Saturday, May 18, 2019

Daenerys Targaryen: Crazy Capricious Killer or Misunderstood Matriarch???

The Daenerys heel turn of burning King's Landing down and deliberately incinerating untold numbers of civilians caused a great deal of agita among some Game of Thrones fans.
Some people think that this is either Benioff's and Weiss's or even GRRM's commentary that strong women are always crazy women. I don't think that argument is worth discussing. FWIW, GRRM describes himself as a feminist. GRRM created many characters of different genders and sexualities, all of whom are varying mixes of good and evil, intelligence and stupidity, competence and ineptitude. It is almost certainly not a meta-commentary by GRRM or show creators on the danger of female leadership to have Daenerys burn down King's Landing. The fact that so many people joyously read Daenerys as avenging feminist Messiah is a testament to GRRM's creative abilities, nothing else.

The second, more numerous and to my mind more legitimate detractors are not necessarily THAT bothered by Daenerys going Mad Queen but think that it wasn't earned in the show. The show is all we can go on here as these events have not taken place in the books. On a private board I frequent, and on quora too I might add, this last episode caused heated discussion. As The Janitor pointed out on this blog:  
This made no sense for her character as depicted in the show. Just last season she literally rebutted that she is "not here to be the queen of the ashes" when Yara and the Queen of the Sandsnakes urged her to burn King's Landing. That was 1 season ago. 1!!! Now all of a sudden she's the mad queen? Not buying it.
We must remember that unless and until Benioff ,Weiss and GRRM give us a detailed look at what were GRRM's contributions and what were Benioff's and Weiss' we may never know what events were GRRM's "true" ideas. For all we know GRRM might be reviewing screen events and deciding to alter or more deeply explain story events. Still, for something this big and character defining as the near total destruction of King's Landing all of my money is on it being GRRM's intent all along. So Daenerys was always going to go bad.


So why do so many intelligent people have problems with it? Well as I stated many people appear to be emotionally invested in the idea of Daenerys as a feminist heroine in a brutally patriarchal world. I think that real problem is that the showrunners did themselves a disservice by shortening the last two seasons and emphasizing speed and spectacle over character development, or in Daenerys' case, character devolution.

Just as we are manipulated to identify with the Starks and in earlier seasons more specifically Robb Stark, we're set up to identify with Daenerys. She's an orphan who's bullied and molested by her brother. She's lost the rest of her family to murder and war. She grows up in poverty, fleeing assassins. She and her brother are robbed and mocked wherever they go. She's sold as a teen bride to a man who initially sees her as only marginally more valuable than a good horse. 

When her husband dies Daenerys has only a handful of followers left, mostly women, children, cripples, older men or those few Dothraki warriors open minded enough to accept female leadership. She and her people nearly starve to death. Numerous times she's bullied or insulted by men who categorically reject female leadership. Obviously the viewer will be sympathetic to such a woman.

However, Daenerys has near monomania about retaking the throne. She routinely threatens to burn cities to the ground. She says that her enemies will die screaming. As she gets power she starts to employ oft capricious violence against people who oppose her will. From the viewer's perspective most of these folks are indeed scummy people, so we cheer Daenerys' actions. It's protagonist bias. These people are also all coded as "foreigners" so we don't care as much about them. None of them get a POV to explain what they thought about this foreign leader with a bunch of mercenaries, Unsullied, and Dothraki running around making speeches and conquering their cities. 



It's when Daenerys returns to Westeros and starts interacting with people who are coded as "the good guys" or at very least get more complexity than simpleminded freed slaves or mustache twirling sexist villains who stupidly insult Daenerys in her own language, that the viewer should start to understand that Daenerys has a "with me or against me" mindset that, though quite realistic for many rulers or damaged people who grew up in deprived conditions, has some serious drawbacks and faults.

It's here where the shortened and rushed seasons impact Daenerys' character. We should have seen more of Daenerys' ruthlessness and inability to understand why the people of Westeros weren't lining up to embrace their "rightful" Queen. Her rage should have been bubbling up over time in ways both petty and serious. This is where Ser Friedzone himself, Jorah Mormont, could have been quite useful in showing Daenerys' anger and increasing isolation. Instead we got a pretty long reverse Bluebeard story in which Jon Snow inexplicably falls in love with the woman who has imprisoned him. 

Why not show Daenerys writing to or visiting various other Houses/regions and getting the cold shoulder and/or insults? There was one pretty blatant foreshadowing of Daenerys' ruthlessness and unwillingness to abide by the accepted standards of war but unfortunately many people saw it as a "girl power" moment and cheered it.



Randyll Tarly was among Westeros' greatest generals and warriors. During Robert's rebellion he was a Targaryen loyalist sworn to Highgarden and the Tyrells. Randyll was the only man to defeat Robert Baratheon in battle. The Tarlys gave Highgarden much of its military muscle. 

Randyll didn't believe in gender fluidity or non-traditional sex roles. In Randyll's POV men lead and women have babies. Women aren't soldiers. In the books Randyll tells Brienne that if she is raped it will probably be her own fault for ignoring gender roles. However Randyll's also pitiless to rapists and criminals, doling out hangings, beatings, amputations, and castrations like he's handing out candy corn. It's a hard world; Randyll is a hard man. You may recall that, finally disgusted by his eldest son's Sam's softness, obesity, cowardice and general disinterest in sport, war and physical exertion of any kind, Randyll promised to kill Sam unless Sam disinherited himself and joined the Night Watch. Randyll was never going to be up for Father of the Year Award.

