Okay, okay, ladies, now let's get in formation, cause I slay.
Okay, ladies, now let's get in formation, cause I slay.
Prove to me you got some coordination, cause I slay.
Slay trick, or you get eliminated.
"I'm not going to stop the wheel," Dany told Tyrion last season. "I'm going to break the wheel."
From the beginning, it's been clear that Game of Thrones is largely about societal and political upheaval. Throughout the series, a generation of leaders has fallen, and a new generation has risen to power, and things are different now than they were before.
But that's what always happens, isn't it? The wheel keeps turning, and different people end up on top, but its constant rotation still crushes most of the same people on the ground. (That's the problem with revolutions: as the word implies, they have an unfortunate habit of ending up more or less exactly where they began.)
And it's usually women who end up under the wheel. Throughout Westeros, different men have seen their power wax and wane, but the disempowerment and oppression of women have remained steady and terrible constants. Objectification is a constant. Rape is a constant. Being treated like whores, slaves, or chattel is a constant.
What would real change in Westeros look like? We may find out, because the women are getting in formation, and getting some coordination, and getting ready to openly fight back against their oppressors. And, across the Narrow Sea, Dany is making it clear that she's not about revolution: she's all about transformation. She's not stopping the wheel, she's breaking the wheel. Shit's gonna change, or she will burn your house down.
She's the Queen, the Unburnt, the First of Her Name, the Breaker of Chains. She's the Mother of Dragons, breathing fire. She's Daenerys, the Stormborn.
And girl, I hear some thunder.
I'm telling these tears, "Go and fall away, fall away."
May the last one burn into flames.
Is it bad form to quote your own tweets? Probably, but watching "Book of the Stranger" I remembered making this observation, shortly after the end of Season Three:
Rewatching #GameofThrones Season 1, it now feels like a show about people saying goodbye to loved ones they will never, ever see again.
— Unaffiliated Critic (@FreeRangeCritic) June 30, 2013
That was a few weeks after "The Rains of Castamere" aired, and by then it was clear why Game of Thrones was not called Stark Family Reunion. It was sad to rewatch "The Kingsroad," in which Arya and Jon have their first and last scene together, and in which Ned promises to tell Jon Snow everything about his mother the next time they meet. It was heartbreaking to watch "Lord Snow" again, and see Ned and Catelyn kiss each other for what we now know was the very last time. When those episodes first aired, we still hoped this show was about how all these people would find their ways back to each other, but we would soon learn differently. Ned died at the end of Season One. Robb and Catelyn died at the end of Season Three, and shortly thereafter Bran and Rickon were separated. Despite some near misses, Arya, Sansa, and Jon Snow have each gone more than five full seasons without laying eyes on another member of their immediate family. ("Don't you wish we could go back to the day we left?" Sansa says to Jon now. "I want to scream at myself, 'Don't go, you idiot.'")
It's no wonder that Sansa and Jon Snow stare at each other as if they can't believe what they're seeing, and no wonder they throw themselves into each other's arms and hold on like they never want to let go. (And if you didn't choke up a little at this scene, then I don't know why you're even watching this show.)
These are two characters who—as they admit here—never particularly liked each other. (I'd have to go back and look, but I'm not sure they ever even really shared a scene together.) But they are family—the only family either of them has, for all they know—and they have suffered the same losses, and mourned the same loved ones.
But they are not the same people they were. It would be a hard call to say which of them has been through more since they both left Winterfell, but this episode makes it clear which of them has changed more. Sansa apologizes to Jon for how she behaved as a child, and in that apology is an implicit acknowledgement that she is a child no more. It must be a shock for Jon to realize the silly, frivolous girl he once knew has grown into this strong, determined—and now vengeful—woman.
Jon has known for a long time that the Boltons—the people who murdered his brother and step-mother—had taken Winterfell, and he had reconciled himself to the fact. (Last season he even deigned to write to Roose Bolton and ask him, along with all the other lords, to send men for the Night's Watch.) And Jon, as he says, is "tired of fighting." (Throughout this episode, we see that it's the men—Jon, Theon, Loras, Kevan, Jorah, Tyrion—who are weak, cowardly, willing to compromise and run.)
