Stylistically rich, surprisingly eventful, deep in character moments, and absolutely fearless in its execution, “The Winds of Winter” may be Game of Thrones at the height of its powers. Unlike this season’s penultimate episode, which felt like it sacrificed meaning for mayhem, the sixth season finale strikes a near perfect balance of incident and insight. Big things happen—huge, game-changing things, in fact—but they are all located very precisely in character, paying off emotional arcs we have been following for six seasons. There is a sense, in fact, of arrival for many of these characters, as if their long and complicated journeys have finally brought them exactly where they were always meant to be.
The obvious throughline to pick up on in this week’s extraordinary collection of sequences is female empowerment, for there is little doubt now that the arc we have been following all season—and perhaps for all six seasons—concerns the ascension of women. Dany, Cersei, Arya, and Sansa all began this season stripped of their powers by various men, and they all ended the season having vanquished their enemies and become more powerful than ever. Around them, more strong women, like Yara and Ellaria, have become major players in the game. Jon Snow may be King in the North, but—from young Lady Mormont to the old Queen of Thorns—it’s the women who are really controlling the board now.
I’ve written several times before about the themes of this series in gender terms, but I feel it’s worth repeating here that the narrative is never as simple as “men vs. women,” and it’s certainly not as reductive as “men are bad, women are good.” As I discussed in my post on last season’s finale, if Game of Thrones has a gendered agenda, it’s not a prioritizing of females but an emphasis on qualities that are traditionally associated with the feminine: compassion, nurturing, empathy, the giving and protecting of life instead of the taking of it.
We have seen throughout Game of Thrones that these qualities are not exclusive to women. (Jon Snow, as I’ve argued before, embodies them as much as anyone does.) And we have seen—and are reminded again here, in no uncertain terms—that any individual woman can be as violent, as ruthless, as coldhearted and cruel, as any individual man. It is becoming clear that the battle for the soul of Westeros will not be fought between men and women, but between very different kinds of women, with very different morals and motivations. So, while discussing the remarkable ascension of these various women this week, I also want to discuss a secondary theme of this episode, which is the question of belief systems.
And when I say “belief,” I do not necessarily mean religion—though religion definitely takes a beating this episode. Since Game of Thrones began, we’ve seen a lot of different, often conflicting ideologies at work: belief systems that guide people, define people, and are used to control people. This includes the various religions of the Seven Kingdoms, of course, but it also includes codes of honor, and ancient traditions, and guiding principles that determine priorities.
Several times already this season, we’ve discussed the related theme of stories: the stories that shape this world, for example, and the stories that people tell themselves about who they are. The sorts of belief systems I want to discuss are the biggest stories, the bedrock principles around which people base their identities, understand the universe, and organize their entire lives. They are the stories the society uses to keep itself standing, to curtail purely selfish individual instincts and reinforce the status quo. And they are a form of existential armor that people choose to wear to give their lives meaning, and to protect them from the frightening possibility that there is no meaning: that everything might, in the end, be nothing more than chaos.
There is power in believing in something larger than yourself. And—particularly for women, who have been controlled by the narratives of men all their lives—there is an entirely different kind of power that comes when you let go of belief and realize that you’re free to do whatever you want.
The War of Five Kings is long over, and the Battle of the Bastards has ended.
Let the Queen Wars commence.
“I do things because they feel good.”
I think we need to begin with the woman who wins—by an ocean’s length—the race to become the first female ruler of Westeros: Cersei Lannister, First of Her Name, Queen of the Andals and the First Men, Protector of the Seven Kingdoms.
If Cersei were a Corleone instead of a Lannister, we would say that what she does in “The Winds of Winter” is “settle all family business”—and the phrase would be appropriate for several reasons. I’ve written before about how Cersei stupidly, systematically orchestrated the downfall of House Lannister in the wake of her father’s death, as her petty and ill-conceived machinations gradually reduced the most powerful family in Westeros to a powerless public joke. Now, in this episode’s long, bravura opening sequence—one of the best, and most unusual, in the series’ history—Cersei annihilates her enemies, erases her mistakes, and seizes the throne in the Lannister name. (Cersei—like Joffrey and Tommen were—is technically a Baratheon of course, but she has never been called that, and one suspects that the Baratheon name is one of the many things she means to throw on her bonfire of revisionist history.)
To really consider what this development represents for Cersei, I think we need to go back and look at the arc of her entire life. And, in doing so, we should be aware of the ways in which her life’s path echoes those of the other women we’ll discuss this week. Cersei—like Dany, and like Sansa—was a political bride, bartered to a man she didn’t even know in order to secure an alliance between powerful men. In our viewing of Game of Thrones we have only known the Cersei who resented this forced marriage: the one who hated her oafish husband so much that she eventually had him killed. But it’s worth remembering that Cersei once confessed to Ned Stark that, as a maiden, she was thrilled to be marrying Robert Baratheon:
“Hated him? I worshiped him. Every girl in the Seven Kingdoms dreamed of him, but he was mine by oath. And when I finally saw him on our wedding day in the Sept of Baelor, lean and fierce and black-bearded, it was the happiest moment of my life. Then that night he crawled on top of me, stinking of wine, and did what he did, what little he could do, and whispered in my ear ‘Lyanna.’ Your sister was a corpse, and I was a living girl, and he loved her more than me.”
