Damsels of Distress: Game of Thrones‘ Fraught Treatment of Forceful Women

TV Features Game of Thrones
Damsels of Distress: Game of Thrones‘ Fraught Treatment of Forceful Women

Languishing in the Citadel as Game of Thrones launches into its seventh season, maester-in-training Samwell Tarly (John Bradley-West) faces a ceaseless set of chores. He replaces fraying tomes on the library’s shelves and gags as he empties bedpans, serves hot slop in the mess and spends his spare hours studying, only to start from the beginning the next morning. It’s a process that “Dragonstone” transforms into the hour’s most arresting sequence, an accelerating roundelay of splashes and retches and thuds that becomes almost symphonic—a montage of domestic drudgework worthy of Cinderella, directed with more avidity than any of the episode’s grandiose monologues or hushed conversations. All the while, Sam glances longingly at the library’s restricted section, where he hopes to find the key to defeating the White Walkers, the undead army advancing on Westeros as fast as the long, dark winter. He is, in HBO’s fantasy epic, the closest approximation of the damsel in distress, penning letters to his handsome prince from the high tower.

In this, Game of Thrones might be said to show its hand: In a series that tends to reserve its aesthetic coups for sustained stretches of action—the astonishing central set piece of “Battle of the Bastards,” or the devilish opening sequence of “The Winds of Winter”—the decision to treat tidying up with such care suggests, at minimum, that it deserves our attention. And, in the context of “Dragonstone,” with which the series draws taut the threads it’s spent so long unspooling, it does: Here, Game of Thrones elaborates, to uncertain effect, on its fraught, invigorating treatment of forceful women.

Sam’s dreary labors appear, after all, in sharp contrast to the machinations of Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey), standing astride a map of her world and seeing enemies in every direction; to the faceless Arya Stark (Maisie Williams), posing as Walder Frey in order to poison his family; to the ferocious—and ferociously entertaining—Lyanna Mormont (Bella Ramsey), the pint-sized pummeler of opinionated old men; to dragon lady Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), face stiffened into a solemn mask as she attempts to reclaim her birthright. Though “Dragonstone” pauses, on occasion, to consider the “proper” role for women in Westeros—Lyanna, for instance, speaks up in support of military training for girls, while Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) publicly questions half brother Jon Snow (Kit Harington), now King in the North—it’s clear that Game of Thrones itself brooks no debate on the matter. Its female protagonists are, to the last, plotters, strivers, warriors, swordswomen, wicked witches and vengeful Furies rather than damsels in distress.

As Emily Nussbaum noted in The New Yorker last summer, the country still in the teeth of the presidential campaign, the series’ “array of female conquerors” may be its most powerful weapon, the Wildfire buried in the heart of the capital, but “Dragonstone” subtly, curiously sands down their distinctions—no longer a kaleidoscope through which to understand the many reactions to Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, as Nussbaum suggested, but a telescope narrowing the range of motivations to a single point in the distance. As Sam, Jon Snow and the Hound (Rory McCann) seem to soften, turning their attention to the threat of the White Walkers, or as Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) cautions his sister/lover against the risks of ambition, “Dragonstone” lashes together the series’ women in the search for retribution, framing their choices as craven, personal, where the men’s choices are heroic, universal. It’s not simply that the episode sets Cersei, Daenerys, Sansa and Arya on course to clash by season’s end, each demanding comeuppance for the deaths of fathers, brothers, sons; it’s that the details of “Dragonstone” underscore these correspondences, smoothing out Game of Thrones’ once-bracing variations on the theme to the point that they threaten to vanish entirely. The sight of Arya cutting a path through the corpses in House Frey calls to mind Cersei’s satisfied half-smirk after the destruction of the Sept of Baelor; Daenerys’ fingertips run along a table at Dragonstone carved in the shape of Westeros, a miniature of her designs on the Iron Throne to match Cersei’s map. Even Sansa, the quietest member of the quartet, advocates harsh punishment for the families that betrayed the Starks last season, then explains to Jon that she learned the import of ruthlessness from Cersei herself. “You almost sound,” he chides, “as if you admire her.”

The series’ promising inversion of fairy tale tropes culminates in another sharp contrast—one undermined by the presence of musician Ed Sheeran, in a cameo that distracts from the thrust of the scene—as Arya comes upon a band of soldiers in the forest. Trotting in on her horse alone, she might be the hero, or outlaw, of some long-lost Western, the gruff visitor swigging blackberry wine as her hosts describe the traditional work of women: mothers instructing their sons in the merits of kindness, daughters caring for their “poppers” in old age. It’s a self-conscious moment in a series rather too prone to turgid reflections on human nature, and yet the expression on Williams’ face before Arya reveals her true purpose (“I’m going to kill the Queen,” she says, to the men’s laughter) is such a heady brew of guilt, regret, concern and conviction that the series seems suddenly ambivalent about the cold-blooded archetype into which it shoehorns its four most formidable female characters. If the danger of “Dragonstone” is that it replaces one uncomplicated depiction of women (damsels in distress) with another, more satisfying one (venegeful Furies), this moment, though it soon passes, holds out the hope that Cersei’s is not Game of Thrones’ only model of feminine strength. Indeed, as the Archmaester (Jim Broadbent) reminds Sam in the midst of an autopsy, force for its own sake is no improvement on weakness. “We are this world’s memory, Samwell Tarly,” he says of the histories held in the Citadel. “Without us, men would be little better than dogs.”

Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.

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