Not Sansa: she's only just begun to fight. "If we don't take back the North, we'll never be safe," she says. "I want you to help me, but I'll do it myself if I have to." I want you to help me, she says: after years of being used as a pawn in someone else's scheme, this is her crusade, her cause, her plan. And it is her right: not just because she is the oldest living Stark, but because no one has suffered at the hands of Ramsay Bolton more than she has.
"You have courage," Brienne of Tarth told her mother once. "Not battle courage perhaps, but, I don't know, a woman's kind of courage." Sansa, the current Lady Stark, has a woman's courage as well: she will return to the place of her greatest trauma, and face her rapist, and take back everything he took from her.
And we see this courage again in her willingness to read Ramsay's letter. "If I don't watch after you, Father's ghost will come back and murder me," Jon has said: he still sees her as a woman, naive, weak, someone to be protected by men. And so he tries to protect her from Ramsay's threats, but she snatches the letter from his hand and calmly reads aloud Ramsay's promise to let all of his men rape her. Sansa was once the "stupid girl with stupid dreams who never learns," but she's grown up now, and learned too much, and she's had so many dreams shattered that there's nothing she can't face. "A monster has taken our home and our brother," she says, with steely determination. "We have to go back to Winterfell and save them both." At a table with these fierce warriors—the commanders of the Night's Watch, the leader of the Wildlings, and her own protector, Brienne of Tarth—there's little doubt that Sansa Stark is the strongest person there.
Came into this world,
Daddy's little girl,
And daddy made a soldier out of me.
—Beyoncé, "Daddy Lessons"
"Did it ever occur to you that I am the one that deserves your confidence and your trust?" Cersei Lannister asked her father once. "Not your sons, not Jaime or Tyrion, but me? Years and years of lectures on family and legacy…Did it ever occur to you that your daughter might be the only one listening to them, living by them?"
Tywin rejected her then. "I don't distrust you because you're a woman," he said. "I distrust you because you're not as smart as you think you are." And so far, history has proven him right, as the Lannister legacy has been in decline ever since Tywin died. In the power vacuum he left, Cersei just kept doing what she had always done as a woman in a man's world: she schemed, and she manipulated, and she seduced, and she selfishly tried to claw her way to a modicum of status and respect. But after Tywin died, that was not what was needed: her family needed a leader, and Cersei didn't step up. Instead, her petty rivalries and manipulations led to the rise of the Faith Militant, and turned her family—the nominal rulers of Westeros—into impotent figureheads.
But that's changing now, and Cersei may finally be becoming the woman she told her father she was. For the first time—ever?—we see her swallow her pride for the greater good. Last week we saw her humiliated as the Small Council refused to give her a voice, but now she returns to that table and makes an alliance with her former rivals, the Tyrells. She and Lady Olenna have been openly scornful of each other, but now they have a common enemy, and a common cause. The High Sparrow is a threat to their entire way of life, of course, but he is also—significantly, for our discussion here—misogyny personified. It is just not his class warfare that bonds these two women against him: it is his contempt for women, and his determination to shame and humiliate Margaery in exactly the same way he shamed and humiliated Cersei. Once Cersei might have welcomed Margaery's public shaming, but no longer.
(Note the peripheral function of men in this scene. Jaime is there, but in the background, in an advisory capacity at best. And their uncle Kevan—like Jon Snow—must be convinced to take action. It is the women who are decisive, determined, and driving the decisions.)