Here, then, we can imagine a Cersei Lannister who more closely resembled young Sansa Stark, who was equally thrilled to be engaged to young Prince Joffrey back in Season One, and who suffered similar disillusionment. The comparison is imperfect, of course: we know from Season Five’s flashback, and other references to her youth, that young Cersei was more haughty and cruel than Sansa ever was. Nonetheless, Cersei and Sansa both represented an embracing of the traditional roles for noble women in Westeros, in which the best any girl could hope for was to have an advantageous marriage arranged for them.
(The other major character who embraced this path to power, of course, was Margaery Tyrell. Margaery, in fact, threatened to surpass and supplant Cersei in these terms, but now she is annihilated by Cersei’s ultimate rejection of the woman’s role. The fact that she played the game better than Cersei did helps explain why Cersei completely changes the rules here.)
Cersei’s entire life until now had been controlled by, and defined by, her relationship to men: as the daughter of Tywin Lannister, as the twin sister of Jaime Lannister, as the wife of Robert Baratheon, and as the mother of kings Joffrey and Tommen. And, at each step, she had to fight viciously for the minimal authority and respect that she could eke out of these relationships. She spent a lifetime trying to convince her father that she, not her brothers, was his truest heir. She used her brother as the male half of her soul, able to fight battles she herself was not allowed to fight. She schemed and manipulated to build a power-base separate from Robert’s, and eventually to remove Robert from the equation altogether. And she has fought tooth and nail—with progressively diminishing results—to maintain authority as the Queen Mother, and wield power through the imperfect proxies of her two ineffectual sons.
All of which is to say that Cersei, her entire life, has worked within the system into which she was born, and fulfilled the roles she was expected to play. (It would be too much to say that Cersei has played the game according to its rules—she has cheated, here and there, when it suited her—but she bought into the game, and played within its narrow parameters, in order to achieve its modest objectives.)
And the most important of the roles she has fulfilled within that system is mother. As we discussed last season, Westeros is a society in which women are reduced almost entirely to their function as mother: that is their primary purpose and value, and most of the violence and oppression women face is about the patriarchy maintaining political control over reproduction.
Cersei, more than almost anyone else, has epitomized what motherhood means in this society. Earlier this season, Jaime expressed his “awe” at the love Catelyn Stark and Cersei had for their children.
“She loved her children. I suppose all mothers do, but Catelyn and Cersei? There’s a fierceness you don’t often see. They’d do anything to protect their babies: start a war, burn cities to ash, free their worst enemies. The things we do for love.”
Importantly for our purposes here, Jaime makes this speech as a rather non sequitur response to Edmure’s question about how he lives with himself and justifies everything he does. (“All of us have to believe that we’re decent, don’t we?” Edmure asks him.) Jaime’s love for Cersei is how he explains himself: it is the principal truth of his identity, the core belief of his existence. It is how he justifies doing awful things, like throwing children out of windows. (His last line—”The things we do for love”—is a deliberate callback to that scene from the first episode.)
But Cersei’s core belief was always her love for her children. She has frequently invoked this love as the guiding principle of her life, and as justification for everything she has ever done. And other characters, like Tyrion, have recognized this maternal love as her one redeeming feature, the only thing that made her recognizably human and even—occasionally—sympathetic.
Last year I argued that Cersei’s battle with the Faith Militant was, in large part, a battle to protect the rights of motherhood from subjugation to the patriarchy. (Her crime in their eyes, after all, was that she had broken the political and religious contracts of parentage and chosen to have children with a man she loved instead of her husband. In a society built on patrilineal power, this is tantamount to treason.) So we can also see the devastating blow she strikes this week against the church as a triumph for feminism, an assertion of the rights of women, and a complete overthrowing of the forces that have attempted to control women and reduce them to second-class citizens.
But it’s not quite that simple, is it? A strong woman burning oppressive men in their place of power, Cersei’s victory here clearly parallels Dany’s victory over the Dothraki earlier in the season. (And, in a less direct way, it echoes smaller, more personal victories achieved by Sansa and Arya.) But the comparison with Dany is one of contrast, not complement. Cersei does not just kill the Faith Militant: she kills hundreds, perhaps thousands of other people as well, from her son’s wife Margaery, to her uncle Kevan, to the crowds in the gallery, to all the innocent peasants who just happened to live and work near the Sept of Baelor.
It is, in fact, what Dany didn’t do in Vaes Dothrak, and it’s what she didn’t do last episode. “I will crucify the masters,” she said. “I will set their fleets afire, kill every last one of their soldiers, and return their cities to the dirt.” But Tyrion—referencing Dany’s father, and the very cache of wildfire Cersei uses this week—talked her out of it. “He would have burned every one of his citizens,” Tyrion tells her, of the Mad King. “The loyal ones and the traitors, every man, woman, and child.” When Dany protested that her situation was different, Tyrion disagreed. “You’re talking about destroying cities: it’s not entirely different.”
