GAME OF THRONES 5×04

"The Sons of the Harpy"

Since I've been writing about Game of Thrones, many of you have been kind enough to say you appreciate how I can usually find a unifying theme for each episode. The truth is, however, it's often a much more arbitrary process than it probably appears. Usually, the show does have one clear and present throughline that leaps out as a topic for conversation. Frequently, however, there is either no unifying theme, or else there are a number of possible threads to choose from.

Since this is the second kind of week—the kind in which I struggle to decide what the hell I want to write about—I thought I'd think through the process out loud. Bear with me.

There is a lot going on in "The Sons of the Harpy," and a lot of tempting directions we could take our discussion. In general, this episode—the first writing credit from long-time Game of Thrones staffer Dave Hill—is not as thematically coherent as others we've seen. This is not necessarily a criticism, as there was a lot to accomplish here. But it does leave us without a clear and convenient throughline to discuss.

Certainly, it feels like the episode is centered around two armed assaults: the first in King's Landing, by the Sparrows, and the second in Meereen, by the titular assassins. What these two events share in common is that each is a social insurrection, a rebellion against the current direction of their respective cultures. One is founded in religion—a subject we are overdue to talk about on Game of Thrones—and the other is based on more general notions of tradition; each, however, is a reactionary attempt to roll back the culture and restore a more conservative way of life.

Throughout Game of Thrones we've been discussing the breakdown of the old order, but the series is sophisticated enough to recognize that real paradigm shifts rarely happen all at once. There is always a conservative backlash against the forces of progress and reform; it is usually ugly, it is often violent, and it is frequently—at least temporarily—successful. How often in our own history have we seen that every two steps forward in the fight for social justice is followed by one step backwards, as conservative opponents of reform double-down on their efforts? How many times have attempts to "liberate" a nation just created an opening for a violent resurgence of fundamentalism? True change doesn't come easily, and remaking cultures and attitudes is rarely as simple as just "winning" a war.

So it's an important, juicy subject to discuss. But does it work as a throughline for this particular episode? Not really. "The Sons of the Harpy" successfully gets the ball rolling on this theme, but doesn't tie it enough to the other subplots—or sufficiently locate the issue in character—for us to explore the subject except in fairly abstract ways.

So, for now, let's stick a pin in that one, and assume we'll have a better opportunity to come back to it later in the season.

Barristan Selmy (Ian McElhinney) in The Sons of the Harpy

The other obvious subject to discuss this week is an old standby: the choice between strength and compassion, between war and peace, between darkness and light. Throughout the episode we hear repeated references to characters who are either trying to start a war—"You must choose," Ellaria says. "Doran's way and peace, or my way and war"—or else, like Jaime Lannister, trying very hard not to start one. We see a formerly powerless holy man, the High Sparrow, suddenly given the option of pursuing his goals through force. ("An army that defends the bodies and souls of the common people?") We see young King Tommen—who is, theoretically, the most powerful man in Westeros—choosing to abstain from the use of force. ("We'll find another way," Tommen says, when he realizes violence is imminent.) We get an explanation for violence from Hizdahr zo Loraq—"Why else do men fight? So their names can live on"— and we get Jaime and Bronn each rejecting the idea that there's any glory in a violent death. ("I've had an exciting life," Bronn says. "I want my death to be boring.") We see the fall in battle of one of the greatest warriors in the realm, Barristan Selmy, and we learn that another—Prince Rhaegar—much preferred singing to killing.

"There is only one war: life against death," Melisandre says, and we could probably discuss the entire episode in terms of a choice between these two poles. But this subject—which ultimately boils down to a choice between power and compassion—is arguably the subject of Game of Thrones, and it's certainly been a recurring theme throughout this season so far.

(Which is to say, we've discussed this theme before, and we'll discuss it again, but I can't go on about it every week.)

So where does that leave us? Often, when I'm stuck on a topic, I try tugging on various lines of dialogue, to see if they're connected thematically to anything useful. Melisandre's line, above, was one of those tempting lines of dialogue. So was Jaime's line, "As far as I've seen, they're all shit ways to die," which—in an episode with a lot of death—is a further rejection of this notion of glory in violence. ("I don't care what's sung about me when I'm dead," he also says.)

