Let’s get the disclaimers out of the way – I love Star Wars (including The Last Jedi) and have enjoyed the Game of Thrones novels and television series so much that I analyzed the contents of the books to predict the series’ future. The following article addresses major plot points from the final season of Game of Thrones, so if you’re somehow not up-to-date on the final season’s details… congratulations on coming out of that coma and welcome back!
I’ve had this article in my mind since Dany’s ill-fated destruction of King’s Landing because I lived through many – and let me say again, many – discussions and debates about the adequacy of a prominent fantasy character’s heel turn. Fourteen years ago, the world finally learned what it was the pushed Anakin Skywalker to the Dark Side of the Force, and the response was, “Wait, that’s it?” Ken Tucker at New York Magazine phrased it this way:
Worse yet, after all these years, Anakin/Vader turns out to be a petulant wuss, a brat who chooses evil because he didn’t get the Jedi promotion he wanted. Instead of meaningful anti-heroism, we’ve got this bitter fellow gulled by the ego strokes and patently false promises of Ian McDiarmid’s Senator Palpatine.
For many in my circle of friends back in 2005 (before social media got its clutches into all of us), Anakin’s turn immediately felt – for lack of a better word – lame. We grew up with Vader being the end-all, be-all of menacing villains only to see him ultimately redeem himself by saving his son, Luke, and destroying the Emperor (or so we thought). We were then introduced to the premise that we would see Anakin well before he turned into Darth Vader, and the possibilities of watching him become Darth Vader were intoxicating. The theories about how and why Anakin turned into Vader provided endless hours of speculation for my friends, which were fueled by one of the most-effective movie posters in recent decades.
The Phantom Menace did not give fans much of an answer about why Anakin ultimately chooses a path of evil in his future, though I never understood why the Jedi could not rescue his mother! Attack of the Clones gave Anakin some scenes to demonstrate that he feels misunderstood and held back; not to mention the anger that he unleashes after finding his mother murdered (again, why couldn’t the Jedi help her out?).
I remember talking with friends about “that look” that Anakin gives before murdering Tusken Raiders. That felt like Vader; the scene indicated that Anakin was capable of terrible things, and the relationship with Padme demonstrated his willingness to break rules and keep secrets. It set the stage for his transformation into Vader in the next film.
I encourage folks to watch Revenge of the Sith again for the scenes with Anakin leading up to his ultimate turn. There are numerous scenes that are quite effective as Palpatine, Obi-Wan and members of the Jedi Council take turns manipulating him. The best of these scenes is with Palpatine in the opera house, which continues to be underrated. The audience gets to spend approximately five minutes watching Palpatine entice Anakin. Palpatine lures Anakin with false hope and vague promises, and other scenes in the film portray Anakin’s desperation to keep the love of his life, Padme, alive.
Do I wish there was much more to explain Anakin’s decent in Sith? Absolutely, of course!
I always thought it would have been interesting if Anakin/Obi-Wan/Padme had some type of love triangle that escalated. Instead, Anakin turns to the Dark Side because he’s promised answers from a mentor that has been involved in his life since he was removed from his mother as a child.
Anakin siding with a mentor that demonstrates incredible power and might be able to solve his problems makes some sense, though his escalation to immediately killing children at the Jedi Temple does not. The final confrontation with Obi-Wan still strikes me as a missed opportunity; it’s frustratingly paced with an over-reliance on special effects and spectacle (sound familiar Game of Thrones fans?). I was hoping for the pace of Luke/Vader from Empire and instead we got Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.
I have debated both sides of the Anakin turn over the past 14 years – Was it good enough? Could they have done more? Did it make sense?
During and after the confrontation with Mace Windu, he’s regretful, “What have I done!?” Palpatine christens Anakin as Darth Vader, a villain we had in our lives for nearly 30 years by that point. Sith emphasizes Anakin’s turn to the Dark Side with a scene that clearly indicates the murder of children. The scene with the younglings informs the viewer that – without a doubt – Anakin has turned.
I think his turn feels more satisfactory to me now than it did in 2005. Sith could only be so long, and there are multiple scenes that attempt to portray why Anakin does what he does. Even with 29 years of warning that Anakin Skywalker would become Darth Vader, the execution of that turn felt rushed. It wasn’t enough time – and perhaps no amount of scenes would have been enough for fans to come to terms with Anakin’s move from “conflicted Jedi” to “child-murdering Sith.”
Which brings us back to Game of Thrones and Daenerys Targaryen.
The end of Game of Thrones has been through the Hot Take Industrial Complex (HTIC) and is old news at this point. I know some people that LOVE the ending and others that were varying degrees of frustrated with it. The general consensus seems to be that the spectacle of the show was a feat to behold and the quiet elements of the show that produced the fervent following in the first place were pushed to the side in the end – most likely because the showrunners were focused on — wait for it, Star Wars.
Dialogue decreased, characters jetpacked around Westeros and multiple decisions by major figures felt stunningly short-sighted or out-of-character. While these issues with the show post-source material were not new (the Sansa/Arya/Littlefinger nonsense from Season 7 is just one example), the trends continued in flawed directions and culminated in multiple head-scratching scenes and conclusions that I imagine will feel worse as time advances.
