Often when a movie or TV show fails, it leaves the audience wondering “What was the point of all that?” This can happen for a number of reasons, but one of the most common is that the story wasn’t worth telling in the first place. When it comes to understanding any audience disappointment in the siege of King’s Landing, it’s very easy to point to the fact that Dany could have just flown straight to the Red Keep and melted Cersei right in the face. True enough, but there’s a deeper problem at work here, and it’s that the writers have given us a story that’s not important.
Understanding Poetry, by Dr. J. Evans Pritchard, Ph.D.
To understand what it means for a story to be important, I’m going to borrow from the fictional textbook author J. Evans Pritchard used in Dead Poets Society:
To fully understand poetry, we must first be fluent with its meter, rhyme, and figures of speech. Then ask two questions: One, how artfully has the objective of the poem been rendered, and two, how important is that objective. Question one rates the poem’s perfection, question two rates its importance. And once these questions have been answered, determining a poem’s greatest becomes a relatively simple matter.
Professor Keating, played by Robin Williams, then calls this method of understanding poetry “excrement.” While Pritchard’s method of evaluating poetry is a bit mechanical, he is hitting on the two most fundamental questions. In Story, Robert McKee expresses the same idea, emphasizing the importance of a “good story well told:”
“Good story” means something worth telling that the world wants to hear.
With that in mind, let’s consider whether the story of Daenerys Targaryen is a good story (keeping in mind that at the time of this writing the story is not concluded, though we my guess with some certainty how it will end). Is it a story worth telling? Is it expressing an important objective?
Good stories challenge us to think about meaningful questions in life. The Great Gatsby asks us about the ability to recapture or escape our past. Star Wars asks us about sacrifice and redemption. Barry asks us to what extent are we allowed to define ourselves (check out Barry if you haven’t yet, awesome new show).
What question is Game of Thrones asking us in Daenerys’s tale? The writers of the show have provided us with (at least) two: What does it take to rule? What happens when a ruler goes mad?
Daenerys Targaryen, First of Her Name
Dany’s story has been largely about the struggles she has faced to become and remain a leader. In her first true act of leadership, she burns a witch alive as punishment for killing (mostly) her husband Khal Drogo. She then struggles to lead her people through the Red Waste, she works to liberate the slaves in Slaver’s Bay, puts off her campaign for the Iron Throne to continue liberating slaves, delays the invasion of King’s Landing to help defeat the Army of the Dead, and then finally deals with how to unseat Queen Cersei. She is constantly weighing her own ambition against the desires of others, dealing with life and death decisions, making compromises to respect the wishes of others, and struggling to balance strength and fairness.
This is the first story, and it checks the importance box. Even though few of us will face the kind of leadership crises Daenerys faced, it still provides us with an interesting opportunity to exam our own moral values. And, more practically, those of us living in a democracy have to decide what is acceptable for our leaders, even if we don’t face those leadership decisions ourselves.
Daenerys Targaryen, The Mad Queen
The second story, the question about madness, has been lingering in the background. We know from the start that her father was the Mad King and “when a Targaryen is born, the gods flip a coin and the world holds its breath.” While we haven’t seen Daenerys acting “insane,” her willingness to dish out fire and blood does hint at something dark going on inside. She seems to revel in the power she has to destroy anyone she views as an enemy. We can view madness in this context as being either losing your mind, or alternatively losing your soul — think of madness as losing your humanity.
The second story is not one worth telling. That isn’t to say stories about madness aren’t worth telling. Breaking Bad and Fight Club both deal with madness and were excellent. So how is it that the story of Daenerys’s madness fails?
Agency and Relatability
We can see what’s missing in this story by looking at how Breaking Bad and Fight Club succeeded.
In Breaking Bad, Walt deals not with losing his mind, but with potentially losing his soul and the quest to redeem whatever of it he can. In this story, he is an active character, appreciates the consequences of his choices, and each of his decisions pushes him closer to either madness or to regaining his humanity.
In Fight Club, the narrator is balls out crackers from the get-go, and the character has basically zero agency over this. He’s not even aware of it for the vast majority of the story. But, the madness angle works because it’s so relatable. Most of us don’t have a psychopathic terrorist alter-ego, but that’s not what makes it relatable. The cause of the madness does. The narrator’s madness is a response to the banality of consumer culture and to working as a willing cog in a heartless corporate greed machine. That is very relatable, and though the madness has an external cause, the story is about actively responding to it.
Back to Daenerys, we can see what’s gone wrong with her madness tale. She doesn’t control whether she loses her humanity or not the way Walter White does. The question of madness is largely fatalistic and determined by outside events: the gods flip a coin, Drogo is murdered, her dragons are killed, Missandei is executed, Jorah dies in battle, she is betrayed multiple times, people love Jon more than her, and Jon has a better claim to the throne erasing a giant part of her identity. Nor does she take an active role in the madness tale when she dishes out fire and blood — from her point of view, this is justice. She is not actively abandoning her humanity, she mistakenly thinks this is her humanity.
With an unrelatable cause for her madness and Dany not taking an active role in it, the story of her descent into becoming the Mad Queen is not a story really worth telling.
Where the Show Lost Focus
Recall there is a second story here that is worth telling. While there will be plenty to discuss about whether the show has succeeded in telling the leadership tale well, it’s certainly still rates highly on the Pritchard scale for importance.
The show erred by directing us away from the important leadership tale and shining a spotlight on the meaningless madness tale. It did this first by foreshadowing the eventual Mad Queen analog to her father the Mad King, but that may have been largely inescapable.
The real mistake for the show was simply in the introduction. In the “previously on” segment, we’re reminded about the Targaryen coin flip and “waking the dragon.” The show could have put the spotlight where it belongs by emphasizing how Varys’s letters put her chance to rule in jeopardy and giving Varys more justice than a mere summary execution. The question of whether she is right to kill him would be an interesting one — on the one hand he did act to undermine her, but on the other hand all he did was disseminate true information. Should he be killed for telling a harmful truth? What a great way to have us thinking about what kind of ruler Dany will be when the siege of King’s Landing begins, rather than being left with “oh, I guess she’s the Mad Queen now.”