Obara (Keisha Castle-Hughes) in The Sons of the Harpy

But the bit of dialogue that finally resonated with me as a possible approach to this episode is this one, in which Obara Sand (Keisha Castle-Hughes) remembers her father:

"When I was a child, Oberyn came to take me to court. I had never seen this man, and yet he called himself my father. My mother wept, said I was too young, and a girl. Oberyn thrust his spear at my feet, and said 'Girl or boy we fight our battles, but the gods let us choose our weapons.' My father pointed to his spear, and then to my mother's tears. I made my choice long ago."

It's her answer to Ellaria's question about choosing either peace or war, and so it's a variation on the strength versus compassion issue we've discussed so often before. But what really interests me in this is the "girl or boy" part: spears (physical force) are the weapons of a man, and tears (emotional manipulation) are the weapons of a woman—but everyone, boy or girl, gets to choose. In this episode that introduces a new group of warrior women, the Sand Snakes—and in which Cersei, Margaery, Dany, and Sansa also feature prominently—this relationship of gender to a choice of weapons seems potentially interesting.

So—while acknowledging that it's a somewhat arbitrary choice in a fairly disjointed episode—let's talk about that this week, and see if it—as I suspect—crosses over with those other themes I mentioned above.

Let's talk about the weapons of women.

"We don't need an army to start a war." — Ellaria Sand

The Sand Snakes

Historically on Game of Thrones, it's been tempting to make easy divisions between feminine and masculine power. We've talked before—here, for example—about how women have had to learn how to use their power differently than men do: men are renowned for feats of violence and military might, while intellect, diplomacy, and guile have been seen as almost exclusively feminine weapons. None of the truly powerful women in Westeros—Cersei, Margaery, Lady Olenna, Melisandre—are warriors or military commanders, but they are all master manipulators. (This is not to say that powerful men can't also be smart, of course: certainly Tywin Lannister was no brutish thug. But one would be hard-pressed to call Tywin diplomatic: he controlled, but he did not coerce as women are forced to do.)

We have had a few examples of people crossing over these gender lines in their use of power, and they all stand out as stark exceptions to the rule. Baelish and Varys are men who rely entirely on their wits, and they are therefore seen as rather feminized. (Baelish is rather sexless, and Varys is literally sexless.) Brienne, on the other hand, is a physically powerful woman, and as such she is desexualized: she is a virgin, she is considered repulsively unattractive, and she is often mistaken for—and treated as—a man. And there are other more complicated examples of the relationship between gender and power: Loras, for example, is a mighty warrior whose sexuality makes him an outcast and an object of scorn. ("The Knight of Flowers" is one of those titles we discussed last week—like "High Sparrow" and "Queen Mother"—that contains an insult within it.) Arya, meanwhile, is a girl who has rejected the traditional tools and models of femininity, and so she, too, is frequently mistaken for a boy.

I don't know if Arya is going to get a chance to meet the Sand Snakes, but one suspects she'd appreciate their style: she hasn't seen their like before, and neither have we. The brief introduction we get of Oberyn Martell's bastard daughters here leaves quite an impression: Obara (Castle-Hughes), Nymeria (Jessica Henwick), and Tyene (Rosabell Laurenti Sellers) are obviously fierce warriors, and they have clearly chosen their weapons. (Literally, as well as figuratively: in a bit of efficient character delineation, they seem to favor spears, whips, and knives, respectively.)

However, unlike Brienne—and Arya, to some extent—they maintain their femininity, and their sexuality: their clothes are a mixture of male and female tropes, Obara in dress-shaped leather armor, and the other two in low-cut flowing silks over more practical leggings. I usually try to resist the urge to comment on the physical appearance of the women in Game of Thrones, but here I think it's thematically relevant: the Sand Snakes are hot, and their hotness is itself a sign of a different cultural paradigm. No one would mistake the Sand Snakes for boys. They are allowed to be both women and warriors.

We don't know much about Dorne, but we do know that it is not as conservative as the rest of the Seven Kingdoms. In fact, when we think about change in Westeros, Dorne—the most socially progressive of the Seven Kingdoms—is looking like a pretty good model. It is, from Oberyn's reports, a more civilized place, where misfits are tolerated and cruelty is not. ("In some places the highborn frown upon those of low birth," Oberyn told Cersei once. "In other places the rape and murder of women and children is considered distasteful.")

