Wrapping Up Game of Thrones

Okay, Game of Thrones ended. People’s initial posts were on how satisfying it was (mostly rated from “I cried” to “perfectly reasonable” to “better than the previous episode at least,” with most, including me, in the middle.)

Now for the 4th wave feminist take (as that’s the anthology I’ve been editing and wrapping up this week).

One must consider that a week ago many were worried about the inherent sexist message of Jon the good Targaryen killing Daenerys the evil Targaryen whose female emotional instability (or at least it sure looked that way) made her snap and destroy her own people out of brief at her bestie’s death. (And, in a terrible race moment, Grey Worm the safely castrated and incredibly disciplined person of color also went mad with rage and snapped and ignored all rules of combat after their beloved woman of color Missandei was put in slave chains and callously beheaded to motivate them both. Ouch.)

It should be mentioned that in the books Dany still has Dothraki female buddies around and the former slaves come from many races. It’s also notable that her story was begun in the eighties. In context, some characters are warrior maidens, some prefer being princesses, and some use classic behind the scenes rule like Lady Olenna (who officially acts more through her son in the books). In this context, Dany, like Buffy, stands out as chosen one, taking the Aragorn role of destined ruler that most often defaults to male and growing beyond her marriage-bait upbringing to birth the dragons in epic fashion as early as book/season one and grow from there. Will the books follow from her rise to her fall? Perhaps. Since so many characters (Ned, Robert, the Mad King, Viserys, Drogo, Jon, Renly, Robb, Catelyn, Oberyn, Tywin, Kevan, Lysa, Joffrey, Mormont, Littlefinger, and lots of Boltons, Tyrells, and Freys) reached such a moment of epic greatness or stable power and then lost it by not noticing someone was waiting to stab him in the back in the endless game, that would certainly be believable. Dany’s Meereen and Dothraki season one adventures basically went this way too as she didn’t observe how precarious her position was.

So Daenerys’s madness is show canon now (is it fitting with her character? Fans are sharply divided, with most thinking this could have been an outcome with more episodes spent on paranoia and decline but this felt awfully sudden.) In the book she’s symbolically linked with her ancestor Aegon, fourth son of a fourth son and incredibly far down in the succession who nonetheless lives poor among the people with a wonderful mentor (Brienne’s ancestor) and becomes a wonderful king (though the tragedy of his death at Summerhall suggests his ambition for legendary Targaryen dragon eggs may have killed him, his friends, and much of his family–there’s more precedent). Daenerys’s apparent journey as chosen one, rape survivor, white savior, woman who could have brought the lost dragons back, woman demanding to rule khals and westerosi who don’t have female rulers, prince who was promised (but then not really), chooser of her own fate, and all kinds of tropes all over the problematic scale were suddenly squashed or at least abruptly resolved (which, considering the other times this happened, does seem to fit the story). If she was the third wave cool princess and chosen one who got to have all the lovers she wanted, rule the men and be chosen one (while in third wave Buffy style often being a bit racially insensitive and heavy handed though immensely likable), she didn’t get to win. Dany, you can’t just boss everyone into doing things your way because you’re a gorgeous superhero with a big army and nice dresses. We’ve moved past the Queen Victoria colonialism model and now we frown on that. The westerosi don’t appreciate your foreign army or what you’re doing with it. And the part where you’re not listening to your advisors? uh uh. We need someone more like Sansa or Tyrion who’s actually seeing how the people are coping with trying to survive and getting them square meals and medical care. If you can’t listen, the people will overthrow you, or at least the growing educated class will. Here, the show goes heavily Animal Farm or Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, stressing that conquering the world and being told you’re everyone’s messiah (and book six might spend more time celebrating her as the bringer of dawn and defeater of the Night King) will lead to killing those you hoped to protect, even as you’re convinced of your own rightness. Since something similar happens to Jon, who’s stabbed in book/season five for choosing his agenda over the desires of his people (and, wow, he knows exactly how it feels to be stabbed by those you trust). Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, of course, spends lots of time with Brutus and Cassius deciding whether the good of their country means they should betray Caesar, who’s betraying the people and all they fought for.

However, after this, Drogon doesn’t incinerate Jon (the Caesar ending, resulting in more counter-revolutions and feuds). Instead he incinerates the throne and carries Dany away—a heavily dramatic scene. If Drogon is the voice of the gods or the narrators, he’s emphasizing that Dany met justice, and that she and the throne of superconquest need to go. Chosen ones may be cool but, as with Rey on Star Wars, we don’t need a child of destiny and birthright (who ended up being Kylo Ren!); we need someone suited to the job. I had thought melting the throne where one ruler sits would divide the place into seven individual kingdoms, but it seems not.

