I realize that gripes about the show’s ending and the Mad Queen turn are nothing new, but there is an angle to this that I haven’t seen discussed: Daenerys Targaryen is the T-Rex from Jurassic Park. …Bear with me on this.
In his discussion of the deus ex machina in Story, Robert McKee puts the T-Rex arriving just in time to fight the velociraptors in his list of examples. That surprised me, partly because Jurassic Park is such an awesome film, but mostly because I had previously misunderstood what a deus ex machina is.
I had thought of it as something like “a thing that arrives from nowhere to resolve the story.” I got an A in my graduate-level Ancient Greek literature course, but still didn’t fully understand the deus ex machina, so that goes to show how rigorous humanities education is these days. (It’s so bad they actually let me be a professor.)
What was wrong with my understanding was the emphasis on it coming out of nowhere. But, if something had been pre-established (and I distinctly remember seeing the T-Rex earlier in the film), then it wasn’t a deus ex; that’s Chehov’s Dinosaur going off in Act III! Oh what a sweet summer child I was.
While the “coming out of nowhere” thing can be startling and confusing to the audience and is its own problem, the real issue with the deus ex machina is as McKee explains:
Deus ex machina not only erases all meaning and emotion, it’s an insult to the audience. Each of us knows we must choose and act, for better or worse, to determine the meaning of our lives. No one and nothing coincidental will come along to take that responsibility from us, regardless of the injustices and chaos around us. You could be locked in a cell for the rest of your life for a crime you did not commit. But every morning you would still have to get up and make meaning. Do I bludgeon my brains against this wall or do I find some way to get through my days with value? Our lives are ultimately in our own hands. Deus ex machina is an insult because it is a lie.
The problem with the T-Rex wasn’t that it came out of nowhere (it didn’t); it’s that it solved the problem for the characters, robbing them of the opportunity to solve it themselves.
I believe that Mad Queen Daenerys is herself a deus ex machina. To understand this, we have to look at what the main problems are that the characters still need to resolve. One is how to root Cersei out of King’s Landing, but the bigger issue is resolving the tension between Dany, Jon, and Sansa and the question of who rules what at the end of the day. If the North gains independence, then the Iron Islands will quickly remember they were already granted independence, Dorne will go after that, the Vale never wanted anything to do with anyone else, and the Reach and Westerlands aren’t exactly on Team Dragon right now. But, keeping the kingdoms united likely means Daenerys and Sansa going to war, with Jon stuck in between. What a pickle.
Then our Ancient Greek stage hands begin cranking the winches, and from behind the stage rises the god of Targaryen Madness. Dany snaps, burns down King’s Landing, challenges General Hux to a best Hitlerian speech competition, and says to Jon, “what if I just disqualify myself as candidate for Queen?”
The characters don’t figure out a solution to their problem, the problem just goes away. Once Daenerys is no longer a viable leader, Jon is no longer torn between her and Sansa. Jon has a new problem, which is how to dispense with Dany, but it’s not only easily solved, it’s not nearly as interesting as the conflict between Dany and Sansa, which has been with us since at least episode 6.10 when Jon is named King in the North.
More Machine Than Man, Twisted And Evil
But wait, since Daenerys is a character, how can it be said that her decision to burn King’s Landing isn’t the characters resolving the conflict? Doesn’t Dany resolving it mean this isn’t a deus ex machina?
No. Not really.
For starters, she burns King’s Landing because she’s gone insane. Now I’m a much bigger fan of the idea that she burns it as a strategic move because she has to establish herself as the unquestioned ruler, but the show’s opening with reminders about Targaryen madness tells us that from the show’s point of view, she’s insane now. Going insane and doing insane things isn’t making a choice, it’s having something happen to you.
…But what if she didn’t go insane and had burned the city as a strategic power grab? Maybe, but not really. Burning the city would be Dany solving a different problem, which is the Targaryen line of succession; she’s proving to the world that she is the True Dragon. The Dany-Jon-Sansa problem is still resolved by simply removing a complex, seemingly impossible problem for Jon and replacing it with a much easier problem.