Oliver, Ellaria, and Oberyn in Breaker of Chains

And—more relevant to our topic—it is a place where sexuality and sexual roles are much more fluid. We saw last season that both Oberyn and Ellaria were openly bi-sexual, and we've seen other characters refer to Dorne as a more sexually liberated place. ("We should go there," Oliver said to Loras, in "The Wars to Come," after identifying a birthmark on Loras's leg that was shaped like—and symbolically marked him as belonging in—Dorne.) Even the fact that Prince Doran is a cripple speaks to an entirely different concept of power in Dorne, one that seems to be divorced from outdated notions of masculine power. (Robert Baratheon took the Iron Throne with a warhammer: it is impossible to imagine a peace-loving man in a wheelchair rising to power in King's Landing.)  Here, roles are not so defined: a man doesn't need to be physically powerful to rule, and a woman can be physically powerful without being considered a masculine freak.

However, it's interesting that Ellaria and the Sand Snakes are not completely different from the other women of Westeros. "We don't hurt little girls in Dorne," Oberyn once told Cersei, but that's exactly what Ellaria and the Sand Snakes plan to do. Cersei's daughter is warded in Dorne, and Ellaria wants to take her revenge on Cersei by slaughtering Myrcella. "We don't need an army to start a war," Ellaria says. "Cersei Lannister loves her children, and we have one of them." Though they are warrior women, this is what we would usually think of as feminine thinking: it is the realm of guile and diplomacy, pursuing goals not through brute force but through emotional manipulation: tears, not spears. Ellaria wants to strike at Cersei, woman to woman, mother to mother, on a deeply personal level, and thus start a war. It's not something we can imagine Tywin, for example, doing—Tywin would think in terms of armies, not individual children and emotions—but it is something we can imagine Cersei herself doing, or Melisandre, or Lady Olenna.

I am reminded of the disagreement between Robb Stark and his mother in Season Two: Robb was a good man, and he genuinely loved his sisters, but it was inconceivable to him that Catelyn would trade the Kingslayer—and weaken their entire military cause—for the sake of "two little girls." Men in Westeros don't think like that: even Jaime won't start a war for his daughter. But Ellaria and the Sand Snakes seem to be different: they may have chosen the power of spears over the power of tears, but these women still know that a mother's tears are something that can be manipulated.

"Aren't you and mother getting along?" — Tommen

Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) in The Sons of the Harpy

Pity poor King Tommen, First of His Name, King of the Andals and the First Men, Lord of the Seven Kingdoms and Protector of the Realm. Because that kid is screwed.

Tommen—sweet, gentle, decent Tommen—is caught between two masterful women: his wife Margaery and his mother Cersei. Neither of them has any direct, official strength of her own, but both are expert manipulators adept at wielding indirect power. Tommen is a paper king: he's technically the most powerful person in the realm, but the real battle for control of the Iron Throne is between these two women. Tommen is both the stakes they're fighting over and the weapon they'll use to strike at each other.

The battle has mostly been limited to polite, passive-aggressive verbal skirmishes, but it has been ramping up. Last week, Margaery planted the seeds for Cersei's exile, by playing on Tommen's pride. This week, Cersei strikes back in a far more direct fashion. She has always had to fight to maintain her indirect power, and now—with even her limited authority collapsing around her—she's getting more desperate. She needs an army, she decides, and she sees an opportunity to get one: by arming the Sparrows and reinstating—or, rather, convincing Tommen to reinstate—the "Faith Militant."

Needless to say, this is almost certainly a terrible idea. Cersei is used to manipulating men to get what she wants, and she clearly thinks she has the humble, soft-spoken High Sparrow wrapped around her little finger. She can't necessarily control Tommen anymore, but she believes she can control this man. (Unlike Tommen, the High Sparrow—a holy man, and presumably celibate—has no other women in his life with whom Cersei has to compete.) We see her bring out all the weapons at her disposal—diplomacy, flattery, even flirtation—as she attempts to curry his favor. "You and I both understand how the world works," she says, carefully forging an intimacy and a sympathetic connection with the old man. (We have seen her do exactly the same thing earlier with Tommen's buffoon of a father-in-law, Mace Tyrell, flattering him into a mission just to get him off the Small Council and out of the country.)

Credit where it's due, it is impressive watching Cersei work. Look at how she shuts down her son's attempt to exercise his authority. "I demand that Ser Loras be released now!" he shouts at her, but she instantly cuts through his outrage. "Did I arrest him?" she asks sweetly. (Indirect power means indirect consequences: like many women in Westeros, her power is more effective for being less obvious.) She manages to sound completely innocent—even sympathetic—even as she twists the knife further into the Martells. ("Your wife is right to criticize," she tells Tommen. "We can't allow fanatics to kidnap the queen's brother, no matter his perversions.")

