best argument against the assertions of Unearned Accusers.
The torching of King’s Landing was not foreseen, it was not predestined, and could have been averted had any number of conditions taken place that would have kept Daenerys from breaking with her record of compassion and justice. It was her self-sacrifice, her mercy, her gentle heart that made her vulnerable to the selfishness, betrayal, and anguish that drove her to act as she did. Yes, she’s responsible for the atrocity, but she was not previously the Mad Queen… if she became so, she was understandably driven to it by the people and events around her. Thought experiments of alternative events reveal this to be true. Would Daenerys have rained fire down on innocents if she stayed in Essos? Or if she marched on King’s Landing sooner? Or if there was no Night King (making her more recent and deepest sacrifices and suffering unnecessary)? Or if Jon had not revealed his lineage? Or if the people she saved appreciated her sacrifices and qualities (as Jon and Davos and Jorah did), or if she had Barriston and/or Jorah and/or Missandei at her side? The obvious answers are “no”. The scorching of King’s Landing would not have happened (and would have seemed like an actual unfounded “unearned” absurdity) without all the trauma inflicted on Daenerys since arriving in Westeros. Though she clearly never was The Mad Queen, it’s possible she was finally eroded, broken and enraged by the culmination of a multitude of unbearable agonizing injuries perpetrated on her by those she trusted and cared for. But it’s also equally possible, like with her other acts of fiery retribution, that the extent of the destruction deliberately corresponded proportionately to the damage done to her.