Dany may be the Dragon’s Daughter, but Cersei proves this week that she—not Dany—is the true spiritual heir of the Mad King. She assumes here that male role, both literally—when she claims the Iron Throne—and thematically. And, in doing so, she relinquishes completely the role of mother that has defined her for her entire life.
If Cersei had committed this atrocity after the death of her last surviving child, we might read her actions a little differently: her monstrous evolution would then be born from a mother’s rage and grief, and therefore slightly more sympathetic. But Cersei causes Tommen’s death: his suicide is not the reason for her rejection of the mother’s role, but the result of it. Yes, she makes an effort to protect him—by forcibly keeping him from going to the Sept of Baelor—and we can just barely believe that she believes she does all this for him. From her perspective, her son has been taken from her by Margaery and the Church, and she probably told herself this was the only way she could get him back.
But Cersei decides to stop being a mother: she voluntarily surrenders the qualities of the Mother—kindness, compassion, mercy—and so symbolically and literally gives up that role. After all—and regardless of whatever lies she told herself—her motives were purely selfish, and her actions—which included murdering her daughter-in-law—were not in any way designed to ensure the health and happiness of her child. One suspects, in fact, that Cersei had already given up her last surviving child for lost. I took note, for example, of her words to Jaime in “Blood of My Blood“: “We’re the only two people in the world.” This was just after Tommen had made his deal with the High Sparrow to save Margaery from the Walk of Shame—something he had failed to do for his mother—and so that may have been the moment motherhood truly died in Cersei. And in its absence—the absence of what had been her “one redeeming feature”—she becomes a monster.
And if we doubt the death of the feminine in Cersei, we need look not just to her assumption of the throne—a woman claiming the highest male role for the first time in the history of Westeros—but also to her vengeance on Septa Unella.
The significance of this scene goes beyond Cersei getting revenge on someone who had tormented her. In the Faith Militant—a male-dominated body that debased, demeaned, and devalued women—Septa Unella was a female collaborator, a living symbol of the way women accept the roles they are given, buy into the patriarchal system, and help perpetuate the oppression of other women. It is fitting, therefore, that she is the recipient of Cersei’s cruelest, most personal revenge, at the exact moment that Cersei herself is opting out of the system.
And it is fitting, too, because it is a system that runs on belief. Again, it is not simply religious belief—though that’s the most literal level on which this scene works—but all of those larger narratives that a society uses to tell people who they are and what they are allowed to do. Religion is one of those narratives, but it was never Cersei’s controlling belief: the stories she bought into were about family, and honor, and—especially—motherhood. And now she rejects them all, in an extraordinary monologue in which she embraces selfishness and self-direction:
“Confess. It felt good, beating me, starving me, frightening me, humiliating me. You didn’t do it because you cared about my atonement. You did it because it felt good. I understand. I do things because they feel good. I drink because it feels good. I killed my husband because it felt good to be rid of him. I fuck my brother because it feels good to feel him inside me. I lie about fucking my brother because it feels good to keep our son safe from hateful hypocrites. I killed your High Sparrow, and all his little sparrows, and all his septons, all his septas, all his filthy soldiers, because it felt good to watch them burn. It felt good to imagine their shock and their pain. No thought has ever given me greater joy. Even confessing feels good, under the right circumstances.”
She has rejected the system, rejected the law, rejected belief in anything larger than herself. She has rejected the patriarchy that established the rules of the game she has played all her life. She has rejected motherhood, and in doing so she has rejected completely the qualities of mercy and compassion that the Mother—the divine feminine—represents. (“Your gods have forsaken you,” she tells Unella. “This is your god now.”)
And so she gives this avatar of feminine acquiescence to the Mountain. It is ambiguous what he does to Septa Unella, but not very: in life, Gregor Clegane was known for two things—killing and raping—and Cersei has no intention of killing the Septa yet. Once Jaime was the other half of Cersei’s soul—the male proxy she could call on to do the things women are not allowed to do—but in recent seasons, as Jaime became less obedient, that role has been filled by the Mountain. (He was the weapon Cersei wielded in her attempt to kill Tyrion, after Jaime had refused to do it. And, since his monstrous resurrection, he has been the mindless embodiment of her rage and pride, destroying anyone who would dare insult her.) Now, as Cersei abandons the feminine, abandons compassion, abandons morality, the Mountain becomes her proxy for rape.
The season ends with Cersei taking the Iron Throne: she has no right to it by any laws of Westeros, but—as many men have pointed out over the years—that scarcely matters. (“Your ancestor Aegon the Conqueror didn’t seize six of the seven kingdoms because they were his right,” Jorah told Dany once. “He had no right to them. He seized them because he could.” And Robert Baratheon—whom they called “Usurper”—had no right to the throne either.) The notion of “rights” is—like family, like motherhood, like religion—just another lie agreed upon, another of the accepted narratives that keep society together. Queen Cersei the First has rejected them all.
