Sorry, but this will go on for a while.
The world that A Show has explored has been an invitation to wrestle with some weighty issues - might versus right (and the dance between them), the idea that noble deeds are not always rewarded (and are just as likely to be punished), the confounding idea that “noble” deeds might have terrible consequences, and an exploration of how ideas and expectations can follow from station of birth and family. I think it is an abdication of this invitation to not make it clear why Dany did what she did to Kings Landing - was it premeditated and tactical, a show of force that would cow the other kingdoms in Westeros to yield to her reign? Was it a fit of pique since her bestie Missendei was killed, or that her nephew no longer wanted to be her lover? Was it from “madness” (the TV version, not the DSM-V version)? I don’t think Season 8 answered that fundamental question.
Dany was right about one thing: It isn't easy to imagine a world that's never been before and, as Tyrion would say later in the episode, almost impossible to create that world without a good narrative. This begs the question of why Dany didn’t try to tell her story to someone, to help them see her vision of what that world could look like. Dany’s definition of victory, of a broken wheel, is so poorly defined that I have no idea what it would entail: No more Cersei Lannister? No more aristocracy? Equitable redistribution of wealth? Is there a scenario where Dany deeply regretted her actions, but that KL needed to be made example of in order to avoid future bloodshed? Not that any of the above would be a legitimate reason for a war crime IMO, but we don’t get to have that moral debate because A Show doesn’t have the time for people to ask or for Dany to explain.
In fact, A Show is in such a hurry to get to the end that Jon isn’t given an opportunity to talk with Dany and find out what was in her mind before he shrugs and kills her. Dany says “it was necessary” to execute prisoners, and Jon doesn’t ask why. Dany says that Cersei “used their innocence as a weapon against me. She thought it would cripple me”, but Jon doesn’t say ‘no, she was using your conscience against you - do you no longer have one’? What if Dany had said “do you think I like this? I feel sick about it. I don’t want power for myself, I want X”, and then she explicitly tells us what X is, what her vision is, what story she wants to bring into reality.
Littlefinger: Every time I'm faced with a decision, I close my eyes and see the same picture. Whenever I consider an action, I ask myself: will this action help to make this picture a reality? Pull it out of my mind and into the world?
The narrative doesn’t have time for Dany to articulate what it is that Dany has as her mental picture when she says “break the wheel”, so her actions (and by extension, Jon’s actions) have no narrative clarity and no moral meaning. This is an unforgivable error. What we here at the Spitball Wall have sought to do, what this grand experiment has been (to me), has been a quest to see if A Show could tell the story it wanted to tell without external resources - cast interviews, the creators putting their gloss on this scene or that, or websites that tell the backstory or fill in the blanks. If A Show was unable to sufficiently lay out what the stakes were and what each actor’s motivations were for something as momentous as Dany’s story this season, then it failed.
The pacing has been a problem all season, and especially this episode. I think that at least most of this problem is the abbreviated seasons. If S7 felt like it was in too much of a hurry, S8 has felt like a series of boxes to be checked as quickly as possible. A fundamental problem with the last two seasons was that A Show had become addicted to unexpected plot twists, but now lacked the time to properly set up the motivations of the characters on both sides of those plot twists. This meant that much of the last two seasons felt random and forced, a shock-for-the-sake-of-shocking narrative that prized surprise and spectacle over the slow build and earned pay off. I suppose some might see Dany's flip to evil as a satisfying upending of expectations, but to me it felt like an unearned "shock" that undid the story of who Danaerys is that she has built up over these 8 seasons.
I now turn specifically to the choice that Dany made to torch KL, and the reasons I think it is out of character for her. I think it makes no sense that the person who a few years ago (in the show timeline) locked away two of her dragons because of the death of Zala, the daughter of one poor man, would be OK with the death of thousands of innocents. Let’s walk thru that history…
In S1, Dany risked her status as khaleesi and the wrath of Khal Drogo's Dothraki army in order to protect a group of women from being raped. Where did that person go?
In S3… Jorah: If you want to sit on the throne your ancestors built, you must win it. That will mean blood on your hands before the thing is done. Dany: The blood of my enemies, not the blood of innocents. Where did that person go?
In S5… Daario: On the day of the great games, gather all the Great Masters and Wise Masters and Worthy Masters you can find and slaughter them all. Dany: I am a queen, not a butcher. Where did that person go?
For a minute, Dany decides to follow Daario’s advice, but Jorah changes her mind… Jorah: Herding the masters into pens and slaughtering them by the thousands is also treating men like beasts. The slaves you freed, brutality is all they've ever known. If you want them to know something else, you'll have to show it to them. Dany: And repay the slavers with what? Kindness? A fine? A stern warning? Jorah: It's tempting to see your enemies as evil, all of them, but there's good and evil on both sides in every war ever fought. Dany: Let the priests argue over good and evil. Slavery is real. I can end it. I will end it. And I will end those behind it.
So has Dany come to see being a peasant in Westeros as being a form of slavery? Are we supposed to believe that her way of “ending” that form of slavery is by killing all the peasants?
In this episode… Tyrion: She liberated the people of Slavers Bay. She liberated people of Kings Landing. She’ll go on liberating until the people of the world are free and she rules them all.
Sorry, Tyrion, but that is BS. After Dany defeated the armada of Good, Wise, and Benevolent Masters in Slavers Bay, she didn’t kill all of the former slavers who were defeated. Instead, she executed 2 of the 3 leaders, who were the people standing in front of her.
I would argue instead that Dany had been moving towards more and more strategic decapitation of her defeated enemies. She has moved from crucifying 100 Masters in S4, to a dozen khals in S6, to two out of the three slave masters in S6E9, to the single head of House Tarley in S7. If Dany was becoming more and more “mad”, wouldn’t she be moving more and more towards the wholesale slaughter of her enemies and those that follow her enemies, even after their defeat? Dany’s most recent victory (over a human enemy) was within about the last year of the show timeline and it was the victory over the Lannister forces at the wagon train. After the battle was won, Dany didn’t annihilate all the former lords and the defeated Lannister army. Instead, they are given a choice:
Dany: I know what Cersei has told you. That I've come to destroy your cities, burn down your homes, murder you, and orphan your children. That's Cersei Lannister, not me. I'm not here to murder, and all I want to destroy is the wheel that has rolled over rich and poor to the benefit of no one but the Cersei Lannisters of the world. I offer you a choice-- bend the knee and join me. Together, we will leave the world a better place than we found it. Or refuse, and die.
All except Randall Tarley (and Dickon, because he is Dickon) bend the knee and live.
In The Bells, the residents of KL and the army defending it also explicitly made their choice known by ringing the bells (like at the end of a fight) and also by putting down their weapons. They are saying that they want to live in Dany’s world. Her response is to turn the city and people of KL to ash. I don’t get it. Because her choice is not explained, then Jon’s choice is incomprehensible, since we don’t know what he is choosing between.
They wrecked Stannis Baratheon. I think there is a big difference between the sacrifice of one child for some promised benefit and the burning of an entire city for no explicit benefit. When I re-watched S5 I could see a few breadcrumbs that might, with a great deal of supposition and filling in of the blanks, indicate how desperate Stannis had become, how the idea of himself as the only one capable of saving Westeros, had made the unthinkable necessary. Perhaps I will re-watch S8 and figure out that Dany wasn’t actually wrecked, that there was sufficient motivation for her turn towards being a mass murderer.
I don’t know if I will bother. And that makes me sad.