It Still Stings: Game of Thrones Failed Its Women

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It Still Stings: Game of Thrones Failed Its Women

Editor’s Note: TV moves on, but we haven’t. In our feature series It Still Stings, we relive emotional TV moments that we just can’t get over. You know the ones, where months, years, or even decades later, it still provokes a reaction? We’re here for you. We rant because we love. Or, once loved. And obviously, when discussing finales in particular, there will be spoilers:

While HBO’s Game of Thrones begins with Ned Stark (Sean Bean) making his way to King’s Landing, fracturing his family and the world of Westeros as well, his death in the first season’s penultimate episode ushered in a world where other characters had the opportunity to come to the forefront. Unsurprisingly, it was the women who took the helm and continued to propel the series into the stardom it achieved. From dragon-riding heroes to hopelessly romantic teenagers, the women on the show quickly became the series’ most complex and compelling characters, and swiftly captured the hearts of millions everywhere. 

However, there were bumps in the road. The show gratuitously showcased instances of rape—two that do not occur in author George R.R. Martin’s already brutal world—and, eventually, many of these women were broken down into small, irreparable pieces. While Season 6 seemed to build these female characters back up again, the final season shook things up for the worse, and changing the women that we watched transform on our screens for almost a decade forever by its final episode. Change is good, and something that made Game of Thrones the popular show it ended up being. But as the season progressed, shock value took precedence over character development for writers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. 

Season 8 begins with Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) and Jon Snow (Kit Harrington) arriving in Winterfell after pledging allegiance to each other’s cause. When they reach the gates, they are greeted by Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) and her steely gaze. When she hugs Jon, she peers over her shoulder at Daenerys like a jilted lover, and it’s here that it becomes clear that these two would not be friends. While it’s understandable that Sansa, after her brutal torment at the hands of Joffrey Baratheon (Jack Gleeson) and Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon), would be distrustful of strangers, the growing animosity between her and Daenerys feels unnecessary. 

This conflict is one of the main issues with Sansa’s character development post-Ramsay. She was sexually assaulted, the plotline thrown in as some half attempt to force character development, but ultimately all it accomplished was turning her into a steely imitation of Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey). While yes, Sansa did indeed learn from Cersei, in the books she learns specifically how not to become her. “If I am ever a queen, I’ll make them love me,” Sansa tells herself in Martin’s A Clash of Kings, and it’s this admission that establishes that, no matter what, her deep rooted kindness will always keep her from turning into what Cersei has become. Instead, HBO’s Sansa is forced to become a one-note character, which almost all of these previously fleshed-out female characters were transformed into with this final season. 

On top of Sansa’s sudden flatness, in the Season 8 episode “The Last of the Starks,” when she is reunited with Sandor Clegane (Rory McCann)—one of her only protectors in Kings Landing—her sexual assault is (once again) used against her: a man so desperate to seek absolution through his duty to her and her sister begins their reunion by mocking Sansa’s assault. And what does Sansa do? She tells him that “without Joffrey and Ramsay and all the rest, I would have stayed a little bird all my life.” 

Women should not have to be abused and “broken in” to become resilient. Sansa was already changing before her violent assault in Season 5, and yet that single event is what the writers allow to define her seasons-long arc. In her time in King’s Landing, she went from a naive young girl to a woman who could easily conceal her emotions, which aided in her survival. She did it alone, and there is no one she should thank but herself. 

And unfortunately, like Sansa, the woman the writers were so desperate for her to emulate also becomes a shell of herself in Season 8. When she’s present, Cersei ponders over a glass of wine and peers out of windows, unspeaking and subsequently, unchanging. The most well-rounded antagonist of the series is reduced to a background character, and the season ultimately suffers because of it. Headey, since 2011, delivered one of the best performances the show had to offer, and seeing Cersei reduced to little more than set dressing not only hurts her arc, but the series as a whole.

Cersei is the first woman the audience sees sit upon the Iron Throne, and her main challenger being another woman (the equally-formidable Daenerys) allowed Game of Thrones to feel like a completely new version of itself. Finally, women were the dominating forces of the war, but instead of delving into this conflict, Cersei and Daenerys only shared the screen once. It feels like a disservice not only to Headey but to Clarke as well. From the moment Cersei ascended to the Throne in Season 6, we spent episode upon episode waiting for a big confrontation between the two, but it never comes. Instead, the two women stare at each other from miles away during the Battle of King’s Landing, without uttering a word.

