As long as I’ve been a full-time professional critic, I’ve been writing about “Game of Thrones,” and specifically about the idea that George R.R. Martin’s sprawling series and the HBO drama adapted from it are, at their core, about the poisonous influence of misogyny on men, women and whole nations. “Game of Thrones” hasn’t always lived up to the most powerful ideas in Martin’s novels, what with its use of naked prostitutes as decor and a rape scene that the series’ showrunners, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, insisted was meant to be seen as consensual sex.
But despite a sixth season where the showrunners had to hold certain characters in stasis until their stories could start again, and in which the violence on the show made its periodic flirtation with the unwatchable, this is the year that “Game of Thrones” most fully realized its ambitions to explore what it means to survive rape, forced marriage and other aspects of patriarchy and slavery. From Sansa Stark’s (Sophie Turner) bloody victory in the Battle of the Bastards to Cersei Lannister’s (Lena Headey) bombing of the Great Sept of Baelor, women rose to power on “Game of Thrones,” but at a great and terrible cost that illustrated how little power individuals have over the systems that forge and deform them.
One of the more horrifying moments during “The Winds of Winter” came when Cersei, fresh off burning most of her enemies with wildfire, took time out to exact a more personal vengeance. Standing over Septa Unella (Hannah Waddingham), Cersei turns her former tormentor over to Ser Gregor Clegane (Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson), with the promise of blinding, torture and possibly rape to come.
Cersei may be free, but I’m not sure she’s liberated. She purchases a renewed sense of safety by passing her victimization — from the rape she suffered at the hands of Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy), to the High Septon’s (Jonathan Pryce) choice to parade her nude through the streets of King’s Landing — and her shame, on to someone else. We’ve long known that Cersei is a cruel, selfish person, willing to use her cousin Lancel Lannister (Eugene Simon) to kill her husband, and to allow her son Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) to torture Sansa Stark. I don’t know that I’ve ever felt sadder about Cersei’s cruelty than I did watching her shut that door on Septa Unella, intoning “Shame, shame, shame” all the while.
Obviously, Septa Unella deserves a greater share of our sympathy in that scene than Cersei herself does. But it has never been clearer how limited Cersei is. For all that she has fought to rid herself of a husband she hates, and to perpetuate the deceptions that would allow her children to rule, Cersei is not a transformational figure. The only tactics she knows, the only weapons she has, are the ones that have been used against her.
Cersei is hardly the only woman on “Game of Thrones” who has vented her anger on another woman, or stepped over another woman’s body during her rise to the apex of society.
In the first season of “Game of Thrones,” Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) burned the witch Mirri Maz Duur (Mia Soteriou) alive, after the older woman’s blood magic saved the life of Dany’s husband’s (Jason Momoa) but left him catatonic and killed Dany’s son in the process. To a certain extent, Dany is punishing Mirri for her own recklessness: She hadn’t asked the price she would have to pay for powerful magic or been cautious enough to ensure that the end result would be one she wanted. But when Dany ties Mirri to her husband’s funeral pyre and walks into it with her dragon eggs, she proves that she is impervious to fire by using another woman’s blood.
Mirri’s death sets a pattern for Dany: Throughout the series, Dany has embraced the idea that she will be a different kind of ruler, one who ends slavery, burns the khals who want to lock her up for life, persuades the Ironborn to give up rape and pillage and makes just laws. But she has consistently seized power using force and largely skipped out on the process of actually building new societies. She fled Meereen on Drogon when her efforts to combat the Sons of the Harpy hit a dead end, and now is leaving her lover, Daario Naharis (Michiel Huisman), behind in the city-state to oversee the selection of new leaders while she sails to Westeros with an invading force.
Dany may have extracted a promise from Yara Greyjoy (Gemma Whelan) to change Ironborn culture and awed the assembled khaalsars at Vaes Dothrak. But the words that commit the members of Dany’s coalition to do away with centuries of tradition and practice may be nothing more than the wind that powers her fleet westward.
Dany may avoid the taint of her father’s madness, but that doesn’t mean she can remake the world. Thus far, she has been able to excuse any of her failings and leave her stalled experiments in government behind because her real goal, Westeros, still lies in front of her. What happens when she gains her heart’s desire remains an agonizingly open question.
