The political science of why Game of Thrones’ Daenerys may be a terrible queen

At the end of Game of Thrones season eight, episode four, when Cersei asks Missandei to say her last words, she only has one word to offer: “Dracarys.” It’s the High Valyrian word for “dragon fire,” and the word Daenerys uses to order her dragons to turn their flames on her enemies.

For Missandei, who was freed from slavery when Daenerys ordered her dragons to kill the slavers who held her way back in season three, the word is a symbol of freedom and synonymous with Daenerys’s rule. But for others, that Daenerys has made her rule synonymous with burning people is the biggest problem with it.

Much of the episode, titled “The Last of the Starks” is spent debating whether or not Daenerys is fit to be queen of the Seven Kingdoms. The Stark kids question whether she’s earned the North’s loyalty, and immediately start spreading the truth about Jon’s parentage. In one of the episode’s tensest and most memorable scenes, Varys and Tyrion have a fierce debate over whether to replace her with Jon.

Varys’s central argument in that scene, in essence, boils down to this: A woman known for burning her enemies, clearly consumed by rage and passion, isn’t likely to make the wisest or most compassionate judgments. Would a queen whose fiercest followers use “dracarys” as their watchword really care for the ordinary people of the Seven Kingdoms?

Varys is right to worry. Game of Thrones seems to be setting up Daenerys for a version of a common real-world problem, one in which successful revolutionaries turn out to be awful leaders.

Dany’s “Dracarys” problem — or why good revolutionaries can make for bad leaders — explained

Earlier in the show, Game of Thrones put in a lot of work setting up parallels between Daenerys’s conquests in Essos and George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq. Both Daenerys and Bush claimed high moral purpose — abolishing slavery and toppling a dictator, respectively — but were so clueless about the aftermath of their wars in foreign lands that they ended up facing violent and cruel insurgencies (remember the Sons of the Harpy?).

Now, Daenerys is back in her native Westeros, leading a faction in a civil war rather than an invasion of a foreign country. She’s a revolutionary, working to overthrow the Lannister dynasty and install a new government — one that is hostile to “tyrants,” as she says this episode — in its place.

The problem, though, is that this kind of revolution can often replace old tyrannies with new ones. The classic examples here are 20th century communist revolutionaries like Vladimir Lenin, Mao Zedong, and Fidel Castro — leaders who seized power in the name of the people, but ended up building structures that oppress them.

Research by scholars Jeff Colgan and Jessica Weeks suggests that these equally oppressive outcomes are not not accidents. Revolutionary leaders are often aggressive, and work to consolidate power in their own hands after the revolution. They tend to build what political scientists call “personalist” dictatorships — political systems where ultimate power is concentrated in their hands and their hands alone — and then use that power to repress political opponents and wage war abroad.

“The same characteristics that allowed revolutionaries to succeed in their domestic struggle,” Colgan and Weeks write, “also make such leaders more likely to initiate international conflict once they have obtained office.”

Daenerys fits this pattern to a tee. A woman whose iron will and ruthlessness allowed her to rise to power on Essos, and to eventually win most of Westeros to her cause, she’s clearly an effective revolutionary. But that same will to power makes her unwilling to share it, and that same ruthlessness makes her willing to go to extreme lengths to punish her enemies. Any innocents who get hurt along the way are just collateral damage.

This is clearly the final major conflict the show is setting up. Once Cersei is dispatched with — and, let’s be real, she will be dispatched with — the struggle for the shape of the post-war order will begin.

Daenerys is clear on what she wants: a personalist-style system where she is the unquestioned queen. But even her allies are starting to openly wonder whether that would be good for anyone else. “The Last of the Starks” was almost entirely foreshadowing for that ultimate conflict — the one between our heroes — in addition to setup for next week’s battle at King’s Landing.

Daenerys’s behavior this episode — her impulsive dragon charge, her desire to burn King’s Landing before her advisors persuade her not to, her pleading with Jon about how the throne is hers and hers alone — sure suggests that she shouldn’t win this final war.