She doesn’t take the throne because she has a right to it. She does it—as a man would, as many men have—simply because she can.
She does it because it feels good.
“I’m done with all that.”
“There’s a king in every corner now,” Catelyn Stark said, way back at the beginning of Season Two, when the War of Five Kings was just getting underway. Now, at the end of Season Six, there seems to be a queen in every corner but one.
There were several moments in “The Winds of Winter” when it seemed like we were heading towards a Queen Trifecta, and would go into Season Seven anticipating a clash between Cersei, Dany, and Sansa Stark. “Bear Island knows no king but the King in the North, whose name is Stark,” fierce Lady Mormont has proclaimed, and there is currently only one Stark in Winterfell: Sansa. “I’m not a Stark,” Jon tells her, and gives her Ned and Catelyn’s chamber in the castle. “You’re the Lady of Winterfell,” he says. “You deserve it. We’re standing here because of you.”
And he’s right. It was Sansa who convinced Jon that they must attack Winterfell and reclaim the North. It was Sansa who understood Ramsay Bolton’s mind, though her warnings about him went unheeded. And it was Sansa, in the end, who salvaged victory from the jaws of certain defeat through her pact with Littlefinger. “Who should the North rally behind?” Littlefinger asks her now. “The trueborn daughter of Ned and Catelyn Stark, born here at Winterfell? Or a motherless bastard, born in the South?” Littlefinger, as always, has his own agenda, but he’s not wrong: with no one aware that Brandon Stark is still alive, Sansa should be the head of House Stark.
But she’s not. It is Jon who is crowned King in the North here, in a scene that mirrors Robb’s election to that post at the end of Season One. But the more recent—and more poignant—callback is to the Kingsmoot in Pyke, when the Iron Islanders attempted to crown Theon King of the Iron Islands. Theon refused the honor, stepping graciously aside in favor of his sister. Jon Snow could do the same thing here, but he does not. Sansa feigns happiness, but you can see her—and Baelish—register the slight.
Jon Snow is not Theon Greyjoy: he’s a good choice for king, and the logical man to lead the North against its enemies. But that doesn’t mean Sansa isn’t being robbed, and it’s just the latest in a long string of disappointments she has suffered in her young life.
In my piece on “The Battle of the Bastards,” I briefly discussed how understandable it is that Sansa is hesitant to trust anyone, but that was an understatement. We’ve discussed many times before how Game of Thrones is no fairy tale, but Sansa is the character who once believed in the fairy tale. She was the good, gentle, beautiful princess who did everything she was supposed to do, and whose life should, therefore, have been lived happily ever after. Like Cersei, she played the game as it was explained to her, and she did it so guilelessly that, for the longest time, she didn’t even think of it as a game.
“A stupid little girl, with stupid dreams, who never learns.” That’s how Sansa once described herself. But she has learned, and learned the hard way. Since she left Winterfell, Sansa has been promised to one man after another (Joffrey, Loras, Tyrion, Robin, Ramsay); she has had any number of supposed allies, male (the Hound, Ser Dontos, Baelish, Theon, Jon) and female (Cersei, Shae, Margaery and Olenna, Lysa, Brienne) alike. And she has known nothing but misery: most of these people used or betrayed her, several of them hurt her, and even the best of them have failed to keep her safe. “No one can protect me,” she said last week. “No one can protect anyone.” This is the lesson of Sansa Stark’s life so far: she can rely on no one but herself.
And that includes the gods. Once, Sansa was a pious little thing: she prayed and hymned her way through the Battle of the Blackwater, while Cersei got drunk, mocked her mercilessly, and explained that they could all expect to be raped if the city fell. (“The gods have no mercy,” Cersei said. “That’s why they’re gods.”) Sansa was shocked at Cersei’s cynicism then, but that would soon change. “I don’t pray anymore,” she told Tyrion at the end of Season Three, after news reached her of the Red Wedding. And now, we can assume Sansa’s nightmarish marriage to Ramsay Bolton taught her, once and for all, that the gods really don’t answer prayers.
“I’m done with all that,” she tells Baelish now, when he finds her in the Godswood and asks if he’s interrupting her prayers. In this episode in which belief takes a beating—in which the kingdom’s official church is literally destroyed—religion is just another failed narrative, as false and disappointing as the fairy tales in which she once believed.
Even now, Baelish tries to spin a new fairy tale for her:
“Whenever I consider an action, I ask myself, ”Will this action help make this picture a reality? Pull it out of my mind and into the world? And I only act if the answer is yes. A picture of me, on the Iron Throne, and you by my side.”
This is his own, personal fairy tale, the one he has been spinning variations upon ever since he was a boy in love with Catelyn Tully. “I’d read all the stories,” he said, way back in “You Win or You Die.” “The little hero always beats the big villain in all the stories.” His disastrous duel with Brandon Stark as a boy taught him only that he couldn’t win their way, but he’s still trying to win. He still imagines himself as the underdog hero of the story, destined to triumph and win the fair maiden. This is his governing narrative, the only belief system—the only religion—he has ever had. In his own cynically manipulative way, he’s as naively romantic as Sansa Stark ever was.
