The tagline for the fourth season of Game of Thrones was “All Men Must Die.” We didn’t think they meant it literally.
King Joffrey was poisoned at his own wedding. 163 slaveholding Meereenese were crucified. The final son of incestuous hermit Craster was turned into an ice baby. The entire populations of Mole’s Town, Moat Cailin, and Craster’s Keep were massacred by Thenns, Boltons, and each other, respectively. Prince Oberyn Martell’s beautiful face was crushed by The Mountain like a rugged, bisexual watermelon. Sandor “The Hound” Clegane was left to die of a ferocious ass-whooping. Pretty much every member of the Night’s Watch who isn’t named Jon or Sam was annihilated in the Battle of Castle Black, an hour-long stab-a-thon that put the most elaborate of Tolkien’s battles to blushing shame. Even the vaunted Tywin Lannister met his Presley-esque end sitting on the shitter.
In short, television’s bloodiest show had its bloodiest season yet—and for the few surviving male characters, winter is definitely coming. But if you’re a woman of Westeros, the fifth season of HBO’s most-watched show in history is shaping up to be a glorious summer.
Entire treatises have been written about whether or not the show is feminist or anti-feminist. On one hand, Game of Thrones features consistent depictions of strong female characters who frequently fight against the patriarchy of Westeros. On the other, Game of Thrones features consistent depictions of rapes, near-rapes, and are-they-or-aren’t-they rapes perpetrated against those same “empowered” female characters.
Putting aside the larger—and largely unanswerable—question of Game of Thrones’ place in the feminist canon, the conclusion of the fourth season inarguably sets the stage for a Westeros run by women. Brienne of Tarth delivered the show’s greatest smackdown on one of its most formidable male warriors and then yells at her useless male squire; Arya Stark set off on a seafaring adventure after finally ridding herself of that same warrior; Yara Greyjoy, sister of the castrated Theon/Reek, is herself an accomplished sea captain and the only member of her hardscrabble family to come face-to-face with mainlanders and survive. In arc after arc, formerly downtrodden female characters are leaning in, already powerful women have further consolidated their considerable political power, and the few men left are, for the first time, at their mercy.
The most obvious depiction of a woman’s ascent to power—in the most literal sense of the word—is the nearly unhindered rise of Cersei Lannister. For 40 episodes, House Lannister has been the clan that Game of Thrones fans love to hate. From the malicious and calculating Cersei to her treacherous lover-brother Jaime to late patriarch Tywin, the surname Lannister has become synonymous with blond, vainglorious, filthily rich murderers with a fatal sense of familial ambition and perfect cheekbones.
“The continent-wide conflict that began as the War of the Five Kings may well end as the War of the Five Queens.”
Each rival to the Lannisters’ position has been dispatched with ruthless efficiency—fitting for a family whose anthem, “The Rains of Castamere,” is about the total annihilation of a rival house. The lone surviving member of House Baratheon has been exiled to Dragonstone; Prince Oberyn of Dorne met his bloody end at the literal hands of Lannister champion Gregor Clegane; House Stark may never recover from the events of the Red Wedding. In a world where nearly every Great House has been overthrown, exiled, or annihilated, one can’t help but admire their staying power: As the late Renly Baratheon noted in the first season, “You have to give it to the Lannisters—they may be the most pompous, ponderous cunts the gods ever suffered to walk the world, but they do have outrageous amounts of money.”
But as the Lannisters have risen to new heights, the male members of the family have faltered. Tywin is dead, shot through the bowels by his own son. Jaime, out of both love for his sister and aversion to living up to his reputation as an oathbreaking opportunist, has foresworn any claim to the family seat. Joffrey’s short time on the Iron Throne ended in a torrent of bloody bile and spilled wine. Tyrion, now on the lam for patricide by crossbow, is destined for an unknown foreign port like a diminutive Edward Snowden.
Cersei, on the other hand, finishes Season Four at the height of her power. After having spent her entire life ruing that she was born a woman—she’s been heard to remark that “Jaime’s lot was to be glory and power, while mine was birth and moonblood”—she has accomplished what no male Lannister has been able to. With the death of Tywin, the only character in the show who could bring her to heel, there is no question to her supremacy—and no question that her dreaded mixed-orientation marriage to Loras Tyrell has been shelved indefinitely. Once again, she is Queen Regent, this time with a much more pliable son on the throne, and a Small Council filled exclusively with sycophants and hired swords. Brother Jaime is back in the fold, and back in her bed.