Cersei is probably overplaying her hand, however. Her power has always been tied to her sexuality: she has been effective at manipulating men she could seduce—Robert, Jaime, Lancel—but less effective at controlling men she couldn't, like her sons, and Ned Stark, and—one suspects—the High Sparrow. (During the Battle of the Blackwater, she said that, if it were anyone but Stannis outside the gates, she'd hope to seduce him. "Tears aren't a woman's only weapon," she told Sansa. "The best one's between your legs.")

However, judging by the speed and ruthlessness with which the High Sparrow activates the Faith Militant, Cersei has almost certainly bitten off more than she can chew: she has given tremendous power to a man on the questionable assumption that she can control him, all so she can strike at another woman. Like Ellaria, she's willing to start a war—and get a lot of people killed—to enact her personal revenge.

What's worse, she is, in the process, rolling back the cause of progress in Westeros, by allowing the Sparrows to enforce their reactionary moral authority over the entire realm. Just a few episodes ago we noticed that Loras was now more comfortable to openly express his true sexual preferences: now, however, Loras is imprisoned for his orientation, and others who share his proclivities are apparently summarily executed. Deviance from the traditional male sexual roles will not be tolerated any longer, it seems, and one wonders if feminine sexuality will be disempowered across the boards. Shutting down the brothels is inconvenient for men, but it is also removing one of the few professional avenues to personal and sexual agency for women. (I don't want to overstate how much opportunity for women prostitution affords, of course: it's men like Baelish who own the brothels, and by extension the women who work there. Women—as poor Ros discovered—can only climb so far.)

Still, the Sparrows seem to be entirely composed of men, and sexuality is one of the few reliable feminine powers: this kind of puritanical fundamentalism has rarely been empowering to women. Cersei has fought to wrest power from men her entire life, but she may now have made a disastrous miscalculation that could set her entire gender back.

Margaery (Natalie Dormer) in The Sons of the Harpy

For sex is one of the most important weapons in the arsenal of Westerosi women. It's one Margaery Tyrell, for example, wields very well. ("She dresses like a harlot for a reason," Cersei told her eldest son, back in "Dark Wings, Dark Words.") Margaery successfully seduced Joffrey—emotionally, if not physically—by turning herself into his perfect, somewhat sadistic partner. ("It must be thrilling," she said, as she suggestively handled his crossbow in that same episode. "To squeeze your finger here and watch something die over there.") She began working on Tommen the moment she found out he'd be king, sneaking into his bed late at night and stealing their first kiss. Hell, Margaery even found a way to accommodate Renly's sexuality. ("Do you want my brother to come in and help?" she asked her husband. "Or I could turn over, and you could pretend I'm him?") Sexual manipulation is a necessary skill she learned from her grandmother, and she learned it well. ("I was very, very good," Olenna boasted once. "You are even better.")

And sex is what probably gives Margaery the edge in her battle with Cersei. Clueless Tommen is shocked—shocked—to realize his wife and mother aren't getting along, and Margaery is forced to make the situation clearer to him. "She's jealous you're not hers anymore," she tells him angrily. But then she switches tactics, and goes right into seduction mode. "Oh, my sweet, sweet king," she purrs. "Do you have any affection for me at all?" She's putting away the spears—her anger—and reaching for the tears.

But when this doesn't work—because Tommen himself refuses to use violence to free her brother—she reaches for the weapon between her legs. She turns cold to him, and makes it perfectly clear that Tommen and his royal spear are cut off until this situation is resolved. "Will you come back later?" he asks her timidly. "I need to be with my family, your grace," she says, and storms out.

"Let me show you what you're fighting for." — Melisandre

Melisandre (Carice van Houten) in The Sons of the Harpy

And throughout this episode we see how women wield their particular weapons. As Cersei and Margaery fight to control King Tommen, Melisandre makes a point of reinforcing her control over King Stannis, before he marches on Winterfell. "Once before you put your faith in Ser Davos, and left me behind," she reminds him, invoking his defeat at the Blackwater. "I hope you won't make that same mistake again."

