The final Game of Thrones episode has come and gone, and with it, the lasting taste of the show’s relationship with its female characters. Did the series fail them? Or is there something we can take from the way the show wrapped up the plotlines for Sansa, Arya, Daenerys and Brienne?
The night is dark and full of spoilers, everybody. If you haven’t watched the sixth and final episode of Game of Thrones season eight yet, now is your chance to save yourself from learning more than you wish to know. Otherwise: read on. We’re in the endgame now.
This is it. The last episode of Game of Thrones that you’ll ever see.
A decade spent with these characters traversing the Seven Kingdoms, following them through love and loss, watching them grow and change over time, has passed. And now the sixth episode has come and gone and, with it, the conclusion of this grand, epic narrative.
How do you feel? Sad? Satisfied? Relieved? Disappointed? In some ways, the fact that you’re feeling something is what matters the most. It’s no mean feat to wrap up a decade-long television series with a passionate fandom numbering in the hundreds of millions. Game of Thrones’ skill is in making us all care so much about this fantasy world of dragons, witches, ice zombies and three-eyed ravens. The fact that we’re all having such fierce reactions, even if they are negative ones, is a sign of how much this show makes us feel.
But it’s impossible to escape the fact that, for many Game of Thrones fans – especially the female ones – the show’s final season has been a particularly tough pill to swallow. We haven’t always felt that way. Season seven saw women ascend to power across the country of Westeros, and the show seemed less reliant on rape and brutality as a plot device.
And then season eight came to unpick all of that good work. Sansa told the Hound that she was grateful to her abusers for making her into the woman she is today. (Yikes!) Brienne was virgin-shamed by Tyrion before sleeping with Jaime. (Double yikes!) Cersei was relegated to standing by a window drinking wine for most of the season. (Yikes, yikes, yikes!) Missandei, the only major female character of colour, was killed unceremoniously. And Daenerys? Well, we’ll put the concept of a ‘mad’ queen, who until the show’s most recent episodes was guilty only of being proud of herself and her achievements, in a category all on its own.
For a show that, at one point, boasted female rulers in all the major kingdoms – Cersei in King’s Landing, Sansa in the North, Yara Greyjoy in the Iron Islands and Daenerys everywhere else – the fact that there are only four major surviving female characters at the end of the show is disappointing. And one of them, poor aforementioned Yara, has barely been seen this season at all, so preoccupied has she been with, well, with whatever it was she’s been doing off-camera in the Iron Islands.
Where once Game of Thrones posited that women could run the world of Westeros, the show’s last episode includes a scene of the country’s new small council that is comprised almost entirely of male faces, Brienne being the sole woman staking a claim at the table. Surely there was another woman equipped to speak up for the rights of the Westerosians and who could take the place of that smarmy-mouthed Ser Bronn of the Blackwater?
I don’t want to pile on. In a pop culture product of this size and this magnitude, it’s not possible to please everyone. So let’s turn away from the bad – the treatment of Brienne, the death of Missandei and Lyanna Mormont, the descent of Daenerys into madness – and think about the good instead. Based on this last episode, what is Game of Thrones’ feminist legacy? How will we perceive of this show as a feminist product based on the culmination of its key female characters’ storylines?
Of all the character arcs in this final season, the two I have found most satisfying are Arya and Sansa’s. For Sansa, it was the slow but steady build-up of this character as a strong leader, a person who inspires not only devotion but emotion, too.
Think of the way Theon Greyjoy turns up at Winterfell, knowing full well that it will be the death of him, all because he wants to fight in Sansa’s name. Think of how determined Sansa has been in the face of everything – dragons, Mad Queens, Cersei’s tricks. Think of the way Sansa has matured from the petulant little girl with stars in her eyes in season one to the leader we see in the final season. No wonder, then, that the finale ends with Sansa creating the North as an independent kingdom and herself as its rightful Queen.
“I love you little brother, and I always will,” Sansa tells Bran when he is voted the new ruler of the Seven Kingdoms. “And you’ll be a good king. But tens of thousands of North men fell during the Great War defending all of Westeros, and those who have survived have seen too much and fought too hard to ever bend the knee again. The North will remain an independent kingdom as it was for thousands of years.”
And then there’s Arya. Throughout the final season, Arya has been the character with the most growth. She let down her hardened defences and opened herself up to the love of that sweaty, oiled-up blacksmithing hunk Gendry. She saved her family at the Battle of Winterfell and killed the Night King. She went off to King’s Landing in search of vengeance – the only religion she’s ever known – against Cersei and then, at a crucial moment, she chose to live.
By the end of the finale Arya tells Jon that she won’t be going North but, instead, will be heading West of Westeros to see the world. She’s off on an adventure that is all entirely her own. And no matter what she sees and what she does while she’s there, that story will belong to her – the girl who finally has a name.
Do I wish that Game of Thrones ended with Arya making a promise to our boyfriend Gendry that she would visit him over in Storm’s End periodically for sex and weapons? Of course! I am a card-carrying romantic. I don’t only enjoy a happy ending, I crave one. Just call me the Titanic because I ship!
Anyway, that didn’t happen. Fine. But those very last scenes of the finale following Sansa and Arya as they take their first steps into their future – Sansa being crowned as Queen in the North and Arya on a boat ferrying her to lands unknown – carried in them a powerful feminist legacy. Forget the undoing of Daenerys, forget the dismissal of Brienne, forget the death of Missandei. This is the feminist legacy of Game of Thrones.
What Game of Thrones did for Sansa and Arya was give these two female characters a life. Remember, these are women whose entire adult lives up until this point have been a tessellation of trauma. This final scene reminded us that everything that these characters have been through – the death of their mother and father, Sansa’s rape and abuse, the manipulation, the violence, how they closed themselves off to the world – is now in the past.
By ending Game of Thrones with shots of Sansa and Arya coming into their new independent lives the show told a very specific story, one that Daenerys wanted to tell but ultimately wasn’t able to. That powerful last scene told a story of hope. And in doing so, it gave Sansa and Arya a future and, in its own way, about as close to a happy ending as Game of Thrones was ever going to get. Yes, Valar Morghulis, all men must die. But they are not men.
The last Game of Thrones episode aired on Sunday night on HBO in the US and Monday morning (and again in the evening) in the UK on Sky Atlantic and Now TV.