I would not like to overstate Cersei's transformation. In fact, there is an ironic tragedy in the fact that Cersei—unlike Dany—is fighting to restore the status quo. (Cersei doesn't want to break the wheel, she just wants to get it spinning again.) "Margaery is the queen," she says to her son. "Queens must command respect. Kings more so." And—like her brother Tyrion elsewhere in the episode—she has no patience for idealistic visions of change. "The High Sparrow has no respect for kings and queens. He has no respect for anything in this world. He has no use for things of this world. He wants to knock them down and replace them with—what? With fantasies, with beggars in the street, with nothing." Cersei, like Tyrion, prides herself on living in the real world, and she can't even imagine a different, more egalitarian way of doing things.
But she is right to fight against the High Sparrow, who represents a major step backwards for women, and for Westeros. And her willingness to put her own selfish resentments aside to forge powerful alliances proves that she did learn a thing or two at Tywin's knee. She's on her way, finally, to becoming a real power, though whether that turns out to be good for the Seven Kingdoms remains to be seen. ("Many will die no matter what we do," Olenna says. "Better them than us.")
Sorry, I ain't sorry.
Speaking of Margaery, I just want to touch briefly on her storyline this week: it doesn't require a lot of discussion, but it's so thematically on-point that I can't bear to skip it.
Margaery is an interesting character: far more interesting, really, than the show has really explored. She is a lot like Cersei, in many ways, and perhaps even more expert in the seductions and manipulations that have traditionally been a woman's only path to power in Westeros. (This, of course, is why Cersei hates her.)
But there's a big difference between these two women, one that belies the simple narrative that Margaery is just a younger version of Cersei. Margaery may, in fact, be good. It has never been entirely clear whether her goodness is a pose or a principle, but everything we have ever seen from her suggests that she is kind, and generous, and actually cares about the welfare of the less fortunate. She even managed to make Joffrey a little kinder and more popular with the people, and I don't think there's any doubt that she could have turned Tommen into a decent king.
Within the traditional models of power—in which women wield power indirectly through men—Margaery is really the best-case scenario. Cersei was never really the power behind Robert, but Margaery could have been that for Tommen, and I suspect the Seven Kingdoms would have been far better off for her influence. (If Margaery were a major character, her storyline would parallel Dany's: two strong, decent women trying—through very different means—to create a more just and equitable world.)
What struck me this week, however, is that the High Sparrow knows or cares nothing about who Margaery is: whether she's good or bad, cruel or kind, selfish or generous. Margaery isn't even being tortured for her own "sins," but simply for trying—understandably—to protect her brother. And the High Sparrow doesn't talk to her about her sins either: he just gives a mansplaining monologue about his own character flaws. (It turns out that he was once just a social-climbing shoe-designer with delusions of grandeur who liked drinking and fucking. "We passed around the wine, we passed around the women," he says, of the party where he saw the light. He suddenly saw it all "with perfect clarity," he says, "the truth of their bodies laid bare.")
There are real class issues worth discussing in Westeros, obviously, but the High Sparrow is a monstrous parody of revolution. His is the tyranny of the meek, a loathsome misanthropy and misogyny disguised as humility and piety. Cersei is right to scoff at his patriarchal, moralistic vision of the world, for it is a joyless vision that allows no room for individuality, for emotion, for basic humanity. It is clear when he's talking to Margaery that she is not even a person to him: she's a cardboard symbol of everything he hates himself for once wanting.
Margaery sits, politely and submissively, listening to the High Sparrow's patronizing speech; from her manner, we might suspect he is beginning to convince her of her own wretchedness. But once she is alone with her brother, we see the truth: they've broken Loras, but they haven't broken her. "I just want it to stop," he sobs, but Margaery argues that they can't yield an inch to this moralizing bully. "If either of us gives them what they want, then they win," she says.
Margaery may yet give them what they want. But, if she does, it will be for the same reason that she defied them: to save her brother, whom she loves. It will be a move made from strength, not weakness. She may go through the motions of making her atonement, but sorry: she ain't sorry.
Freedom! Freedom! Where are you?
Cause I need freedom too!
I break chains all by myself.
Won't let my freedom rot in hell.
