'Game of Thrones': The Cognitive Dissonance of Daenarys Targaryen

When we look back at Game of Thrones' penultimate episode of the final season, "The Bells," many are taking issue the behavior of the dragon queen Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) and her decision to burn Kings Landing down.

There are various theories as to why the sudden change of motivations for a female character on a series with a serious lack of female writers on staff, which The Hollywood Reporter highlights. You can see some of the complaints from various persons on Twitter below, too:



But let's compare what Dany and Jon Snow (Kit Harington) went through to get to where we find them in season 8 episode 5.

'Game of Thrones': The Cognitive Dissonance of Daenarys Targaryen

First when we first meet Dany, she starts with nothing and is presented as an offering from her brother to the Dothraki in a plan to try to take back Kings Landing for their family following the events of King Robert Baratheon's Rebellion. From there, she lost her husband and their child, but gained three dragons. She became an idealist, because she wanted to reform the Seven Kingdoms to abandon their brutal ways and swore to benevolently rule despite the reputation of her father, "The Mad King" Aerys Targaryen.

'Game of Thrones': The Cognitive Dissonance of Daenarys Targaryen

Even with a few setbacks in Essos, Dany eventually won over allies to her noble cause. She was able to handle herself, because she had the backup of her dragons to impose her will. When she locked them away, she found ruling to be more difficult than imagined. Whatever the case is, the dragons always had her back.  With her forces at full strength, they sailed west to meet a greater threat, the undead. Unfortunately, that's where the prosperity ends.

'Game of Thrones': The Cognitive Dissonance of Daenarys Targaryen
Game of Thrones
Season 8, Episdoe 2

Since fighting the Night King's army, she lost one of her three dragons. She lost her sworn protector, best friend, and advisor Ser Jorah Mormont (Iain Glenn) at the Battle of Winterfell. She lost her second dragon thanks to Euron Greyjoy (Pilou Asbæk) and their scorpion ballistae. To top that off, Dany lost Missandei (Nathalie Emmanuel) after Cersei (Lena Headey) ordered her execution in front of the dragon queen.

While Dany did lose Ser Barristan Selmy (Ian McElhinney) in Essos, she still had her advising "family" to support her and tighten her resolve. Now to top those losses and internal strife that threaten her claim to the Iron Throne, her snapping seems somewhat understandable.

'Game of Thrones': The Cognitive Dissonance of Daenarys Targaryen
Kit Harington as Jon Snow, "Game of Thrones" season 1
Photo courtesy of HBO

Now let's look at Jon Snow/Aegon Targaryen. His ambitions were never as grandiose as Dany's. He'll settle for a world ruled by the living that his Stark family can survive in. He was spared much of the Stark-Lannister war due to his commitments to the Night's Watch. He became a renowned figure, because of his uncanny ability for empathy. In his dealings with the Wildlings, he came across a greater threat in the undead led by the Night King. He sold the idea of self-preservation and survival easily to the masses. Despite having already died once for his noble principles, he still stuck by them without any lingering effects from death. He even executed those who assassinated him.

Jon has always been the reluctant hero, and doesn't want the power he's given. Which is why he was more than happy to pass on his possible claim on the Seven Kingdoms despite his natural birthright as Aegon, the last surviving male heir of House Targaryen. Let's look at who Jon's lost:  His half-brother Rob (Richard Madden), uncle and "adoptive father" Eddard (Sean), and adoptive brother Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen).

'Game of Thrones': The Cognitive Dissonance of Daenarys Targaryen

All those deaths occurred when he was still learning the ways of the Night's Watch. Jon still has the one brother he truly cared about in Samwell Tarley (John Davidson). His direwolf Ghost managed to survive the entire series where almost none of his siblings' direwolves did. He also has two Stark sisters in Sansa (Sophie Turner) and Arya (Maisie Williams), and younger brother Bran (Isaac Hempstead-Wright).

'Game of Thrones': The Cognitive Dissonance of Daenarys Targaryen

Jon hasn't sustained the personal losses Dany has. She has no family to go back to. She feels like she's losing everyone so desperate measures are needed to make sure loyalty is maintained and authority is unquestioned. She became the very thing she hated when she swore to break the wheel. She doesn't have anyone who can support her like Jon does. Even when she throws herself at Jon's tender mercy to continue her incestuous relationship with her nephew, he ultimately turns away her affections.

'Game of Thrones': The Cognitive Dissonance of Daenarys Targaryen

For anyone familiar with Niccolò Machiavelli's The Prince, Dany's following the playbook as intended.

" It is better to be feared than loved, if you cannot be both."

This is not an endorsement of Dany's genocide. It's just not that far-fetched for her considering she doesn't have anywhere near the emotional support structure Jon has. The wheel might have broke her. Daenarys' fall is reminiscent of a particular scene in The Dark Knight, when Harvey Dent shared a tragic narrative.

"You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself the villain."

The final episode of Game of Thrones airs Sunday on HBO.

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About Tom Chang

I'm a follower of pop culture from gaming, comics, sci-fi, fantasy, film, and TV for over 30 years. I grew up reading magazines like Starlog, Mad, and Fangora. As a professional writer for over 10 years, Star Wars was the first sci-fi franchise I fell in love with. I'm a nerd-of-all-trades.
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