Once upon a time, women held all the cards in HBO’s Game of Thrones. Now it turns out they were handed a trick deck…
Warning: this article is dark and full of spoilers for ‘The Bells’, the fifth episode of Game of Thrones’ eighth season. Read on at your own peril.
Game of Thrones has sparked controversy in the past over its portrayal of female characters. Some felt that women have been objectified in nude scenes, that rape scenes have been “gratuitous”, and that most of Westeros’ women come to power through physical and emotional humiliation, a fact no doubt made all the more unpalatable by the fact that the show has had an all-male writing and directing team from season five onward.
Despite this, though, I have always done my best to defend the show (an adaptation of George R R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, one of my favourite book franchises) to the bitter end. “But the women are so amazing,” I kept saying, over and over again. And this – this idea that GoT’s complex and empowered female characters vastly outweighed the show’s negatives – quickly became the hill I seemed destined to die upon.
Until now, that is. Because the final season of the show has undone years of careful character development and reduced our complex and empowered female characters to… well, to mere shadows of their former selves. To foils for the show’s male – and therefore more important – characters. To the worst kind of stereotypes. (Case in point? The show’s directors used a lack of make-up and a dodgy barnet to signpost Daenerys Targaryen’s descent into madness, rather than actual narrative). And no, having Arya and Sansa Stark strike a blow for feminism up north doesn’t make the show a trailblazer for women’s rights: it makes it all the more depressing that the likes of Brienne (Gwendoline Christie), Lyanna Mormont (Bella Ramsey), Yara Greyjoy (Gemma Whelan) and Missandei (Nathalie Emmanuel) have been so woefully subjected to virgin-shaming, fridging and mysterious prolonged absences.
Of course, it’s not just me who feels this way: anyone who has been on social media will no doubt have noticed that a LOT of people – Patricia Arquette included – believe that the final season of GoT has failed Emilia Clarke’s character. Why? Well, primarily because Daenerys has been strong-armed into the role of a bloodthirsty and emotionally manipulative maniac, despite previously being presented to viewers as a just and kind ruler who is more than capable of compromise.
It’s worth noting that in earlier seasons we saw Dany firmly inform both Yara Greyjoy (Gemma Whelan) and the Dothraki that they were no longer to partake in any raping or reaving – it was something she was hugely passionate about. In episode five of season eight, though, she unleashed her hoard upon King’s Landing and allowed them to do whatever they wanted with its inhabitants as she burned them alive. And what they wanted , of course, was to rape them – a point made abundantly clear when Jon Snow (Kit Harington) spotted one of Dany’s followers dragging a terrified young woman into a darkened alleyway.
Yes, there’s no denying that a terrible injustice has been done to Daenerys: we needed more time to understand her fall from grace, more nuanced writing to demonstrate her descent into madness. Above all else, we needed the show’s writers to recognise that a woman’s emotions are not indicative of weakness or malady of the mind – and that, yeah, Dany’s hair wouldn’t be braided quite as perfectly the morning after she watched her best friend die (especially when said best friend was tasked with the job of doing Dany’s braids each morning). However, I can almost get on board with Daenerys becoming the villain of the piece. Almost. After all, it’s kind of what the A Song of Ice and Fire novels have been slowly building towards. However, it just happened far too suddenly, for my taste.
With more episodes, and more time, Dany’s psychosis could have been better explored and her character further developed: her evolution wouldn’t feel forced, and her actions in ‘The Bells’ wouldn’t have felt so utterly at odds with everything we know and love about our Khaleesi. If it had been done properly, we would better understand why Dany felt the need to massacre the citizens she has spent so many seasons claiming she wants to save, without the tired old “crazy woman” narrative propping up the plot. And maybe we wouldn’t feel so resentful of the fact that the woman who spent her entire life training and studying to become the leader of Westeros is now “too dangerous” to be allowed to take power – and that an underqualified man will almost certainly take her place.
Hmm. Anyone else suddenly got the bitter aftertaste of the 2016 US election in their mouth again? No? Just me, then.
What I can’t get on board with, though, is how the show has dealt with Westeros’ other queen.
Anyone who knows me will already be painfully aware of the fact that I’m a big fan of Lena Headey’s Cersei Lannister. Easily one of GoT’s most complex characters to date, she has been presented as a manipulative, untrustworthy, power-mad narcissist – with a difference. Because, unlike Daenerys, Cersei’s character evolution has been painstakingly documented across seven seasons. This is a queen who was forced into a difficult position by the expectations of her father and of her culture. This is a mother who tragically lost her first-born son, a “little black-haired beauty”, when he was just a babe in arms. This is a woman who fell in love with a warrior king, only to learn that he would not, could not, love her back. Instead, he raped and abused her at every possible opportunity – prompting her to plot her husband’s death, forge an impossibly close relationship with Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and fight to hold onto any scrap of happiness she could find in the loveless world of Westeros, no matter the cost. Her actions have always been, at the very least, grounded in some twisted logic. Her decisions have been made carefully. Her lines have been some of the show’s wittiest and most quotable (who do you think came up with that “when you play the game of thrones, you live or you die” line, eh?). And her schemes? The absolute best and schemiest.
So where on earth has Cersei been for all of season eight?