I said above that, throughout "Book of the Stranger," it's the men who are weak and willing to compromise, and we see that playing out in Meereen as Tyrion—with the best of intentions—seemingly undoes a lot of what Dany has accomplished. "I am not the Breaker of Chains, I'm not the Unburnt, and I am certainly not the Mother of Dragons," he says—and truer words were never spoken.
It's not that Tyrion is wrong, exactly. "Slavery is a horror that should be ended at once," he says. "War is a horror that should be ended at once. I can't do both today." That is a reasonable view, and from that perspective his "diplomatic approach" is a necessary evil to save a city under siege.
But it is—as Missandei and Grey Worm accuse him—a betrayal of Dany's principles. The only female ruler in a crowd of men, Dany is the only leader we've seen who dares to think outside the box. She has made a few practical concessions along the way—like allowing former slaves to sell themselves back into service—but she hasn't gotten where she is by compromising her beliefs or choosing the lesser of available evils. As we see elsewhere in the episode, Dany doesn't choose between evils: faced with dualistic thinking, Dany always finds a third-alternative—one, usually, that the narrow thinking men around her have not seen. The idea of sanctioning slavery for seven more years would be abhorrent to her, as it is to Missandei and Grey Worm: she wouldn't sanction the institution for one more day.
Tyrion is one of the heroes of Game of Thrones, but he has never been more of a Lannister than he is in these scenes: arrogant, patronizing, and dripping with privilege, he unconsciously personifies everything Dany has been fighting against. Missandei is right to call him out on his whitesplaining about the horrors of slavery. ("How many days were you a slave?" she asks, correctly observing that he knows nothing about being oppressed.) And throughout his dealings with the slavers he keeps dropping the word "freedom," without really knowing what it means: he uses it in the same breath with which he offers the evil men a "gift" of women to use for their pleasure.
"We are not human in their eyes," Grey Worm tries to explain to him. "They look at me, and they see a weapon. They look at her, and they see a whore." Tyrion, for all his good intentions, still doesn't see the world—or them—that differently. He makes a token effort to treat Missandei and Grey Worm as equals—and steps down off the high altar in the pyramid to address the former slaves from their own level—but his natural air of intellectual superiority and white privilege blinds him to the reality they're trying to explain to him. ("They look at me and see a misshapen little beast," he says, once again imagining that his own experiences can possibly compare to theirs.)
Dany will leave Slaver's Bay eventually: we know that her destiny is in Westeros. And it was always troubling for her to assume the role of the white savior freeing the oppressed people of color. Now Tyrion—in an even more overt representation of oblivious and disastrous "nation building"—is underlining the fundamental problem, and Missandei and Grey Worm are finding their strength and their voices in opposition to him. They are still deferring to their white saviors now, but—if Game of Thrones is to do this story right—I suspect they will become the rulers Meereen needs.
I am the dragon breathing fire.
—Beyoncé, "Don't Hurt Yourself"
If Tyrion could only see Dany now, he'd know that he can't possibly fill her shoes. In fact, he'd realize that it may be time for the men to step aside altogether and let someone who knows what they're doing take over.
What is there to say about this scene? What is there to say about Daenerys Stormborn that I haven't said before? She's glorious, she's fearless, and you fuck with her at your peril. She's a ruthless, stone-cold ruler when she needs to be, and yet somehow it's in service of the most generous heart on both sides of the Narrow Sea. Jorah the Andal put it best, a long time ago, in the same episode where Brienne of Tarth spoke of "women's courage":
"You have a good claim: a title, a birthright. But you have something more than that: you may cover it up and deny it, but you have a gentle heart. You would not only be respected and feared, you would be loved. Someone who can rule and should rule: centuries come and go without a person like that coming into the world. There are times when I look at you, and I still can't believe you're real. "
She is, in fact, unbelievable: the journey of empowerment she has undertaken since the last time she was handed to a Dothraki warlord is the most profound and important in Game of Thrones, and there is no stopping her now.
