‘Game of Thrones’: Emilia Clarke Did Right by Daenerys, Even When the Writers Didn’t (Column)

The fraught legacy of Daenerys Targaryean will live on long after the urgent clamor surrounding the end of “Game of Thrones” has calmed down. The First of Her Name, the Unburnt, Queen of the Andals and the First Men, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, Breaker of Chains and Mother of Dragons turned out to be the series’ most tragic antiheroine, murdered by her lover/nephew (this show!) after she and her last remaining dragon razed an entire city of soldiers and innocents alike. After everything “Game of Thrones” has thrown at us, Dany’s “turn” from righteous liberator to destructive tyrant will probably prove to be its most controversial move. As someone who believes a story about Daenerys getting blinded by her own self-righteous hype would have been a worthy one if only the show hadn’t stumbled hard to get there, I suspect I’ll be thinking about it for a long time. 

There is, however, at least one aspect of Daenerys’ final hours that is completely satisfying — and it has nothing to do with her actual story.

Emilia Clarke, who played this character for almost a decade, had one hell of a tricky job ahead of her in acting Daenerys’ evolution this season. After years of playing her as a paragon of empathy, she had to tap into the character’s latent violent streak — one that the show had heretofore used sparingly to underline her thirst for justice — to rationalize her downfall. She had to retain Daenerys’ intrinsic personality while gradually dismantling it, playing her cards close enough to her chest that The Turn would still come as a surprise. She had to walk an astonishingly thin tightrope to Daenerys’ horrible death, and without more solid justifications for that journey in the scripts, Clarke mostly had to walk that line alone. She sold the depth of Daenerys’ loneliness, fury, desperation, and startlingly fierce love through some of the show’s most obfuscated, confusing hours. Even as final scenes stood on increasingly shaky ground, Clarke nonetheless delivered a titanic performance that never lost sight of who her character was — a feat that stands in stark contrast to the scripts’ weaker attempts to do the same.

Whether or not you believe the show did its job in revealing Daenerys Targaryean: Mad Queen, let’s reflect on what, exactly this final season let her actually do in the leadup to that fateful moment. She spent her time in Winterfell paranoid that everyone was out to get her (which proved about half-true); she flailed her way through the battle against the dead; she watched her closest advisors die; she lay waste to a city after it had surrendered; she saw a bold new future that could be hers for the taking; she died. Laid out that simply, Point A appears to connect fine to Point Z; Daenerys was always single-minded in her pursuit of the future she believed to be the most worthy. In actuality, the show leaned so hard on this basic outline for Daenerys’ eventual demise that it forgot to shade in any nuance or leave much room for her humanity. Daenerys became the show’s purest plot device, reacting to everything less as the person we’d come to know so much as the tragic endpoint the show was working towards.

Missandei’s death and Daenerys’ resulting rage would’ve been so much more devastating if the two of them had any meaningful scenes together beforehand. Putting Daenerys and Cersei in the same room to square each other up, or at least do more this season than glare across a field at each other, might have contextualized Daenerys’ decision to destroy anything Cersei ever touched. And just about anything would’ve been more interesting than watching countless men discuss how nuts Daenerys was in such a way that you could practically see the writers mouthing the words behind them, as to emphasize how it could never be any other way.

Quite simply: When it mattered most, the final season of “Game of Thrones” forgot to let Daenerys drive her own story, stranding Clarke to do much of the heavy lifting in truly crucial moments. Take that excruciating minute of “The Bells” that saw Daenerys hovering above King’s Landing before deciding to annihilate it. Clarke didn’t get a single word to sell the biggest moment of her character’s journey, and yet she conveyed a lifetime of feeling into a single shot of Daenerys trying to breathe through her overwhelming anger before giving up and dive-bombing the ramparts. What’s more, her performance then had to hold up the entire rest of the episode, because we don’t even get to see Daenerys again until the finale, when she’s dismounting Drogon to crow over the ashes — which isn’t until a good third of the way through that last hour, anyway. Instead, we get the Jon and Tyrion Talk in Circles Show, which is about as good a demonstration of who and what “Game of Thrones” always prioritized, in the end.

By the time Daenerys’ final scene approaches, creators and writers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss finally let her speak at more length about why, exactly, she would have made such a catastrophic call. It’s too little, too late; she’s dead within five minutes, having served her narrative purpose. It would be an active groan of a scene were it not for Clarke, who does absolutely everything she can to sell her character’s last moments. She locks into Daenerys’ steely resolve, maintaining its newly terrifying edge with a smile as sharp as the knife that kills her. More important, she calls upon Daenerys’ long-established longing, imbuing her insistence that extreme measures are necessary with a nearsighted, heartbreaking brand of optimism. Handed the task of making one of TV’s biggest transformations ring true, Clarke did what the show itself didn’t: She committed to the turn without losing sight of who Daenerys is, why she mattered, and what actually made her such a magnetic force that she almost broke the world.