While a dark side of Daenerys Targaryen was foreshadowed throughout the life of the show, she was presented as a sympathetic figure and potential savior who endured cruelty, assault, rape and attempted murder. If the show version of Game of Thrones hoped to illustrate the age-old concept of “absolute power corrupts absolutely” through Dany’s journey into power with any sort of nuance – it failed.
Similar to Anakin’s turn in Sith, it was rushed due to time limitations. One moment she’s accomplished her mission to take over King’s Landing, and the next she goes on a 20-minute murderous rampage. And similar to Sith her turn is amplified with images of her murdering children so we as the viewer know for certain that her turn is real and complete. It felt forced when it premiered and continues to be illogical.
If the showrunners were Quentin Tarantino, then some would rush to argue that D.B. Weiss and David Benioff (D&D) are playing three-dimensional chess while the audience is playing checkers. Perhaps the people that do evil things do not need an elaborate backstory and ironclad reasons; perhaps people get to a point of “fuck it” and 1) do whatever they must to align with a mentor promising unlimited power, 2) rain fire and destruction down on a city of strangers out of fury and perceived loss, or 3) shoot up a school or concert to kill as many people as possible because life is dark and full of terrors.
That would be a worthy discussion to have, that any of us could become “a monster” and hurt other people without a detailed, logical, it-all-makes-perfect-sense-in-retrospect reason for those actions. Being able to identify the reason why evil events happen is reassuring; it gives us the feeling (illusion?) that we can do something about it – that the world makes sense. That is a great discussion to have in the larger context of physical and mental health care. However, I don’t believe three-dimensional chess was being played in the final season of Game of Thrones.
At the same time, I cannot begin to imagine the pressure on D&D to conclude Game of Thrones without the guidance of the person most-responsible for bringing those characters to life. I cannot fathom that D&D ever thought they’d be in a position to finish the story without George R. R. Martin’s source material and direct oversight or that the show would became a global phenomenon with such a high level of scrutiny. I wish they did things differently with the table that was set for them in the final seasons.
Others have taken D&D to task though I’m going to add something else to this discussion – math.
As Game of Thrones rose to prominence as a series of novels and then a television show, fans became attached to the characters. So attached that they started to name their children after those characters.
For example, here’s the data for Arya.
Game of Thrones premiered on HBO on April 17, 2011 and by the end of that year, nearly 500 baby girls were named Arya. As the show increased viewership and gained traction throughout pop culture, the number of parents willing to name their baby girl Arya also increased. In 2018 alone, over 2,500 baby girls were given the name Arya; over 12,000 baby girls were named Arya between 2011 and 2018.
I support this!
Arya is one of my favorite characters from the novels and Maisie Williams was wonderful in that role throughout the series. Arya begins the series as a sheltered child. She endures a parade of tragedies and decides to avenge the deaths of her family by learning as many ways to effectively kill people as possible. She becomes a skilled assassin and racks up between 65 and 100,000+ kills during the series. The bloodshed did not result in parents being less willing to name their babies Arya; the name has increased in popularity over time because she was presented as a hero.
She’s a face. (puns!)
The same trend is found for Daenerys Stormborn of House Targaryen, the First of Her Name, Queen of the Andals and the First Men, Protector of the Seven Kingdoms, the Mother of Dragons, the Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, the Unburnt, and the Breaker of Chains.
While a smattering of parents started to name their baby girl Daenerys beginning in 2011, her Khaleesi moniker rose to greater prominence over the course of the television series with nearly 600 baby girls named Khaleesi in 2018. The graph below combines the data to illustrate the overall popularity of the names for parents.
Less than 30 babies were named Daenerys or Khaleesi in 2011 and this number climbed to over 700 in 2018. The two names have been given to over 3,100 baby girls between 2011 and 2018. Jokes have been made about the parents that used these names for their baby girls. Parents are typically not in the business of saddling their child with a name that’s derived from an evil or morally-questionable character.
Data supports this as another prominent female character in the Game of Thrones, Cersei Lannister, did not inspire a similar level of parental willingness to name their baby after her.
Why the difference?
Cersei is a unique and interesting name like Arya or Daenerys, though Cersei is portrayed as a conniving, sadistic, incestual woman that is clearly depicted as a villainous heel throughout the life of the show. Eleven baby girls were named Cersei in 2017, which aligns with significant developments for Cersei during Seasons 6 and 7 of Game of Thrones. Season 6 featured her locked away after the walk of atonement and built up to her ultimate revenge of blowing up numerous enemies with wildfire. Season 7 featured her wheeling and dealing with multiple characters as she continued to put her interest in the Iron Throne above anything else.
Perhaps those 11 parents saw signs that Cersei might have some “good” in her after all her trials and suffering the death of her children. One thing is for certain, parents did not flock to the name like other characters presented in Game of Thrones. And the reason seems clear; Cersei was presented as a terrible person and a primary heel throughout the series. Meanwhile, characters like Arya and Daenerys were presented as heroes or faces. They were the characters the audience was meant to root for in some capacity.
So to go from that type of presentation and plotting to suddenly have Daenerys decide to become a mass murderer is disappointing. I feel like everyone involved in the show including the actors and actresses deserved a better fate.
Math don’t lie.
(And Force Ghost Hayden in The Rise of Skywalker needs to happen!!!)