Take her away from her throne? So what. Separate her from her dragons? She doesn't need 'em. Take her hundreds of miles from her army, throw her in with your discarded women, and surround her with 100,000 enemies? Bad move: you just showed her more people who need saving, and an entire civilization in need of a radical attitude adjustment. Show up to rescue her? She'll just tell you to lock her in with the guys you came to rescue her from and watch her take care of business.
Whatever you do, don't let her talk to the teen-age girl (Hannah John-Kamen) who was kidnapped and raped at 12, who was beaten for bearing a daughter, and who fully expects to live out the remainder of her life in a dark hut without ever seeing a dragon take flight. You've just shown the Mother of Dragons her own past—the one she overcame, ascended from, and transcended—and you've just given her a purpose for the future.
And don't bring your misogynistic bullshit: that's just asking for trouble. Don't tell her she has no voice in your conversation. Don't tell her she has no say in her own destiny. Don't insult the love of her life, or tell her that it's her fault that her baby died. Don't laugh at her. Don't call her names. Don't underestimate her. I know it's hard to resist—since it's the only language you know—but don't threaten to beat her, or kill her, or rape her. She will only smile: she has heard it all before, from men just like you, and she's still standing while those men died screaming. Your insults, your threats, your entire rape culture are all like the flames: they can't touch her, but they will bring your own house down around your head.
She will come into your place of power and take that power from you. She will stroll out of the wreckage of your world unscathed, naked, proud, a strong beautiful woman in full possession of herself. You can call her a whore, a bitch, a cunt, a slave—but she will emerge from the smouldering ashes of your destruction a god.
Just give her fat ass a big kiss, boy. Tonight she's fucking up all your shit, boy. Who the fuck do you think she is?
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits
- Okay, I don't really know how large the Venn diagram overlap is between viewers of Game of Thrones and viewers/listeners of Beyoncé's extraordinary, empowered, and empowering conceptual album Lemonade. But I can't be the only person who thought of Queen Bey and her stunning celebration of women's strength when Queen D. walked out of that burning hut. And I hope fans of both—which should be everybody—will take my tongue-in-cheek homage in the spirit it is intended. (And that line from "Don't Hurt Yourself" may not be a coincidence: rumor has it, Beyoncé—a big fan of the show—owns one of Dany's dragon eggs.)
- I skipped over the storyline in Pyke this week, but it's thematically in line with everything else in the episode. Yara assumes Theon has arrived home just in time to push her out of the way, exercise his male privilege, and assume the Salt Throne. But Theon—weak and broken—doesn't even want the job, and knows he couldn't do it. "You should rule the Iron Islands," he says to his sister. "Let me help you."
- I also skipped over Littlefinger maneuvering Lord Robin Arryn, Defender of the Vale, into whatever the hell plan Littlefinger has now. (There's not much to say about it, except Robin's line "we should help her" takes on a little extra significance in light of the rest of the episode: Sansa may, in fact, find herself leading an army to take back Winterfell.) And I skipped over Ramsay, who provides a succinct reminder of everything the women are fighting against. (Farewell, Osha, and farewell Natalia Tena: you both deserved better.)
- As long as we're discussing "women's courage," let's take a moment to appreciate Brienne of Tarth boldly walking up to Stannis's right-hand man and high-priestess, and voluntarily announcing that she cut the bastard in two. (I don't know what they made of her, but Tormund seems to have taken a shine.)
- I should talk more about the music in Game of Thrones than I do, but this week I appreciated hearing Dany's theme—the same one we've heard in her moments of triumph in "And Now His Watch is Ended" and "Mhysa," among other places—kick in the moment she overturned that first brazier. And—more subtly—Cersei's new plan to destroy her enemies comes together over the slowly building strains of her family's dark anthem, "The Rains of Castamere."
- I meant to discuss the title of this episode somewhere along the way, so let me just say this: while it obviously refers to the High Sparrow's talk with Margaery, I also think it's worth noting that the Stranger—the avatar of Death among the New Gods of Westeros—officially has no gender. It's usually referred to as "he," but Dany makes it clear that you shouldn't assume Death won't come in the form of a woman.