*Spoiler Alert: this blog contains spoilers for Game of Thrones Episode 8.5
Last night’s episode of Game of Thrones packed a punch, offering up one of the most controversial (if not surprising) character reversals in the show’s eight season run. One of the most loved characters on the show, Daenerys Targaryen, took an abrupt shift from queen of the people to flying terror, ensuring her dominance by burning the people to a crisp with dragon fire. While the show did occasionally hint at her future violence and apparently the books build in a great deal of foreshadowing to this shift, Daenerys’ rapid descent to madness did not sit well with a large contingent of fans. This got me wondering, when do character reversals work and why do they often fail to resonate?
When done well, a character reversal can play a seminal role in a fictional series. Think about the number of young adults you’ve seen sporting a t-shirt which reads “Always” since the release of the final Harry Potter instalment. Uttered by the apparent villain Severus Snape, the word “always” signified his undying love for Lily Potter and revealed his honorable intentions throughout the series to protect her son, Harry. Suddenly, Snape’s unkindness to Harry throughout the series made sense (jealously towards Harry’s father) and his allegiance as a double agent for the good side became clear. Ambiguous pieces from the previous six books fell into place and avid fans realized that Rowling prepared the reader for this moment from Harry and Snape’s very first interaction. Unsurprisingly, it became a hallmark moment in the series.
However, Rowling doesn’t always get these character reversals right. We saw this in the most recent Fantastic Beasts film when the character Queenie turned towards the dark side in protest of unfair magic/non-magic intermarriage prohibitions. The intention behind this reversal was to show that unjust treatment can lead otherwise good people down the path of evil. However, to really explore this theme, Rowling needed to lay much more groundwork. The character was underdeveloped and shallow – we were never given the opportunity to sympathize with her over being separated from the man she loved. Also, the script left far too many loose ends, which made the audience feel like Queenie had other options besides suddenly deciding to burn the place down.
A well-executed character reversal makes you feel with the character. In order to be effective, you must understand their logic. It should be a revelation, bringing out dormant qualities in the character. Perhaps the best example is Michael Corleone’s slow take-over of the family business in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. Like Daenerys, Michael begins the narrative as an unquestionably good character. They both emerge from fraught family histories – she is the daughter of a mad king and he is the son of a violent mob boss – but they both show optimistic promise for the future. However, their narrative arcs soon diverge. Seeking to follow in her father’s footsteps (minus the madness part) Daenerys sets down a path to reclaim the throne. In contrast, Michael resists the mantle his father tries to pass to him. The Godfather sets up two contrasting value sets: Michael’s love of his family and his desire to stay on the right side of the law. As the film progresses, his family is ravaged by violence and he must decide what it means to be a good person. Does a good person turn his back on his family or protect it no matter the cost? Thus, he both ascends and descends into the complex role of “Godfather,” a figure who protects his community, but also commits brutal murders. As the character undergoes this change from idealistic good guy to terrifying strategist, he takes the audience with him. We understand every motivation. We even perversely root for him.
In contrast, it’s hard to root for Daenerys in last night’s episode. The character shifted from protector to harbinger of death, leaving many audience members upset and confused. The show failed to devote the narrative time and effort into making this reversal believable (let alone understandable). Part of the problem is a failure to define Daenerys’ value system as a character. In the earlier parts of the series, her motivation seems to be working for the good of the people who serve her. Her sudden lust for power at the expense of innocent people is a shock to the system. This conflict between her wish to do good and her desire for power should have been better developed from the beginning. The show also fails to explore her isolation and desire to avenge the death of close friends who died in the previous episodes. We know these characters died, but the show expects the audience to make the narrative leap that this would lead the character to go mad. Where is the character development?
In The Godfather, the camera tracks close with Michael as he descends into the underworld. His shifting alliances with and estrangements from various supporting characters helps us to understand his changing mindset. The close-up becomes Coppola’s best friend. This leads me to wonder, why did the camera stay so far away from Daenerys last night? While I appreciated the democratic move to show the path of destruction from the perspective of the victims, Daenerys was largely absent from most of the shots during a time when the narrative explodes the most important character arc in the series. Even the minor character Olly got more camera attention and character development when he turned on Jon Snow in Season 5.
Unfortunately, (white) male characters often claim far more narrative space and development to ensure that their reversals are believable. It’s hard not to look at last night’s show – which killed off one queen and assassinated the character of another – and avoid feeling like this is all a ploy to clear the way for a male king in the upcoming finale. At least I can take consolation in the fact that as a character, Arya Stark also experienced a reversal in last night’s episode when she decided to give up her self-destructive revenge vendetta. I’m looking forward to seeing where her storyline takes us in the end.