Daenerys Targaryen’s death, having considered its possibility myself ahead of Game of Thrones’ final season as, maybe, an attempt to begin numbing myself to its probability, was the one that I ultimately, and apparently, could not convince myself to prepare for. “I tried to prepare you,” my wife said repeatedly last Sunday night after the series finale, “The Iron Throne,” aired on HBO. The week of hypothesizing in between the penultimate episode, “The Bells,” and the finale should’ve prepared me. The five episodes in front of it, in which the show’s writers repeatedly tried convincing us to turn on her, should’ve prepared me. “The Bells,” my God, should’ve prepared me. Though I grew increasingly aware of the suggestion, nothing lessened the blow of when Jon Snow stuck that dagger into her chest and I watched my queen die and a significantly-important show to my headspace end along with her.
We’re never really all the way prepared are we? Enough to control our reactions? When we mess up at work and tell ourselves, and everyone else, repeatedly, “They’re gonna fire me,” it doesn’t lessen the impact of when it actually happens. My boss sends me a document ahead of my annual performance review listing the things we’ll be discussing and one item says “Salary Increase,” but my happiest reaction is not when I receive the document but when he says the words.
After “The Bells,” during which Daenerys successfully takes King’s Landing, albeit by burning it to the ground, there were a thousand articles online predicting she’d be killed in the next and final episode. By who? Who knows. But, killed? Oh, yeah. (In fact, the universe seemed so sure she’d die that the more pressing question related to it was not “Would she?” but “How?” and “By who?”)
I guess I was squeezing onto hope. The hypothesis I latched onto was thinking Game of Thrones could end with a Mad Queen on the Iron Throne. Because why not? Game of Thrones isn’t a show that seemed (R.I.P to seeming) bound to producing a democratic, moral ending. So what if a tyrant is in power, especially one that millions of people, myself included, love and adore. Just because the writers worked in an insane about-face for the character, it being believable (no) or not (yes), I assume most of us weren’t going to abandon her. The writers can play God over their characters, having them turn their backs on her, but we are not their characters. Dany on the throne is a happy ending, a payoff that felt due.
Even more, the odds of her survival were increasing with each passing episode. Game of Thrones, which has treated main characters like set extras in their willingness to kill them off, was actually not killing everybody in Season 8. At the end of “The Long Night,” or the Battle of Winterfell, the episode in which we’d expect a high death toll, most of the show’s main characters were still standing. (Notably, however, not Jorah, one of Dany’s most-trusted advisers. Interesting.) In “The Bells,” Dany mowed down King’s Landing. So, most of the main characters — the one’s fighting with her, which was most of them — were still alive. All of these characters were actually going to survive the series. And they’d survive thanks to Dany; but for a few fleeting moments in “The Last Starks,” that fact goes under-appreciated and unrecognized. It was her fighters, the Dothraki, that charged forward into the darkness, to be mostly slaughtered by the White Walkers, in “The Long Night.” It was also her forces, the Unsullied, that defended the castle at Winterfell when all lines of defense in front of them had either retreated or perished. It was Dany who with Drogon jumped into action first after seeing Winterfell fully under attack, while Jon advised they stay put. And it was Dany who, down to one dragon, buried King’s Landing enabling herself and other main characters to ascend to positions of power.
What became the most frustrating and hardest to accept part of Jon killing her was that nobody paid for it. Dany was the only main character to die in the final episode and she shouldn’t have been. Say whatever you want about Drogon not immediately torching Jon to death when he came upon his mother, lifeless on the throne room floor, but Jon shouldn’t have made it past the episode’s fade-to-black time jump alive — someone else would’ve made sure of that.
The story that played out after made Dany’s death even less agreeable. Good for Arya and Sansa, sure, but you can’t convince me that any of a) Bran becoming king, b) Tyrion convincing everyone it was a good idea, and c) Jon getting away with murder was actually satisfying. It was a kind of long farewell into nothingness. The episode could’ve at least ended at Dany’s death with some finality. I still wish it’d ended with her in power, mad or otherwise.
