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Ask the Maester: Dragon Slaying, Cersei’s Pregnancy, and Why Daenerys’s Invasion Has Gone So Wrong

Have dragons always been that easy to kill? And how much time has passed since last season?

HBO/Ringer illustration

Well, that certainly was an episode! Jon gave away his direwolf, we lost Rhaegal and Missandei, Dany finally seems poised to break full-on bad, and a coffee cup somehow evaded multiple levels of editing to make it into the frame during the Winterfell feasting scene. Wow.

OK, on to your questions.

Josh asks, “Is the ease with which the giant crossbow took down Rhaegal a larger metaphor for the show’s seeming unwillingness to interact with the fantasy elements of the story?”

Cheyenne asks, “Will Dany have Drogon attack King’s Landing by night to avoid the scorpions?”

My Binge Mode and Talk the Thrones cohost Mallory Rubin and I have thoroughly roasted Big Crossbow since the weapon first made its appearance in Season 7. That said, there is a historical precedent for taking down a dragon with a scorpion-type projectile weapon.

Aegon Targaryen; his sister-wives, Visenya and Rhaenys; and their three dragons conquered Westeros, earning the former the moniker Aegon the Conqueror. But in truth, the invasion was only partially successful.

After the submission of King Torrhen Stark, Aegon sent Visenya and Rhaenys to secure the fealty of the Vale and Dorne, respectively. Visenya, on her mount Vhagar, easily bypassed the Vale’s defenses. She landed in the courtyard of the Eyrie, bounced the boy Lord Ronnel Arryn on her knee, and amicably acquired the Vale’s loyalty.

Rhaenys found Dorne’s acquiescence much harder to acquire. Westeros’s southernmost region is a land of rugged mountains and vast deserts, and its fighters are skilled at using the terrain to their advantage. Rather than assemble their armies for pitched battles, making them an easy target for the dragons, the Dornish melted into the landscape. Rhaenys flew south over the Red Mountains, from castle to castle, seeking the Lords of Dorne, but finding each fortress abandoned. Finally arriving in Sunspear, seat of the ruling House Martell, Rhaenys found Meria Martell, the aged and infirm Princess of Dorne. Meria informed Rhaenys that Dorne would not kneel. When Rhaenys replied that House Targaryen would return to rain fire and blood on the land, Meria warned her, in part, “This is Dorne. You are not wanted here. Return at your peril.”

When the Targaryens returned in force, the Dornish were again nowhere to be found. In the northern part of the region, Aegon Targaryen and his Baratheon and Tyrell allies attempted to force their way through the mountain passes. Dornish spearmen, using guerrilla tactics, delayed the invaders, disappearing whenever Aegon and his dragon appeared overhead. The Dornish poisoned every well and watering hole, and soon the Tyrells began to die of thirst.

Meanwhile, in the Dornish interior, Rhaenys roamed the skies on Meraxes and burned the picturesque Planky Town along the Greenblood river. But yet again, Dorne’s leaders and her armies could not be located. So King Aegon declared mission accomplished; placed bounties on the heads of the Dornish nobility; handed the country to a lieutenant, Jon Rosby, to govern; then headed back to King’s Landing. As soon as the Targaryens were gone, the Dornish reappeared. Aegon’s administrators were tortured to death, and Jon Rosby was thrown from the tower of Sunspear. When news of Rosby’s defenestration reached Lord Harlen Tyrell, who was on a campaign in the west of the country, he marched his army toward the Dornish capital, into the desert, and was never seen again. Aegon, enraged, resumed hostilities, but to little effect. The war ground on for years.

In 9 A.C., a Dornish raid into the Reach sowed widespread destruction. Even Oldtown, home of the Citadel, was briefly threatened. Aegon responded with the full fury of all three Targaryen dragons. Aegon and Balerion attacked Skyreach, seat of House Fowler; Visenya and Vhagar hit Starfall, home of the Daynes; and Rhaenys and Meraxes descended on Hellholt, near the Brimstone River.

As Meraxes wheeled above the castle, a defender loosed a Hail Mary scorpion bolt, catching the great beast in the eye. Meraxes, mortally wounded, fell into Hellholt, destroying a tower and a portion of the defensive wall. So scorpions can work on dragons. And Euron’s scorpions seem even bigger than Big Crossbow.

However! As we have discussed, the show’s treatment of dragons and dragon-related issues in particular has been significantly retconned. Dany’s invulnerability to fire; her seemingly telepathic bond with Drogon; and the “only Targaryens can ride dragons” rule are all show inventions. Let’s add another to the list: the relative fragility of dragon scales.

In the books, a full-grown dragon has scales that have been described as “harder than steel.” During the Dance of Dragons civil war over a century after the fall of Meraxes, Dornish soldiers attempted to repeat the feat. With the realm in chaos, Prince Morion Martell saw an opportunity to expand Dorne’s power. He assembled a great pirate fleet and intended to land an army in the Stormlands. Morion outfitted his ships with crossbowmen and massive scorpions. When the dragons Vermithor, Caraxes, and Vhagar attacked, Morion’s fleet unleashed hail after hail of projectiles at them. Unfortunately for Morion, in the books (as in real life), hitting a high-flying, fast-moving target with a projectile is actually quite difficult! A few bolts found their mark but “glanced off the scales of the dragons, and one punched through Vhagar’s wing, but none of them found any vulnerable spots as the dragons swooped and banked and loosed great blasts of fire.” Euron shot three bolts (at a range of, I don’t know, half a mile? more?) at Rhaegal, hitting him in the belly, nicking his wing, and punching through his throat. So … yeah. This is probably a case of the show upping the damage from Euron’s scorpions and downgrading the defensive strength of dragon scales.

