“When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground.”
Now that the ships have set sail, the wildfire has settled, and winter has come, it’s time to see who is still left playing the game of thrones.
The days of testosterone-fueled warmongering are long past. Instead, at the end of Season 6, the queens reign, stronger than ever. With ingenuity and decisiveness, the women are here: Queen Cersei (Lena Headey), ruling on the Iron Throne; Queen Daenerys (Emilia Clarke), crossing the sea with her three dragons along with Yara (Gemma Whelan); the exiled Queen of the Salt Throne; and the Sand Snakes, led by Ellaria (Indira Varma), taking over in Dorne. Arya (Maisie Williams) has returned to Westeros, crossing names off her list; Brienne (Gwendoline Christie) has finally fulfilled her promise to Catelyn Stark (Michelle Fairley) to protect Sansa (Sophie Turner); and Sansa, in turn, is the catalyst without whom the battle for Winterfell would have failed horribly.
In a world where characters’ lives are notoriously short-lived and power dynamics shift hands all too easily, what is remarkable about this season of Game of Thrones is not what has happened, but who was responsible. To state the obvious: this season, women have orchestrated or enacted nearly every major plot point. With its widespread and atypical surge of female authority on all fronts, Season 6 comes across as an overcompensating apology for the damaging portrayal and treatment endured by the show’s female characters for the past five years.
In this game (of thrones, that is), the women now outnumber the men. In fact, where before five Kings vied for the Throne, now only two leading male players might have their hat in the ring: Jon Snow (Kit Harington) and Petyr Baelish (Aiden Gillen).
Even the baddies have been removed: the Boltons (Michael McElhatton and Iwan Rheon) have been thrown to the dogs; Terminator-style, Waif (Faye Marsay) has been exterminated, while Lord Greyjoy (Patrick Malahide) took a spill over an unnecessarily precarious rope bridge. The only villain left is the Night King (Richard Brake), but he has long lurked on the outskirts of the main action, so his story arc probably won’t come to fruition until the very end anyhow.
Rewind five seasons. It’s no secret Game of Thrones has a history of sexual violence against women: Jamie Lannister’s (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) controversial sex scene with his sister Cersei, Sansa Stark’s brutal rape scene, the mass quantities of women in brothels, and the abuse and belittlement of women in general. Until now, mainstream discussions regarding female characters have revolved around their minimization to sexual objects (excluding Daenerys’s storyline, as she was able to break out early on and reject an imposed classification as sex object), and much of the series’ criticism concentrated on its sexist plots and disappointingly weak female characters. Add in the laughably lopsided number of women’s partial and full-frontal nude scenes, and it is no wonder women became placeholder characters, necessary only for their relationships with men.
Thankfully (and finally), this year’s storyline has reversed Game of Thrones’s legacy of female marginalization. If Season 5 was all about female impotence, Season 6 is all about female domination.
Perhaps the most remarkable and drastic character development so far comes from Sansa Stark, who habitually—and frustratingly—suffered in silence as men abused and mistreated her. But the new Sansa is ready for action and needs no one to make decisions for her; she leads the Stark story arc. When Ramsay Bolton takes little brother Rickon Stark (Art Parkinson) captive, Jon Snow hesitates, unsure of what to do. But not Sansa. Seeking his support, she impassionedly urges Jon to act, to fight, to storm Winterfell, her ancestral home and the Stark house seat of power. In one bracing scene, she makes it very clear that she will go to battle, even without him: “I want you to help me, but I’ll do it myself it I have to.” The Sansa of earlier seasons would have been content to flee and cower, interested only in self-preservation. No more. Sansa has evolved into a freer, determined woman: she wants revenge. As they march on Winterfell, she daringly calls out Jon for not asking her counsel on the best strategy to defeat Ramsey. She knows Ramsey best, she argues, and she knows Jon is walking into a trap. And even when Jon doesn’t (or maybe can’t) listen to her advice, it is she who pulls out the ace and calls on Petyr with his Knights of the Vale to win the fight. It was her wit and her decisiveness that reclaimed Winterfell, all without her needing to physically charge alongside Jon and his army.