One of the few decisions Cersei does make in Season 8 is also perhaps the series’ most egregious sin. In “The Last of the Starks,” as Daenerys and her fleet attempt to fly back to Dragonstone, her dragon Viserion is shot down from the sky, and her ships are ambushed. Among the wreckage, her best friend Missandei (Nathalie Emmanuel) is missing, and it’s soon revealed that somehow Euron Greyjoy (Pilou Asbæk)—Cersei’s accomplice—has kidnapped her. We then find ourselves watching a former slave (who spent the series speaking about her desire to return to the place she was stolen from) be forced back into shackles before being beheaded in front of Daenerys and Missandei’s lover, Greyworm (Jacob Anderson). 

Her death is the catalyst that lights the fire in Daenerys heart, but the move is so tone deaf it’s impossible to fathom who approved of this choice. Missandei is the only Black woman in Game of Thrones, and one of the only women of color to be given meaningful dialogue. Along with this, she is undeniably the series’ most innocent character. Forcing her back into the chains Daenerys freed her from feels not only like a slap in the face to the character, but specifically the series’ Black audience. In the end, her headless body falls from the gates of King’s Landing, and her death marks the moment the season truly begins to unravel into the worst version of itself. 

After Missandei’s death, Daenerys is grief stricken. Her grief quickly turns into paranoia, as the men whom she thought she could trust are conspiring against her, unraveling the safe-haven she built around herself over eight seasons. In “The Bells,” just as the Battle of King’s Landing seems to be at a standstill, Daenerys stares across the way at the Red Keep, in which her best friend’s murderer resides, and flies towards it on the back of her dragon. Burning the Red Keep seems like the likely thing to do, but before she gets there, Daenerys decides—for a reason that is still unknown to me, five years later—to unleash fire onto the innocent civilians in King’s Landing. 

When people now bring up Daenerys’ quick descent into madness, they often say that it was hinted at throughout the series and also in Martin’s books. Not once before “The Bells” had Daenerys used her fire-breathing dragons against innocent civilians, but instead, used them in instances of war. The idea that each of these wartime moments somehow hints towards Daenerys succumbing to “Targaryen madness” is not only wrong, but blatantly misunderstanding the purpose of her character. From her first POV-chapter in Martin’s A Game of Thrones, it is clear that Daenerys is unlike the Targaryens who came before her. She is an innocent girl—like Sansa—taken away from her home and forced into the company of older men who manipulate and use her at their will. Slowly, with the birth of her dragons and the freeing of slaves, she becomes a hero for the ages.

Rather than look for hints of Daenerys’ madness throughout the series, it’s much easier to find other places where Game of Thrones clearly failed her, going all the way back to Season 2. When the young mother of dragons arrives in Qarth, she tells the leaders of the city that, if they turn her and her people away, she will “lay waste to armies and burn cities to the ground” once her dragons are grown—starting with Qarth. It was here, all the way back in 2012, that it became clear that the people helming this series misunderstood one of its most important characters, viewing her as a tyrant rather than a passionate, protective leader. Not only is this line not written in Season 2’s book counterpart, A Clash of Kings, it has since become a defining moment for viewers and critics who see Daenerys’ turn to madness as an expected—albeit rushed—character arc.

Five years later, it still seems like the writers wanted to shock viewers, rather than create a satisfying end to one of the most popular shows of the 21st century. In making Daenerys flip in a split second, they in turn force both her and Cersei—who used wildfire to blow up the Great Sept in the final episode of Season 6—into the mad queen trope, etching away at any true depth these two women previously had. While Cersei is indeed headed down this path in Martin’s books (should they ever be finished), it makes almost no sense for Daenerys’ character arc. She represents a different side of the coin the rest of her ancestors land on, and while it’s unlikely that she will end up on the Iron Throne—if it even exists by the time the series is done—it’s more realistic to think that she will die during the Long Night, sacrificing herself for the good of the realm. Because that’s who Daenerys has always been: fiercely loyal and stunningly devoted to her people. 

In the end, Sansa, Cersei, Missandei, and Daenerys were broken down and reduced to parts, failed by the writers who were given a chance to wrap a series defined by its outstanding female characters. Out of these four women, only Sansa is left alive, and while the scene of her being crowned as the Queen in the North is a tearjerker, it came with a price. With its final season, it is startlingly explicit that the people helming Game of Thrones didn’t understand what made it and the women at its core so popular. The women in this series, and Martin’s books, are undeniably the most fascinating characters of the world of ice and fire, and it’s a shame that, in their final moments, most of them are reduced to the tropes that they once defied. These women become so muddled by the end that each of their last breaths feels akin to looking at them through a veil, rather than a television screen. Change is good, but when the characters you’re watching have changed for the worse, they instead become unrecognizable. 

Kaiya Shunyata is a freelance pop culture writer and academic based in Toronto. They have written for, Xtra, The Daily Dot, and more. You can follow them on Twitter, where they gab about film, queer subtext, and television.

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