But she isn’t. He goes in to kiss her, and she pushes him gently away. “Pretty picture,” she says dismissively. People have been painting pretty pictures for Sansa Stark all her life, and she no longer trusts any of them. Suitors have been presenting themselves to her all her life, promising to rescue her and fulfill her childhood dreams, and she’s learned she can only rely on herself. As completely as Cersei has done, Sansa has rejected all the stories, all the belief systems, all the governing narratives. She, too, has stopped playing the traditional game of women, in which she was supposed to play demure and complacent, and in which the best outcome she could imagine would be to sit as queen at the side of a powerful king.
Sansa may yet come into power. (Certainly the look she gives Baelish during Jon’s coronation suggests she is not willing to accept being shunted aside to a secondary, passive role.) She may even marry, if she finds it advantageous. (The fact that she reached out to Baelish in the first place—after he had sold her to Ramsay—tells us that she has learned to play a practical game.) But we suspect she will not accept power as King Jon’s sister, or—perish the thought—King Baelish’s queen. “We need to trust each other,” Jon tells her this week, but—if “The Battle of the Bastards” taught us anything—it’s that Sansa Stark is done with “trust.”
“My name is Arya Stark. I want you to know that.”
The real unanswered question about Sansa Stark is just how ruthless and heartless she will become by the time Game of Thrones is over. In the previous episode, we saw her not just withhold crucial information from her brother—possibly sacrificing untold lives in the process—but also revenge herself against Ramsay Bolton in gratuitously cruel fashion. As I said at the time, I didn’t find it something to celebrate. However much Ramsay deserved any form of punishment, and however much Sansa herself deserves any kind of restitution and retribution, I cannot bring myself to cheer her descent into monstrosity. There is a thin line between vengeance and justice, perhaps, but it’s an important one in a show that is—as I would argue—as much or more about who these characters become as it is about what happens to them.
In this regard, no character has had a darker arc than Sansa’s sister Arya, whose murder of Walder Frey this week parallels Sansa’s murder of Ramsay last week. The Boltons and the Freys were jointly responsible for the fall of House Stark at The Red Wedding, and now the Starks have had their revenge.
But again, is this something to celebrate? There is no more doubt about whether Frey had it coming than there was about Ramsay, but to see little Arya Stark transformed into this cold, cruel, calculating assassin is troubling. (Her murder of Meryn Trant last season was messier and more brutal, but—for exactly that reason—it was somehow less disturbing. There was more emotion in it, and therefore more humanity.)
In murdering Walder Frey, and in serving him his own children in a pie, Arya is bringing full circle the legend of the Rat Cook that we have associated with Frey before. In the original version, the Rat Cook served a king his son in a pie—for some forgotten offense—and so was condemned by the gods to haunt the halls of the Nightfort, consuming his own children. Brandon Stark recounted this story just after the Red Wedding, and the parallels with the crimes of Walder Frey were clear. (“It wasn’t for murder that the gods cursed the Rat Cook, or for serving the king’s son in a pie,” Bran said. “He killed a guest beneath his roof. That’s something the gods can’t forgive.”)
But who is Arya now in this retelling of the story? Is she assuming the role of the gods, punishing Frey for his sins against the laws of hospitality? Or is she now assuming the role of the Rat Cook herself, destined to be remembered for her monstrous revenge, even after the crime she is avenging is long forgotten? The story chases its own tail, for it is a story about the cyclical nature of violence and cruelty, and how the sins of one generation are visited upon the children of the next. This is a theme we’ve seen again and again in Game of Thrones: it’s the wheel Dany once spoke of breaking, the endless repetition of killing-to-avenge-killing that Jon Snow tried to convince the Night’s Watch and the Wildlings to leave behind. At some point the cycle has to stop, or there is no hope for a future better than what came before.
Would Ned Stark even recognize his youngest daughter now? It is almost certain that he would not approve of what she has become: Ned cared about honor, and it is highly doubtful that he would find anything honorable in being an assassin. Tywin Lannister once argued with Tyrion about why it is more honorable to kill men in battle than it is to kill them at dinner, but it is. It’s not just the what that matters: how and why have to matter also.
But Arya’s defining narrative has never been honor: Ned never taught her the same lessons he taught his sons. For the purposes of our discussion here, I think it’s important to recognize that Arya was something of an empty slate, belief-wise. Like most of the women in Westeros, she was offered one path in life, and it was the same one offered to Cersei, and Sansa, and Margaery, and Dany: she could marry a man and raise his children. Unlike those women, however, Arya rejected that role early. “No, that’s not me,” she told Ned, way back in “Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things.” The standard concept of what a woman should be—the one from which Cersei and Sansa have begun to extract themselves—never had any hold on Arya.
