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How "Game of Thrones" made fans root for a monster

"Game of Thrones" recap with 1 episode left

Warning: Season 8 spoilers ahead

Move over, "Breaking Bad" — there's a new hero-turned-villain on television, and Heisenberg has nothing on the Mad Queen Daenerys Targaryen.

Many fans have found it easy to root for the character familiarly known as Dany over the years. The would-be heir to a stolen throne, exiled to a distant land and harried by assassins sent by her family's usurpers, forced to beg for scraps at her abusive brother's side, the Dragon Queen started with nothing but a name. Over eight seasons of HBO's "Game of Thrones" (not to mention the so-far five full-length novels on which the series was based), Daenerys clawed her way up from the bottom, overcoming the longest of odds and slowly accruing power while earning herself a reputation as a freer of slaves, a breaker of chains, and a maternal messiah to the common people.

Daenerys Targaryen from Game of Thrones
Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen in "Game of Thrones." Courtesy of HBO

Sure, Dany had a cruel side. She's burned and crucified those who stood against her, free from remorse in her self-assured righteousness. Madness runs in Targaryen veins, according to "A Song of Ice and Fire author" George R.R. Martin. "Every time a Targaryen is born, the gods flip a coin," Martin has his characters say. In "Game of Thrones" season 8, episode 5, "The Bells," we found out on which side — greatness or madness — Dany's coin fell. Unfortunately, it wasn't the side of greatness.

With the help of Jon Snow and the armies of the North, Daenerys the Dragon Queen did what her advisors had said was impossible: She conquered King's Landing with minimal bloodshed. Then, for reasons that are as myriad as they are vague, she chose bloodshed anyway. Driven mad by grief, loss, paranoia, anger, hatred, and years of desperation, flight, ridicule, and abuse, Daenerys burned King's Landing to the ground, street by street, killing tens of thousands of innocent souls in a fit of insatiable bloodlust that seemed to go on forever.

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Daenerys and Drogon left a path of destruction in last Sunday's episode of "Game of Thrones." HBO

The episode, directed by Miguel Sapochnik, gave fans several long-awaited payoffs, from Cersei's death to the much-hyped "Cleganebowl." But it also accompanied several characters through the massacre, giving fans a street-level view of the carnage their beloved queen had chosen to wreak.

Among the fans who closely scour the page, the screen, and the internet for clues and theories, the most cynical believed this was inevitable. The foreshadowing has been there all along, and even if these last couple of seasons have felt rushed, this was the ending the series would have always reached regardless. But the reason it stings so badly for some fans is that it didn't have to go down this way. Dany was so easy to adore not in spite of the spark of madness that only needed a little fanning to inflame, but because it always felt like she had the capacity to overcome it. She could "break the wheel," as the character has said.

But when confronted with the easy victory that she once longed for, Daenerys chose fire and blood. The Dragon Queen elected to tread the easy path to power: She killed indiscriminately in order to rule by fear, because earning the love of the people is hard work.

Dany murdered thousands, but unlike "Breaking Bad," "Game of Thrones" didn't spend its entire run gradually transforming its protagonist from a hero to a villain. Although the clues were there, the actual transformation occurred over just a few episodes. And "Game of Thrones" has no time left for a season of redemptive denouement — not with this atrocity in the second-to-last episode. On "Breaking Bad," Walt saved Jesse in his final act, but with just one final episode of "Game of Thrones" left to go, the best thing Dany can do now is die — and monster or not, the millions of fans who have loved her for years will still mourn.

The last two "Game of Thrones" books can't arrive too soon.

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