And she is even less subtle with Jon Snow, the newly anointed Lord Commander of the Night's Watch. We have seen Melisandre seduce, or attempt to seduce, other people she needed, from Stannis to Davos to Gendry to Selyse: now she wants to add Jon to her collection.

"Let me show you what you're fighting for," she says, and Jon tells her he doesn't believe in visions. "No visions, no magic, just life," she says, and opens her dress to put his hands on her body: she has visions and magic in her arsenal, but her sexuality is her most powerful, most reliable weapon. "The Lord of Light made us male and female, two parts of a greater whole," she says. "In our joining is power…"

But—like Cersei—she has a female rival to compete with. It is not his oath to the Night's Watch that stops Jon, but the memory of his love for Ygritte. "I swore a vow," he says. "I loved another." The dead don't need lovers, she reminds him, but he won't be moved. "I know," he says. "But I still love her."  (Interestingly, we saw a similar scene last week, in which Tyrion found himself surprisingly unable to sleep with a prostitute. I noted some parallels between Shae and Ygritte in my discussion of "The Children," and here the connection is made again. Along with the frequent invocations of Lyanna Stark's name throughout this episode, we can see that a woman's power extends even beyond the grave.)

Thus spurned, Melisandre turns nasty: as we've seen repeatedly, women in Westeros have learned how to find the exact place in which to stick the verbal dagger for the greatest emotional damage. Melisandre—spooky witch that she is—is better at it than most, as she proves when she throws Ygritte's words back in Jon's face as punishment. "You know nothing, Jon Snow."

"I don't know how to do that." — Sansa Stark

Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) in The Sons of the Harpy

While we're on the subject of Lyanna Stark, I should probably mention that there is a very practical reason she and Raeghar Targaryan receive so many mentions this episode. It's a little bit spoilery—relating to a popular fan theory that has yet to be confirmed in the show or the books—so I'm not going to get into details here. (Technically it's fair game, however: the clues have been fairly seeded all along.) I will say that, like most people, I've long believed this theory to be correct, and the way the show invokes their names here—and a few comments elsewhere in the episode—more or less confirms it. (Google "R+L=J" if you have no idea what I'm talking about, and want to.)

But—leaving all of that out—Lyanna Stark's name also serves the larger theme here of the indirect power of women: Lyanna is Game of Thrones' Helen of Troy, the woman whose beauty started a war. "How many tens of thousands had to die, because Rhaegar chose your aunt?" Littlefinger asks Sansa. Everything that has happened in this series, on both sides of the Narrow Sea, can more or less be traced back to what happened between Raeghar and Lyanna: the fall of House Targaryan and Dany's exile;  the ascension of Robert Baratheon, and his marriage to Cersei; the enmity of the Martells and the Lannisters; everything. She was powerful enough to reshape the entire history of this world.

And now Sansa Stark, Lyanna's niece and a great beauty in her own right, must tap into her feminine power. She has already learned to do this from observing great teachers like Cersei, Margaery, and Olenna, and lately—since her Aunt Lysa's death—she has had to tap into those powers more directly to control Baelish, who is himself one of her instructors. ("You think you know me?" he asked her, in "The Mountain and the Viper." "I know what you want," Sansa replied, and when next we saw her she was wearing both the clothes and the air of an older, more confident, more sexually powerful woman.)

Now Baelish is leaving her alone with the Boltons, an experience that will no doubt test her feminine powers even further. Stannis will come, and he will take Winterfell, and he will make her Wardenness of the North, Baelish promises. But if he doesn't? Then, Baelish says, Sansa is to make Ramsay Bolton hers. "I don't know how to do that," Sansa says, and—though she's come a long way—she probably doesn't yet: this is a power in her arsenal she has yet to fully develop. "Even the most dangerous men can be outmaneuvered, and you've learned to maneuver from the very best," Baelish assures her. Sansa is a remarkably strong and resilient girl, but she—unlike her sister, or women like Brienne—is very much in the traditional model of femininity: that means that whatever power she can seize must be acquired through a man. "I expect I'll be a married woman by the time you return," she tells Littlefinger, and the little kiss she allows him indicates that she is starting to learn how to use all her weapons.

"Tradition is the only thing that will hold this city, your city, together." — Hizdahr zo Loraq

Danaerys (Emila Clarke) in The Sons of the Harpy

Dany doesn't have a lot to do this week—except for a very sweet scene that serves as a fond farewell for Ser Barristan Selmy—but it would also be fair to say that this is all about Dany.

