Barristan Selmy was the first to fill in Dany on her grim family history, with Tyrion adding detail later on. In their candor about Dany’s cruel father, King Aerys II, they had hoped to curb her own destructive tendencies. But none of Dany’s advisers revealed to her just how intertwined the Lannisters were with her father’s story, and how much their friendship and falling-out shaped the Mad King’s reign.
In other words, when Jaime stood before her in Sunday’s episode, his life potentially in the balance, he might have done well to fill her in on the details.
Tywin Lannister, a royal page in his youth, became close friends with Aerys Targaryen long before he was crowned king, and he was a natural choice for hand of the king after Aerys’ coronation. (A post he held for nearly 20 years.) But the two men’s friendship also contained elements of rivalry. Aerys lusted after Joanna Lannister — Tywin’s cousin and wife — and his lewd comments soured his relationship with Tywin. Aerys became increasingly paranoid about his difficulty having children with his sister and wife, Queen Rhaella, who had a series of miscarriages and stillbirths. In raging frustration, Aerys confined Rhaella to her quarters, beheaded a wet nurse and tortured his mistress and her family to death.
At the same time, Tywin was doing a fine job managing the realm, and he began getting public recognition for it — a development that served only to fuel Aerys’ paranoia.
Remember mute executioner Ilyn Payne? Aerys had his tongue torn out for allegedly saying that Tywin was the power behind the throne. Then the angry king began trying to curb his hand’s ambitions and sabotage his endeavors, even if it hurt the realm.
And when Tywin proposed a marital match between his daughter, Cersei, and the crown prince, Rhaegar (the subject of Cersei’s woods witch inquiry), Aerys rejected it outright in order to humble Tywin, his “overmighty servant.” A servant’s daughter was not fit to marry royalty, he said.
This professional jealousy turned deadly when Lord Denys of House Darklyn, noticing the tension between Aerys and Tywin, lured Aerys to Duskendale, knowing Tywin would advise against going — and that Aerys would go anyway, just to defy him. And so the king was captured and abused in the Duskendale dungeons for six months. In retaliation, Aerys wiped out the Darklyn family — torturing and killing even their distant kinsmen. The only survivor, Dontos, refers to this massacre when he gives Sansa a last “heirloom.”
Aerys began imagining assassination plots everywhere, thinking that Tywin and Rhaegar were conspiring against him, even blaming them for what happened at Duskendale. He hired Varys to root out others he suspected of treason.
Maybe some of the plots were real. Maybe the tournament at Harrenhal was just a pretext for Prince Rhaegar to discuss arranging a Great Council to remove his unstable father from the throne, as some suspected. If that was the case, Aerys helped make Rhaegar’s argument for him. When the king attended the tournament — his first public excursion since Duskendale — his subjects were shocked by his deterioration, both physical and mental.
Aerys became convinced that a mystery knight was an enemy of the crown, and he ordered Rhaegar to find out the knight’s identity. All signs point to the knight’s having actually been Lyanna Stark, thus beginning Rhaegar and Lyanna’s doomed affair.
But the need to remove Aerys from power had become more urgent by the Harrenhal tournament: Tywin, an important stabilizing force in the kingdom, had quit. And unbeknown to her father, Cersei had asked King Aerys to select Jaime as a knight for his Kingsguard so that her brother and lover could always be near, safe from the risk of political marriage. Cersei knew Tywin might be upset, but she underestimated the extent of her father’s fury when Aerys granted her request.
Tywin interpreted Aerys’ selection as a way for the king to deprive him of his heir and hold a hostage against his loyalty, and this was the final straw. He resigned the handship and returned with Cersei to Casterly Rock (thwarting her plan). He kept trying to persuade Jaime to quit the Kingsguard ever after, deeming the position no more than a “glorified bodyguard.”
This was the volatile environment Brandon Stark entered when he journeyed to King’s Landing to demand that Rhaegar release Lyanna. King Aerys arrested Brandon and his men on charges of conspiring against Rhaegar, then summoned their fathers to court and burned them alive. Still suspicious, Aerys decided that more of Lyanna’s men should die. He ordered Lord Jon Arryn to execute both of his wards — Lyanna’s other brother, Ned, and her betrothed, Robert Baratheon. Arryn responded by calling his banners. A group of outraged nobles rose in revolt.
A teenage Jaime was alone at court; the other Kingsguard knights were dispatched either to fight with Rhaegar at the Trident or to guard Lyanna Stark at the Tower of Joy. Convinced that King’s Landing would be sacked, Aerys planned to burn it down, an act of retribution that would serve as his funeral pyre, allowing him to be reborn as a dragon. “The traitors want my city,” he said. “But I’ll give them naught but ashes.”
Jaime learned the king and his pyromancers were placing caches of wildfire all around the city: beneath the Sept, in the hovels of Flea Bottom, at all seven gates and even in the cellars of the Red Keep itself. The king’s replacement hand objected to this wildfire plot, only to be burned alive for doing so. Aerys named the head pyromancer as his next hand.
Burning people alive was becoming a sexual fetish for Aerys: It often spurred him to rape his queen afterward. Hearing Rhaella cry was worse for Jaime than the screaming of Aerys’ other wretched victims. Like all Kingsguard, Jaime was sworn to protect the queen. Wanting to protect her from the king, and not being able to, was something new and troubling.
When Tywin finally joined the rebellion, he pretended to be Aerys’ ally one more time in order to gain entry to the city. And so, at the advice of Pycelle (always a Lannister stooge) but against the advice of Varys and Jaime, Aerys opened the gates and made possible the Sack of King’s Landing.
Jaime begged the king to listen to reason: Surrender to his father, save lives. But Aerys would not yield; instead, he commanded Jaime to bring him Tywin’s head. But seeing the head pyromancer running off, Jaime chased him down and killed him before he could set off the wildfire. He then went back to kill Aerys before he could issue a royal command to anyone else.
When Tywin’s men burst into the throne room, thinking they would kill the king themselves, they asked Jaime who should be the new king. Jaime wondered: Should it be Tywin? Or Robert Baratheon? Another Targaryen? He assumed the Targaryen children were safe; he had no idea that his father had sent the Mountain to kill the rest of the family he was sworn to protect.
Jaime sat down on the throne to wait and see who would come to claim it. Or, as Dany puts it, Jaime “sat down on the Iron Throne and watched as his blood poured onto the floor.” And when Ned Stark walked in, Jaime didn’t explain. He became known, then, as the Kingslayer and one of the most reviled men in the realm. All he had done was try to save it from a man who tried to burn its entire capital — and everyone in it — to the ground.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.