The scene in the throne room, the place where it happened, killed me (and later would give me “The Lion King” flashbacks). Dany spoke with such hope for the future, with Jon, with such a light in her eyes. In place of the many moments of fear and anger from Dany preceding this, here was, sadly, a final glimpse of the passion and conviction that we fell in love with and the realization of her dream we, too, adopted so many years ago.
Her head jerks back from kissing him; she’s been stabbed. You can read in her face the confusion she’s suddenly so overcome by: Why is this happening? Why are you doing this to me? We see it without her saying anything. She’s shocked and broken-hearted, and she’s been betrayed.
I say nothing.
Drogon wails in the distance, sensing immediately that something horrible has happened to his mother, and comes to her. Seeing her, he screams again. Then, after some symbolic next choices (not to kill Jon and melt the throne), he nudges her body with his head to wake her. Nothing. Nudges again, and still nothing. He carefully picks her up off of the floor, cradling her in his grip, and flies off, taking her away — a very real kind of reaction to such a thing.
My eyes well up with tears.
We never see her again.
My wife tried to cheer me up by reminding me that Emilia Clarke, who of course portrays Daenerys on screen, is actually happily alive in this world. The bittersweet thing about Daenerys’ end is that it’s some of Emilia’s very best acting over the series. While the writing failed to deliver a believable version of Dany’s turn, Emilia had to buy into it and sell it to us, in spite of her presumed feelings about those choices. She was quite successful. The scene in “The Bells,” in particular, when there’s a stop in the fighting and the bells begin to ring, signaling the city’s surrender, Dany’s stationed on top of Drogon, overseeing everything. She hears the bells and knows it’s over. She know she’s won. But without saying anything, with only the expressions on her face and the heavy breathing of her body, we can see — clearly see — when the switch happens, when she makes the determination that the whole city must burn. It’s unbelievable acting, even more so when you remember Emilia’s actual surroundings: In reality, she’s somewhere in a huge warehouse with bare, green-covered walls, riding basically a green pommel horse that’s slowly moving up and down. Nobody of substance is in there with her. She’s all alone, making this scene, this paramount shift, happen. She’s just sitting there and imagining it all, for this most-significant moment in all of the series. And she nails it.
Sometime soon after Dany decided to burn the rest of King’s Landing to the ground, I still felt steadfast in my support for her. It was shocking what she was doing, that she was doing it to everything and not just heading straight for the place she could’ve guessed Cersei was hiding, but it felt like something that was partially happening to her by some higher power, not necessarily a mad choice she was completely in control of making. Regardless, still I felt, after the ash would settle, I was still with her all the way. I still loved the Dany I’d known for seven other seasons, and just because this was happening now didn’t mean all those other parts of her had been lost. “Will always ride or die with Daenerys, don’t matter,” I’d write in a tweet soon after the episode. I was still there rooting for her to realize her dream, having come this far on her journey with her. She’s the queen I chose long ago and I’d follow her to the end.
There’ve been many angry writings about what the show did to her. I’ve been angry, or disheartened, or something, too. But I assume the cultural dialogue about Game of Thrones sooner or later will turn from currently-critical to celebratory. It’s a show worth cheering, after all, for all that it was to us. Come awards season, at the latest, we’ll remember that. We’ll remember that Peter Dinklage, as frustrated as we are with Tyrion in the wake of the finale, was brilliant again this season. We’ll remember the spectacle of it all, a level of which won’t soon be approached again. When I remember the series, I’ll be thankful for it. I’ll remember Arya and Sansa, dragons, shape-shifting, wildfire and many, many more incredible Sunday night thrills and Monday morning conversations. I’ll remember Daenerys, the queen of my dreams, not for who she became but for who she really was.
I missed that queen this season. I miss her still now.