However, this is the feminist/egalitarian moment. Feminism doesn’t seek to have an army of Amazon women ruling everything. It seeks a seat at the table where decisions are made—preferably half the seats. When one considers that in page one/episode one, the seven kingdoms and the overall country are all ruled by men, with women basically unable to inherit, only take a regency for their sons or whisper in their husbands’ ears, the council at the end is remarkably significant.

In the past (according to the main books and the Targaryen histories by Martin) Great Councils have been held in the past when inheritance was uncertain. During the first Great Council, a thousand lords chose to favor male heirs over female. King Jaehaerys I chose his son instead of his granddaughter Rhaenys. The next Great Council elected seven Lord Regents to rule until the immature King Aegon III Targaryen came of age. The final Great Council appointed the beloved but unlikely to inherit Aegon V. Stannis suggested such a council since he named Joffrey illegitimate.

Attending were Edmure Tully, Lord of Riverrun, (who did have a plot to wrap up as he’s basically been sitting around), as well as Gendry the legitimized bastard of House Baratheon, the forgettable new prince of Dorne (though Arianne and the Sand Snakes in the book are fascinating and striking—would a princess of Dorne been so much trouble?), Robin Arryn and Yara Greyjoy: heads of houses, including Yara whose people have never elected a woman ruler before. Offscreen, she retook her homeland. Sansa Stark, likewise, leads a people who have never had a female ruler. Tyrion, though it isn’t mentioned in the scene, certainly may be the inheritor of Casterly Rock. Thus the great houses now are ruled by two women, Gendry and Bronn who grew up commoners, and Tyrion who was basically disinherited for being crippled. By medieval Europe’s standards, this is massively progressive. In addition there are Arya and Bran (presumably as war heroes as they’re not heads of houses) and more minor heads Yohn Royce, Ser Brienne of Tarth (whose father may be ruling their house and perhaps is there as a war hero), Ser Davos Seaworth, and Samwell Tarly (as either Maester or house head) and four unnamed lords. This last list is not especially book-accurate as the books offer many many lords at this level. On the show, of course, most haven’t been presented or could be assumed to have died out. Visually it makes a nice spectrum of the recent heroes of the Battle of Winterfell and the older lords who survived all the struggles for the throne by staying mostly out of it (in contrast with Littlefinger, the Tyrells, and so on). Presumably the historic councils had a few women, but likely as regents for male rulers instead of ruling in their own right. This time, there were a significant number of women. When Edmure claimed he was the best decision maker as the senior head of house (and one of the few white males intended from birth for the job who was present), Sansa politely asked him to sit down. Her implication was that the younger people who had earned their places as war heroes were more suited to choose. In a year in which many voters are calling for the old white men to step aside and let others lead the US, her comment strikes extra hard.

The council ask Tyrion to choose—of the survivors, he’s arguably been in the center of most of the war, watching the Baratheons, Lannisters, and Targaryens rule. Thus the question is decided by the great observer, but someone who’s usually withheld his full loyalty, unlike Barristan and arguably Varys (who are unavailable anyway). He chooses, not Jon the war hero, but another observer who has turned down every throne including the one he stands next in line for. Tyrion’s insistence that Bran has the best story is rather romantic (though Jon certainly has a better one and others like Arya and Sansa do as well). The scene where Tyrion asks Bran his story is paying out here. Still, Tyrion’s understanding of PR is central here—this is about image as much as capability. King Bran is a disabled pacifist, not a warrior or conqueror. He has no claim to the Targaryen/Baratheon/Lannister throne (and no hint of a mystery parentage), emphasizing that this is a matter of character not birth. Further, the decision to have the Councils continue appointing kings, echoing the Iron Islands, is not democracy (poor Sam—medieval illiterate Europe just wasn’t ready!) but it’s a step closer. Fourth wave is about intersectionality–listening to the common born like Davos, the women like Brienne and the disabled like Tyrion and Bran (plus with his gifts he arguably has the most global perspective of anyone save Dany or Melissandre). Thus the era of entitled white nobles has ended and a new one has begun).

Many criticized the final episode for Bran’s not actually ruling but allowing his new council to take over. Still, the topics under discussion—prostitution and finances—seemed more appropriate for his ministers than for him to dicker over. He is withdrawn and only puts in a token appearance, allowing them to have their fun wrangling, but Robert, knows as a good king, likewise left these meetings to Ned and Jon Arryn before him.

