Seeds of a Fall: Why three Targaryens followed the same dark path
I resent the term ‘Mad Queen’. It’s quite easy to fall into the trap of its use, that is how our social media world works, but it does a disservice on multiple levels. Obviously and most obtusely, it is an unfair term to use if we want to have a discussion on genuine mental illness. It also ignores what Daenerys has gone through to reach the point that she has. It has been most on display in Season 8, but this is a culmination of eight years of build-up, all of which contributes to today.
The turning down this path is something Daenerys shares with both her older brother and father: the reaction to extreme pain, to emotional and mental anguish, and a great upheaval in their lives. While it might not change the outcome of their actions it does cause us to look again at the darker dragons and question the frame in which we place them.
I, and many others, have spoken about the horrible path Daenerys has had to walk during this season. Fresh off the loss of a child in Season 7, she was quickly subjected to finding out her lover was her nephew, the death of her oldest friend and most trusted advisor, the slaughtering of half of her followers, the death of a second child, and having to witness the execution of her best friend. It seems to pale in comparison but it is worth mentioning this is also at the same time she finds major resistance or open hostility from a people she has come to save. She was a foreigner in her own homeland who was not receiving the credit she should have.
Even considering all of those perhaps the biggest blow to the foundation of Daenerys as a person was the discovery of Jon Snow’s true identity. Daenerys’ life had been built around the idea of Targaryen restoration since birth. She grew up with the idea centred around her brother, which then quickly switched to herself after the events of Season 1. For the entire length of the series it has been drilled into her that she is the rightful heir to the Iron Throne, that it is right that House Targaryen is restored. It has strengthened her, motivated her, driven her. She came from being a slave to a liberator, a ruler, and a queen. To go from Vaes Dothrak through Slaver’s Bay and onto Westeros; to spend every minute of your life climbing a mountain and then arriving at the summit to find someone else sitting there (the man you love, no less). I cannot stress the kind of effect that would have on a person.
Let us also not dismiss that Daenerys’ belief in herself is not only intrinsic. Viserys spent her childhood telling her about how she was half of the remains of the greatest dynasty in the world. Even after his death she heard it over and over, she was the queen, the mother of dragons etc. Jorah, Barristan, the Dothraki…if people tell you something over and over, you believe it.
The end result of Season 8’s horror was a Daenerys who believed her lifelong goal was to be taken away through no fault of her own, who was essentially alone in the world, whose advisors were betraying her, and who was rejected by the man she loved when she needed him most. All those factors, eventually, leads her to burn King’s Landing to the ashes.
Hence, my hatred of the term ‘Mad Queen’. Daenerys isn’t mad. She is hurt, distraught, and at the end of her frayed rope. And we all know why. We’ve been shown, explicitly. Not only does this reasoning cause us to think and look at Daenerys a certain way, it really takes me back to Viserys.
The Viserys we saw in Season 1 was, inarguably, a bad person. He willingly sold his sister into slavery, he physically and emotionally abused her, he was racist towards the Dothraki and was generally pretty jumped up about himself.
But if we are going to ask why Daenerys decided to burn King’s Landing, then we should ask why Viserys was the man he was.
It is ignorant to discard what happened to Viserys as a child. He was just seven years old when, in a matter of months, his brother is killed, his father is killed, he is forced to run from his home, his mother dies in childbirth and then he has to run to a new continent entirely, with the threat of death constantly on his heels. We are much more sympathetic to Dany because we’ve seen what she’s been through. We watched her be sold to Drogo, suffer through rape and slavery, build herself up to become the Mother of Dragons and the rest of her journey.
If we had watched the story of a young boy whose family is murdered and home stolen for him, with his only mission to keep himself and his infant sister alive, we might empathise with him more too.
Again, just think of what Viserys knew for seven years. He had the ultimate security, the ultimate power. He would have been told, likely daily, that his family was untouchable and safe and beloved by the people etc. To have that torn away, to have everything you know be so savagely proven untrue…the effect that has on a seven-year-old is horrible to think about.
Add that onto the aftermath. Viserys’ preteen and teen years were spent with the realization that he was the only one left. Three hundred years of Targaryens and all their history now rested squarely on him. Yes, he had his kid sister, but he likely thought of her only as a future wife (though we can’t deny that he did put exceptional effort into keeping Daenerys safe. From others at least). The amount of pressure would be mind-boggling. Combined with the shame of having to beg around the Free Cities and depend on the kindness of strangers, you, the son of kings, and it is no surprise that Viserys gradually degraded into what we saw on screen.
That doesn’t excuse him for his treatment of Daenerys. He is not vindicated in her abuse because of what happened to him as a child, but it does show how he wound up on that path.
And there are similarities. As pointed out to me in the History of Westeros livestream by listener Tracy McMillan, in Season 8 Daenerys realises the people of Westeros will never look at her in the same way they look at Jon. Back in Season 1, Viserys asks Jorah almost the exact same question. Remember that Viserys as a boy would have been essentially been the Targaryen version of Bran: A second son, brother to the heir. Then Rhaegar dies and Viserys would have had it hammered it into him, again and again, he is the Last Dragon. He is tasked with the reigniting of the Targaryen flame and the claim of the Iron Throne. It is the only thing he can cling to through the years, to say nothing of the schemers like Illyrio whispering in his ear. Then it all gets transferred onto someone else. It’s the final straw for Viserys’ sanity.
Though we aren’t shown Viserys’ past on the show we are aware of it and can piece his path together. Where Thrones lets us down slightly is in the case of the father: Aerys. As far as the show is concerned, Aerys was insane and that was that. There’s no real mention of his own change. The books lay it out much clearer. Aerys was very clearly insane, at a level far past Dany or Viserys. His cruelty and paranoia vastly outstrip them both, as does his delusion in general. Neither of his children dream of building a water tunnel to Dorne, for example.
But having said that, he was completely different growing up. The power and politics of the Throne began to bend him for sure, but it was his abduction in the events in ‘The Defiance of Duskendale’ that really shattered Aerys as a person. He was never the same again and just spiralled further and further down that path. Maybe Viserys would have turned out similar if he had more time to spiral. For that matter, so may Daenerys have.
With the absence of this information in Game of Thrones it allows Aerys to just be whitewashed as simply ‘mad’. Which, in turn, means we can slap the same label on Daenerys without due process. Aerys was insane. Viserys was horrible. Daenerys committed a terrible atrocity. But as with all of George’s characters, there is more than one angle. There is something beneath the surface. For these three, its tragedy.
It is incredibly hard to watch Daenerys as she is. One of the major aspects of the finale I am most interested in is her dealing with her actions. I maintain it will weigh heavily, very heavily, on her soul. Because regardless of backgrounds, Daenerys was the best of these three. She liberated, she saved, she changed half of an entire continent before helping save mankind from walking death. Because we’ve watched her, we love her. Because we love her it is even harder to watch her go through this, the most terrible time of her life.
Now, reputation is beyond her control. Unfair nicknames will sprout. The smallfolk will not bother to look beneath the surface.
But we will. Because we’ve watched her, we love her, and we know her path.