Game of Thrones fans were not happy with Daenerys Targaryen’s “Mad Queen” arc, but it could have been fixed if it had only had more time to develop. The series finale concluded with Jon Snow riding north into exile after stabbing Daenerys in the heart, putting an end to her fiery conquest. It’s an ending that probably looked good on paper (or in George R.R. Martin’s outline), but ultimately left a lot of fans dissatisfied. Wondering where it all went wrong, fans and critics have pointed the finger at Game of Thrones’ creators/writers, David Benioff and Dan Weiss.
Benioff and Weiss made the decision to shortened the show’s final two seasons from its usual ten episodes to seven, and then six. The resulting seasons have been branded as rushed and contrived; a series that once prided itself on intricate storylines, secrets, and historic parallels became more concern with hurriedly tying up loose ends. Fan frustration with the final season was renewed when Benioff and Weiss recently appeared at the Austin Film Festival to answer questions about the show. They elaborated on their lack of experience writing for television, an initial pilot that never aired, and equated Game of Thrones’ production to that of “an expensive film school.” The Q&A begs the question: how could George R.R. Martin’s outline, and in turn the show, have been handled differently?
The first four seasons of Game of Thrones were pretty faithful to George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. The former’s story caught up with its source material and then succeeded it. Moving forward, all Benioff and Weiss had as a reference was what Martin had told regarding where the story was going. They were then tasked with getting their characters from point A to point B in a way that felt organic. If this ever proved to be a problem, it was in the show’s final season. Some characters made uncharacteristic decisions (for example, Tyrion hiding in a crypt from an enemy that is known to bring the dead back to life), and became a shadow of their former selves. However, perhaps no character suffered from the final season’s missteps as much as Daenerys.
The Problems With Daenerys’ Mad Queen Arc
While it’s easy to imagine Dany going mad, the show doesn’t seem to give enough evidence to support her turn. At the beginning of her story she is living with her abusive brother Viserys as a political refugee – the daughter of a “Mad King’ that was overthrown. Her father’s madness was likely a result of generations of inbreeding (something the Targaryens are known for), and a popular saying in Westeros is that “when a Targaryen is born, the gods flip a coin.” King Aerys II’s insanity manifested itself in rage and paranoia, as he burned anyone and everyone who defied him. While Dany adopts her father’s favorite form of punishment, she doesn’t do so recklessly (at first).
Dany’s circumstances are not her fault. She was a child during Robert’s Rebellion, and after being left alone and in a foreign land, she puts her body and mind on the line in order to rise from the ashes (if you will). We are meant to sympathize with her character from the start, given her ill treatment by her brother Viserys and her forced marriage to Khal Drogo. When Drogo eventually murders her brother, Dany isn’t saddened by his death, and the audience was cheering it on as well. Later in the show, Daenerys uses her unsullied army to free Meereen, crucifying 163 slavers for the 163 slaves that suffered the same fate at the hands of their masters. Though she might seem cold towards Viserys’ death and inflicts great suffering on the slavers, these punishments are framed as being justified by a crime.
Daenerys exhibits strength as a ruler, drawing lines in the sand when she needs to. It is only when she gets to Westeros that her decisions become less pragmatic. The show’s final seasons offer up moments that foreshadow Dany’s surrender to Targaryen madness, but it’s not all that overt. The first instance occurs when she takes back Highgarden; the defeated Randyll and Dickon Tarly refuse to bend the knee, so Dany burns them alive (much to the dismay of Tyrion).
The following seven episodes attempt to convince the audience that Daenerys’ relationship with her nephew, Jon Snow, the deaths of Jorah Mormont and Missandei play a pivotal role in her alienation. As Aemon Targaryen says in season 5: “A Targaryen alone in the world is a terrible thing.” But in season 8, the idea of Daenerys being dangerous and unstable is spoon-fed to the audience by Varys and Tyrion before she’s really done anything wrong. Even Varys’ fiery execution is justified, considering that he was plotting treason and trying to have Daenerys poisoned.
In this way, we are never completely let in on Dany’s state of mind or thought process. Season 8 had a noticeably more expressive performance from Emilia Clarke, but there was only so much she could do with the material she was given. Being told that Daenerys was losing her mind instead of actually being shown it left fans in disbelief when Dany decided to burn the entirety of King’s Landing to the ground for seemingly no reason. She zig-zags across every inch of the city, seemingly ignoring Cersei and the Red Keep in favor of slaughtering innocent women and children. The writers attempted to explain Dany’s thought process in the after-episode featurette, but that really shouldn’t be necessary if a story is told well.
Game Of Thrones’ Deleted Scenes Would’ve Improved Daenerys’ Story
Last month, the season 8 scripts of Game of Thrones became available to read at the Writers Guild Foundation library in Los Angeles. Those scripts revealed a handful of scenes that were cut from the season’s final product. Some of these scenes would have better developed Dany’s character and descent into madness.
The first most notable scene would’ve taken place in episode 4,” The Last of the Starks.” After defeating the Night King and the army of the dead, everyone is celebrating at Winterfell. In a deleted scene, Grey Worm and Missandei flirt at the feast, which Dany witnesses. Another scene was cut in which Missandei pretends to be sick so she can join Grey Worm after Dany dismisses him. In the wake of these moments, Dany’s later scenes with Jon Snow, when she learns his true identity and he rejects their romantic relationship, would have been more impactful. Seeing Dany alone, witnessing the love shared by two of her closest friends, would have further driven home how alone she feels. Missandei’s death would’ve then had an even greater effect on Dany’s psyche as she navigated her tumultuous relationship with Jon Snow.
The second scene that was trimmed down is between Jon and Dany after Varys’ execution for backing Jon’s claim in episode 5, “The Bells.” That exchange originally featured a lot more dialogue between the two characters; when Dany asks Jon if “that’s all I am to you,” in the script he replies, “no.” The resulting stage direction is much more ambivalent than what was shown in the actual episode. Regardless, tiny moments like this would have gone a long way towards making Daenerys’ descent more convincing.
The final scene that never made it to air shows Dany on Drogon after she makes the decision to massacre a city. Although it contains no dialogue, the scene would have contained a closeup of Dany as she stares at the exterior of the Red Keep. Seeing the Lannister lion sigil in the windows instead of her family’s Seven-Pointed Star is stated by the script as a “symbol of everything that has been taken from her” and something that “drives her to fury.”
Daenerys’ Mad Queen Arc Needed More Than Just Season 8
Even incorporating these deleted scenes probably wouldn’t have been enough to fix Daenerys’ unconvincing season 8 arc. Dany is a rational, strong, and kind character for seven and a half seasons (arguably longer), and even with longer running times per episode, there simply wasn’t enough time to do justice to what could have been an incredible transformation. Daenerys’ “Mad Queen” arc is unfortunately just one major symptom of Benioff and Weiss’s decision to truncate Game of Thrones’ final two seasons.
Even if season 8 consisted of the usual 10 episodes, things may have better… but not perfect. Daenerys’ transformation into a monster wasn’t the only plotline that felt rushed. Had Game of Thrones also taken the time to properly address everything else – such as the White Walkers and Cersei’s downfall - there still may not have been enough time to do Dany’s arc justice. Game of Thrones really needed to start setting up her turn more before season 8, or have another season that could be fully given over to it.
George R.R. Martin has openly said that he believes there was enough material in his novels to warrant many more seasons of the show, and the amount of detail in A Song of Ice and Fire makes the overall narrative more convincing. Hopefully the books at least will offer fans a narrative that does its characters justice; characters like Dany, who ended her journey in the same place she began: alone in the world.