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Why Daenerys' sudden arc shift may be difficult for trauma survivors and what to do about it

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May 19, 2019

Warning: This piece includes frank discussions of sexual assault and mental and emotional trauma. Please proceed with caution if these are issues that affect you.

From the beginning of Game of Thrones, Daenerys Targaryen has experienced immense adversity throughout her short life. Growing up an orphan raised by her abusive older brother, Viserys, the two lacked a safe place to call home, which likely affected Daenerys’ psychological development. The last remaining members of the House Targaryen often had to hide in order to survive. Dany's brother wielded an overwhelming amount of control over her. While he could often be protective of her, he was still her tormentor and abuser.

Individuals like Daenerys who go through adverse childhood experiences are more likely to develop serious illnesses in adulthood, including but not limited to cancer, heart disease, or lung disease. They also face a greater risk of depression, addiction, and suicidal thoughts compared to people who did not suffer through such levels of abuse in their youth. By the time audiences were introduced to her in the first book at the tender age of 13 (she was aged up to adulthood for the series), Daenerys had already experienced severe emotional, physical, and sexual abuse at the hands of Viserys. He even openly tells her that he would permit all the Dorthraki to rape her if it would make him king.

Viserys then arranges for Daenerys to marry Khal Drogo, who in the first stages of their marriage has sex with Daenerys despite her crying and saying "no" throughout. As both a psychologist who specializes in working with clients with PTSD and an assault survivor myself, I found myself identifying heavily with her experience. In the early stages of the series, I wanted to protect her. In the later stages, I wanted to be like her.

Seeing Daenerys grow from a survivor of severe abuse and sexual assault to the powerful and compassionate leader that she became moved me and inspired countless other survivors who watched Game of Thrones. Many viewers even felt a sense of connection with Dany, in which she became a representation of their own respective journeys. This kind of a connection with a fictional character is called a parasocial relationship. Parasocial relationships can make us feel less lonely, less rejected, and serve as a buffer against low mood and low self-esteem, although they can also become obsessive.

On occasion, our own traumatic experiences can make it difficult for us to open up to others. Be it due to the nature of our traumatic experiences, our upbringing, or the people we are surrounded by, we frequently have a difficult time disclosing what we are going through. However, according to recent research studies, some trauma survivors report feeling more connected to fictional characters seen in TV shows, such as Daenerys, than the other individuals in their life. And in fact, this type of connection can allow for the trauma survivor to feel more connected and less lonely.

Daenerys Targaryen and baby dragon, Game of Thrones

Credit: HBO

As the series continues, Daenerys endures multiple losses, including losing Khal Drogo (who over time becomes a figure of love and attachment for Dany), as well as her unborn child in the first season. Later on, she loses two of her closest allies, Missandei and Ser Jorah, as well as two of her dragon children, Viserion and Rhaegal. In seeing Dany going through these excruciating losses, many viewers might have also experienced grief and distress. This sometimes happens because seeing someone else experiencing grief on television can grant us a safe space to process previously unexplored grief of our own. In addition, because we may become attached to certain characters, such as Dany, we might experience them as friends, often even showing physiological changes to the fictional characters, which mimic those we display toward our friends in real life. It is therefore understandable that we could grieve over a character’s death in a similar way as we may grieve over a loved one.

In fact, forming attachments with fictional characters like Daenerys and understanding their struggles and life experiences have been shown to make us more compassionate toward others and more accepting of people who might go through adversity as well. Furthermore, individuals who, like Daenerys, have experienced trauma at a young age are also likely to be more compassionate and altruistic toward others. This certainly seems true for Dany. When she finds a crucified slave who is dehydrated and at the brink of death, she offers him water and comfort. She later frees Missandei, the Unsullied, and the many slaves in Slavers Bay, inviting them to serve her as free people.

Despite being threatened by the terrorist group, the Sons of the Harpy, Daenerys captures hostages but refuses to harm them. When a man in Meereen brings her the bones of his daughter who was burned by one of Daenerys’ dragons, Dany orders all three of her dragons to be captured and locked up. It is evident that Daenerys frequently has a lot of consideration and compassion for others and is eager to ensure that she protects the innocents who cannot do so themselves.

For many viewers, Daenerys has come to represent a kind of role model for understanding their assault, their trauma, and how to use their traumatic stories for helping others in a similar way that Dany does. In seeing her story, many viewers may have found something they have long searched for — hope.

It is then not surprising that in last week’s episode when Daenerys decided to burn the innocent civilians of King’s Landing (on a whim, according to showrunners), many viewers were confused and upset by her abrupt behavior change. This sudden shift in their heroic role model struck a lot of Dany's fans as a betrayal of sorts. Seeing someone we have admired commit such horrendous and inexplicable acts, followed by further violence by the Northern soldiers toward the innocent women and children, was truly devastating to watch. This kind of violence may have been especially triggering to viewers if they have ever experienced or witnessed violence, abuse, or other types of trauma, including having lived in a war or disaster zone (the show is deliberately evocative of historical tragedies in its imagery of war and destruction). In addition, some viewers, in particular, those who are highly empathic in nature, are likely to experience something called empathic distress when watching gore and horror-filled scenes like the ones we saw in the penultimate episode.

Given how difficult this episode was to watch for some individuals, and given how the last episode will inevitably enter similar territory, here are some coping tools to help you watch the series finale:

1. Take a few breaths. Often when we are anxious and distressed, we hold our breath without realizing we're doing so. When we do that, our body is more likely to go into a fight-or-flight mode, which can boost our adrenaline and make us more anxious and distressed. Focusing on our breath and slowing it down can help reverse this process.

2. Make yourself comfortable. Wrapping yourself in a blanket, having some hot tea, snuggling with your pet, and other self-care strategies can reduce some of the distress that might come up during the series finale.

3. If you are triggered by a reminder of past trauma, remind yourself that in this very moment, you are safe. Take a break if you need to. It is okay to pause the episode and take a break. You can come back to it later if you need to.

4. If any of the show’s material becomes too overwhelming for you, if your symptoms persist and interfere with your work or social functioning, consider talking to a mental health professional. If you are in crisis, including difficulty sleeping, experiencing anxiety or panic attacks, or flashbacks of a traumatic event, consider calling or texting a crisis line listed below. Crisis line support is available 24/7, it is free and confidential. There is no shame in being triggered by an episode of a TV show, there is no shame in asking for help, we have all been there, and it can be very helpful to talk to someone about what you are going through. You are not alone.

If you or a loved one experienced sexual assault, contact RAINN, the sexual assault hotline by phone: (800) 656-4673 or use the chat function on RAINN.org's website.

If you or a loved one are experiencing a mental health crisis, call the suicide hotline: 1-800-273-8255 or text the Crisis Text Line: 741-741.

To find a mental health professional in your area, type in your zip code on PsychologyToday.com.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.

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