I admit I couldn’t imagine that things would unfold that way. I did expect Daenerys to bring fire and blood to King’s Landing and burn innocents and soldiers alike (I mean purposely, not as an accident), but not turn the city to ashes after her enemies had surrendered. The more I think about it, though, the more I find it a brilliant idea from a narrative point of view.
It’s pure Shakespearean, because it goes well beyond vengeance or power and explores the depths of the human soul.
And that’s the reason why I find the question simplistic, insufficient and incapable of addressing the mental and emotional kaleidoscope we watched.
If you say Daenerys was simply mentally unstable, you (a) fail to realize the full extent of what actually happened, (b) give her a cheap insanity defense, and (c) end up asking yourself how a character can go mad over half an episode.
If you say burning the city was “a very deliberate decision” (a very absolute and stiff wording), you (a) see Daenerys as nothing short of a sadistic killer (like, say, the Mountain) and (b) fail to get past the surface and appreciate Martin’s geniusness in crafting her character and story.
I think the episode itself offered us the key to understand what was going on inside Daenerys’ mind.
Far more people in Westeros love you than me. I don’t have love here. I only have fear. […] Alright, then. Let it be fear.
Daenerys craves appreciation, admiration, adoration and love. Her hard childhood, her abusive brother and everything she is and has been through has made her obsessively desperate for it.
After spending years in other people’s shadows, she cannot stand being number 2 anymore—not now that she’s the most powerful individual in the world. She wants nothing less than to see everyone’s eyes fixed on her, full of devotion and dedication.
This mindset sounds innocent and “romantic,” but has an inherently dark vein, like all idealisms do. More than the hate of her enemies, Daenerys is worried and enraged by any love people may show to someone other than her.
That’s the crack violence comes in through. It started at a low frequency, with her discontent over her loneliness at Winterfell, Theon’s love for Sansa and Tyrion and Jaime’s relationship.
It escalated when she showed how threatened by Jon’s popularity she is feeling and climaxed with her burning down King’s Landing.
Through this lens, we can attempt a plunge into Daenerys’ mindset when she heard those bells. Did you notice her face before letting Drogon burn the city? She was half enraged and half sobbing.
It was then that she finally realized the hard and bitter truth to the bare bone
No matter what, the people of Westeros will never love me.
Yes, she could easily get down, accept the city’s surrender, greet the crowds and sit on the throne. Game over. But that would be only a half measure and give her no real satisfaction.
It would only postpone the inevitable, as she sees it, because she won the fight for the Iron Throne, but failed to win the fight for people’s hearts. In fact, the bigger her success (she single-handedly destroyed the entire Lannister army), the deeper the terror in everyone’s eyes. Oh, the irony…
And then came the next thought:
If I cannot have you, no one will.
Sadly, quite a lot of people think that way. They hurt others not because they draw pleasure from it, nor for any material gain—in fact, sometimes by doing so they undermine themselves.
But they simply cannot stand the idea of not having the emotional satisfaction they yearn for. They cannot let others go on their way, because they feel they need them.
They are possessive and can turn violent and unpredictable at any sign of disloyalty. For God’s sake, there have been husbands who killed their wives (and vice versa) over that.
That’s neither madness in the classical sense nor a deliberate decision—it’s a complicated, self-contradictory and tragic dive into the darkest corners of the human mind.
On a side note, I think the showrunners handled Daenerys’ fall mediocrely—they knew what was about to happen, because it’s all Martin’s plan, but chose to whitewash her for too long, and now the thousands of fans who took her at face value are asking for their heads on a platter.
That being said, I think her character arc is clear despite the problems and will make even more sense in the books. There, I expect her to face fAegon instead of Cersei.
The lad is going to be a popular and capable ruler, as has been prophesied: “A cloth dragon swayed on poles admidst a cheering crowd.” Daenerys will burn down King’s Landing when she understands that the people prefer him over her.
The show simply split fAegon’s role between Cersei (the opposing ruler) and Jon (the one people love).