I watch Game of Thrones because, just like everyone else, I want to find out who lives, who dies, and who ends up on the spiky iron chair in King’s Landing. But for me, the hit HBO show is about more than a death count (I’ll leave that to Arya). It’s about the women.
Daenerys “Stormborn” Targaryen has been my favorite from the first moment she walked through fire. Despite being the daughter of the Mad King and the last rightful Targaryen heir to the Iron Throne (until this week), Dany didn’t grow up in the lavish palace walls of the Red Keep. She was born during the chaos of her father’s overthrow, in the last great civil war between the rich and powerful family houses. Dany grew up in exile, wandering the so-called Free Cities of the East — many of which weren’t free at all but propped up by slave markets to serve their masters. When we meet Dany in season one, she’s a teenager sold off by her abusive elder brother to beefcake warlord Khal Drogo in order to further his political ambitions. Dany might be a princess by birth, but she wasn’t dealt an easy hand.
Dany believes fiercely in her right to rule, but she despises what ruling means in the world she’s grown up in. She doesn’t want to be a slave owner or a dictator — and she definitely doesn’t want to become her murderous father. She tells Ser Jorah: “Slavery is real. I can end it. I will end it. And I will end those behind it.” Before sailing across the sea to Westeros, she frees the enslaved people of Meereen and creates an army that fights because they want to, not because they have to. (Also, she has dragons.)
In the season-eight premiere, our Khaleesi finally arrives at Winterfell with Jon Snow and her army of the Unsullied to “save the North,” not conquer it. She states her mission clearly in season seven: “I’m not here to murder. All I want to destroy is the wheel that has rolled over everyone both rich and poor, to the benefit of no one but the Cersei Lannisters of the world.” And as much as Dany wants to take on her family’s enemies and take back the Iron Throne, she knows that she must first fight the army of the dead that threatens all mankind. This is a revolutionary idea, in Westeros or anywhere else. A queen who declares that she doesn’t serve the interests of the rich and powerful? A ruler who doesn’t want to control the political system but to break the system as it is known? It’s no wonder that the people she meets in Westeros are skeptical. Skeptical, because they’ve seen another kind of woman on the Iron Throne: the villain we love to hate, Queen Cersei of Casterly Rock.
The Lannisters have long been the richest family in Westeros, and they’ve paid an enormous price to become richer and more powerful. Their matriarch has lost her father and all three of her children. Her brothers have abandoned her. Cersei is a lot more honest about wielding power than most: “I don’t care about checking my worst impulses,” she tells Tyrion in the season-seven finale. “I don’t care about making the world a better place. Hang the world.” The Lannisters’ gold mines under Casterly Rock went dry a long time ago. Without pillaging the Tyrells, her regime’s coffers would have been empty.
Unlike Dany, Cersei doesn’t expect to win with the people — she expects to win in spite of them. When Cersei’s brother (and lover) Jaime begs her not to wage a war — arguing that they don’t have the warrior strength of the Dothraki or the allegiance of the other houses, she replies with all the confidence in the Seven Kingdoms: “We have something better. We have the Iron Bank.” Rather than earn her army, Cersei’s pays for it. She buys 20,000 Golden Company mercenaries — though they arrive without their legendary elephants — with funds from the Iron Bank. But Cersei has no intention of sending her private army north to help defeat the army of the dead — that’s Jon and Dany’s problem. No, Cersei’s army will sit back and wait for whatever comes their way. Cersei’s betting on the strength of the bank to get her through the biggest fight of her life. It never crosses the mind that the bank could fail, or betray her.
So this is it — season eight. Winter is here, the Wall is crushed, and only five episodes remain. With all these powerful women preparing for battle, will the mighty bank silence the army of the people? Will the army of the dead heading straight for Winterfell make all of this talk about breaking wheels irrelevant? We’ve got five episodes to find out if the people can truly break their chains, destroy the wheel, and rise up together to win.