Rest in power, Rhaegal.

Nada asks: “Can dragons reproduce asexually? We know they have no gender, but do you still need two of them to make a third? Does Rhaegal’s death mean that Drogon is the last dragon?”

We know very little about dragon reproduction. We know that dragons can lay clutches of several eggs at once and that this can happen several times over its long life. The laying of eggs is, in fact, the only way to ascertain a dragon’s gender. It is assumed that dragons that never lay eggs are male. As you noted, however, this fails to account for the possibility of asexual reproduction. In the books, the famed scholar Septon Barth and Maester Aemon believe that dragon genders are, like in Jurassic Park, “fluid,” changing according to circumstance and need. Whatever the case, even if Drogon lays eggs, it will be a number of years before its children are strong enough to use in battle.

Joshua asks, “How is it that Aegon was able to make six of the seven kingdoms topple like dominoes while Dany now finds herself overmatched and on tilt?”

Great question. Dany’s failure to secure Westeros is due to many interrelated factors:

  • Dragon riders. When Aegon launched his invasion, he could count on the skills and unshakable loyalty of his sister-wives, Visenya and Rhaenys, and their dragons, Vhagar and Meraxes, respectively. Dany, quite by accident, gained a rider for Rhaegal in Jon and never had one for Viserion.
  • Evolving goals. Aegon had one aim: Unite the Seven Kingdoms under his rule. Yes, Dany came to Westeros intent on securing the Iron Throne. But she experienced significant mission creep along the way. No sooner had she arrived at Dragonstone then she was talked out of attacking King’s Landing and roped into a complicated, indirect attack plan that required her to split her forces (results: disastrous); a rescue mission north of the Wall (result: the loss of Viserion to the Night King); and, finally, a full-scale war in the North against the army of the dead (result: the massive reduction of her army).
  • An incoherent military and political strategy. Dany came over from Essos with a vast armada, a crackerjack army, the Dothraki, three dragons, and (theoretically) the best advisers in the game. Yet she has stumbled. Aegon made landfall with a small force of men—anywhere from 3,000 to a few hundred—and three dragons. He won Westeros and forged the Iron Throne. The difference is that Aegon won military victories, followed up on them, and used politics to win allies to his side. Dany easily destroyed a Lannister army in the field at the Battle of the Goldroad (a.k.a. the Loot Train Attack) and took numerous high-ranking prisoners. But she did nothing to exploit her victory. When Aegon defeated the combined armies of the Reach and the Westerlands at the Field of Fire, he gained allies by awarding lands and titles to his former foes in exchange for their support. King Loren I Lannister knelt and was raised as the Warden of the West and allowed to retain Casterly Rock. After the death of King Mern IX Gardener, Harlen Tyrell, King Mern’s steward, surrendered Highgarden to Aegon. The Conqueror raised him as Lord of Highgarden and Warden of the South. Dany waited until the latest episode to use a similar tactic, naming Gendry Lord of the Stormlands.

The bottom line is Dany found House Lannister isolated and weak, in control of King’s Landing, but little else. She might, if her advisers were any good, have sowed discord in the Westerlands by offering Casterly Rock to the first upstart lord willing to come to her side. She could have used Storm’s End as a bargaining chip early in her campaign, thus creating an ally willing to fight for her while she pursued Jon’s aims in the North. Instead, even though she had Tyrion and Varys in the fold, she didn’t play the political game at all. That was a grave mistake.

Andy asks: “Tyrion’s mentioning Cersei’s pregnancy (twice?) at the gate—Euron had to have heard that, right? How could Tyrion know something that Cersei just told Euron? Euron is going to be suspicious? Double-cross her? Take charge of the Golden Company?”

I’m sorry—that was wild. I kept expecting Euron to be like, “Hey, wait a minute,” and that NEVER HAPPENED. That whole scene—Cersei with multiple scorpions aimed at Dany and only a handful of Unsullied; Drogon on the ground for some reason—was appallingly strange.

Cersei’s pregnancy also highlights the issue of pacing. Many have criticized the condensed timeline: Travel time between the North and Dragonstone is negligible, characters can journey to Essos and back in no time, Jaime and Bronn walk back to King’s Landing in about a day after the Loot Train Attack. For me, however, the issue is less the sped-up timeline—with only a handful of episodes left, that’s necessary. The issue is that time itself no longer has any meaning.

Westeros is supposed to be the size of South America. If the show wants to have characters travel from Winterfell to Dragonstone in the course of a single episode, fine. But we should still feel that time has actually passed. Otherwise the show becomes disorienting. Case in point: Cersei. How long has she been pregnant? She’s wearing loose flowing royal gowns, but it’s safe to say that she isn’t showing. Therefore, everything we’ve seen since the last few episodes of Season 7—Bad Plan, the Dragonpit summit, the departure of Euron and his arrival with the Golden Company, Dany’s marching her army north, the Great War, and Dany’s returning south to Dragonstone—has taken place in the space of, I don’t know, fewer than three months? That doesn’t track.

Mary asks: “Do you think Arya will take the face of the Starbucks coffee cup? She could poison Cersei as Cersei takes a drink of her caramel latte.”

Our best available evidence tells us that the cup was likely not a Starbucks cup, so this is not canon.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.