This post, originally published May 18, has been updated and contains a multitude of spoilers for “Game of Thrones.”
On Sunday night’s “Game of Thrones" series finale, Daenerys Targaryen showed no remorse for ignoring the surrender bells at King’s Landing and setting the city on fire in methodical, concentric circles.
That’s not what her top backers expected her to do. But while Jon Snow and Tyrion Lannister grappled with the horrific aftermath, most of her army had no problem killing enemy soldiers who had already given up their weapons and celebrating the destruction done in their queen’s name.
Daenerys’s longtime fighters had been following the Breaker of Chains for a while now, and from what they’ve seen, it may not have been that big of a leap for her to also become Scorcher of Cities. She has always demanded unwavering loyalty and promised hell for her enemies. In earlier seasons, Dany promises to “lay waste to armies and burn cities to the ground” once her dragons are grown, and that she will “take what is mine with fire and blood.”
During the finale, Daenerys referenced some of those past promises. So let’s go to the tapes and revisit how she got here:
Her origin story
Daenerys’s papa was the Mad King, yes, but her parents were also siblings. As the saying goes, “Every time a Targaryen is born, the gods flip a coin.” Centuries of Targaryens marrying brother-sister pairs meant half of their lineage — quite a shallow gene pool — descended into madness. Dany’s eldest brother, Rhaegar, was a stand-up guy, while middle kid Viserys was temperamental and cruel, but no matter; the probability was still 50-50 with each coin toss, including Dany’s birth (thanks, high school statistics class!).
Chilling with the Dothraki
Daenerys comes to very much appreciate Khal Drogo’s intensity. When Drogo killed her brother with molten gold, all she could muster up was, “He was no dragon.”
Drogo also makes a promise to retake the Iron Throne for the couple’s son, and, well, we haven’t seen Daenerys want to hop in the sack more than when Drogo talks sacking cities.
Here is Drogo’s pledge in full:
And to my son, the Stallion Who Will Mount the World, I will also pledge a gift. I will give him the iron chair that his mother’s father sat upon. I will give him the Seven Kingdoms. I, Drogo, will do this. I will take my Khalasar west to where the world ends and ride wooden horses across the black salt water as no Khal has done before. I will kill the men in iron suits and tear down their stone houses. I will rape their women, take their children as slaves and bring their gods back to Vaes Dothrak. This, I vow. I, Drogo, son of Bharbo. I swear before the Mother of Mountains as the stars look down in witness.
A few seasons later, the Dothraki recapture Daenerys, and their leaders ponder whether to have her live with the other khal widows, as she was supposed to do in the first place. But the deliberations descend into violent threats after Daenerys reminds them of Drogo’s pledge. She tells them she will actually rule them all in her quest to take over the world, and when they laugh, Daenerys enacts her plan: She sets the place on fire, emerges unharmed (dragons can’t be hurt by fire, after all) and gets the loyalty of the Dothraki people.
Later, she reunites with Drogon and rides him to her Dothraki army to deliver a rousing, fiery speech: “Will you kill my enemies in their iron suits and tear down their stone houses? Will you give me the Seven Kingdoms, the gift Khal Drogo promised me before the Mother of Mountains?”
We now know the answers: Yes, yes and yes.
Breaker of Chains
The reputation that Daenerys would be good to the masses comes in large part from her attitude toward slavery. She first expressed such sympathies when married to Drogo (which led to another guy challenging Drogo, who gave him a wound that would lead to his death). Then she went on to buy the Unsullied army in exchange for a dragon that she then used to kill the slave master who sold the army. Daenerys promptly freed the soldiers, telling them they could leave or fight for her.
Was such a move the result of a strong moral compass? Or was it a surefire tactic to get a giant army to love a leader and fight more fiercely for her? If the latter, it worked; the Unsullied all stayed, and Grey Worm remained her most trusted companion.
At the gate of Meereen, she tells the enslaved gathered: “I am not your enemy. Your enemy stands beside you. Your enemy steals and murders your children. Your enemy has nothing for you but chains and suffering and commands. I do not bring you commands. I bring you a choice. And I bring your enemies what they deserve.”
After she takes the city, Daenerys orders 163 masters crucified, a response to the 163 slave children the masters had crucified on her road to the city. “Sometimes it is best to answer injustice with mercy,” counsels Barristan Selmy, to which Dany responds, “I will answer injustice with justice.”
Daenerys also went to Yunkai, overthrowing masters of some 200,000 slaves who threw a big (and embarrassing) welcome party. In all of these cities, Daenerys overthrew leaders and, in return, common folk gave her their cheers and love. Maybe the “I give up” vibes at King’s Landing were both unfamiliar and unacceptable to her.
Daenerys gave a speech way back, telling Tyrion that the great houses are just “spokes on a wheel,” crushing those beneath while they vie for power: “I’m not going to stop the wheel. I’m going to break the wheel.”
Throughout the series, though, Tyrion has talked Daenerys out of laying waste to cities, while she has also demanded immediate loyalty of those surrendering. When slave masters besiege Meereen, Daenerys tells Tyrion, “I will crucify the masters. I will set their fleets afire, kill every last one of the soldiers and return their cities to the dirt.”
Tyrion reminds her, “You knew what your father was,” and reveals the Mad King’s plans for King’s Landing: He put wildfire underneath the city and wanted to blow everything up rather than surrender. “This is entirely different,” Daenerys responds. “You’re talking about destroying cities. It is not entirely different,” Tyrion says. So he suggests an alternative plan, which they enact: demand the slave masters surrender unconditionally. They laugh it off, so Daenerys sets their fleet on fire via dragons, the Dothraki attack, and Grey Worm kills two of the three slave master negotiators (the third gets to live so he can spread the word).
Later, Olenna Tyrell, Yara Greyjoy and Ellaria Sand urge Daenerys to attack King’s Landing with her giant army. “I am not here to be queen of the ashes,” Daenerys responds, as she lays out a different plan. Olenna tells her that sounds nice, but her granddaughter was a beloved queen, and now she’s just a bunch of ashes.
“Commoners, nobles, they’re all just children, really. They won’t obey you unless they fear you,” Olenna tells Daenerys, and urges her not to be a sheep but a dragon.
Daenerys does grow weary of Tyrion’s “clever” plans and wants to just ride her three dragons to the Red Keep but holds back. When she defeats Cersei’s forces at the Battle of the Goldroad, she tells the surviving soldiers that she hasn’t come “to destroy your cities, burn your homes, murder you and orphan your children,” while that’s what Cersei is about. “All I want to destroy is the wheel that has rolled over rich and poor to the benefit of no one but the Cersei Lannisters of the world. I offer you a choice: Bend the knee and join me. Together, we will leave the world a better place than we found it. Or, refuse and die.” Two Tarlys say “no thanks,” and Tyrion tries to talk Daenerys out of executing them. “I meant what I said. I’m not here to put men in chains. If that becomes an option, many will take it. I gave them a choice. They made it.” And then she lights up the Tarlys with dragon fire.
This season, Tyrion revived his “don’t destroy King’s Landing” campaign, and it didn’t go well, costing Daenerys one of her dragons and Missandei (whose last word was “dracarys”). Just like in Meereen and the Battle of the Goldroad, Daenerys demanded Cersei surrender or die.
For the Mother of Dragons, this is a choice. For Cersei, it’s a non-starter. And King’s Landing, along with Cersei, become ashes.