Despite being one of the show’s key players, Cersei has appeared in no more than a handful of scenes in season eight – and almost all of them have involved her sipping wine and staring down at the people of King’s Landing with barely concealed hatred. She’s spoken… well, she’s spoken a bit, but the extraordinarily talented Headey has been forced to convey much of what her character has been thinking with her eyes and trademark smirk alone. She has been frequently sidelined in her own plots by Euron, a man who a) LITERALLY threatened to put a finger up her bum, in a piece of truly appalling writing, and b) seemed to have sailed into Westeros straight from the set of a dodgy Pirates of the Caribbean spinoff series. Her feelings about Jaime’s betrayal and abandonment have barely been explored: instead, she had Qyburn (Anton Lesser) order Bronn (Jerome Flynn) to head north and kill her lover with the very same crossbow that ended their father’s life and that was it. Nothing else was said, nothing else was shown.
Rather than focus on all of Cersei’s complexities and vulnerabilities, aka all of the stuff that has frequently made her one of the show’s best characters, writers instead decided to saddle her with yet another pregnancy and reduce her, once again, to the tired role of ‘female villain whose only redeeming quality is her love for her children’. Naturally, this trope rang false: in the past, we have seen our lioness fight for her offspring, cry for them, argue with them, do her best by them. This time, though, we heard nary a thing about Cersei’s unborn baby. Indeed, it wasn’t even made clear if she was actually pregnant or simply using the idea as a means of manipulating Tyrion and co into doing her bidding (there’s a reason so many have been googling the phrase ‘Is Cersei actually pregnant?’ this season, and it doesn’t bode well for the writing staff at GoT).
It is also worth noting that trailers repeatedly hinted that Cersei’s dealings with Daenerys were going to be the lynchpin of season eight, yet we never saw the two warring queens sit down to discuss a single thing. They’ve barely even glanced at one another, actually: Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) was and always has been their go-between, doing his best to get these two ‘hysterical’ women to sit down and hash things out. Both have been presented as ‘Mad Queens’ in the show’s desperation to hammer home that “WAR IS BAD, YOU GUYS” metaphor. Both has been presented as stubborn and dangerous for their refusal to negotiate – yet why on earth would anyone, let alone Cersei, negotiate with Daenerys? Think about it: Cersei is a woman of logic, and she knew that Dany’s armies were heavily depleted in The Battle of Winterfell. She knew, too, that her rival had been burning people left, right and centre for refusing to bend the knee – and Cersei, pregnant with her and Jaime’s fourth child, desperately wanted to live. Cersei also knew Dany had just one dragon left, and had thus equipped all of her soldiers with the very same crossbow that Euron Greyjoy had used to kill Rhaegal. That the Khaleesi had proven herself to be detached, calculating and cruel when dealing with her enemies. That her best chance of survival was to wall up inside the Red Keep and hope against hope that Tyrion – who has, to be fair to him, always done his best by the people of King’s Landing – would persuade Daenerys not to rain fire down on innocent people. That, if all else failed, her backup plan would prove to be genius.
And yet… well, as it turned out, Cersei didn’t have a backup plan, genius or otherwise. Instead, our brilliantly scheming queen put all her eggs into a single basket – despite having never done so before – and watched silently as they were smashed one by one. She killed Missandei – a valuable prisoner of war – for no discernible reason other than to give Daenerys yet another flimsy reason to go cuckoo bananas. She put all her soldiers front and centre, and held nobody back for a second wave. She had nobody posted within the tower, ready to ring the bells of surrender when needed. She had no way of communicating with the leaders of her army, other than prolonged eye contact and occasional titbits from Qyburn (“M’lady, every single crossbow has been destroyed apparently, despite just one of these OP weapons being more than enough to take down a flanked dragon in the previous episode!”). And she apparently never considered using the secret tunnels running throughout the crypts of King’s Landing to escape until Jaime, mortally wounded in an absolutely ridiculous spar with Euron, showed up and suggested he follow her down there.
I get it, I really do. Cersei believed that she would survive and she didn’t bank on losing. She underestimated her enemy, and she assumed the best of Daenerys – as we all did. And yet I’ve had to discern all of this from my own fevered re-readings of the books, because, as mentioned, we barely saw Cersei this season. Yes, her death was beautifully tragic: she and Jaime came into the world together and they left the same way, buried forever in one another’s arms beneath the rubble of their broken dreams. And yet it still felt like an afterthought.
No wonder Headey says her reaction to Cersei’s demise was “mixed” at first. “I wanted her to have some big piece or fight with somebody,” she told Entertainment Weekly. Same, obviously – although, like Headey, we can appreciate that Jaime and Cersei’s demise highlighted “how much she loves him and how much he loves her. It’s the most authentic connection she’s ever had. Ultimately they belong together.”
I get that, of course I do. I just wish that GoT had given us more of that story rather than force us to fill in all the gaps ourselves. Cersei deserved better than a few lines of dialogue. Both she and Headey deserved more time on screen, more dedication by the show’s writers, more of that same nuance that made her such a brilliant “love to hate” character in the first place. Instead, we were rushed into a beautiful death scene that rang… well, it rang flat, despite Headey and Coster Waldau’s undeniable talent. And it shouldn’t have been this way. It should have been overwhelmingly satisfying, because it’s what we’ve been working towards since the very first time we and Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) found out the true nature of Cersei and Jaime’s relationship. It should have filled us with the same rush of confused emotions we felt come the end of season three’s Red Wedding. And it should have felt like a fitting tribute to the most compelling character in all of Westeros.
After all, as I have stated time and time again, Cersei may not be our number one choice for a dinner party (if only because she’d drink all the wine), but she’s certainly one of the most empowered women in Game of Thrones, and as such has earned our grudging respect… from a safe distance.
If only the show’s all-male writing team had felt the same way, eh?
Image: Helen Sloan/HBO