In the North, Sansa Stark’s storyline illustrates the risks for powerful women when they rely on old tools to bolster their authority. Dany may have put her dragons in service of her promise of reform, but the only weapon Sansa has is her name. The Stark legacy wins Sansa a pledge of loyalty from Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie) and the support of Lyanna Mormont (Bella Ramsey), the small but feisty lady of Bear Island. But the deeply ingrained idea of the Stark in Winterfell ends up playing out in a way Sansa might not have anticipated: Before she and Jon Snow (Kit Harington) can determine which of them will rule, Lyanna rallies the shamefaced lords of the region to recognize Jon as King in the North. It seems Sansa can’t invoke one element of tradition without activating the sexism that assumes the Stark in Winterfell has to be a man.
Women aren’t alone in finding themselves trapped by the tools, traditions and intergenerational traumas of the past.
This season saw the long-awaited demise of Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon), a despicable monster who dispatched his father, Roose (Michael McElhatton), by stabbing and fed his stepmother (Elizabeth Webster) and stepbrother to his own dogs. But for all the harm Ramsay did to other people, he was also a product of the same misogyny he embodied in such horrifying fashion. Ramsay was born to a woman Roose raped in assertion of his lordship over the women in the lands he controls. And his resentments and predations were both the result of the license given to men in Westeros and the not wholly irrational response to an inheritance system that disenfranchised him, admitted him and then excluded him again.
Samwell Tarly (John Bradley) grew up to be a radically different man than Ramsay Bolton. On his trip south to begin his studies to become a maester, though, he stopped at his ancestral seat, and we got a glimpse of the arid, hypermasculine standards his father (James Faulkner) set for him. Sam may have been sent to the Night’s Watch as punishment for his failure to live up to his father’s expectations for what it means to be a Westerosi lord. But being banished from polite society actually gave Sam the room to become a decent person in a way his family never would have allowed.
And while Theon Greyjoy’s (Alfie Allen) emasculation and the discrimination and abuse Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) has faced all his life are tragedies, their differences have also opened new opportunities to them in the maelstrom that is the struggle for the Iron Throne. In giving up his ambitions and supporting his sister Yara’s quest for power, Theon has found a measure of peace; he may still be in the process of repenting his crimes, but he is no longer the same person who would butcher two anonymous children to claim a castle. The years Tyrion has spent observing other rulers, being excluded from the traditional roles reserved for noble men, mean he has the skills Dany actually needs from him: not a sword arm, but a swift mind and a check on her own sanity.
If the sixth season of “Game of Thrones” is preoccupied with how damage and violence pass down from generation to generation, Melisandre’s (Carice van Houten) struggle with her faith, and reckoning with the human costs of her convictions showed us what can happen when a single person lives through eons of that wreckage.
When we first meet Melisandre, she’s supremely confident in her ability to interpret her visions, and largely uses her own body to implement what she believes to be the Lord of Light’s wishes. But as Stannis Baratheon’s (Stephen Dillane) quest for the Iron Throne becomes imperiled, Melisandre makes a drastic decision: She burns Stannis’s daughter Shireen (Kerry Ingram) alive, and in response, Stannis’s wife, Selyse (Tara Fitzgerald), commits suicide. Stannis will ultimately pay with his life for this act of kinslaying. But as we learned early this season, Melisandre is actually ancient: Knowing that she bears the weight of Shireen and Selyse’s deaths, along with any other crimes born of her mistaken interpretations, makes it seem as though she has to carry a heavier moral burden while Stannis has been relieved of his by death.
“I didn’t lie. I was wrong,” Melisandre tells Davos Seaworth (Liam Cunningham) sorrowfully when he confronts her about Shireen’s murder. “I’ve been ready to die for many years.” More than Cersei, more than Dany, Melisandre is aware of her limitations and of the terrible acts she has committed in service of a god who reveals himself to her only in fits and starts.
And in Dorne, Olenna Tyrell (Diana Rigg) confesses that she has given up all hopes for a more humane regime in King’s Landing, or even for her own survival, after Cersei murdered Margaery (Natalie Dormer) and Loras Tyrell (Finn Jones) in the Great Sept of Baelor. Her “heart’s desire,” as Ellaria Sand (Indira Varma) puts it, is now merely the “fire and blood” that Varys (Conleth Hill) promises her can come from an alliance with Dany.
Olenna’s despair punctuates an unnerving idea: Revenge, rather than justice, may be all that’s available to even the most powerful women in Westeros and Essos. Watching your rapist’s jaw be torn off by his own dogs or setting fire to your tormentors may produce a hot flash of exhilaration. But it’s not actually the same thing as freedom.