Religion never had much more sway on her. She once told Syrio that she prayed to the Old Gods and the New—a pragmatist from the beginning—but she quickly embraced the god he offered her instead, the Faceless God whose name is Death. (Her nightly ritual—taking the form almost of prayer—has been to repeat the names of the people she wanted to kill.) And her time with the Faceless Men taught her that this god has no morality. (“Does death only come for the wicked, and leave the decent behind?” Jaqen H’Ghar asked her, rhetorically, when she wanted to know why one of her assigned targets deserved to die.) To serve the Faceless God is effectively to believe in no god at all, no morality, no order other than the law of chaos.
So Arya’s education has been a peculiar one. She has, and has always had, a fierce sense of justice: at her core is a belief in right and wrong, which is why she couldn’t stay with the Faceless Men. (It was her refusal to kill Lady Crane—who did not, in Arya’s eyes, deserve to die—that ended that particular career path for her.) Throughout all her travels, Arya has stood up for the innocent, and she has never—so far—hurt anyone who didn’t have it coming.
But this stubborn sense of right and wrong is channeled through an experience of the world that has been hard, harrowing, and loveless. Sansa has arguably suffered more traumatically, but Sansa has also known periods of relative comfort, safety, and kindness. Arya, in contrast, has lived a hardscrabble, subsistence-level existence since the moment she ran from the castle in King’s Landing; her life has been a constant, ugly fight for survival, and her vision of the world reflects that. (How could it not, with mentors like Tywin Lannister, Sandor Clegane, and Jaqen H’Ghar?) Put another way, Sansa has suffered repeated disillusionment, but Arya never had the opportunity to develop any illusions to begin with. The world she has known is brutal, and by now I doubt she can imagine it any other way.
I am trying to get, through all of this, at some understanding of what—if anything—Arya believes. Does she have a code? An ethos? A morality? I tend to think she doesn’t: she has never had any of those narratives designed to keep chaos at bay, and so she is more or less a child of chaos. She has a sense of what she would think of as “justice,” but it exists in parallel with a hard-earned understanding that the world is, fundamentally, unjust. And that puts her, philosophically, on the opposite side of the board from some of our other heroes—like Jon and Dany—who still believe they can make the world a better place. It even aligns her, in a perverse way, more closely with characters like Cersei: her actions are personally, even selfishly motivated, less out of a sense of doing right and more out of an outrage at being wronged. (Her murder of Walder Frey is a good case-in-point, for it does not accomplish anything except revenge: earlier in the episode, Jaime has pointed out how ultimately insignificant Walder Frey is, and so the world is not really any better for his death. But Arya—even if she understood this—wouldn’t care: her idea of “justice” is fairly indistinguishable from “vengeance.”)
It will be interesting to see what happens when—if—Arya is reunited with her siblings, or when she encounters Dany and Tyrion. Is there a place for her in their vision of the world? More importantly, is their room for them, and their more noble, optimistic outlooks, in Arya’s?
“I believe in you.”
One of the fundamental questions Game of Thrones asks is about whether power is, by its nature, incompatible with those feminine qualities—love, compassion, humanity—that the show values. We have seen, again and again, that decent men who truly care about the welfare of their people—Ned Stark, Robb Stark, Renley Baratheon, Doran Martell—do not last long in positions of power. (Even Jon Snow was murdered for his compassion—though he got better.) The men who have taken and held power—Tywin Lannister, Baelon Greyjoy, Walder Frey, et cetera—were fundamentally loveless and almost completely lacking in empathy. Robert Baratheon took the throne by force, and became the sort of king who could order the murder of Dany’s infant child. Stannis Baratheon—as Davos has now discovered—sacrificed his own child in his ruthless pursuit of power. This is perhaps the true meaning of the Rat Cook legend: to surrender kindness and empathy—whatever the justification—is to surrender your humanity, and to be doomed to destroy and consume the people you are supposed to love. “If he commands you to burn children, your Lord is evil,” Davos says to Melisandre this week, and this is as close to a core belief as Game of Thrones has: there is nothing—no religion, no cause, no narrative—that justifies embracing evil and cruelty.
Now, as the women take power for the first time in the series, this will be the question that haunts them, and the question we will need to ask as this story moves towards its conclusion. Is there another way to rule, to lead? Will Sansa be able to retain her humanity? Is there a chance Arya could regain hers? Cersei has surrendered all love and compassion, one suspects forever. Ellaria Sand murdered her lover’s brother precisely because he was kind and compassionate. Lady Olenna, like Cersei, is a woman who defined herself as a mother, but who has now lost her all of her children and grandchildren: all that is left for her, as she says this week, is “vengeance, justice,” the same old cycle of violence, the same old fire and blood.
And Dany? She has done some monstrous things in her rise to power, though—like Sansa, like Arya—it has mostly been to people who unequivocally deserved it. (The show has been careful to make her confront the grey areas in her decision-making, as when it was pointed out to her that maybe not every one of the 163 men she crucified in Meereen was evil.) She has, without doubt, the potential to be a monster, and has on occasion needed to be talked out of becoming one, as Tyrion had to do last week. But she has tried to find better ways to rule, more compassionate ways to use her power, and nobler reasons for doing so. “We’re going to leave the world better than we found it,” she told Tyrion, Yara, and Theon last week: it is her intention that these children of “evil men,” this next generation, will break the endless cycle of fire and blood.
