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Art Of The Heel Turn

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – With the series finale of Game of Thrones on Sunday, this is how Daenerys should have gone from good to bad. Walter White on AMC’s “Breaking Bad” did it best.

It’s taken me a good week to wrap my head around the ending of Game of Thrones “The Bells.” After working through the abrupt and unsatisfying endings of my favorite character arcs, I came to the conclusion that however unlikable the Dany heel-turn – the unsatisfying part was not the turn itself, but how she turned heel so quickly.

Many critics, including myself, agree that Daenerys was obviously destined to become “queen of the ashes” so I want to unpack how a consensus fan-favorite should have turned into the bad guy by using the example of one of my favorite heel-turn characters in Walter White from Breaking Bad.

In 2008, Breaking Bad debuted as one of the most popular AMC dramas. Walter White’s arc goes from pitiful public school chemistry teacher to drug kingpin in the show’s five seasons. It created the modern blueprint of how to take a likable, good-guy and turn him into one of the most interesting villains in television. *If you haven’t seen Breaking Bad OR Game of Thrones, the following break-down will spoil a lot of both series.

In order to create a compelling hero-turned-villain, their story arc needs to contain six moments:

  • Sympathy for the character
  • Character finds power
  • Character morals
  • Justification of choices
  • Crossing the line
  • The End


Walter White is a chemistry teacher who needs to work two jobs to make ends meet. He is harassed by students who find out he washes cars for extra money and to top it all off, he finds out he has late stage lung cancer. The doctor only gives him a few months to live. He is downtrodden, pitiful and we feel he needs to stand up for himself.

Daenerys Targaryen is the daughter of an assassinated king, exiled to a far away land. She is the pawn of a power-hungry brother who gives her up to be a bride for a savage war-lord, in return for soldiers in her brothers war. Dany is abused, weak and hopeless and I remember thinking that she either needs to die or find someone that can help her.

Character Finds Power

In Breaking Bad after Walter teams up with Jesse, the two find that they create a very clean and potent crystal meth, so potent that other drug dealers try to kill them. Walter beats up on his crippled son’s bullies and starts to stand up to his abusive boss. As time goes on, Walter’s attitude evolves from frightened to aggressive, discovering within himself that he is capable of not only survival, but can kill those who pursue him like he does with Tuco and the rival dealers.

In Game of Thrones, Dany first finds strength in being able to use Khal Drogo to murder her brother, eventually leading to the discovery that she cannot be killed by fire and being the mother of three dragons after her (self arson) assassination of the Khals. She is reborn and confident in herself and her strength.

Character Morals

The characters need to draw a clear line of morality. White does what he does in order to provide for his family. He uses his intellect to create crystal meth, an intellect that goes otherwise wasted. He only kills those that are seeking to kill him or Jesse, by ultimately concluding that he cannot avoid the rival dealers forever. He creates an alter ego, Heisenburg, in order to protect his identity and in turn, his family.

Dany uses her strength in Essos, to liberate captives and save the abused. She only kills those who hurt others and gives the choice to the liberated to follow her or live a new life. All of her followers chose to serve her, sensing her righteous objectives and clear motives to lead by regaining the iron throne.

Justification Of Choices

White spends most of his time cooking meth and intimidating drug dealers. Family life is waning and his relationship with Skyler deteriorates. But he continues cooking, telling Jesse that they need to cook more because the amphetamine will go bad. After some time the viewer realizes that the real motivation of White is not to provide for his family (although it certainly started there), he is motivated because it makes him feel good. The power he has found has become an addiction itself and White, now permanently Heisenburg, cannot resist.

Dany uses her dragons to liberate people all over Essos, including slave masters in season six. The slave masters retaliate in Mereen and Dany prepares to burn them all. Tyrion reminds Dany that her father, the mad king, set up caches of wildfire beneath the red keep and when the lannister army arrived to take the city, he wanted to burn the city down. Dany rendevous with the slave masters and offers to negotiate for their surrender, the slavers are rude and arrogant and Dany destroys them and their armies. The question of whether it is better to destroy armies in her way, or give them the opportunity to change is introduced and becomes more of a theme later.

Crossing The Line

Eventually all characters must cross the line in order to progress in their arc from hero to villain. What makes a character more compelling is if viewers can discuss where in the character arc the person crossed the line. Did Walter White cross the line when he kills Krazy-eight in season 1? Or when he could have saved Jane, but chose to let her die in season 3? No one can say when White crosses the line because that is best part of the heel-turn arc, it’s a culmination of all of it. This is the part that makes it so fun, looking back on where the lines are blurred and the wonder of whether the character will pull back or continue.

When Daenerys crucified the masters in season four could be a moment when she crossed the line, or maybe it’s still justified. Perhaps killing a surrendered Dickon and Randyll Tarly in season seven was the moment if you were to choose a later moment. Either way, by season eight when she burns the entire city of King’s Landing it’s too late to wonder, she becomes just like her father, queen of the ashes and her arc is complete.

The End

Walter White ultimately dies at the end of season 5 (the actual end) after apologizing to Skyler, ensuring his family’s financial well-being, saving Jesse who was held hostage, and killing Jack and his crew. The controversial ending has Walter White dying on his own terms, closing the loop of the story with no real repercussions of his misdeeds except for his death. I think the unsatisfying part was that even though no hero in the story was able to kill Walter, even if his gunshot didn’t kill him at the end, his cancer would have anyway. The ending was sufficient, all things considered, and the writers of Breaking Bad were able to do what most hit-show-runners can’t: end the show without destroying previously established story narratives and giving the series an appropriate end.

The Game of Thrones season eight, and series finale is this Sunday night and the only satisfying way for it to end is the assassination of Queen Daenerys by the hand of Jon Snow or even, Tyrion Lannister. I am not sure what happened with the show runners for Game of Thrones but it is obvious that they ran out of time and money. The last season of GOT felt rushed (in the character arc of Daenerys), felt unsatisfying because it disregarded previously established story lines (in the character arcs of Jaime, Tyrion and Cersei) and sometimes flat out forgot plot trajectories (Daenerys forgot about the iron fleet? And where is Sansa?). I am excited to see what happens with Arya and Bran and although I am disappointed with the last season, it did offer up some great moments – and as a whole, I enjoyed the ride through Essos and Westeros.

So, part of the joke is I have included Gordon Hayward in the article image and although he did not kill hundreds or thousands of people, he is a pretty good example of hero turning villain (at least to the Utah Jazz fans) in a short amount of time. You all know the story.. July 4th, 2017, Gordon Hayward botches his Utah farewell not only leaving fans puzzled, but the Jazz front office scrambling at a time when they possibly could have found a replacement on the NBA free agent market.

In a few days, Jazz fans went from billboard begging Hayward to stay, to burning his jersey. But I think Hayward should have taken the longer, more intriguing villain arc like Walter White or in this case, Deron Williams.

Download the Sportsbeat Afterhours Podcast every Monday for all things sports and pop culture with your co-hosts Hemā Heimuli Jr. and Zak Hicken. Listen to the episode after the series finale when we bring on a panel of guests including contributor and producer Matt Glade to get our instant reactions on the episode.