Being a female Game of Thrones viewer is exhausting. For the past five seasons, the show’s female characters have been repeatedly deprived of their agency (and their clothing) while being raped, beaten, burned, enslaved, imprisoned, and paraded naked through the streets with objectionable pixie cuts. Other than experimenting with my home-waxing kit or reading real-world election coverage, I’m hard pressed to think of a more masochistic way to spend a Sunday evening.
So far, season six has been an improvement. Perhaps it was being freed from the constraints of George R.R. Martin’s books, or maybe showrunners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff actually started paying attention to their critics (as promised), but this season seems to be a direct response to criticisms of the show’s misogyny. I don’t know if the GOT team has been bumping to Lemonade in the writer’s room, but last night’s episode, “Book of the Stranger,” may have been the show’s most female-powered installment yet, depicting a string of interactions where women prevail over their weaker male counterparts.
At the wall, Sansa Stark, who has spent the past few seasons ricocheting from captor to captor like a Frisbee, reunites with her brother Jon Snow and rallies him to reclaim their family home from the Boltons. “If you don’t take back the North, we’ll never be safe. I want you to help me, but I’ll do it myself if I have to,” she declares, with a maturity and chutzpah unrecognizable from seasons prior. When Jon tries to censor the rape threats at the end of Ramsay’s letter, Sansa snatches it and reads it out loud to the whole gang. She knows what it is like to suffer at Ramsay’s hands, and glossing over his sadism won’t help them take him down.
Meanwhile, in Vaes Dothrak, Daenerys’s scruffy-dude fan club shows up to rescue her, but they don’t have any good ideas (literally, Jorah’s best idea is to throw sand in a guy’s face), so she decides to save herself. Her plan? Head into the meeting of Dothraki leaders and roast them, verbally and physically. “You are small men. None of you are fit to lead the Dothraki. But I am. So I will,” she says, before literally burning down the patriarchy. (While Dany has typically had a lot more agency than the other women on the show, this is still one hell of a statement.) Other moments that elicited cheers from my mostly female Thrones viewing squad yesterday: Missandei standing up to Tyrion; Yara showing Theon who’s boss; Margaery imploring Loras to stay strong; Olenna and Cersei putting their differences aside to take down the High Sparrow; and Brienne marching into Castle Black and casually informing Davos and Melisandre that she treated Stannis’s head to an IRL game of Fruit Ninja (boy, bye!).
Of course, there were still some frustrating moments. Game of Thrones is never going to resist a chance to show a pair of pert breasts backlit against a blazing inferno, so naturally Daenerys emerges both Unburnt and Unclothed from her Dothraki BBQ (although actress Emilia Clarke, who hasn’t done a nude scene for three seasons, said she felt “in control” and was happy to do the scene). Poor Osha gets knifed in the throat, an unfitting ending for a character who deserved better. But in general, I’m optimistic that the writers are beginning to pay more attention to how they make use of their female characters. Aside from how exhausting it is to see sexual violence used as a plot device, the show is a lot more interesting when it lets women act instead of waiting around to be rescued. A big problem with last season was that so many of the story lines were stagnant for way too long: Cersei imprisoned, Sansa kidnapped, Arya as part of the slowest season-long training montage ever. Last night, we saw what it looks like when women solve their own problems (and the problems of the impotent men around them) by drawing on their ingenuity, strength, courage, and intellect.
While I enjoy watching Brienne and Arya slice up their enemies, I am one of those Game of Thrones viewers who prefers the backroom machinations to the bombastic battle scenes. While GOT is about war, it’s also about relationships and power and strategizing, and how personalities play off one another. These quiet moments are often when we get to spend meaningful time with the show’s female characters (I, for one, would always rather hear women talk than watch men fight). I’m not saying that every episode should be a cutthroat boardroom drama starring Cersei and Olenna — although that, along with a Sand Snakes spinoff, is something I would watch. But I am saying that, if everyone just shut up and let the women speak, we might actually get some stuff done around here.