But whatever else Randyll was, he was never a coward. Upset by Olenna Tyrell's backing of the "foreign" (actually Danerys was born at Dragonstone-part of Westeros) invader Daenerys Targaryen, Randyll decided that his vows to the throne outweighed his vows to his liege lords the Tyrells. Unfortunately for Randyll he didn't live long enough to reap the fruits of his actions. He made the critical mistakes of (a) meeting the Dothraki in the open and (b) fighting a battle with his younger son and heir Dickon present. The Tarly/Lannister forces were defeated. They threw down their weapons and surrendered. And then this happened. Notice that EVERYTHING in this clip that Daenerys said she WASN'T going to do in Westeros, she later did.




Now as I have said elsewhere this was a mistake by Daenerys both morally and consequentially. It's immoral by both Westorosi standards and our own to murder prisoners who don't join your team. If the Tarly forces had decided to fight to the death like the Spartans at Thermopylae, then yes Daenerys can light them up with no compunctions. But the Tarlys surrendered. They had no weapons. They were surrounded by Daenerys' troops. They were no threat to Daenerys. Did Robb Stark kill Lannisters who refused to call him the King in the North? Did even someone as ruthless as Twyin Lannister kill high value Northern prisoners who didn't bend the knee to Joffrey? The answer in both cases is no.

Surrendered prisoners don't need to have the best accommodations but they should be kept safe and alive. The Tarlys are a rich family. Daenerys could have and should have ramsomed Randyll back to his wife, keeping Dickon to ensure "good behavior" by Randyll. Daenerys can then use that money to hire more mercenaries, more knights, more spies, and buy more food. So by doing that Daenerys still knocks a major House out of the fight, becomes wealthier and more powerful, and gets a chance to convince the heir of that House to see things her way. 

In real life when the Holy Roman Emperor captured King Richard The Lionheart, the English King refused to "bend the knee" or show any deference, stating that no one was superior to him but God. The Emperor didn't burn King Richard alive but chose to ransom him for 100,000 pounds of silver. This was normal business practice when dealing with noble and/or wealthy captured enemies. But instead Daenerys chose to burn two POWs for the "crime" of not joining her team. This is wrong. It is immoral. It is cruel. 

And it was also ultimately counterproductive. When Sam learns that Daenerys murdered his father and (especially) his brother, he runs to Jon to tell Jon of Jon's true heritage. Sam not coincidentally takes the opportunity to put a very negative spin on Daenerys and her stability. Daenerys murdered the Tarlys purely from ego and spite. There was no military need to do so.

Similarly there was no military need to decimate King's Landing. Daenerys did it simply because she was lost in bloodlust and wanted to make everyone fear her. This is thoroughly indefensible. Regardless of what reasons Daenerys had, she committed a generation defining crime in King's Landing. People will remember it for decades. There is a non-zero chance that she killed some of her own forces.

There are a number of historical examples where cities surrendered and were relatively well treated and a few where cities surrendered and still suffered a sack. But even during medieval times there were differences noted between combatants and non-combatants, particularly women and children. Even a man as ruthless and driven as Tywin Lannister pointed out (paraphrasing) that once your enemy surrendered you had to stop serving him steel and fire and help him up from his knees. Otherwise no one in their right mind will ever surrender to you. Wars are drawn out. Daenerys did to surrender what Tywin Lannister and the Freys did to guest right.

Daenerys' actions were similar to those of English mercenary John Hawkwood and Cardinal Robert (later Pope Clement VII) at the sack/massacre of Cesena. Enemy soldiers have stopped fighting. Bells have rung signifying surrender. Daenerys and her forces nevertheless burn the city, murder untold numbers of men, women and children, and rape women (though this fate would also be shared by men and children in some cases).They kill people for fun. They kill people until they get tired of killing or run out of victims. That’s a war crime. In Westerosi culture and the European history which inspired it it was considered foul.

Some people get away with such crimes because they are at the top of the hierarchy or have protection from those who are. That functional immunity doesn’t change the fact that such actions are wrong. Medieval chroniclers and historians talked about the sack of Cesena or Richard The Lion Heart's murder of prisoners or the First Crusade’s horrific sack of Jerusalem because even by the period’s rough standards, many people considered those actions criminal. 


We will see if anyone has the power or desire to make Daenerys pay. But certainly Davos and Jon were horrified by her actions. And neither of those men are shrinking violets. Jon has given Daenerys the benefit of the doubt even when she has threatened him and his sister (now revealed as cousin) Sansa. But faced with undeniable evidence of Daenerys' malevolence and unfitness to rule I think that Jon will act. That is, if Arya doesn't beat him to it. 


Lastly I think it's worthwhile remembering that GRRM was a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War. I believe he's maintained a generally antiwar stance since. War is not just glorious last stands against enemy hordes, cavalry arriving at the last minute to save the day, headlong charges into scattered enemies or righteous revenge against evil doers. 

War is also Russian soldiers sacking Berlin and raping thousands of German civilian women and girls, women POWs, and even Russian women in the vicinity. War is American soldiers raping and murdering Vietnamese civilians at My Lai. War is American soldiers butchering Lakota women and children at Wounded Knee. War is Spanish conquistadors using war dogs on Taino children for fun. Daenerys' actions force us to reckon the true cost of war. GRRM is reminding us of what war is. War is not made nicer because a young woman starts it.
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