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Opinion What would a feminist ending for ‘Game of Thrones’ actually look like?

Emilia Clarke in HBO's "Game of Thrones." (Helen Sloan/HBO via AP)

This post discusses the plot of “Game of Thrones” up to and including the most recent episode, “The Last of the Starks.”

Now that the Night King has been vanquished, his unstoppable hordes and resurrected dragon shattered into icy fragments, it’s time for the real battle royal to begin on “Game of Thrones.” And I don’t mean the fight over who gets to sit on the Iron Throne. Rather, as the final two episodes of the long-running fantasy series approach, debates about the show’s gender politics and a host of assorted questions are heating up with all the force of dragonfire. What is the line between depicting sexism and endorsing it? Should the characters be judged by the norms of the fictional world in which they reside or our own? And perhaps most of all, what would a feminist ending for the series actually look like?

This conversation, which has always been one of the most important strains in the discussion of the show, has been revived by a series of plot points in the four episodes of this season that have aired so far.

One point of contention came when Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner), who has developed from the least-sensible character on the show to the canniest, told Sandor Clegane (Rory McCann) that her experiences with a series of rapists and abusers had shaped her character. The viewers perturbed by this line interpreted it as an odd and inappropriate expression of gratitude to Sansa’s tormentors; the competence she’s developed over the years is obviously her own, so why should the men who tried to break and use her get credit for her best qualities?

And more disconcerting for some viewers has been a series of plot points seemingly engineered to undercut the character who replaced the late, lamented Ned Stark (Sean Bean) as the most logical rooting interest on “Game of Thrones.” Exiled Princess Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) grew up being told that the people of Westeros would cheer her family’s return. Despite the pivotal role her armies and her dragons played in the battle of the dead, recent episodes have shown her struggling to connect to the people she once believed she would lead. She lost her two closest friends, as well as one of the dragons she regards as her children, some of whom were made vulnerable by Daenerys’s seeming lack of foresight. Her emotional reactions and seeming lack of charisma led two of her most powerful advisers to start plotting against her.

It’s understandable that some observers would look at these developments and wonder what, precisely, is going on with a show that made its name first by cutting off its male main character’s head and then by turning its damsels in distress into canny power players, steely conquerors and the architects of satisfying revenge fantasies. In this interpretation, a feminist ending for “Game of Thrones” would be one in which Daenerys or Sansa ascends to the Iron Throne, transmuting a lifetime of trauma into a more enlightened style of leadership for a continent that desperately needs it. For adherents of this school of “Game of Thrones,” it seems like the show is stacking the deck against its ostensible heroine to potentially sexist ends.

As Lili Loofbourow put it in a smart (and measured) piece for Slate, in its most recent episode, “Game of Thrones” “finally used most of its significant speakers to come out and say what has long been implied: Jon [Snow (Kit Harington)] would be a better ruler than Dany. Sansa says it. Arya [Stark (Maisie Williams)] implies it. Varys [Conleth Hill] basically discusses the 25th Amendment with Tyrion [Lannister (Peter Dinklage)], who, despite doubling down on his support of her, fears Daenerys and clearly believes some concern is warranted. Everyone agrees on the basics, though: The lords would support Jon over Dany because he has a penis, the North would support Jon over Dany because he’s a Stark, and the people (who Varys equates with ‘the realm’) would support Jon over Dany because he’s ‘tempered and measured,’ a ‘war hero,’ and more humane.”

Putting women at the center of high fantasy, and suggesting that they might make better rulers than the men who oppress them, might have made “Game of Thrones” unusual for Hollywood, but by 1996, when George R.R. Martin published the first novel in the “Song of Ice and Fire” series, plenty of other writers, working in multiple genres, had started moving women away from the margins.

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and Percy Bysshe Shelley elevated women’s perspectives in their retelling of Ovid in their play “Proserpine.” Marion Zimmer Bradley’s 1983 novel “The Mists of Avalon” reshuffled Arthurian legend to recast Morgan le Fay as Morgaine, a powerful priestess and the story’s true protagonist. Jane Yolen’s 1992 novel “Briar Rose” took the elements of Sleeping Beauty and used them to tell a Holocaust story in which the felled princess woke up and become a resistance fighter. Almost two centuries after the Shelleys wrote “Proserpine,” Madeline Miller rewrote Greek myths from a woman’s perspective again in “Circe,” her retelling of a crucial episode from Homer’s “Odyssey.”

I love many of these stories. But part of what’s always made “Game of Thrones” interesting to me is that it takes a grimmer step beyond these initial revisions to suggest that equality is measured not in achievements, but in failures.

That idea is always what’s made Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) both the show’s best villain and the traveler along one of its most interesting trajectories. Cersei suffers some of the same traumas that Sansa and Dany do: She has been married off like a piece of chattel; she’s a survivor of domestic violence, marital rape and sexual humiliation by her husband; she is constantly underestimated by men such as her father, Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance), and her son, Joffrey Baratheon (Jack Gleeson), and humiliated by religious moralists such as the High Sparrow (Jonathan Pryce).

