She's called the Mother of Dragons, the Breaker of Chains, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, and about a dozen other epithets that we don't have time for right now. She's one of the most central protagonists of George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire (and there are a lot of protagonists, so that's saying something). She's one of the most popular characters in the HBO adaptation. So how did the show get Daenerys so wrong?
The Game of Thrones TV show and the Song of Ice and Fire books have always been different (it is known). I doubt that even the most die-hard Targaryen loyalist would be upset that Daenerys was aged up from a frightened 13-year-old girl to a 17 or 18-year-old, played by adult Emilia Clarke, for television. So don't get me wrong: there are a lot of great Dany moments in the show, and just because something's different than the books doesn't mean it's wrong.
I'm not even going to wade into the hot mess that is Jon and Daenerys, and their limp romance in season seven. Instead, I'm going to focus on just a few of the key differences between book Daenerys and show Daenerys: namely, that Dany in the books is a well-meaning hypocrite who hurt the people she meant to help, and Daenerys in the show is a hot fireproof badass.
In both book and show, lil' Dany is sold as a child bride to Khal Drogo, and dragged off to be Khaleesi to his people. The book takes a more nuanced, consensual approach to Dany's sexual awakening, but either way, despite her royal pedigree, she doesn't have much power. She doesn't even want power; at first, she just wants stability. She dreams of going back to her childhood home in Braavos, or living happily with Drogo and raising a Dothraki family.
But, of course, the quiet life is not for Daenerys. In both book and show, she gradually becomes fiercer and more independent, until she's sacking cities with her dragon babies and attempting to free Slaver's Bay. Book Dany and show Dany are both deeply empathetic, and both want to do the right thing, but neither of them really thinks this through. In the show, Dany has to noodle around in Meereen for a bit and fight a few Sons of the Harpy before she gets to peace out on her dragon, leave Daario in charge of the city (despite his total lack of civic knowledge?) and wander off to Westeros to hook up with her nephew. TV viewers are then allowed to forget about Meereen for the rest of the series, save for a few lingering think-pieces on Daenerys as a problematic white savior.
In the books, we are not allowed to forget. Because Dany's white savior nonsense has killed thousands. It's not a blip in her story arc; it's the central tragedy of her character.
Of course, it's too much to ask a TV show to have the scope and world-building of a hefty book series. But the books follow through on the danger of Dany's imperial good intentions in a way that the show does not. In the books, Dany tries to free the city of Astapor, set up a new government, and go on her merry way. But the unstable government she leaves behind is almost immediately deposed, and thanks to the resulting lack of regulation, a horrible plague of dysentery breaks out in the city.
Refugees of Astapor then head to Meereen, to see if Dany can help get them out of this mess, but she seals the city gates in order to protect the Meereenese, who are being picked off by the disgruntled Sons of the Harpy while the city is invaded by Yunkai, as Dany's untrained dragons wreak havoc overhead. It's... a mess.
And it's not just a mess in Slaver's Bay. The warfare in Slaver's Bay means that pillagers are now kidnapping wildlings from the far north, who've been fleeing to the coasts to avoid the army of the dead. Global slavery is not abolished, and the enslaved people "freed" by Dany are killed by sickness or starvation, or returned to chains.
Dany meant well. She really did. But she didn't think her actions through, or consider that being the "blood of the dragon" isn't the same as having governing experience. She didn't consult the people of the culture she wanted to "save" before plowing ahead and "saving" them.
Her constant refrain of "If I look back I am lost" helps her to move forward after all the trauma she's experienced, but it's not a great mantra for learning from your mistakes.
Last we saw her in the books, she was half-dead out in the Great Dothraki Sea, learning the exact wrong lesson from her failure as Queen of Meereen. "The dragon does not sow," she tells herself. She should stop trying to cultivate things and just start conquering, because clearly trying to help has not actually been helping. Right?
In the show, she gets picked up by the Dothraki from this point, and manages to murder their leaders and take over by torching everything.
This fits with her new philosophy. But book-wise, it's complete nonsense, because Targaryens are not fireproof. Dany survived the fire that hatched her dragons because it was part of a magic ritual. Martin has confirmed that it was a one-time thing. And we know conclusively that Targaryens are not fireproof, because most of Dany's extended family died in a fire at Summerhall, just as her big brother Rhaegar was being born.
The Targaryen hubris got several entire generations of the family burned to death while trying to hatch a dragon egg. Rather than show us the far-reaching, city-destroying effects of Dany's well-meaning arrogance, though, the show seems content to show Dany setting stuff on fire and making eyes at Jon Snow. We're meant to occasionally balk at her ruthlessness, but not at her ill-conceived kindness.
Martin's version of Dany is a tragic hero, undone by her desire to do good. Well, that and her lack of forethought. And her trust in the power of her bloodline.
In the show, Dany is a good guy with a few flashes of villainy, meant to be redeemed by her magical pedigree and her good intentions.
We can't know where these two Danys are going next, but my guess is that it's not going to be smooth sailing to the Iron Throne for either of them.