Daenerys Targaryen lived up to the worst parts of her family's rage-filled past on Sunday's penultimate episode of "Game of Thrones." Atop her last remaining fire-breathing dragon, she lay waste to opposing forces, the women and children of King's Landing (and according to our TV critic, the show's very credibility, but we won't get into that). After Drogon easily torched the Iron Fleet and the scorpion crossbows, Daenerys seemed intent on killing every last terrified resident of the doomed city.
The final scenes, in which Arya Stark took in the Pompeii-like destruction while staggering through the city streets, got us wondering: Just how bad was Khaleesi’s sin that day?
War is full of atrocities. And the creators of "Game of Thrones" have gone out of their way to show them to us in graphic detail. They also set up a clear debate about Daenerys' decision.
She talks about using the dragon the same way real-life leaders have spoken about using nuclear weapons, as an evil offset only by the greater evil of letting the war drag on or letting the bad people in power stay there.
Then we see Daenerys' rage and vengeance, leaving us to contemplate her true motivations and whether the ends ever justify the means.
Whether the show’s creators decide in this week's finale that Daenerys' sin was too grave for her to become queen — or to survive at all — may hinge not on how destructive her decision was, but on why she made it.
Do we take her at her word that she lays waste to King’s Landing to stop the suffering of far greater numbers of people? Or was it just an act of rage and vengeance that can’t be forgiven?
The show's visual effects producer, Steve Kullbeck, said in HBO's behind-the-scenes video "The Game Revealed," the attack was heavily inspired by the firebombing at Dresden near the end of World War II. "Thrones" has long taken inspiration from real historical events to create its medieval-like world of scheming nobility and to raise questions about what humans are capable of in war.
George R.R. Martin, who penned the books on which the series is based, has said he first took inspiration from the Wars of the Roses, a series of civil wars in England during the 15th century between two families with claims to the throne. Season 6's brutal Battle of the Bastards is based on the Battle of Cannae between the Romans and the Hannibal-led Carthaginians in 216 BC, according to episode director Miguel Sapochnik.
The writers' decision to use a weapon of mass destruction became a cultural touchstone for millions of viewers and even casual observers, igniting vigorous debate about moral decision-making in war, the elastic bounds of human cruelty and the real toll all of it can take.
Even set in a fake world, it is hard not to see parallels between the atrocities that were committed in the past in the name of resolving the conflict and saving lives. There's a reason such destruction is usually most evident at the end of wars.
"As war goes on, one of the things that's very true is the norms of civility start to disappear," said Adrian Lewis, the David B. Pittaway professor of military history at the University of Kansas. "The longer and longer war goes on, the more inhumane humans become."
As a starting point to judge Daenerys' actions, we turned to experts and a little bit of math to estimate just how brutal her actions against innocent people were in “The Bells”
The first step is figuring out how many people even lived in the show's fictional King's Landing. On Sunday's episode, Tyrion put the population at 1 million. That seems generous, according to Steve Doig, a data journalism professor at Arizona State University who is an expert in crowd estimation. Based on some of the views from Cersei's window in the Red Keep, it's likely not large enough to handle that kind of population. The city isn't like Hong Kong with skyscrapers, and the footprint can't be more than a few square miles.
Instead, according to Doig, the population is probably closer to the half-million stated in the books.
From there, we can look at history to try to calculate exactly what the effect of a dragon ridden by its apoplectic mama would be.
We started with the fires that ravaged San Francisco after the earthquake of 1906. The earthquake ruptured gas mains across the city, and the resulting fires burned some 500 city blocks within three days.
The National Archives estimate that 200,000 people were left homeless, which gives us an idea of the huge percentage of the city — then with a population of 400,000 — that was burned. The death toll, according to the archives, was around 3,000.
If we apply that mortality rate to what happened in King's Landing, we end up with a death toll of about 7,500. But that's almost certainly a drastic undercount.
While devastating, the San Francisco fire offered more routes of escape than the aerial dragon assault depicted in the show. California citizens had time to leave the area, and the damage was drawn out over the course of days.
What happened last week: 'Game of Thrones' recap: The series just burned itself to the ground
"That's like King's Landing being allowed to evacuate and then a dragon cleaning all the empty houses," Doig said. "It's not quite the same thing as you know, the death from above."
The hunt for more hypothetical comparisons takes us to some dark parts of world history. We looked to two of the most large-scale firebombings on record, both of which history has since cast among the most morally-questionable decisions of our times because of the massive toll they took on civilian populations.
The aforementioned firebombing of Dresden by Allied forces in 1945 is one of those. As German news magazine Der Spiegel wrote in 2008, "The firestorm that destroyed Dresden's architectural treasures and so much of its civilian population became a byword for the horrors of modern warfare and a stain on the Allies claim to have fought a good war against Nazism."
Allied forces dropped 4,500 tons of incendiary bombs on an area of roughly 13 square miles. While some estimates put the number of deaths as high as 100,000, the expert consensus today is that somewhere between 18,000 and 25,000 Germans perished.
Calculating the number of people who were in harm's way in Dresden is difficult and forces us to do some estimation on population density.
Lewis, the military history professor, said that even the best density estimates would be an undercount. Dresden's population at the time was inflated due to refugees from the Russian front of the war.
The Federal Statistical Office of Germany lists current population densities for some big German cities. Dresden has 4,200 people per square mile, but that's after the historical heart of the city was destroyed in the attack. It might be more reasonable to use the density of nearby Leipzig, which sits at just under 5,000 per square mile.
If true, that would mean 65,000 Germans were in the area of Dresden that was attacked that night, resulting in a death rate of 28%.
Dresden is frequently cited by historians as a misuse of military power, as is the firebombing of Tokyo in March 1945. The Air Force launched the first major firebombing of a Japanese city, dropping bombs over 15.8 square miles of the city over almost three hours. Historians have lambasted the attack, which targeted an area populated almost exclusively by civilians.
Again, historical density is difficult to pin down. But at current levels of 16,120 per square mile, the affected population would have been 254,000.
The area affected and scope of the destruction — estimates put the death toll at 100,000 — make it one of the most devastating attacks on Japan during the war, even more so than the attacks of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
If Drogon's fictional assault was as catastrophic as the attack on Dresden, then 140,000 Westerosi would have died. If the attack was as deadly as that of Tokyo, then 39% of the city — some 200,000 residents — would have perished.
But Lewis said the devastation in Tokyo was due to several factors that don't exist in the television show. First, bombers used napalm, which will keep burning as long as there is fuel. "Game of Thrones" has never directly addressed how long dragon fires burned when unleashed in other battles. Second, he said, the construction in that area of Tokyo was mostly wood -- something military leaders used to their advantage — rather than the stone of medieval times. Finally, Japanese leaders told citizens to stay and fight the fire, which certainly increased the number of fatalities.
Studying the fallout from these real-life events raises more questions about the scenario laid out by the "Game of Thrones" showrunners. The Tokyo firebombings, for example, left 110,000 injured in addition to the massive number who died. If those same ratios were to bear out in King's Landing, 220,000 of the surviving 300,000 residents would have been directly injured in Daenerys' attack.
It remains to be seen if there will be any survivors. The final scene, of Arya riding out on a horse, indicates that the writers were going for wholesale ruin on a level beyond even the most destructive attacks in human history.
Is such a thing even possible?
Absolutely not, said Lewis. "Places like a river would be refuge from the fire. There are other things that allow people to survive. There's no bombing where you get 100% kill. Nothing. None. Even with B-52s."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Game of Thrones: Judging the brutality and morality of unleashing dragon fire on innocents