But Cersei’s trauma has made her clever rather than wise; ruthless rather than compassionate; arrogant rather than curious. And instead of avoiding the cruelties committed by the men who followed her as occupants of the Iron Throne, Cersei exceeds them. She elevates monsters such as Qyburn (Anton Lesser), a scholar who was thrown out of his university for dabbling in human experimentation. Cersei pursues a coldblooded, if ultimately validated, strategy of allowing Dany and her forces to weaken themselves in the fight against the dead so they are more vulnerable to the mercenary company Cersei has hired to ensure her claim to the throne. It may be Dany’s father, the Mad King Aerys, who dreamed of burning the world with wildfire, but it’s Cersei who actually uses the notorious substance to blow up the Great Sept of Baelor. Viewers can condemn Cersei, if they like, but their moralizing seems hollow if they don’t also condemn the people and the systems that made her who she is.

To greater and lesser extents, the same is true for other women on the show: They’ve experienced trauma at the hands of men and responded by becoming like them in various ways.

Daenerys’s first step to power was to take on the traditionally male role of the head of a nomadic war band after the death of her husband. She gives pretty speeches vowing to “break the wheel” of history and oppression, but her plans for how to remake whole societies are as vague as the fantasies her brother (Harry Lloyd) spun for himself of reconquering Westeros. Daenerys abandoned the last city she conquered to the care of a mercenary company, and has changed the lives of the Dothraki and freed slaves who follow her largely by leading them to their deaths in a hostile land.

Arya trained first with her “dancing master,” an expert swordsman; then with the Faceless Men, an elite order of assassins; and most recently rejected a marriage proposal from Gendry (Joe Dempsie) to join Sandor Clegane on a lonely mission of revenge. Her role on the series isn’t to upend gender norms or to change the way her country is ruled, but to slip the bonds of both altogether.

Sansa freed herself from Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon), the sociopath who tortured her and her foster brother, by following Ramsay’s own playbook and feeding him to the hounds he used against his victims. And she turned the canniness that upstart Petyr Baelish (Aidan Gillen) taught her against him, dispatching him in a surprise execution.

The female contenders for the Iron Throne may have ambitions that differentiate them from their male predecessors: to live without the condescension of their husbands, brothers, fathers or sons; to end slavery; to be free from rape. But none of them has rewritten the rules of “Game of Thrones” along genuinely new lines.

Sansa is probably the character remaining with the greatest potential to genuinely do this in the style of a revisionist fantasy heroine, especially if she’s left to pick up the pieces of a kingdom shattered by the more conventional candidates for leadership who surround her. In addition to the men who abused her, she’s been a witness to more models of female power than anyone else on the show, and she appears to have actually absorbed some lessons of what not to do from her counterparts.

Cersei, who essentially kept Sansa as a hostage for several seasons, has tended to murder, burn or buy her way out of her dilemmas. Sansa, almost alone among the characters on the show, is still doing the plodding logistical work of trying to keep everyone equipped, fed and healthy. Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer), a charming noble lady married to three successive kings, used her seductive powers effectively, but ended up dead anyway: Sansa, by contrast, has hidden herself behind the armor of her clothes and relies on no man to protect her. And as Sansa has watched Daenerys rely on her might and her name, but fail to connect with the people of the North, she has absorbed an important lesson about popular support, even if the conclusion she draws is that Jon Snow would make a better king, not that Sansa herself ought to have higher ambitions than to rule a single castle.

I would be fascinated to see Sansa try to save a wounded Westeros. But with two episodes to go, and even despite the pace the show is setting in its final season, I’d be surprised if “Game of Thrones” changed tack so radically. And if the show doesn’t have time to find a viable queen to sit on the Iron Throne, I can see why fans are girding themselves to watch “Game of Thrones” tear down the queen it’s spent eight seasons building up.

If Daenerys Targaryen goes mad, and Jon Snow unifies the Seven Kingdoms as a wise and gentle king, that would genuinely be a bummer of an ending, both on intellectual terms and entertaining ones. But just because Varys, Tyrion, Sansa, Arya and faithful old Samwell Tarly (John Bradley) think Jon would be a good king doesn’t mean they’re right, just that they’re as constrained by their limited ideas about governance as everyone else in Westeros and Essos. And if “Game of Thrones” is even half the show it’s capable of being in these final two episodes, it will end someplace much less pat and much more fraught than with a sunny vision of Jon’s reign.

This could be the feminist message of “Game of Thrones,” then: not that women are inherently better, kinder rulers than men, nor that trauma conveys wisdom, but that no one woman — nor any well-meaning man who insists he doesn’t want to be king — can change the system alone.

Read more:

Alyssa Rosenberg: The only way ‘Game of Thrones’ can end

Alyssa Rosenberg: ‘Game of Thrones’ Season 8, Episode 4 review: ‘The Last of the Starks’ tangles up Westeros’s past and future

Molly Roberts: Elizabeth Warren’s ‘Game of Thrones’ stumble