how ‘game of thrones’ did its female characters dirty
From promising beginnings, the final season of ‘Game of Thrones’, this week’s episode in particular, has been slammed. Its greatest undoing is thanks to the treatment of its female characters.
Still from 'Game of Thrones'.
With the culmination of one of the biggest fantasy franchises of recent times, expectations have been understandably high. There was always going to be criticism, especially given that George R R Martin has yet to finish the series upon which the tv show is based, so many of the decisions regarding the fate of the characters fell instead to writers and producers David Benioff and D.B Weiss. The level of audience backlash however, has far surpassed the usual grumblings in hardcore fan corners of the internet.
With this week’s episode, The Bells, the penultimate of the series, things reached an unfortunate tipping point. After seven seasons and eight years of considered development, well written arcs and careful characterisation, Benioff and Weiss really said “nah, fuck all that”, throwing it all out the window in an 80-minute epic display of fire and brimstone that left the internet scratching its head. Over the course of the show Daenerys went full Mad Queen, and, riding her last remaining dragon, brought her new scorched earth policy to Kings Landing, despite the surrender of Cersei Lannister’s troops. Jon Snow and about 11 million other people watched in horror as the Breaker of Chains used up the CGI budget and many people’s patience.
The Bells is currently Game of Thrones’ worst reviewed episode in the history of the show. It holds a 50% score on Rotten Tomatoes, and it’s inspired a deluge of savage memes lamenting the downfall of the writing. Fans have even begun to make their own video compilations of the franchise’s actors looking uncomfortable and disappointed when asked about the ending of season eight. It’s been a bit of a shitshow, but a shitshow that in particular exposes the show’s awful treatment of the female characters audience have come to know and love.
Much of the criticism of this week’s episode -- and the wider arc of season eight in general -- has focused on Daenerys’s sudden heel turn. It’s understandably shocking to audiences; for eight years, even as there have been small hints that Targaryens may inherit ‘madness’, the character has abhorred violence against innocents. In season three she chained up her dragons after they murdered one child. She’s freed slaves across Essos (leaving an admittedly unfortunate white saviour narrative in her wake) and just last season she reassured Tyrion and the viewers that she wasn’t in Westeros to become “Queen of the ashes”. And then she was like, actually nah, and razed the city to the ground anyway. Daenerys’s epic u-turn makes little sense, and it unmasks less about her own character and more about the lazy writing of the show which, both with Khaleesi and Cersei -- who after eight years as the show’s most committed villain, was killed when some rocks fell on her -- simply copped out of giving their complex female characters the endings they deserve. The only people worse off than Daenerys were all those mums who named their babies after the previously wise, fair and kind, Khaleesi.
As an audience we probably should have been prepared for horror. The previous episode, The Last of The Starks, disposed of Missandei, Daenerys’s BFF and one of the show’s only women of colour, in a cheap ploy for shock value. While ostensibly the loss of her only confidante served to further Daenerys’s descent towards Mad Queen territory, let’s be honest, it felt rushed, and destroyed Missandei’s plotline with Grey Worm, which had involved some of the only tender love scenes on the show. Natch, GoT has never been afraid of killing their main characters, but given that the previous episode saw white characters who couldn’t even fight surviving a battle, the decision to execute Missandei, who escaped slavery, at the hands of a white woman, and to have her die while in chains again, felt problematic to say the least.
Even though other female characters, notably Arya and Sansa, have been allowed heroic turns and major plot points, the shoddy writing of the season has undermined what should have been epic, triumphant moments. When Arya came outta nowhere to destroy the Night King, an enemy who had been ominously discussed as the ultimate Bad Guy for years, online misogynists immediately attacked her as a “Mary Sue”, a trope of fan fiction which usually refers to an unrealistic female character with no flaws or weaknesses. Arya Stark is of course not a Mary Sue, but season eight’s careless writing left her open to the attack, because her actions, like the actions of many other characters, increasingly don’t make sense. Two episodes on from murdering the Night King, Arya travelled to King’s Landing to kill Cersei and complete her list, but after just 10 seconds of dialogue with The Hound, she shrugged and turned back, giving up on revenge and years of training as a faceless assassin.
Since the beginning, Game of Thrones has faced criticism for its depiction of sexual violence, so for some, it’s unsurprising that it’s now gone from writing its female characters into brutal rape scenes, to writing them off entirely. The argument in defence of those brutal scenes over the years has been a problematic one; that sexual violence and oppression allowed characters like Daenerys, Sansa and Cersei to grow into the strong leaders they are in the final season. Admittedly, it’s not a particularly nuanced argument, and now its one that can be dismissed entirely. If the writers were making them endure brutal violence in a misguided attempt to make their triumphs all the sweeter, then it was characteristically lazy, and clearly, as their character assassinations this season shows, it was all for nothing anyway.
Look, it’s easy to argue that getting this invested in a show -- particularly a show with like, fucking dragons -- is cringe, and that audiences who are suddenly angry about the sharp drop in quality are just reading into it a little bit too much. Certainly, you only have to see how apoplectic fans are on r/freefolk to agree that it’s all gone a bit revenge of the nerds. But Game of Thrones, since it premiered in 2011, has become more than just a TV show. It cemented itself as a pillar of culture. It’s probably the last television moment (except maybe Love Island) that we’ll discuss collectively, as streaming services take over the world. And as a piece of pop culture, its treatment of its characters, particularly female and WOC characters, is important, as it reveals our own collective thinking on those same groups. Whether there are magical dragons and Shrek-ass looking zombies in the background or not, that logic still stands. And as audiences gear up to grit their teeth and prepare for the final episode of the season -- a season they’d probably prefer to forget -- the fates of Missandei, Daenerys and Cersei reveal writing decisions that are lazy at best, and misogynistic at worst.