Even in her peripheral role, the precocious Lady Mormont (Bella Ramsey) adheres to this new standard of female potency and has become an instant hit. In a short but memorable scene in Season 6, episode 7, we are introduced to the very young Lady Mormont, who has a mind and tongue as robust as the bear on her sigil. In response to Jon’s stumbling attempts at asking for support, she puts in him his place and quips back, “I understand that I’m responsible for Bear Island and all who live here, so why should I sacrifice one more Mormont life for someone else’s war?” In subsequent episodes, though she’s onscreen but seconds, her stony face has become an iconic signature, symbolic of hardy female might.
This adjustment in perspective and tone may be a product of the story entering the realm of the unknown, as the show has pushed past George R.R. Martin’s books, shedding the need to follow a book plot, since no viewers know what will happen next (whereas in previous seasons, viewers could read ahead, so they could know what would happen). This progressive shift has not gone unnoticed and many have commended the series for this change.
And yet, as this season unfolded, critics and fans complained that Game of Thrones had become “boring,” “a shadow of its shocking best,” and that the focus on slow table setting caused the show to move sluggishly. One plausible rationale for this lull in action could be that there were just too many characters, too many storylines. Even extending past the one-hour threshold, most episodes couldn’t touch on all plots, which meant that viewers might go two episodes without catching up on their favorite character, and in the process lose interest and investment.
While some of these critiques may be accurate, many complaints of a weaker season seem to actually be complaints about a female-driven narrative. How do we reconcile praise on the rise of female characters in a season also filled with grievances on the lack of action, blood, and sex? Does this suggest that female-driven narratives are inherently boring? That they do not and cannot compare to male-driven narratives? Or are these complaints a resistance to the series’ shift itself?
Perhaps the root of the issue stems from the series disrupting the implicit agreement with the audience, the code of communication established since the first episode. Viewers have come to anticipate and even crave highly sexualized scenes, as well as gruesome and unpredictable deaths. And this season has upset these expectations by introducing a more quietly turbulent storyline that also serves as an ode to the influence and resourcefulness of its female characters.
Notably, this season’s preferred methods of combat were verbal negotiations and deceptive ingenuity, instead of just lopping off heads. In the Game of Thrones world, these more subtle strategies are attributed as being characteristically feminine (in the tradition of Lucrezia Borgia and her fabled poison ring) as they lack the typically more brutish and “masculine” approach of violent force. Some men who overtly utilize cunning strategy—Petyr, Varys (Conleth Hill), and Tyrion (Peter Dinklage)—have been mocked by their hack-and-slash male counterparts. But because this so-called “feminine” approach (smarter and less gory) has become the primary manner in which conflict is handled in the series, more male characters in general have appropriated the technique. In Season 6, episode 8, the setting and action preps for a great battle between Jaime Lannister, the paragon of studly manhood, and the Blackfish (Clive Russell), the quintessence of macho stubbornness. It’s a smoking gun moment: the two armies are set for a siege, but instead of an action-packed fight sequence filled with rolling heads and sleek throat slits, Jaime convinces (forcefully, yet still verbally) Edmure Tully (Tobias Menzies) to yield. Jamie regains the castle with little effort and little violence. The Blackfish dies off-screen as in a Greek tragedy, the information recounted in expositional dialogue. Not your typical blood and gore stratagem, but very effective nonetheless and exciting in its own way as it leaves it up to the audience’s imagination to fill in the blanks.
A master of the craft of verbal persuasion, Queen Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer) has always been an expert at winning battles with her words, as evident in her ability to influence men. Behind the scenes, she has directed her husband King Tommen (Dean-Charles Chapman) and ruled the Seven Kingdoms in all but name. But this season, when her discreet power is challenged, she shows the depth of her personal strength and resilience. Just when it looks like she has no recourse but to “confess” and submit, Margaery’s clever manipulations result in her freedom. Though the show sets up for a climactic moment of violence, it bypassed the expected outcome through verbal negotiations and victories for the subjugated female—a definite shift in tone from Cersei’s unforgettable walk of shame last year, a viscerally brutal, violent, and humiliating passage.
All in all, throughout the season, we saw characters talking their way out of situations, playing the game differently, intelligently. But Game of Thrones is still Games of Thrones and the final two episodes brought monumental epic battle sequences. Is it any wonder these became the two most-watched installments of the series’ history? Nevertheless and battles aside, the major story threads are now led by powerful, bold women. In the end, the continued popularity of Game of Thrones may rest upon the show’s ability to reconcile the rising emergence of female characters and their more understated (though effective) strategies with the preexisting tacit agreement with the audience for what one female cast member calls “death and boobies.”