“Half the Targaryens went mad, didn’t they? What’s the saying? Every time a Targaryen is born, the gods flip a coin?”
Varys warned Jon Snow on the shores of Dragonstone about the violent tendencies of the Targaryen bloodline. Although his warning proved prescient, Daenerys Targaryen’s descent into madness in “The Bells” is unlike anything Westeros has ever seen from her family before. Even from her father, the Mad King.
There are countless Targaryens who were good, kind, wise, and just, even if they sometimes had the kind of temper we have seen in Daenerys over the years. Aegon the Conqueror could bathe enemies in dragonflame one minute and pardon them the next. But some Targaryens were born full of hate, thought to be the result of years of intermarrying to keep their bloodline pure. For example, Daenerys’ brother Viserys, Maegor the Cruel, and Maester Aemon’s evil older brother and wildfire enthusiast Aerion the Monstrous. They encapsulated the worst tendencies of “fire and blood” from childhood, but none were more infamous than Aerys II, the tyrant rightfully remembered as the Mad King.
You can read all about the Mad King’s life in our History of Thrones series. In his younger years, he was a charming prince with many friends and admirers. Even his first dozen years as King were marked by peace, as he let Tywin Lannister run the country as Hand. What started him down his dark path was his vanity. He wanted to be the best ruler in Westeros’s history, but he lacked focus; as more people said it was Tywin who truly ruled, Aerys’ wounded pride made him spiteful and dangerous. He even removed Ser Ilyn’s tongue for making such claims.
He didn’t truly lose his mind until he foolishly fell into a trap and was held hostage for six months, barely escaping with his life. Paranoid that he was surrounded by enemies after that, the Mad King became a recluse. The further removed from the world he became the more he lost his grip on reality. First he stopped trusting his own son and heir Rhaegar. Then he became obsessed with wildfire, which he used to kill more and more of his enemies, like when he burned Lord Rickard Stark alive in front of Ned’s older brother.
Even then, the Mad King’s infamous order to “burn them all” didn’t come until the very end, when the city was sacked by Tywin at the end of Robert’s Rebellion. The Lannister forces were allowed into the city by Aerys, who thought his old friend had come to save him. Only when all hope was lost and he was surrounded by enemies did the Mad King decide to kill a million people, most of whom were innocent. Years of decreasing mental capacity, much of it triggered by trauma, led the Mad King to that point. There was no switch that was flipped; the lights just slowly faded into total darkness.
For Daenerys it happened in an instant. Some setbacks fighting Cersei, coupled with a lack of “love” from the North, the truth about Jon’s birth, and the loss of another dragon, were all it took for her coin to flip. She didn’t “burn them all” when all hope was lost; she did it when she had finally won. The bells marked her ultimate victory, and her chance to bring real meaningful change to the world. Yet somehow her greatest achievement led to her greatest failing, in a way not rivaled by any Targaryen before.
Her father wanted to kill those people after two decades of growing madness. For Daenerys, who not long ago told Olenna Tyrell she did not want to be queen of the ashes, it was two months.