Cersei spends every second of screen time of the season finale getting what she desires: She wants Gregor “The Mountain That Rides” Clegane to live, and so her new handpicked Grand Maester uses his forbidden science to make it so; she wants her father to end her engagement to the gay brother of her daughter-in-law, so she spills the truth about her incestuous relationship with Jaime with pride; she wants Jaime back, so she seduces him with little more than a kiss to his golden hand. Cersei has long known that power is power and with this coming season, unlimited power is finally within her reach.
It’s fitting, then, that the only true obstacle to Cersei’s hegemony is another woman: Margaery Tyrell. Heiress to a powerful family of strong women and foppish men, Margaery’s sole ambition since her introduction in the series has not merely to be a queen, but to be the queen. Twice widowed by kings and betrothed to a third, her dream is well on its way to becoming reality.
Unlike Cersei, whose rise has been fueled by a rejection of traditionally acceptable gender stereotypes, Margaery has embraced her femininity—indeed, it’s the source of her power. She’s younger, more beautiful, and more feminized than Cersei, (whose comments about Margaery’s wardrobe are laced equally with slut-shaming contempt and jealousy), but most interestingly, she is more feminine in her demeanor. She’s gentle, demure, complimentary of even the most sociopathic royals—her seduction of Joffrey by feigning a shared interest in crossbows is the best performance of power-hungry ensnarement since Richard III. At least, it was until she became King’s Landing’s Girl Next Door for Joffrey’s brother and successor, Tommen.
Margaery’s deployment of her femininity as a means of empowerment fits neatly within the movement of “third-wave” feminism, particularly when contrasted with Cersei’s aggressively masculine approach to attaining power—the Queen Regent would rock the most epic of ’80s-style shoulder pads if those fabulous structured collars allowed them. Rather than being exploited or subjected to abuse because of her sex, as Cersei has been, Margaery has turned her ladyhood into both an armor and a weapon. In a patriarchal society like Westeros, where battling against the confines of gender roles can mean rape and death, her strategy of blinding men with charm, grace, and wiles may prove more successful in the long run than Cersei’s most diabolical machinations—if she doesn’t get strangled first.
Where Margaery has utilized her sensuality in conjunction with more dainty feminine characteristics to achieve her goals, the lover of an insurgent king has dispensed with pretense and skipped straight to the sex and devotion. Melisandre, adviser, sorcerer, and lover of pretender to the throne Stannis Baratheon, has made short work of the man Cersei found so straitlaced that she would “have a better chance seducing his horse” if he were to take King’s Landing. Even Stannis’creepily devout wife, Selyse, holds no sway over the Son of Fire.
But where his own queen has failed, Melisandre has succeeded. Sight unseen, the seemingly unkillable Red Woman arrived on the scene in the second season having converted Stannis to her fire-fixated religion, burning the icons of the Westerosi Faith of the Seven and proclaiming Stannis the prophesied Azor Ahai, or Prince That Was Promised, a legendary hero said to return to Westeros to unite the Seven Kingdoms.
At once wary, curious, and entranced by Melisandre’s devotion—both to her Lord of Light and to his campaign to take back the throne from the Lannister usurpers—Stannis’ legendarily stony demeanor crumbles. Before he knows it, he’s burning religious relics, condemning his oldest friends and advisers to prison, and mounting Melisandre on his war-map table in order to conceive a shadowmonster to assassinate his younger brother. Give me that old-time religion, indeed.
Melisandre’s facile manipulation of Stannis Baratheon, portrayed on his surface as the show’s most resolute and unforgiving character, is a testament to her power. Although she admits that much of her “magic” is more chemistry than sorcery, Melisandre has bewitched Stannis and his wife with promises of eternal glory and religious destiny. Whether her slavish religious devotion is genuine or a cover for more nefarious plans for Westeros, Melisandre’s control of Stannis is near-absolute.
And it’s not just Stannis who has fallen under her trance. In this season’s final shot of Melisandre and Jon Snow, the Red Priestess comes into focus across the fire from Jon, eyes glowing with desire. With her track record, Jon Snow has only days before he becomes the next conquest in her religious crusade.
While viewers have gotten hints and tidbits about Melisandre’s history before she first appeared on Game of Thrones, there is little we know about her history before she arrived on Dragonstone. Daenerys Stormborn of House Targaryen, however, has grown up before the audience’s eyes, from a quiet, sheltered girl to a powerful, sometimes terrifying woman.
At face value, Daenerys’s journey from girl to queen has been archetypally feminist—there aren’t character arcs more packed with girl power than those that begin with nude bathing scenes with incestuous overtones and end with the liberation of multiple slave armies with dragons and castrated automatons. Despite the deaths of her husband, her brother, and her unborn child, Daenerys’ faith in herself and in the power of her bloodline have conquered many figurative—and literal—trials by fire. Once sold as chattel herself, Daenerys uses her WMD-grade dragons to free hundreds of thousands of slaves, becoming their “Mhysa,” or “Mother.”
