Game of Thrones Makes Us Question Evil In The Real World | Opinion

My daughter was angry and my husband fed up. Daenerys Targaryen's decision to strafe King's Landing upset and outraged not just my family, but millions of viewers who watched the penultimate episode of Game of Thrones.

Their dismay has swamped social media, leading to down-the-rabbit-hole speculation about why Dany did it. Theories range from the inevitable reveal of the Mad Queen to the realpolitiks of power to the narrative failure of the series' show runners. There is even a petition with nearly one million signatures calling for the last series to be remade with different writers.

But an even larger question looms behind the why of Dany's heartbreaking decision, and that is: What is the game and might we, too, be the players?

GoT is great television. Its visual scale, character development and narrative twists and turns help account for its success. It's as spectacular as any Marvel movie, and its heroes and villains are people whose humanity has been fleshed out over its eight-year run.

In other words, GoT is masterful storytelling. As each episode adds to our understanding of its world, viewers eagerly discuss what happened and why. There are books and movies that have the same effect, but the archetypes for such potent storytelling are the Scriptures of world religions. The stories at the heart of spiritual canons unspool the same questions about good, evil and human weakness, the same journeys of sacrifice and redemption, and the same attraction of power and asceticism that make GoT compelling.

By touching our hearts, great stories engage our minds. We learn what it means to be human by analyzing others' behavior, especially when it reflects the best and worst in our own nature. And, at the same time, we create communities of shared values by discussing the stories together.

Game of Thrones Daenerys
Kit Harington and Emilia Clarke as Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen in Game of Thrones. HBO

In its own way, great television is our era's equivalent of church.

Just as earlier generations unpacked parables, we try to make sense of unexpected plot twists. Online writers debate Dany's decision to burn down House Lannister and everyone in it in terms of politics, family dynamics, and the showrunners' narrative decisions.

But a more fundamental reason for all the dinner debates, online speculation and water cooler conversations may be the desire to understand Dany's ethical choices so we can better plumb our own.

In Dany's case, how do we resolve the gap between "the protector of the realm" and the "breaker of chains" and the wild-eyed woman who commits mass murder? The shock of seeing someone they thought they knew make such a jarring turn roiled my daughter's dreams and infuriated millions of fans.

Yet, according to some, the turn wasn't so unexpected. Hints of Dany's megalomania were seeded over the years, even if some of us preferred to see a feminist icon pledged to break the wheel of tyranny and oppression. Somehow we forgot Dany also was a very young woman whose belief in her singular destiny led her to make some very good as well as very bad decisions long before season eight, episode 5. Dany's character arc may well make her GoT's biggest villain, but we also remember the noble and humanitarian acts that were part of her path.

Millions of viewers tuned into the penultimate episode of Game of Thrones, and many were shocked by Daenerys Targaryen's actions. HBO

Thinking about Dany is a way to think about ourselves. What does the game mean to us and how do we play it? When are overwhelming firepower and civilian deaths justified? Our world lacks dragons, but we have multiple weapons that annihilate every day. What is our complicity in drone strikes, carpet bombing or massive ground assault? As the American president ends one war but edges towards another, what is our part in condoning or condemning his actions?

As we debate the ethics of Dany's shock and awe campaign, are we trying to understand, rationalize or refute our own government's policies? Can analyzing the ethics of fictional characters help to sharpen our own?

The best storytelling not only entertains but also enlightens. I will miss Game of Thrones.

Diane Winston is Knight Chair in Media and Religion at Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​​​​