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Opinion The arguments about women and power in ‘Game of Thrones’ have never been more unsettling

Here's a recap of the fourth episode from Season 7 of HBO's "Game of Thrones." (Video: Daron Taylor, Nicki DeMarco/The Washington Post)
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“Game of Thrones” is a series that embodies the tropes of high fantasy and subverts them. And in no area in the series has that been more clear than its gender politics. Women on “Game of Thrones” aren’t damsels, and while they are often in highly distressing circumstances, they’re largely tasked with saving themselves. Their stories have never been incidental to the narrative, either. The wars that have destabilized Westeros, the continent at the center of the series, were sparked by sexual violence and notions of female honor and autonomy. “Game of Thrones” has inspired intense debates about the difference between depicting sexual violence and sexualizing it, about whose perspectives matter in stories about rape and about consent and roleplay.

But as “Game of Thrones” has entered its third act, and as its female characters have moved from the margins to become leading contestants for the Iron Throne, the show has begun to explore a new and highly relevant feminist question. Having established that rape is a cancer that can destroy a society from within, “Game of Thrones” wants us to consider what it would take to change that — and whether the empowerment of individual women actually means anything for the world they hope to rule.

If “Game of Thrones” is a long-arc revenge fantasy about what happens when women who have been brutalized and raped gain power, the seventh season of the show has completed its transition from the first half of that scenario to the second.

This transition began in the sixth season. In the North, Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) escaped from her tormentor, Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon), defeated him at the Battle of the Bastards with a surprise military maneuver and fed him to his own hounds, just to be absolutely sure he would never be able to come after her again. In King’s Landing, Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) carried out an act of domestic terrorism, burning down the Great Sept of Baelor with wildfire and killing both Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer), her rival for the throne, and the High Sparrow (Jonathan Pryce), a populist leader who imprisoned and shamed her. And across the Narrow Sea in Essos, Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) was taken prisoner for the last time before burning her enemies in Vaes Dothrak, taking command of the Dothraki and setting sail for Westeros.

So, there you have it: Rape or enslave or shame a woman on “Game of Thrones” and she will plot your murder, curse your unborn child in your womb, burn your capitol city, bomb your place of worship, let you be torn apart by starving dogs or leave you to be blinded and tortured by a zombie knight acting out a grotesque pantomime of your own victimization.

Intimate violence has always been a catalyst for many of the world-altering developments on “Game of Thrones,” stretching all the way back to the accusation that Rhaegar Targaryen abducted and raped Lyanna Stark. But now, many of the female characters who suffered so terribly have risen to lead armies and movements. And the question the show is posing about gender and governance has shifted. Rather than asking us to look at the toll sexual violence takes on overall political stability, “Game of Thrones” is pushing us to confront something more uncomfortable: the prospect that the personal liberation of the show’s female characters might not translate into much in the way of broader social change.

The implication on “Game of Thrones” has long been that the cost of breaking free might permanently mark characters such as Cersei, Sansa and Dany, making it difficult for them to usher in new styles or systems of government. And the seventh season of the series has reinforced this message repeatedly.

Cersei may have held out the promise of marriage to Euron Greyjoy (Pilou Asbæk) to enlist his help in harrying her enemies at sea, and exacted a highly personal revenge on Ellaria Sand (Indira Varma) for killing Cersei’s daughter. But if anything, Cersei has generally ruled in her father Tywin Lannister’s (Charles Dance) tradition rather than forging a model of her own. She’s executed brilliant military attacks, one of which will allow her to live up to the idea that “a Lannister always pays his debts” on a grand scale. Cersei has transcended the restrictions long placed on her because of her gender to effectively become her father’s third and most accomplished son, rather than using the perspective she gained because of her gender to change the expectations for Westeros’s king or queen.

Back at Winterfell, Sansa has taken an uneasy route to partial power: Despite the fact that she was Ned Stark’s rightful heir as his oldest legitimate child known to be living, the Stark bannermen seized on Jon Snow (Kit Harington) as the closest man available and dubbed him King in the North without much consideration. But when Jon skedaddled off to Dragonstone to mine the dragonglass that he’ll need for the war against the White Walkers, he left the North to Sansa’s administration. The temporary and tenuous nature of her position and the urgent need to provision Winterfell and provide for the Northern armies have kept Sansa too preoccupied for grand strategy. Transformation is hard when you’re tied up in the basic work of subsistence.

And while Daenerys has always made the grandest claims to being a different kind of queen, someone who rules, as her adviser Missandei (Nathalie Emmanuel) says, not “because she’s the daughter of some king we never knew” but because “she’s the queen we chose,” her words are mostly wind when it comes to Westeros.

It was one thing for enslaved and persecuted people to choose Dany as their queen when she marched across Slaver’s Bay in a violent war of conquest and liberation. But the people in Westeros are free already: In fact, slavery is punishable by execution there. It’s possible that Dany will be able to make a similar pitch to the smallfolk and the heads of great houses if she promises to defend them against the White Walkers, but given how few people know about or believe in them, she’s a long way from being able to make that a viable, widespread pitch. Since Dany got to Dragonstone, her campaign has mostly consisted of talk about her hereditary claim to the Iron Throne, ill-planned military missions and, finally, a fiery attack on Jaime Lannister’s (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) forces. Maybe after she proves her unquestioned military superiority, Dany will have time to make and execute a subtler pitch. But once again, revolution is difficult when when winter is swift on the march.

I don’t mean to imply that Cersei, Sansa and Dany are bad or weak people, quite the contrary. Each woman has fought and clawed her way to personal freedom over tremendous obstacles and after suffering, in some cases, macabre personal violence. But if every woman in Westeros has to go through this process to free herself and change the world she lives in, “Game of Thrones” is going to need a lot longer than eight seasons to get to its climax. And if the alternative is asking a few extraordinary women to carry the entire burden of reforming a world, its institutions and its attitudes, well, that’s harder than asking Sansa to jump from Winterfell’s walls or asking Dany to walk into another wall of flame.

It may be fun to cheer at the sight of Dany on dragonback, or Cersei sipping wine as her enemies burn, or Sansa’s stony face as her enemies meet their destruction. But we should be honest with ourselves that what we’re cheering for is a compromised victory that gives us a break from a grindingly unfair and brutal system — not for the end of that system itself. A renegade woman can be a pressure valve for a system that remains largely unequal. Enjoying the spectacle she presents is one thing. Bending the knee to her, and accepting all the changes that flow from that act if she thinks to ask for them, is quite another.