I’m going to have to start numbering these puppies or something.
Episode Four was so epic that it just keeps on giving. I’ve already stated my opinion that this sequence is one of the greatest battles ever on TV, and probably one of the greatest in any sort of cinematic presentation, period. The editing and beats just keep you riveted to the screen, and our prior commitments to characters on both sides leave us in an ambiguous state of wanting everyone to win, or at least survive, simultaneously.
But online controversy about the sequence has sprung up like toxic weeds in a fair garden. Some people, it seems, accuse Dany of being the “Mad Queen”, as her father was the Mad King Aerys, whose hobby of burning people set off Robert’s Rebellion in the first place, for burning Lannister soldiers in the battle. Some of the criticism seems somehow tangled up with snarling diatribes against progressives, feminists, “SJWs”, and blab blah blah, as if Dany is somehow some man-hating feminist icon and anybody who roots for her is a limp-wristed, hypocritical “librul” who cheers when manly men are barbecued.
That kind of rant is too deep and convoluted for me to try to refute or even unpack here and now. I’m going to focus instead on what I think Dany, as a character in the show, was trying to do in the Loot Train Battle, and maybe guess what show-runners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss were up to by having her do it. And the best way I think I can do that is to compare Dany to the real mad Queen in the show, Cersei Lannister.
By now almost everyone hates Cersei. I mean, holy shit, this is a woman who’s one redeeming feature, often noted by other characters in the show, was her love for her children, and now they’re all dead. She blew up (with wildfire, note) the Sept of Baelor without batting an eyelash to settle the hash of her political foes, along with that of doubtless thousands of innocent bystanders. Her treatment of Ellaria Sand and Tyene is not only the action of someone who’s never heard of “blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy”, but who would have thought it silly clap-trap if she had. She has usurped a throne to which she has no right by terror and force, and now believes she can do what she wants precisely because she sits on the Iron Throne. Lastly, her one remaining emotional attachment to the world of human beings is her incestuous relationship with her brother, in which she plays the role of emotional vampire on Jaime’s genuine affection for her– a parasitism to which Jaime’s starting to get wise.
Dany, for her part, is not without sin. She has at times acted impulsively, even cruelly. She arbitrarily put to death leading masters of Meereen as an act of vengeance. She has at times been willing to engage in deception. She lately has been displaying a distinct tendency toward political theater and intimidation, as well as a rather unpleasant arrogance toward Jon Snow, et. al., and she appears to be on the verge of accepting the idea that the ends justify the means. Perhaps even more critically, her un-examined insistence that she is the rightful queen of the Seven Kingdoms based on her descent comes perilously close to demanding fealty she has not earned. To put it another way, she needs to rethink the whole ‘bend the knee’ business.
Despite this, there is a qualitative difference between the actions of Cersei and what Dany has done. Cersei has used terror, torture and outright murder as instruments of state policy. Most spectacularly of all, she blew up the Sept of Baelor without regard to the cost in lives, an act perpetrated on largely unarmed (if we disregard the Faith Militant bozos) civilians.
For a moment in Episode Four it looked as if Dany were about to embark on the same path, when she says she will take her dragons to King’s Landing and burn her enemies out of the Red Keep (in the process, note, she quite cruelly attacks Tyrion, virtually accusing him of going easy on his relatives). Critically, however, she does something Cersei has never done– she turns to an outsider, Jon Snow, for honest counsel. It’s Jon who convinces her not to attack the Red Keep– and, I am convinced, is instrumental in redirecting her frustration into another course of action.
Instead, Dany launches her Dothraki and Drogon against the Lannister army. Herein lies the qualitative difference– Cersei destroyed civilians in political vengeance, but Dany attacked soldiers as an act of war. The two actions are not the same at all. The online Dany haters who are trying to establish an equivalency need to rethink their premises, or perhaps, start thinking in the first place.
Cersei perpetrated a massacre. Dany attacked soldiers who were, however inadequately, armed and ready. The two situations are clean different.
Drogon’s attack is horrifying (it does bother me how some people in different reaction videos laugh and cheer when the Lannister soldiers burn. Death by fire is very bad way to go, even for soldiers in the service of an evil queen). It looks as terrible as it would be in real life, as terrible as I imagine getting hit by a pod of napalm would be. As bad as it is, however, it is justifiable. Because this is what you do in war.
War is the business of compelling your enemy to knuckle-under to your political will. The mechanism of war is killing the enemy until they can no longer sustain the will to fight. And killing, whether it’s done with a sword, or dragon-flame, or napalm, or a nuke, is always about turning another human being with feelings and hopes and loved ones into a mangled pile of meat, or, in this case, ashes. That process is always, and inherently, horrible.
To accomplish the crushing of the enemy’s will to fight you employ every implement you have. If you have a weapon to which the enemy has no effective reply, all the better. It could well mean the killing will end sooner. In effect, Dany ‘weaponized’ Drogon, and he’s a damned powerful weapon that probably sealed her victory at the start. This is not the cruelty of Cersei, but the act of a leader intent on victory against a powerful foe. It is not massacring innocents. That’s Cersei’s path. I think there’s a clear distinction between Cersei’s way and Dany’s. I know which one I would pick.
To bring this back to the show as a show, what I believe Benioff and Weiss are doing is, quite simply, being honest about what war is and does. If you try to pretty it up you’re lying about something that should not lied about. B&W are too good a pair of storytellers to make that mistake.
I don’t think Dany is going to be the Mad Queen, not because she is sinless, but because she wants to do right, and listens to those who are trying to keep her on that path. Hopefully Benioff and Weiss agree with me, and will keep on doing so right through the last episode of Season Eight. If they have any problems, they should call me. Really.
PS– I was also going to take on the subject of Dany and Jon, but I spent so much time on acquitting Dany of madness that I don’t think I have the energy to dive into such a fraught topic. On top of that, I’m trying to digest my discovery of the historical fact of avunculate marriage (it’s utterly amazing sometimes what you can learn from Wikipedia– or disturbing, depending on your point of view). I’ll leave D&J as a subject for another post, some other time.