Because it's not possible to discuss the issue of women and power in Game of Thrones without talking about Daenerys Stormborn. She is the female power in this world, the only Queen in a forest of Kings, and the only ruler of any sex who is truly trying to do things differently.

We've talked enough before about how Dany's approach to power is different: though she makes mistakes—and has a hell of a temper—she's the only ruler motivated by a genuine concern for the welfare of her people. I'm not going to go over all of that again here, but I don't think it's a stretch for us to characterize her governing style as a feminine contrast to her male counterparts.

But what this episode made me think about is not how she rules, but how she rose to power. Yes, she has dragons, and dragons help: she has burned the ever loving shit out a few people who needed it on her way up the ladder. But Dany did not take her throne by force. She took command of her small khalasar before her dragons hatched, through the promise of a different kind of community. ("I see the faces of slaves: I free you," she told them, back in the Season One finale. "But if you stay, it will be as brothers and sisters, as husbands and wives.") She made her way through Qarth through diplomacy, not force, and she triumphed over her ordeal in the House of the Undying through sheer force of will. It was intelligence and guile, not strength, that won her an army of slaves at Astapor, and it was compassion that turned them into an army of volunteers instead. (That she had to do this over the objections of her well-intentioned, imagination-deprived male advisers should not go unnoticed.)

Even when she had her army, she did not think as a man would. She did not take over Yunkai from without—as she could probably have done—but from within, rallying the slaves to her cause so that they opened the gates themselves and welcomed her as "mhysa." And in Meereen, remember, her first attack was not a volley of stones or arrows, but of slave collars: it was an emotional campaign for hearts and minds, not a brutal war over bodies.

Dany (Emilia Clarke) in Breaker of Chains

My point is that Dany has become the most powerful woman in this world while remaining a woman: she has not had to become a crude parody of a man, she has not had to take on (or even listen to) male thinking, and she has not had to emulate male tactics. (Just try to imagine Tywin Lannister, or Roose Bolton, even thinking to wage a campaign for hearts and minds, let alone winning one: at best, their emotional warfare would be for fear, not love.)

There's an element of necessity in all of this, of course: it's a recurring theme in Game of Thrones that women—along with other "cripples, bastards, and broken things" like Tyrion—have had to develop skills that the physically powerful men of Westeros never needed. Dany had to think outside the box: she began with no power, no money, nothing but a famous name. (Necessity is the mhysa of invention?) So, in common with women like Cersei and Margaery, she has had to get along on her wits, and her guile, and her ability to appeal to emotions.

But I think it's also interesting, given our topic this week, to think about ways Dany is not like her female contemporaries. One of the ways she's different, I think, is in her sexuality. It was the first thing taken from her, when her brother Viserys traded it to Khal Drogo for the promise of an army. ("I would let his whole tribe fuck you—all forty thousand men and their horses, too—if that's what it took," Viserys told her.)

But—unlike many of the other women in Game of Thrones—that was the last time Dany traded her sexuality for anything. She has had plenty of offers, of course, since Khal Drogo died. In Qarth, Xaro Xhoan Daxos offered to give her everything she wanted if she would be his, for example. Jorah Mormont was—and still is—in love with her. The leader of the Second Sons crudely propositioned her, talking to her like she was a whore; so did the slavetrader in Astapor. With any of these men, Dany probably could have curried favor and strengthened her cause by using—or at least letting them think she would use—"the weapon between her legs."

But Dany doesn't play that game: she rarely flirts, and she doesn't tease, and she doesn't manipulate men through her sexuality. One could argue, I suppose, that her standing boldly naked before Daario Naharis in "Second Sons" counts as sexual manipulation; I rather see it as a refusal to let him use her nudity to intimidate her. Daario basically offered to wage a war for her beauty, but she wasn't interested in those terms: when she finally took Daario Naharis as a lover, it was her choice, and her desire, an exercise of her own sexual agency that was tied to no other agenda.

Dany (Emilia Clarke) in The Sons of the Harpy

So Dany really is forging a new path for women in Game of Thrones: she has the weapons of women at her disposal when she needs them, and she has acquired the strength of men when she wants it, but the way she is wielding these powers is something unique.  (We don't yet know enough about the Sand Snakes to say if they have struck a similarly holistic balance, and we don't yet know if others—like Arya—will end up carving out yet another role for powerful women.)

