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“Foreshadowing Is Not Character Development” Video Explains What Went Wrong With Daenerys on Game of Thrones

The excellent video series Trope Anatomy has a spot-on look at how Game of Thrones‘ season 8 development of Daenerys was mangled. It’s not that Daenerys’ mad turn was a totally unthinkable outcome for her—it’s that real character development and skillful narrative building are crucial to accepting how a character gets from point A to point B. Foreshadowing alone isn’t enough, and implying that something could potentially happen does not make it convincing when it comes about half-baked.

It’s fascinating that Trope Anatomy’s video was made right before the final episode of the season aired, and yet all of the Dany analysis here is accurate for what happens in the finale. I guess when you’re an expert in how tropes are handled, it’s not hard to predict how arcs may play out. The video spoke to me because I can’t stop thinking about how the show went so wrong where Daenerys’ rushed conclusion was concerned.

The video focuses here on a keen sense of missed opportunity in terms of Daenerys’ storyline. “What really bothers me is that the showrunners knew they had to get her from point A to point B, and instead of taking a route that is thoughtful and a clear logical set of events, they took a route which is rushed and lazy, which therefore gave us an endgame for her that feels unearned,” Trope Anatomy explains. It’s not the content of the ending for Daenerys, but rather the way that the show got there, that they find at fault in terms of narrative. (Of course, we can also take issue with the content of that end, too.)

A profound change of character was lost in the hurry to move Daenerys to where she “needed” to be. That alone is something to mourn, because if we had to watch Daenerys become the Mad Queen, we at least could have seen it done with flair and conviction: “This could have worked and it could have been amazing. Not in the sense that I would have enjoyed seeing large-scale war crimes committed, but in the sense that we get to go on a journey with a character that is unlike anything we have seen from something this popular. Yes, we have seen good turn evil before, but I don’t think I’ve seen it quite like this.” Yet after eight seasons, Daenerys’ abrupt speeding to a war criminal end did not convince us to accept how we arrived here, because the character choices did not align.

The video further explores that several of Game of Thrones‘ shocking twists of the past, like Ned Stark’s execution or the Red Wedding, “always laid out a convincing argument for why it happened. And that’s what great writing does. It makes you think of the downfalls as being a result of the characters’ actions or a clear set of events.” We track over how Ned Stark’s death came about and how we might have felt outraged about it—but outraged because we were emotionally invested and felt that death and the circumstances around it deeply, not because it seemed like an unearned moment in the show. “There is no arguing against that progression.”

Trope Anatomy further posits that many of the decisions with long-lasting ramifications on Game of Thrones “weren’t pinned on foreshadowing,” they were choices that seemed to arise naturally for the characters, for good or ill. Of the Red Wedding, “It was painful and tragic, but it wasn’t stupid. It wasn’t lazy,” and frustrations fell on the characters rather than the writers.

While it’s true that theoretical “seeds were planted” for Daenerys becoming the Mad Queen through actions she took that were sprinkled throughout the show, it’s not enough to scatter those seeds. They still need to be nurtured and made to grow in a convincing fashion.

Daenerys’ actions that could be cold or heartless in the past still don’t clear the way for the total flipped switch of her becoming the Mad Queen. In the video, we revisit that Daenerys was quite straightforward with threats of burning cities to the ground and taking what is hers with fire and blood throughout the series. But formerly the audience was made to cheer these declarations and was on her side, whereas at the end we’re meant to see them as signs of being utterly unhinged and the reason she must be stopped.

“So I’m not going to say that mad, ruthless Daenerys has come out of nowhere,” the video continues, of Dany’s former activities involving dragons burning people alive and crucifixions, “but I’m also not going to say that what we’ve seen in past seasons was sufficient enough setup for what happened here.” And there’s the rub: yes, Daenerys has been brutal before, but the world where this happened was hardly Sesame Street. Who hasn’t done terrible things on Game of Thrones? “It becomes less of an explanation of her future when so many characters in the show have been brutal as well.”

Let’s watch Arya feed Walter Frey his children in meat-pie form! “Does that mean then if Arya lost her mind in the span of two episodes, turning into a crazy woman who is massacring a city, that that moment from season six would be sufficient enough?”

Foreshadowing is not character development, especially because for every darker Daenerys moment, there are also “many more where she’s shown being loving, kind, gentle, and merciful. … For every fire and blood speech, there are many where she’s said she’s not going to be the Queen of the ashes.” So for everyone saying that the show “foreshadowed” the Mad Queen, there was just as much counter-foreshadowing that she wouldn’t go down that path. “She’s not her father and she’s not insane and she’s not a sadist,” the video quotes Game of Thrones’ showrunner as saying in years gone by. Psych, I guess?

“This isn’t about actions and consequences, this isn’t about progression, it’s a character being screwed over by writing designed to see her demise,” Trope Anatomy concludes. Most damning is the note we end on, that the lazy writing that got us Daenerys as the Mad Queen wants us to ultimately believe that some kind of inevitable Targaryen genes kicked in. We should accept pre-established familial traits in lieu of actually earning Daenerys’ turn: “The only development to this was to take away everything that she had and blame the rest on genetics.” Do we want to base an entire character arc on the idea that there’s no escaping some kind of inherited destiny?

This whole video is as scorching about what happened with Dany as dragonfire, and all the more apt for coming out before the show even ended. What do you think of Trope Anatomy’s take here? Was Dany’s end earned? Can foreshadowing ever be enough without followthrough? I’d like to imagine that if we get to read George R.R. Martin’s final two volumes of A Song of Ice and Fire, and Dany’s story goes the same way, we’d see a more convincing build to get her there. The show’s tragedy here was its reliance on ineffective shortcuts.

(via Trope Anatomy, image: HBO)

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Kaila is a lifelong New Yorker. She's written for io9, Gizmodo, New York Magazine, The Awl, Wired, Cosmopolitan, and once published a Harlequin novel you'll never find.

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