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?
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.
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.
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.
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.