Brienne has earned her place on the Kingsguard (has Pod? Really? Perhaps character outweighs ability. He’s certainly loyal.)  This too is a feminist shakeup, as there’s never been a woman on the Kingsguard and likely never a female anointed knight, only unofficial ones. She’s one of the few characters to get the dream she’s cultivated from the beginning.

Bronn too got the end he chose for himself—switching sides on a path to the top beside Tyrion who can respect this sort of behavior or at least understand it. One hopes he’ll be more competent than Littlefinger (perhaps Tyrion and Bran have the insight to manage him). Like Tyrion, Davos is a humble observer, now left as the last adult as the younger generation takes over. Since he has kept his lands, his wife, and about half his sons (though lost Stannis and Shireen), he’s gotten much of what he wanted – even his revenge. This wiping out of the entitled old guard born to it and replacing them with “cripples, bastards, and broken things” while giving Brienne a council seat and Sansa her own kingdom is the feminist revision, blending in fourth wave intersectionality to get some new voices into the governance of Westeros. (No people of color apparently remain, but Grey Worm will protect Nath, being their warrior so people like Missandei can grow up in gentleness and safety among the butterflies.)

Arya’s end was more startling since she never foreshadowed this particular dream (not directly anyway). Many saw her as Master of Whispers or defending the family she loved )now with options of three kingdoms) or even taking over the faceless men before leaving Westeros. There’s a trace of Yentl in her ending, seeking a new world she can live in as she likes. However, with all the new options her family and Westeros’s women have broke ground on where they are, leaving just to find another world seems less supported. However, that may be the point—her siblings have all found their perfect places and she wants her own—certainly not as the Lady of Storm’s End.

Jon, wow, he died to quit his job and the wall was collapsed too but back he goes. On the other hand, it looked like he chose not to stand on the wall for all of eternity but instead go join or lead the free folk whom he got to know and love long ago. While he won’t get Ygritte back (and didn’t seem a great match for Val in the books, though anything’s possible) he could of course defy his sentence, marry, have kids (or not) and maybe not officially hold lands up there but have a great time. This would even make him something of a ranger as he always dreamed.

No one got married to unite their houses and end the war a la War of the Roses (though there’s been so much of this in the books I’m betting the books will have some). This is good because it emphasizes women’s roles as the producers of babies and reduces them to marriage bait as a path to peace, as young Sansa and young Cersei (and heck, young Daenerys) were supposed to be. In history, the oldest daughter of basically King Robert married basically Daenerys, the prince from over the sea, and founded the Tudor dynasty to end the war because as a female SHE COULDN’T RULE IN HER OWN RIGHT (their granddaughter was Elizabeth I). None of that here.

Which of course brings us to Sansa. In episode one, everyone was certain she would make an alliance marriage and raise royal sons, since that was the destiny she and everyone like her was born to. She adapted massively (but since in the books she’s still hanging out with Robin and Littlefinger and someone else gets the Bolton plot, she isn’t clearly on this path. She could be, but so far she’s taken zero steps). She frees the North with a single demand, made at the right time. We don’t have the full Stark history, but in their patriarchal society, she’s actually the first Queen in the North ever. Will she marry and have babies or name an heir? Who knows (Queen Elizabeth stayed single and did the latter, while Victoria and Elizabeth II found worthy gentlemen/relatives who didn’t outrank them and made a love match), However, the story emphasized with a full coronation (replacing warrior males Robb and Jon) that Sansa didn’t NEED to get a husband. This makes it more a Frozen ending than a Little Mermaid one, in Disney parlance. Indeed, Sansa specifically has shown she has a good working relationship with her equals Robin Arryn and Tyrion and won’t take any claims to superiority from her Uncle Edmure (or at least they were her equals but now she’s arguably their superior and equal to Bran). She’s queen, on the basis of her birth and EARNING IT WITH HER COMPETENCE and knowledge of her people. Now that’s new in Westeros.

And if we thought this series should end with a WEDDING, we weren’t paying attention….

For more on Women in Game of Thrones, I’m the author of just that

Women in Game of Thrones: Power, Conformity and Resistance 

Along with Winning the Game of Thrones: The Host of Characters and their Agendas , Winter is Coming: Symbols and Hidden Meanings in A Game of Thrones: (A Deeper Look Into Game of Thrones Book 1)  and others.

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