But all of this finally brings us back to where we began: what Dany represents—female power—is a threat to the old order, and the old order is striking back. There is not, as far as we know, an explicit sexist agenda among The Sons of the Harpy, as I think there is among the Sparrows. (Though one could argue their name is coded: they are sons—men—and they fight for the symbol of the old city, in which femininity is depicted as something monstrous.) But their entire goal is to reinstate everything Dany has fought against: the institution of slavery, the barbarism of the fighting pits, the ancient "traditions" in which violence was considered glorious and people could be objectified and owned. If we recognize Dany's pursuit of equality for the powerless as a feminine—if not outright feminist—agenda, then we have to acknowledge that the Sons of the Harpy are fighting to restore the old, male paradigm.

(It's no coincidence that the Sons of the Harpy attack is intercut with Hizdahr zo Loraq pleading with Dany to reopen the fighting pits: a system in which slaves fight to the death for "glory," in order to entertain rich lords, encompasses everything that was wrong with the old order. And am I the only person who hears an echo of bullshit "misandrist" arguments in Hizdahr zo Loraq's ode to the traditions of the fighting pits? His claims that the brutality of human cockfighting are just part of Meereen culture—which Dany, of course, cannot possibly understand—remind me of so-called "Gamergate" arguments that defend misogyny and harassment as part of the "culture" of videogaming. "I do not recognize this tradition," Dany says firmly, which is an excellent answer. But I digress…)

Meena Rayann in The Sons of the Harpy

For the most part, the Sons of the Harpy methods are a violation of everything Dany believes in: they are not waging a war for hearts and minds, but a war of fear and intimidation and brute, overwhelming force. (To put it simply, their methods are very male.) However, there's one interesting point to note: it is a woman (Meena Rayann) who leads the Unsullied into the trap where they can be slaughtered by the Sons of the Harpy. She does it, significantly, with tears, the weapons of a woman. This is the same woman who lured White Rat to his death in "The House of Black and White," only in that case it was her body—her sexuality—that baited the trap. The old male paradigm is not above using the weapons of women to serve its purpose.

Remember how simple everything seemed during the War of Five Kings? It seemed, then, as though the fate of Westeros rested on very simple things: battles and treaties, winners and losers. As Game of Thrones progresses, however, everything grows more complicated. This season it is becoming clear that culture wars, and gender wars, are harder than the other kind, and more complex, and—in the long run—far more threatening to the social order.

Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits

  • Wow, that was a long one, and a bit of a mess. Sorry. (That's what happens when I go into a post uncertain of where I'm headed.) To paraphrase Pascal, "I wrote a long post because I didn't have time to make it short."
  • Somehow, in all of this, I still managed to skip over a few things. Jorah and Tyrion are in a boat, headed for Meereen, and Tyrion is pretty quick to figure out that everything Jorah does is out of love for a woman he has betrayed. This, not coincidentally, is also what is driving Jaime. "It has to be me," Jaime tells Bronn, when Bronn questions Jaime's presence on this mission. Jaime set Tyrion free, so Cersei blames him for their father's death: even now, Cersei is controlling Jaime's actions as he tries to win his way back into her favor.
  • I also skipped over a scene I liked very much: Stannis's touching speech to his daughter. Shireen thinks she doesn't matter, and that her father is ashamed of her, but Stannis assures her she's the most important thing in the world. I've never liked Stannis more, and it's a nice, thematically relevant contrast to Selyse's earlier speech about how she should have given Stannis sons, and only gave him "weakness" instead. Selyse sees women as nothing more than weakness, but we know better: apparent weakness can manifest as power, and one of the things that make women powerful in this world—though far from the only thing—is the love of powerful men.
  • "The Small Council gets smaller and smaller," Pycelle says. "Not small enough," Cersei replies. Heh. But I confess, I don't remember why Cersei now hates Pycelle so much: didn't he used to be her creature?
  • Hmmm, Meryn Trant is headed to Braavos with Mace Tyrell. Who else is currently in Braavos? Someone, perhaps, who might like to cross Trant's name off a certain list? (Speaking of powerful women…)

NEXT: Episode 5×05 – "Kill the Boy"

The Unaffiliated Critic

Michael G. McDunnah is a freelance writer, a recovering lit major, a pop-culture junkie, and an unaffiliated critic. He lives in Chicago.

You May Also Like

6 Shares
Share6
Tweet
+1
Share
Pin
Email