Emilia Clarke: Daenerys’s ‘Game of Thrones’ Turn ‘Was a Huge Shock’

Daenerys of the House Targaryen, the First of Her Name, Destroyer of the Realm — doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, does it?

A seemingly heroic character (and fan-favorite feminist icon) throughout much of “Game of Thrones” turned out to be an arch-villain, ready to take over the world in the name of “liberation.” It was a move that stunned, confused and enraged critics and fans alike, largely because her perspective wasn’t shown.

Why did she incinerate scores of defenseless people? Had she gone insane? Were her mental faculties affected by poison? Was she really that upset that the people of King’s Landing didn’t give her a crowd-surfing reception, as she had received in Yunkai? Or that they didn’t overthrow Queen Cersei on her behalf?

The show’s answer, provided in Sunday’s finale, was that we are all complicit for Dany’s actions. We who cheered her on as she did awful things to awful people, like crucifying slave masters and incinerating Dothraki khals. Emilia Clarke wondered why she was directed to act a little colder, a little harder during those moments — where was Dany going with this?

[Read our recap of the series finale.]

Clarke discussed coming to terms with Dany’s tyrannical turn in the show’s final episodes during a brief phone call on Tuesday from London, where she hosted a “Game of Thrones” finale party for her SameYou neurorehabilitation charity. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

How was your finale party?

I had a screening of it with lots of friends and loved ones and some very delightful charity winners, because I did this Omaze thing, raising money for my charity. That was the purpose of it, and then I was like, “Well, if we’re going to have a screening, I might as well invite everyone I know and love.” So I did! [Laughs.] So it was really magic to have people there, and have my besties hold my hand as we watched it. And also, finally, I got to say all of the things that I’ve not been allowed to say to anyone I know for such a significant amount of time. “What a bastard! I can’t believe he killed me.”

What was it like to see that great and terrible image of the wings behind Dany’s back?

They had hinted to me that was what they would do, with the dragon wings. But as with everything, I had no idea that it was going to look the way that it looks. Your imagination is nothing compared to the incredible people who do our special effects work. It’s ridiculous. It’s mind-blowing. It’s incredible. I don’t think I’ll ever get such a good entrance to a scene ever again! It was a relief to have it out and done, but I must admit, it feels very surreal.

How so?

There is a sort of closure that you can only get when your character is dead. And so watching her death was cathartic, in some really weird way, because it’s like I now move on from the show, knowing that the character had a beginning, middle and an end. That’s helpful in the process of trying to comprehend what this has been, which I won’t fully comprehend until I’m 92, if I live that long. It’s too vast.

A lot of people are struggling to comprehend it. A lot of people are upset.

I can’t even comprehend what it’s like for the viewers, because I’m only just realizing what Daenerys was for me, and everything that was wrapped up in that. And obviously, you’re living with the character for 10 years, you want her to go out with a win! You want her to be right! You want all the soul and heart you poured into her to have a good end. If you asked any member of the cast, they would say they want that for their own character. You can’t help but take on your character’s hopes, dreams, wishes, desires, all of it.

Did the showrunners ever tell you to insert any ambiguity into your performance, even if you didn’t fully know where Daenerys was going?

It’s more that I was just as naïve as she was, in terms of the fire and blood she showed her enemies, which, up until this point, were all baddies. I didn’t play them thinking, “One day this is going to get out of control!” I played it as her doing what she was doing in order to achieve what she most desired.

With Daenerys all of her history leads up to this moment, because she has nowhere else to go. We are the summation of the experiences that we’ve had; the choices we make are because of those experiences. She was on the run. She never knew her parents. Her brother abused her. She was married off to a warlord, sold as a slave. At every turn, she had to make all of these sacrifices. And so of course, she hits these people with the theory that she has, because she’s finding her own strength, testing her strength, and it’s met with applause. It’s met with, “Yes, you’re right.” It’s met with, “You’re providing justice to many.” But with every small action that she makes, she’s moving closer to this final series of events. So every time [the showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss] told me Dany had a Lawrence of Arabia arc, that they wanted her to be cold and hard and unforgiving with her enemies, for a minute, I thought she might turn around and do something horrible.

How did that change once you knew? Once you saw the scripts for the final season?

I can say that it was a huge shock when I first read the script. Truly massive shock. Didn’t see it coming, that’s how naïve I was. I didn’t even see the death. I literally read past it three times and I’d be like, “Wait! Did I choke or something? Did I fall over?” I was just rolling right through it going, “And then what? And then what?” [Laughs]

Miguel Sapochnik, who directed Episode 5, and David and Dan, we discussed it all at great length. I started to see that Dany was backed into a corner, and really had no way out, other than the way out that she found, that they wrote. And I think that’s really integral to me being able to show her, to give her the most truthful response to the words that she’s given, the actions that she has. And then during the shoot, I kept this diary, because I needed to track where she was at each moment, since we shoot out of order and she changes so dramatically. I kept having to just double check where we had got her to at that point. It’s like she’s on a cliff edge with each of these moments — Missandei, Rhaegal — and each one is like a finger being pulled from the ledge, and she’s only got one finger left, and then it’s free-fall. Episode 5 is free-fall.

What people are trying to understand is whether it was premeditated — whether she coldly calculated that surrender would not be sufficient or whether it was a spur-of-the-moment decision. Was she insane? Was she rational? We don’t get enough time in her point-of-view …

I think it’s much more emotional. It’s much more wild, much more guttural of a response than methodical or premeditated. If she were truly methodical, if she were truly Hitler-esque, she would have seen Jon coming! She would have known he was going to [assassinate her]! I wanted this last moment to be this kind of pure, joyful naïveté and openness, because that’s what she felt, and she didn’t see it coming. She didn’t see her one true love turning on her in this way. If you take a mother, and you rip children from her, and you kill them, the response you get is pure, raw oblivion. That’s where she is.

The way I wrestled with it in my mind was that she was an addict, and the flooding of self-loathing and pain and heartache that she felt, that she’d been running from her whole life … She was raised by Viserys with no self-worth, if we’re going to make it modern. [Laughs.] But in that moment, the self-loathing and the pain and the heartbreak is so loud that she fills it with destruction. There is only one way, and that’s to keep going down that path, because she can’t turn back. She can’t apologize. She can’t think of what she did as not right. Of course, as a viewer, you’re going to want to try and rationalize everything that she’s done, but I really think a lot of it is pure emotional reaction. And I hate using the word “emotional” with women — nothing pisses me off more — so it’s not because she’s a woman that she’s emotional. It’s because she’s human. And she has nowhere else to go.

A dragon alone in the world is a terrible thing. Where do you think Drogon takes her body?

Hawaii! [Laughs] The selfish part of me is like, he’s taking her to the most beautiful place you can find, and he lies there with her and protects her until the very last. I think there’s always been a beautiful, fantastical element with Daenerys, and the paradise that she thought she was walking toward, the paradise that she thought she was capable of creating, I think there’s some kind of poetic justice that he’s taking her to a physical paradise. Or Hawaii! Put her on top of a mountain. Stuck her in a tree. Maybe he ate her! [Laughs] I hope not!

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