Game of Thrones has always been a show about brutality, leveled indiscriminately at both men and women, kings and commoners, adults and children. But Season 5, which wrapped up with a jaw-dropping season finale on Sunday, took special pleasure in doubling down on misery—both the characters’ and by extension, ours. Every triumph felt negated by ten new traumas. We finally saw Daenerys ride a dragon, but paid for it by watching Shireen burn. We felt revenge-induced catharsis through Arya, then watched her go blind. Stannis is defeated, Ramsay is unscathed, and Jon Snow is dead. This show once felt like a party; these days, it’s a study in hopelessness.
No group of characters suffered more this season, however, than the proud women of Westeros. When George R.R. Martin’s prized female characters weren’t being raped, abused, humiliated, or killed, they were lumbering through storylines that meandered then sputtered into unsatisfying ends. The end of the world was always going to be bleak; we just expected to have more heroes to root for than this.
In a single season, Cersei was stripped and slut-shamed, Margaery was imprisoned, and Melisandre was outed as a false prophet. Arya went blind and Brienne was sidelined until her anticlimactic execution of Stannis, and Daenerys spent all season just trying to get people to like her (she failed at this, too). The Queen of Thorns, Olenna Tyrell, proved powerless against the Sparrows’ regime. And even Shireen—little Shireen!—got flame-broiled alive on her own father’s orders; Selyse, her mother, hung herself shortly after.
Gilly was almost raped, Myrcella was poisoned, and Ellaria and the warrior Sand Snakes turned out to be laughably incompetent villains, more adept at jailhouse nude scenes (and inane hand-slapping games) than they were in actual battle.
And Sansa Stark was raped both onscreen and off, at least once every night that she remained married to sadistic Ramsay. Despite a season of steely stares and all-black duds, the heir to Winterfell never progressed past damsel-in-distress. It was Reek who killed her attacker, Myranda, and appeared to lead her away from Winterfell. He rebelled against his abuser; Sansa, in contrast, appeared to resign in the season finale, telling Myranda, “I know what Ramsay is. I know what he’ll do to me. If I’m going to die, let it happen while there’s still some of me left.”
The only winners this season—if indeed there were any—were the most ruthless, unlikable characters in Westeros. Littlefinger successfully leveraged Sansa’s bloodline and the conflict in the North to his own ambitious ends (again). The High Sparrow, along with his army of religious fanatics, now essentially rules King’s Landing. And Ramsay, Game of Thrones’ most hated character since Joffrey Baratheon, relished an easy victory over Stannis before turning his attention back to torturing Sansa. (“My wife must be lonely,” he snickers before heading back to Winterfell.)
All this is to say that the show has never felt bleaker. Look, we get it; this is war. In war, women (and men and children) get hurt. As Martin told Entertainment Weekly recently, “if you’re going to write about war, and you just want to include all the cool battles and heroes killing a lot of orcs and things like that and you don’t portray [sexual violence], then there’s something fundamentally dishonest about that.”
“Drama comes out of conflict,” he concluded. “If you portray a utopia, then you probably wrote a pretty boring book.” What about portraying a world where all the good guys are either dead or useless? Doesn’t that sound a little boring, too?
Game of Thrones creators D.B. Weiss and David Benioff have claimed they aim to finish the series in seven seasons, giving us roughly twenty episodes before we ride away from Westeros forever. Next season will be the series’ first without the guidance of Martin’s books, meaning almost anything can happen. Grey Worm and Missandei could become the permanent rulers of Slaver’s Bay; Sansa and Theon could encounter Bran the master warg; Daenerys could regain control of her dragons, win the loyalty of her Dothraki captors, and take the Iron Throne.
Or she could die before ever crossing the Narrow Sea. Tyrion, the Sons of the Harpy’s next logical target, might also be cut down. Sansa could head north to the Wall only to find Jon dead, then get roped into marrying some new psychopath (I hear Alliser Thorne is single). Brienne could give up and just start taking mercenary work. Arya, now blind, could fail to become a Faceless Man and spend the rest of her miserable days eating oysters, clams, and cockels. (Or the White Walkers could march south and render everyone else irrelevant because the earth will freeze over and everyone will die.)
One set of options might feel more “realistic” than the other—at this point, we’re all afraid to hope for Dany to win—but after such a brutally depressing season, we need a few victories. Or at least another dragon or two.