But will she be able to follow through on these noble goals? Already, Dany is worrying that she is losing the capacity to love. “Do you know what frightens me?” she asks Tyrion, after she has cut Daario Naharis loose. “I said farewell to a man who loved me, a man I thought I cared for. And I felt nothing—just impatience to get on with it.” We might think her lack of feeling says more about Daario than it does about her—I never liked him—but Dany is right to be concerned: rulers become monsters when they care more about causes than people, when they lose the ability to care about individuals. (And Dany gets rid of Daario, in part, to clear the way for a political marriage—which is another custom of the old order that has created almost nothing but misery, particularly for women.)
And I think it’s important to note that Dany has now thrown her lot in with some questionable allies. Even if Yara Greyjoy is really willing to change the culture of the Iron Islands, will the Iron Islanders so easily give up their raping-and-pillaging ways? Ellaria Sand murdered the innocent Myrcella Lannister, and then murdered Doran Martell because he wanted Dorne to remain the sort of place where—as Oberyn once said—”we don’t hurt little girls.” And the Queen of Thorns, as we’ve mentioned, no longer cares about anything except revenge. As she sails across the Narrow Sea, Dany might have the allies she needs to take Westeros, but does she have the allies she needs to take it where she wants it to go?
There are also other reasons for concern as Dany’s priorities shift. If Cersei is, as I’ve argued, leaving behind the role—and qualities—of “mother” to assume a male role, isn’t Dany doing the same thing? Her mission in the area formerly known as Slaver’s Bay was all about being mother, or mhysa. She saw herself as a liberator, freeing the people of Astapor, Yunkai, and Meereen from their oppressors. It was, in short, a mission of compassion.
But can we say the same thing about her mission now? She has now abandoned her millions of liberated children to the uncertain guardianship of Daario Naharis, who never understood her philosophy. (He always counseled the use of force—”All rulers are either butchers or meat,” he once told her—and tried to convince her she was a conqueror by nature, not a queen.) Is the new world order she tried to establish truly likely to flourish under Daario’s rule?
And, however good her intentions, there is no denying that Dany sails to Westeros as more of a conqueror than a queen. Westeros is no paradise—the common people strain under the feudal yoke of the great houses—but neither is it Slaver’s Bay: she cannot claim the same mission of compassion and liberation there. (Nor do the common people secretly pray for the return of the Targaryens: that, as Jorah explained to her a long time ago, is just another fairy tale: “The common people pray for rain, health, and a summer that never ends,” he told her. “They don’t care what games the high lords play.”)
No, Dany comes to Westeros for the most dangerous reason of all, the same reason Cersei does what she does, and Arya does what she does: to right wrongs that have been perpetrated against her and her family. In terms of the stories we tell ourselves about who we are, Dany has two: one she was born to, and one she wrote herself. The second of these is the Dany we know: the well-intentioned queen, the breaker of chains, the mhysa. But now I worry she is abandoning that narrative for the other, older one, in which she is the exiled heir of the usurped Targaryen dynasty. There is danger here, I think: she ruled in Meereen not because she had the right, but because she was right. That’s what set her apart from the other contenders for the throne: she cared not just about gaining power, but also about deserving power, and using it well. If she’s to retain the moral high-ground—if she is to avoid becoming a monster like Cersei—she will need to come to Westeros as a mother, not a conqueror.
And yet—like Tyrion Lannister—I believe in Daenerys Targaryen:
“For what it’s worth, I’ve been a cynic for as long as I can remember. Everyone’s always asking me to believe in things: family, gods, kings, myself. It was often tempting, until I saw where belief got people. So I said ‘No, thank you’ to belief. And yet, here I am. I believe in you.“
We have seen an incredible mythology rise up around Daenerys, as evidenced by her ever-growing list of honorifics. She is Daenerys Stormborn of the House Targaryen, First of Her Name, the Unburnt, Queen of the Andals and the First Men, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, Breaker of Chains, and Mother of Dragons.” (I may even have forgotten a couple.) She has become a figure of legend, a celebrity to be impersonated in brothels, even—as we saw earlier this season—a religious figure, the Prince(ss) Who Was Promised in the faith of the Red God.
And yet none of that matters. Tyrion is right about where belief gets you: trusting in gods and prophecies and legends is dangerous. (“Belief is often the death of reason,” Qyburn once said.) It’s a lesson reiterated elsewhere in the episode, when Davos accuses Melisandre of lying about her visions. “I didn’t lie,” Melisandre says. “I was wrong.” That’s the problem with faith in things larger than yourself: there’s a lot of room for mistakes, for misinterpretation, for substituting what you know is true for what someone else tells you is true.
