Daenerys’ claim to the Iron Throne has much to do with her family name — which is important in Westeros — but it also has a lot to do with the fact that she had the power to take it. Game of Thrones has never been shy about proving that cleverness, mixed with brutality, is often enough to gain power.
And Daenerys’ three dragons gave her a lot of power. The fact they existed at all feels like a miracle, as dragons were believed to be extinct in Westeros, but even if people believed in their existence, there was little they could do to fight them. The Lannisters came up with a weapon that was meant to fight them off, and we saw how well that worked out for them. They hurt one dragon, but not badly enough to swing the tides of the battle.
Now a dragon has died, and that changes everything.
The optimal play
The dragons always felt like a cheat code, a way to instantly gain respect and the upper hand in battle. Daenerys seemed to over-rely on the ability to fly into battle and lay waste to her enemies.
But every instance of a dragon being in active battle came with risk. They weren’t invincible, as the Lannisters proved. A large arrow could hurt them. Daenerys could also be shot off the back of whoever she was riding, and her death meant the death of her rule. No one was in position to gain the respect of her forces, much less the allegiance of the dragons themselves. Tyrion was well aware of this weakness when he warned her against taking matters into her own hands.
So “Beyond the Wall” taught us a few things that we didn’t know. The White Walkers have a weapon that can kill a dragon with one hit. That’s big news, but even the Lannisters have a traditional weapon that can be mass-produced — given enough time — that can hurt the dragons. Daenerys gave her enemy the ability to work out the weakness of her most powerful unit every time they were used to change the tide of a battle. And now a number of her enemies know how to hurt or kill them.
That’s a big deal. The dragons were just as much a weapon of terror as they were actual fighters that could destroy rows of infantry or cavalry with every pass. It wasn’t just about killing the enemy, it was about making them feel like they couldn’t win. I have mythological killing machines on my side. Give up, ride home and call it a day. The dragons, used well, meant that Dany could win battles by making sure the battles didn’t need to happen.
But she was never that smart. The winning play would have been to take everything she could with her more traditional armies, and then deal the killing blow to her enemies by bringing in the dragons and razing King’s Landing along with any other targets that would end the conflict forever. Use the legend of your dragons first, or just fly over battles to let people know they’re real and they exist. And then wipe everyone out in one final, fiery conflict to drive the point home. Don’t give anyone the time or opportunity to figure out how to kill them. Make sure everyone more or less believes you have the power of the gods on your side.
Instead, she’s down 33 percent of her dragon army due to one spear from the White Walkers. That’s bad news, although it’s unlikely anyone else would learn of this loss while there was still time to do anything with the information. It would always be possible she’s only flying in with one or two at a time, keeping the third on reserve. So in that way the loss could be mitigated.
But it’s not that simple, because the White Walkers now have 100 percent more ice dragons than they did a week ago. Dany’s dragons can be killed, and she’s no longer the only force on the board that has one under their control. The dragon advantage only gets you so much when you have two, someone else has one and the knowledge that they’re built of flesh and blood, with all the vulnerabilities that entails, known by all.
There might not have been a way to get an undead soldier to Cersei without the use of dragons, but the loss of one of them significantly changed the balance of power moving forward — and not in the favor of humanity.