Review by Katherine Evans
Graphic by Samantha Corbett
Game of Thrones has failed its female characters. Here’s how.
Game of Thrones began its run with excessive nudity, gratuitous violence and alpha-male characters. This front established the show as prestige television whilst smuggling in a diversity of complex and dynamic female characters—leaders and warriors, matriarchs and wives, politicians and schemers. Their gender was acknowledged but they were not dismissed (at least not twice), and their actions were no less, and often far more, captivating to watch than those of their male counterparts. Entering season 8, women were very much at the forefront, with a woman on the Iron Throne, her main challenger a woman and the rest of Westeros filled with female knights, assassins and astute political players.
So why does Thrones’ final season feel like a slap in the face? Let’s begin with Daenerys. In the penultimate episode of the series, she murdered thousands of innocent people. This was presented by showrunners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff as the natural culmination of her seasons-long arc. But Dany’s actions aren’t a satisfying conclusion to a long descent into wickedness—they are the antithesis of her characterisation as an enlightened liberator. Yes, Dany has spent the past few seasons burning her opposers alive, but each of her most violent moments could be justified, at least to her own mind. She spent seven seasons doing everything in her power to protect the innocent only for her character to be fundamentally undone in a single episode.
Proponents will point to the recent deaths of Daenerys’ dragon child and closest friend as catalysts for her descent into madness, but this has the worrying implication that a woman in a position of immense power will be completely undone by her emotions. Dany’s journey does not stand for all women in positions of power, but it is disrespectful and uniquely absurd to suggest that a woman who has dedicated her life to protecting the innocent would, in a fit of anger and jealousy, commit unfathomable atrocities. I don’t believe Dany would have been a particularly good ruler, and I love the idea of the show ending with two incredibly complex female villains. It was not her job to be a shining beacon of hope and light for ambitious women everywhere. But if her fate was to be madness and villainy, this needed to be earned—her transformation should have begun seasons ago, and there should have been more at stake in her decision.
Brienne of Tarth is another character whose years-long character arc was reduced to the point of nonsensicality. In the second episode of season 8, her knighting was a triumphant moment where Brienne finally received the recognition and respect she deserved from her peers. But two weeks later, we left her wailing after a man in her nightgown—one of the only times we have ever seen her out of armour. Again, I take no issue with Brienne’s expression of vulnerability, but this came out of left field for the woman who had defeated larger men and just defeated death itself.
Cersei Lannister, one of the greatest villains of recent TV history, spent much of season 8 staring out of a window and sipping wine, before following a man to the basement to be crushed by some rocks. She died powerless, scared and begging a man to save her. This is everything the Cersei we know and love is not—the real Cersei would have at least had a proper escape route, if not backup plans for if her artillery weapons were unsuccessful. Sadly, despite her complexity and nuance in earlier seasons, Cersei’s loss of her children completely erased who she was in favour of a spiritless, stereotypical villain. It seems the writers couldn’t quite conceive how this woman might exist when not driven by the needs of her children.
Where female characters were not bent to fit with the showrunners’ desired ending, they lost their agency entirely. This season Missandei, the only regular female of colour on the show, was brutally beheaded in front of her friends and lover. This was played for shock value, and to explain the motivations of other characters. Her violent death was not treated as its own distinct horror, and she was relegated to collateral damage for the sake of one-dimensional storytelling.
Perhaps the root of this big and now unfixable problem may be traced back to the creators and developers of Thrones. Out of 73 episodes, only four have been credited to female writers. Four episodes have been directed by a woman, all before season 5. Notwithstanding these absurdities in their own right, more women behind the camera may have provided some much-needed perspective into the motivations of female characters throughout the show’s closing episodes.
The tragedy of Thrones is that many of these character arcs could have worked—Daenerys’ tyrannical tendencies were hinted at back in season 1, Brienne has been slowly opening up for years and it makes sense for Cersei’s character to change dramatically after her experiences. Many other women could have had similarly captivating and satisfying send-offs. The problem is, the show doesn’t seem to have had the patience to care about these characters anymore. The show once provided a ground-breaking exploration of female psyches but has relied on the very archetypes it once tried to avoid in order to complete the story: the ambitious bitch, the broken-hearted girlfriend and the one-dimensional villain. Sure, the men of Thrones have also been assigned tropes in the closing season, but as always they have more flattering characterisations to fall back on—Jon Snow as the noble hero, Euron as the bad boy and even Tyrion, who despite demonstrating his utter ineptitude as an advisor, somehow ends up as the new king’s right-hand man.
After spending eight years of my life watching this show, I’m left with a burning question: what was the point? Why develop these intricate, powerful female characters only to not do them justice? Female characters do not need to be perfect or satisfy our notions of who they should be; I did not fall in love with these characters for their goodness or perfection, but for their flaws, mistakes and development. These complexities are forever tarnished by the unearned and nonsensical people they were written to become. These women deserved better, and so did we.