TV & Movies

There Can Be No Happy Ending For Game of Thrones

Even if a woman ends up on the Iron Throne...

An image of Daenerys from the Game of Thrones finale

(Photo: HBO)

Well, Game of Thrones fans have spoken, and the message is clear: Season 8 is bad. Very, very bad.

And because people are no longer content to air their grievances on message boards and in vaguely threatening tweets to talent associated with the series, they want a redo. Yes, a full season redo. At press time, nearly 1 million viewers have signed a petition on urging HBO to produce an alternate final season shepherded by “competent writers.” Fight for the world you want to see, folks! Even if that world is mostly just incest and dragons.

But in all seriousness, the petition speaks to some of the issues that critics and fans alike have held with these final, compressed seasons of Game of Thrones since it started airing six weeks ago. In the rush to finish the series, showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have largely abandoned the nuance, character and intricate plotting of earlier seasons in favour of spectacle, bizarre character decisions motivated entirely by the needs of plot, and exhausted tropes.

And perhaps nowhere has this been more obvious than in the show’s treatment of its female characters.

Now, don’t get me wrong—Game of Thrones has always had issues with representation, to which countless think-pieces on rape as a plot device can attest. And this goes all the way back to its source material. Drawing heavily from medieval history and the fantasy and science fiction canons, George R.R. Martin’s source novels constructed a world that was steeped in patriarchal tradition. Female characters inhabited very specific and gendered roles, and incest, rape and arranged marriage were commonplace in a society where lineage and the ability to sire offspring was a woman’s most important contribution.

Good times! Well, if you were a man.

And the hard truth is that a male writer like Martin—and likewise, Benioff and Weiss—will always be somewhat limited by a cultural understanding of women based on previous forms of representation and personal bias. That’s not an intentional slight, mind you, but a blind spot woven into the fabric of our most beloved stories, fashioned by previous writers and reflective of the more traditional gendered power dynamics and roles in our society. We don’t even notice them, and so they continue to proliferate much of our media: The Mad Queen, The Ingénue, The Femme Fatale…

You get the idea.

Still, a talent like Martin has some understanding of the literary and societal traditions he was drawing upon, and so he gave his female characters interiority, complexity and self-awareness. Whether it was Cersei Lannister scheming for power, Daenerys Targaryen walking through fire, or Brienne of Tarth fighting for knighthood, each character understood the inherent biases of her world and found ways to navigate a system stacked against her. They were often smarter and stronger than their male counterparts because they had to be just to play the game. This awareness found its way into the show’s early seasons, and viewers immediately responded to it.

Cut to: Season Eight. Ooooh, boy.

In the home stretch, the HBO adaptation appears to have entirely abandoned nuance and awareness in favour of reinforcing the very power structures it previously handled with such flare. In a world of intricate character and world-building, suddenly:

Cersei Lannister, one of the series most ruthless and intelligent characters, is reduced to a blubbering mess in her final scene, clutching her womb and dying in the arms of her brother-lover.

Brienne of Tarth, first female knight in all of Westeros and slayer of countless White Walkers, is left crying in her housecoat after what was essentially a booty call.

After years of torture, Sansa Stark expresses gratitude for her rape.

Missandei, the show’s lone woman of colour, is sacrificed to motivate another female character, Daenerys Targaryen, to…

Lose her damn mind, and use her dragon to torch an entire city to the ground despite cries for surrender and her history of fighting for the oppressed. But whatever, guys. Her boyfriend also turned her down for sex so… behold, the Mad Queen!

Lazy female tropes abound! And the message is clear: It doesn’t matter whom any of these women are or the struggles that they faced over the series because there are only so many paths women in our stories can take. Whether you are a tactician, a knight or an assassin, your behaviours will probably be irrational and emotional, and your tale will in some way be rooted in romance, motherhood, victimhood or death. Never power.

Why would Benioff and Weiss not stop these clichés in their tracks? Well, it certainly doesn’t help that there are almost no female writers or directors on their staff. In 73 episodes, the show has only hired two female writers and one female director. And all before 2014! This was a show made for men by men. And without female voices in the writers’ room to shine a light on how these tropes are a disservice to female characters… well, they continue to happen.

Meanwhile, a character like Jon Snow can ride lazy male tropes to victory! Carried along by prophecy, passable swordsman skills and the hard work of the women around him, he’s destined to be king, you see? I mean, just look at that studly stoic exterior. He deserves power. Or Tyrion, who has been so smart despite all his incredibly stupid choices in recent seasons! Or Bran! Just look at him… sit there and trip out. He deserves power, too!

The cultural blind-spot rears its ugly dude-bro head.

So can a series that has done such a disservice to its female characters right the course in its final episode? Could Arya or Sansa sit on the Iron Throne, with full access to power and an earned conclusion to years of sacrifice and hardship?

We’ll see. But if our cultural traditions have taught me anything, it’s that even if a woman ends up on the throne, it probably won’t be a happy ending.

And maybe, as fans, we should be fighting to change that.


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