Yes, there are anti-feminist aspects of Daenerys’s story. Many of her successes, at least initially, are due to the actions of the men who support her—whether it’s her husband, Dothraki man-slab Khal Drogo, trusted adviser Jorah Mormont, or her thousands of Unsullied warriors. She first gains the respect of Khal Drogo by pleasing him sexually. The idea that a mother’s greatest accomplishment is her children isn’t exactly ripped from the pages of The Second Sex, either—even if those children happen to be fire-breathing dragons.
But at the climax of Game of Thrones’ fourth season, Daenerys is largely standing on her own feet. Jorah Mormont has been revealed as a traitor and banished; her remaining advisers are either subservient men or a freed polyglot slave; no longer just an “Aryan fuck puppet,” as one spoof labeled her, Daenerys has moved on to engaging in questionably ethical physical relationships with her own sexy underling. She has even locked away her dragons, the source of her greatest power and much of her military success. Denuded of her support system, Daenerys now stands for the first time as the sole ruler of a massive city, eyes trained on Westeros. With her track record of tactical brilliance, moral leadership, and blind luck, the current would-be Queens of Westeros would be foolish to dismiss her as a “child.” Many have called her that to their peril.
The final contender for the Iron Throne is also its least likely, in part because, unlike Daenerys, she is a child. On its face, the Saga of Sansa Stark, Stupid Little Girl With Stupid Dreams Who Never Learns, doesn’t fit the narrative of ascendant feminine power in the Game of Thrones universe. From the first frame, Sansa’s storyline couldn’t be more diametrically opposed to that of sword-wielding little sister Arya. Both literally and figuratively, she has been a punching bag for sadistic boy-kings, drunk queens, spineless royal guards, hordes of rapey commoners, mustache-twirling bordello proprietors, and pathologically jealous extended relations.
Sansa’s timidity in the face of beheadings, betrothals, and backhands has prompted an onslaught of (frequently sexist) criticism. “She’s too feminine!” “She’s too easily manipulated!” “She cries too much!” (Reminder: These are accusations against a teenage girl being whiney after three seasons that featured physical abuse at the hands of her fiancé, explicit rape threats/attempts on multiple occasions, and the murder of her entire family. Sansa has earned a crying jag or two.)
On the subject of Sansa’s perceived over-femininity, entire essays have been written about the backlash against her. Yet over the course of this season, Sansa has become a pillar of strong womanhood. Unlike Arya, who has found power over her environment with the blade, or Danaerys, whose dragons have done most of her talking, or Brienne, possessor of brute strength and size, Sansa has found strength within her innocence. Petyr Baelish once dismissed Sansa’s earnest “summer child” traits of honesty and integrity: “We're all liars here, and every one of us is better than you.”
But Sansa has used her honesty as a tool, cloaking the tiniest falsehoods (Littlefinger’s kiss on the lips becomes a kiss on the cheek, Lysa Arryn’s shove out the Moon Door becomes a leap) in fact, proving that, when carefully tailored, the improbable truth is more believable than a probable lie.
Sansa understands that Littlefinger has only ever wanted two things in his life: power, and her mother. As the spitting image of the late Catelyn, and the sole known heir to the North, Sansa is not exercising power in the most obvious ways, but by utilizing her appeal to Littlefinger—both prurient and genealogical—to get him to do what she wants. It’s what Margaret Atwood called “the power of a dog bone”—passive, but potent. After successfully duping the lords and lady assembled to bring down Baelish, our last shot of Sansa is of her strutting triumphantly down a staircase with jet-black hair and a plunging feathered bodice, capable of schemes just as manipulative as Baelish’s own. Whether this signals a first step toward the dark side by House Stark’s most sheltered member, or yet another cunning move to survive, Sansa’s transformation is stunning.
The corollary to the Valyrian axiom valar morghulis—“all men must die”—is valar dohaeris—“all men must serve.” For the men of Game of Thrones who have managed to avoid George R.R. Martin’s Sword of Damocles thus far, the upcoming season will depict, for the first time, a Westeros where they are subservient both in name and in deed to the show’s most powerful women. This is not to say that a golden age of woman rule will put an end to the show’s violence, conflict, or political turmoil—the continent-wide conflict that began as the War of the Five Kings may well end as the War of the Five Queens. Game of Thrones’ men have burned Westeros to the ground, but its women stand to inherit the ashes.
As Daenerys once said: “Yes, all men must die. But we are not men.”