Having considered the legality, morality, and expediency of burning the Tarlys, we move from the act to the woman herself. The viewers of the show are unsure of her. No other character is so changeable, so unpredictable. Other characters have changed, and usually for the better, but Jaime and the Hound have changed slowly over a gradual arc. But Daenerys is noble and merciful one moment, cruel and murderous the next.
Daenerys is a killer but there are many killers on Game of Thrones and some are very popular. Bronn kills for money, and he’s made it quite clear he’d kill anybody for the right price. But he doesn’t make the viewers uneasy in the same way Dany does. He’s unrepentant but he doesn’t pretend to be anything he’s not. He has no illusions about being good and he doesn’t hide what he is. Like his double from Rome, Titus Pullo, he acknowledges that killing is a dirty line of work but it’s the one thing he’s good at.
Perhaps her killing troubles us because she’s a woman. Women bring forth life, they don’t take it. We may admire homicidal prowess in a man, but in a woman it’s an abomination, a violation of her sacred function. No, that’s not it. Maybe in the past, but no longer. Brienne of Tarth is hugely popular as is Lagertha from Vikings, and both these women have killed again and again.
We admire Brienne not only as a fighter but also as a person. She’s killed but she’s always killed armed antagonists in the course of a fight. And she’s never dispatched any of her opponents in a deliberately painful or grisly fashion. Arya took both of Meryn Trant’s eyes before she finished him, Lagertha cut off her enemy’s penis, and Sansa fed Ramsay Bolton to his own dogs. All three women killed men who were their enemies, men who’d tried to kill them, men they had every reason to hate. Their revenge, however gruesome, doesn’t seem to trouble the viewer. Some had begun to worry that Arya was going down a dark path but that was because she’ll travel the length and breadth of Westeros to hunt down old enemies but she gives no thought to searching for surviving members of her own family.
Daenerys has burned and buried her enemies alive but the others have taken their own dreadful revenge. But for the other women, that enemy was an individual a man they knew all too well, a man who’d attacked her, raped her, or killed those she loved. Daenerys counts as enemies men she’s never met, men she doesn’t know and isn’t even certain of their identities. For Daenerys an enemy isn’t a face but a group: the masters, the slavers, Robert’s assassins, anybody who opposes her claim to the crown. She’s allowed or ordered the execution of men she didn’t know to be guilty, former supporters, her own brother.
Brienne, Lagertha, and Daenerys are admired because they are women who can contend with men. All three women are redoubtable but Brienne and Lagertha are formidable because they are superb fighters while Daenerys is formidable because she has dragons. But in fairness to Daenerys, she has many great qualities, compassion, rectitude, integrity, warmth.
Viewers were thrilled when she walked out of the flames unburnt dragons perched on her shoulder, when she freed the slaves of Astapor, when she saw Gray Worm, Missandei, and Tyrion for who they were and raised them to positions of power. But they were appalled by her frequent rages, her ingratitude to Jorah Mormont, her pompous declamations. Why does she flash from such kindness to such cruelty? How can she have such laudable intentions but, when thwarted, fly into unthinking fury?
We don’t know whether to love or hate her because we’re brought to love or hate her in turns. We never know which Daenerys we’re going to get. Why does such a fine woman let her anger blaze into tantrums, tantrums that are terrifying because of her propensity for violence and the forces at her command, her host of Unsullied and her menagerie of dragons?
Daenerys is very much like Alexander the Great. The same Alexander who treated the defeated Porus with such magnanimity, murdered one of his best friends in a drunken rage. The same Alexander who showed such kindness to the Darius’ widow, razed Thebes and Tyre for the obstinacy of their opposition. Peter the Great brought Russia into the modern world but he also strangled how own son and heir.
Kings take themselves to be greater than other men but men nonetheless. Their blood and their crown make them special but kings die and princes are born. The King is dead; long live the King. Alexander came to believe himself something more than a man, something more than a king even. He came to believe himself a god.
As Oswald Spengler remarked, Alexander was a vain and silly boy. No man could have his head turned by the flattery of a pack of insinuating priests and fawning courtiers. Yet in the end, Julius Caesar, the same Caesar extolled by Spengler, took to wearing red shoes. When adulation turns into veneration, and veneration to worship, how can any man keep his head, let alone a mere child. In the movie The Man who would be King, a man just like Bronn, a jaded man, a man who’d seen it all and done most of it twice, a man who had no illusions, a man who knew himself and the world for what they were, succumbed to the same illusions.
Daenerys grew up in fear. As a girl she was warned to stay hidden, to trust no one, to watch for danger everywhere. She moved from hiding place to hiding place, sometimes borne off in the middle of the night, fleeing a menace she didn’t understand. She was sheltered but terrified, utterly reliant on those around her but told that every hand was against her. Had she been brought up coddled and spoiled and completely innocent of the world and its perils, it would have been a far better nursery for a queen. To fear without understanding, to depend without trusting is far worse than to grow up vain and selfish and spoiled, yet loved and trusting as Sansa did.
Priests told Alexander he was a god and he believed them. Priests told Peter the Great he was Emperor of a Third Rome, the ruler of the holy and he believed them as well. Daenerys had far more than the encouragement of priests. It was more than words, it was miracles that convinced her she was more than just a woman. She alone could survive the fire. She alone can touch her dragons.
Titles are most useful. Voltaire may sneer at the costly and lavish pageantry of royalty but it is far better to rule through veneration than through terror. We wish that Daenerys should show some hint, the smallest and briefest of smirks, that she knows this long and ever growing list of titles is helpful but faintly ridiculous. But to her these are more than titles. The likes of Tommen is given titles: Protector…Andals and the First Men…Seven Kingdoms…etc. Tommen is but a boy who wears a crown; she is far more than just a queen. Daenerys Stormborn, the Breaker of Chains, the Mother of Dragons, the Unburnt: these aren’t titles, they’re epithets.
The simplest solution to the world’s ills is a righteous ruler who will right wrongs, break chains, feed the poor, strike down the oppressors however powerful they may be. This simple solution has never proved to be a workable one. We check our worst impulses because we fear the retaliation of our fellows. And what if there are no fellows, no equals of any kind. What if there will be no retaliation. From the Squire of Gothos to the monstrous child from It’s a Good Life, the result is terrifying.
Men as intelligent as Beethoven and Hegel were sure that Napoleon was going to found a new order, that he was more than just a conqueror. Tyrion and Varys want to believe that Daenerys will break the wheel, that she’ll fix what is wrong with Westeros, that she’s something more, something better than Aegon the Conqueror.
The fate of the world can’t hang on the beating of one heart. Every Trajan, Charlemagne, Ashoka, Henry IV, is only a short respite from the carnage and chaos. Even if you find that one astounding personality wise and virtuous enough to hold their pride and temper in check, strong enough to curb the mighty and kind enough to succor the weak, that prodigy will get you only a few good years. Men and women, good and bad, come and go. They are born and they grow and they fade and they die, all in the blink of an eye. It’s offices and institutions that last. Tradition holds them up and constitutions set them together so they mutually check and support one another.
In the very attempt to place all our eggs in one fragile and short-lived basket, to center all power in one frame, the king-maker must tear down all of these offices and institutions. For every Trajan, there are a thousand Joffries. The search for a savior who will fix this world destroys the framework necessary to establish a workable and long-lasting government. The workings of such a government are slow, and halting, and prosaic, but every generation builds upon the achievements of the last and what is built endures.