When Tyrion says he believes in Dany, I do not think he means he believes in her magic (though she has some), or that he believes she is the child of prophecy (though she may well be). As we discussed earlier this season, magic and destiny live alongside—and work their powers through—the individual, uncertain choices of ordinary, deeply flawed people just doing the best they can do. That’s what I think Tyrion believes in: not the prophet of a religion, or the legend of a story, or the last heir of a great family name. He believes in Dany, a scared, flawed, uncertain young woman, trying desperately to do the right thing by all her people and make the world a better place. She has made mistakes before, and she will no doubt make them again, but those mistakes just make her more human. As long as she holds onto her humanity she can be someone he—and we—can believe in. As long as she stays human, there’s hope for the future.
And, to be certain, those are the stakes: none of these women knows this yet except Sansa—and one wonders how much Sansa believes it—but the final fight in Game of Thrones will be not be between humans, but between humanity and the forces of darkness. Jon Snow has already made the case that humanity’s only hope lies in putting all the petty enmities of religion, class, gender, and name behind them, in forgetting the crimes and revenges of the past and uniting to fight for the future. “The White Walkers don’t care if a man is Free Folk or Crow,” Jon told both clans in “Hardhome.” “We’re all the same to them.” The Walkers are Death, the indiscriminate, faceless god, and they don’t care if one is male or female. They don’t care if one worships the Old Gods, the New Gods, or the Lord of Light. They don’t care if one is a Stark, a Targaryan, a Greyjoy, a Tyrell, a Martell, or a Lannister. Humanity will live, or die, together, and that makes compassion, kindness, and empathy the most important qualities there are in Game of Thrones.
It’s not enough to win: you have to deserve to win. It’s not enough to rule: you have to deserve to rule. And, as these characters begin their struggle to survive the final act of Game of Thrones, it all may come down to whether or not each of them—and humanity itself—deserves to survive.
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits
- What, am I late? Okay, sorry. I’ve been late before, God knows, but five months is stretching it, even for me. (This is the first time I’ve been able to rewatch the episode on DVD before finishing my post. It made screenshots easier, but it’s not something I hope to repeat.) The sad truth is that I have the sort of real job that gets very busy when things like presidential elections happen, and I just haven’t had much time or mental energy to be The Unaffiliated Critic lately. Normally, I wouldn’t even bother to go so far back to pick up a dropped stitch, but enough of you kept asking about this post that I felt obliged to finish it. (It’s now the longest post I’ve ever written, so some of you may be sorry you asked.)
- Focusing on the women, I gave short shrift to the men this week, so let’s talk about them briefly. In writing about how these various women have flirted with losing their humanity, it occurred to me—not for the first time—that Jon Snow is just ridiculously decent. He’s really the only major character who has never set a foot wrong. He has done things that broke his oaths, and he has done awful things he’d have preferred not to have to do, but he has never been cruel or heartless or destructively selfish. (The closest he came was when he went to assassinate Mance Rayder; even that was a noble gesture, not a cruel one, and Mance rightfully observed that Jon is not that kind of man.) Even more than Dany, he may be the most worthy ruler Westeros could have.
- And—as we finally have confirmed this episode—Jon has a right to the throne. After years of speculation verging on assumption, we now know for a fact that he is not the bastard son of Ned Stark, but the secret son of Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark. Assuming they took a moment to get married during the war—and why wouldn’t they?—that makes Jon the trueborn heir to House Targaryen, and the rightful King of the Seven Kingdoms. (It also makes him Dany’s nephew, so anyone hoping the series would end with a wedding between those two crazy kids is probably out of luck. Jon/Sansa shippers can carry on, I suppose, as they’re only first-cousins.)
- If we’re talking about secondary characters, Davos Seaworth gets my vote for Most Decent Dude. His scene confronting Melisandre over Shireen’s murder was heartbreaking. (“I loved that girl like she was my own,” he says, weeping. “She was good, she was kind, and you killed her.”) And it was all the more affecting because he did not kill Melisandre, or insist on her death: he accepted Jon’s banishment of her instead. Such refusal to pay back blood with blood is exactly what’s going to be needed if Westeros is going to change, and if humanity is going to survive.
- I confess I also got a little choked up as Dany named Tyrion Hand of the Queen. It is the role he was born to play, the only role that ever made him happy, and he now gets to serve a ruler he truly believes in. (Dinklage is excellent in this scene, as usual: his whole tone of voice changes from his usual smugness, and he speaks with a softness and sincerity we have only ever heard him use with Shae. Which is appropriate, since this, too, is his declaration of love.)
- Finally, rounding out my sub-theme of “governing narratives,” there is Jaime Lannister to consider. As I said, Jaime has defined himself primarily as Cersei’s love. But—as we learned in Season Three—there is another personal narrative that allows him to live with himself: he once saved the city from being destroyed by the Mad King. Now those two narratives are in conflict: Cersei, the love of his life, has done the very heartless thing Jaime stopped the Mad King from doing. Jaime’s soul has always teetered between good and evil, but it’s hard to imagine the dividing line being more clear than it is right now.
- That’s another season (belatedly) done with. Thanks for your time, patience, and comments, and I’ll see you all back here next summer for the beginning of the end.