In “And Now His Watch Is Ended,” the latest episode of “Game of Thrones” (you might want to stop here if you’ve yet to see it), Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), the exiled royal who’s been building up an army of soldiers and dragons in order to take back her place on the Iron Throne of Westeros, sacked the city of Astapor and set it on fire. It was, in the universe of “Game of Thrones,” actually a feel-good moment of the rousingly brutal kind the HBO fantasy series can do so well — yes, some mass slaughter, but damn, did it look great.
After having spent the beginning of the current third season negotiating for a few thousand highly trained, castrated and supposedly mindless slaves in exchange for one of her precious dragonlings, Daenerys overturned the expectations of her doubting advisors and anyone squeamish about the ethical implications of purchased, brainwashed troops by slaughtering the slave traders and setting the Unsullied free to fight for her only under their own will while, incidentally, showing off her facility with languages. Who needs a translator when you’re the Mother of Dragons?
Daenerys, who began the series a meek bargaining chip of a girl married off to a stranger with whom she couldn’t even communicate directly, has grown into a ferocious leader after suffering through betrayals, the loss of her husband and unborn child, the abandonment of much of the Dothraki horde she thought she’d inherit and some dealings with duplicitous warlocks. She’s earned a few go-girl, warrior princess moments. What’s affecting about “Game of Thrones,” however, is how sparingly it deals those out.
In its most recent and mildest of its three frustrating reviews of the series, the New York Times noted that “The early episodes of Season 3 contain another sign of premium-cable conformity: plots or situations that address themes of slavery, women’s empowerment and sexual orientation in obvious, heavy-handed ways, particularly for a show set in a medieval fantasy world.” It’s a particularly vexing claim because, firstly, as a fantasy series the show keeps to the limits of a medieval society only as much as it’s convenient, and secondly because this season has highlighted the situation of its female characters in a striking and complicated way. The show doesn’t deal in easy revisionism of a more comic book kind when it comes to the women — when it slaps swords in their hands and sends them off to battle, they’re as likely to be mocked as freaks as allowed to participate or considered worthy allies.
This is notably the case for Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie), the ungainly (human) giantess who’s taken up the role of a knight, and due to her idealization of the rank (a quality she shares with Sansa Stark, at least before her father was beheaded), is actually more devoted and honorable than many of her more typical would-be colleagues. Never destined to fit easily into the role of a noblewoman, Brienne has chosen instead to embrace a traditionally male role, but though she’s a good knight, in spirit and in action, she’s often treated as an object of ridicule by those she meets because she’s such an anomaly, and because she displays few of the qualities associated positively with femininity. She’s not gentle or delicate or demure.
When she and her prisoner Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) were captured, her gender despite her efforts suddenly became an inescapable for her as the likelihood of rape was brought up — and she countered Jaime’s well-intentioned advice not to resist by prompting him to admit he wouldn’t do the same in her place. Brienne is an immensely endearing character, but that doesn’t mean that her slipping from the role assigned to her is allowed to be easy, even as her stalwart approach to it wins the arrogant, golden Jaime over. (“You have one taste of the real world, where people have important things taken from them, and you whine and cry and quit — you sound like a bloody woman,” she spat, a condemnation that for her seemed to have to do with weakness rather than sex.) She’s a rebuke to the idea of the scantily clad female fighter sporting some sort of battle corset and no pants — an image that’s long been common to the fantasy genre.
Cersei (Lena Headey) has also started chafing against the positions, for her of leadership, that she’s been denied, though her father points out “I don’t distrust you because you’re a woman, I distrust you because you’re not as smart as you think you are.” It’s always been clear that she’s not the natural ruler she’s started to imagine herself as after years of channeling her desire for power through her husband and then her son — and she’s also not spotting the way that she’s being outmaneuvered by the masterfully clever Olenna Redwyne (Diana Rigg).
Olenna and her canny granddaughter Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer) use court intrigues and manipulation the way others use weapons, and one of the most fascinating developments in the series recently has been the way the two employ claims of sisterhood in this arsenal. “We would be sisters, you and I,” Margaery tells a desperate Sansa (Sophie Turner) to win her over with promises of a marriage to her brother Loras (Finn Jones), while Olenna notes to Cersei that the world belongs to men — “a ridiculous arrangement to my mind,” she says, reading the queen well — to which Cersei replies only that “the gods have seen fit to make it so.” The idea sticks in her mind, though, and leads her to make that clumsy foray to her father, who corrects her when she would strike out at the Tyrells.
In that exchange between Olenna and Margaery, and in the earlier one between ladder-climbing former prostitute Ros (Esmé Bianco) and recently made handmaiden Shae (Sibel Kekilli), “Game of Thrones” has avoided letting its female characters connect too easily due to their shared gender — which has been a good thing. No one who wants to stick around trusts easily in the show, for sound reasons, and to allow that wouldn’t seem feminist, it would seem pandering.
Instead the series has outlined the two types of battle its characters engage in — the physical clashes and those of words and cunning. These two aren’t cleanly divided by sex — it’s the urbane Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen) who is, by Lord Varys’ (Conleth Hill) estimation, the “most dangerous man in Westeros,” and Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) came into his own in the court of King’s Landing, while characters like Brienne, Yara Greyjoy (Gemma Whelan) and Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) have chosen paths involving the command of ships and fencing lessons — but they are shaped by the roughly analogous era from which the show draws. And “Game of Thrones” is all the more sophisticated and compelling for not just tossing out those limitations made on its female characters, but by having them push against them and engage them like people who had to actually grow up in the lousy but oh-so-fun-to-watch world.