This story contains spoilers for Season 8 of HBO’s Game of Thrones.
Game of Thrones has ended, and all is well — especially with the long-suffering Starks of Winterfell.
Of course, there is the small matter of why Jon is back with the Night’s Watch — he murdered his lover, queen and aunt, Daenerys “Dany” Targaryen, the self-proclaimed Mother of Dragons who had finally just reconquered her family’s ancestral throne.
It’s tempting to go along with the notion of Dany as Mad Queen, and accept the good feelings that accompany the triumph of the righteous Starks. But what if, instead, Dany is the real heroine of the series, and Jon is the real heel?
Much of the case against Dany depends on the supposed insanity that fuelled her destruction of a city, but I offer another perspective — drawn from Renaissance political thinker Niccolo Machiavelli — to explain why Dany is not “mad” at all, but rather an avatar of cold-blooded realpolitik.
Hardly a ‘crazy lady’
This may be disturbing, depending on your view of power politics, but it isn’t unearned (her development had been long signalled), nor is it a sexist reduction of one of the greatest female characters ever to an emotional, irrational, “crazy lady.”
Dany is making the tragic choices that all political leaders face when it comes to using violence to achieve their goals. What’s disturbing, however, is that showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss chose to depict her acts as irrational, tyrannical or insane.
Even her fans were upset that instead of bringing liberation from the cycle of rich oppressing poor (“breaking the wheel” as Dany phrased it), she used her dragon to immolate most of the capital, even after the symbolic tolling of bells that indicates surrender.
And since she does this in the wake of losing two of her dragon “children,” her two best friends (Jorah and Missandei), and then being rejected romantically by Jon Snow (who is really a Targaryen and also her nephew), many saw her fiery actions as a response to psychological trauma, and the writers seemed to confirm this in the final episode.
Critics pointed out that yet again, we see a powerful woman who simply can’t handle her emotions, and who becomes the “Mad Queen” in a clichéd turn to villainy that can only be explained by her losing her mind. But is destroying a city the act of a crazy woman? Not necessarily, says Machiavelli. While it may be evil, there is a calculated reason for Dany’s decision to rain fire from the sky.
New princes, old problems
Dany confesses her dilemma to Jon privately in terms that echo Machiavelli’s 1513 The Prince, when he discusses the problems a “new prince” faces when conquering a country.
She says: “I don’t have love here. I have only fear,” referring to the affection that the people of Westeros hold for Jon Snow (who is actually the true heir to the throne, but who doesn’t want to rule). And after Jon rejects her romantic advance, and by implication the possibility that they could marry and unite the realm using both love (of the people for him) and fear (of her army and dragon), she says simply: “Let it be fear.”
Machiavelli saw the basic problem of ruling in exactly these terms. In Chapter 17 of The Prince he asks whether love or fear is more important to a ruler, and concedes that while having both is best, at the end of the day, fear is the option to depend upon:
“Because men love according to their own will and fear according to the will of the prince, a wise prince should establish himself on that which is in his own control and not in the control of others.”
But why destroy a city that had already surrendered? Because Jon is her real problem, going forward. Since she would soon face a challenge from those who would prefer him and his more legitimate claim to the throne, only through an overwhelming spectacle of terror can she instil the requisite fear she will need to govern.
And so King’s Landing perished.
This falls under the rubric of what Machiavelli calls cruelty “well-used,” by which he describes a number of brutal rulers — Cesare Borgia, Agathocles, Hannibal — who maintained power despite committing barbaric acts.
Machiavelli gives Dany further cover when he urges a conqueror to do all their evil deeds at the beginning of the conquest, in Chapter 8 of The Prince:
“Hence, in seizing a state, the attacker ought to examine closely all those injuries which are necessary, and to do them all at one stroke so as not to have to repeat them daily. Thus by not continually upsetting the people, he will be able to make them feel more secure, and win them over by benefits.”
Is destroying the city really necessary? It looks reasonable given her growing problem with Jon. But Machiavelli argues that wicked deeds can be the foundation of a stable political order if a wise ruler follows the cruelty with mercy.
There is a feminist upshot to the finale. It is this: the fault for King’s Landing is Jon’s, more so than Dany’s.