For the last two weeks, Game of Thrones has been embroiled in sexual controversy. It all started with THAT scene—you know, the one in which Jaime “The Kingslayer” Lannister forced himself on his sister, Cersei, over the dead body of their incestuous son, Joffrey. On screen, Cersei never consented—in fact, she kept crying “Stop” and “Not here!”—so viewers rightly concluded that what Jaime did was rape.
But then the director of the episode came out and confessed that he didn’t see it that way. “She’s sort of cajoled into it, and it is consensual,” he “explained.” “Ultimately, it was meant to be consensual.” The actor who plays Jaime concurred. As did the actress who plays Cersei.
Fans were confused—and upset. Does Game of Thrones even understand what it depicted? they asked. Does it even know what rape is? By the time a story headlined “For ‘Game of Thrones,’ Rising Unease Over Rape’s Recurring Role” appeared in Friday’s New York Times, you could be forgiven for thinking that it wasn’t just Jaime who was treating women badly—it was the series itself.
Which makes the timing of Sunday night's episode pretty much perfect. If nothing else, “First of His Name” should prove once and for all that Game of Thrones tells better stories about better female characters than almost any other show on TV.
Start with the title, which is a cruel but accurate joke. That’s because the “he” in question—i.e., the newly crowned King Tommen Baratheon—played only a bit part in the evening’s drama. Sure, Tommen’s coronation gets top billing. The “Great Men” always do. But more often than not, it’s the unsung women of Westeros—and of our own history—who are the true stars of the show.
They certainly were on Sunday—Cersei chief among them. In the past, her character has tended toward the two-dimensional: the chilly villainess. But her arc in “First of His Name” was as rich and layered as those velvety skirts she glides around King’s Landing in. As soon as Cersei spies Joffrey’s widow, Margaery Tyrell, making eyes at her second son, she steps away from the throne and the real business of Tommen’s big day begins—off-stage, in the shadows.
Cersei knows what Margaery wants: to be queen. So she offers up Tommen. At first this is surprising; as far as we knew, Cersei detested her younger rival.
But as it turns out, Cersei’s father, the imperious Lord Tywin Lannister, wants something, too: a formal alliance (through marriage) with the wealthy Tyrells—the only family who can help the Lannister clan pay off the “tremendous” debts they have accrued since their gold mines went dry “three years ago.” By uniting Margaery and Tommen, and by finally agreeing to schedule her own marriage to Margaery’s brother, Ser Loras, Cersei is giving Tywin exactly what he wants—and angling to get what she wants in return.
Which is? The head of her brother, Tyrion, whom she blames for Joffrey’s assassination—and whom Tywin will be judging at the trial.
“I know you’re building a strong case against Tyrion,” Tywin tells her. “As a mother, that’s your right. But as a judge, I cannot discuss the trial with you.”
“I respect that,” Cersei says. “We don’t need to discuss it.” Instead, she simply lays a pair of new marriages at Tywin’s feet—and slyly asks whether his other children would do the same for him. “The Lannister legacy is the only thing that matters,” Cersei purrs. “What does Tyrion deserve for lighting that future on fire?”
If that was all Cersei did in Sunday’s episode, it would still be a remarkable turn—a powerful reclaiming of her agency. But as she is attempting to “seduce” another one of Tyrion’s judges, Oberyn “The Red Viper” Martell, a switch seems to flip, and suddenly her strategic sentimentality—an attempt to appeal to Martell’s family values and frustration with not being able to protect his slaughtered sister—seems to overwhelm her. A mention of her daughter Myrcella, who was shipped off to Martell’s homeland at the start of the war, is what sets it off. “We don’t hurt little girls in Dorne,” Martell assures her.
“Everywhere in the world they hurt little girls,” Cersei replies, tears welling in her eyes. “Please tell her her mother misses her very much.”
Cersei is still manipulating Martell here, but her heart is breaking as well—for herself, for her daughter, for all the victimized women of Westeros. It seems that even the Queen Bitch has a soft spot.
It’s this mixture of agency and vulnerability—of experiencing and acknowledging the brutality of the world but also pushing back against it—that distinguishes Game of Thrones’ female characters from their lesser counterparts on other dark cable dramas. It’s also what comes through so clearly in this particular episode.
Across the sea, Daenerys Targaryen’s macho cabinet urges her to attack King’s Landing. But now that the slave cities she liberated are backsliding, she realizes that she has to defy their counsel. Winning battles is worthless unless you can win hearts and minds as well. “How can I rule the Seven Kingdoms if I can’t control Slaver’s Bay?” she says. “I will not sail for Westeros. I will do what queens do. I will rule.”
As she nods off at night, Arya Stark mutters the names of every scoundrel she plans to kill someday. “Go on, get it over with—your list of doomed men,” says The Hound.
“I’m almost done,” Arya snaps back. "Only one name left.” Loud enough so her traveling partner can hear: “The Hound.” The next day she rises early to practice her sword work by the river.
The list goes on. Lysa Tully, we discover, is responsible for kickstarting the entire series. She was the one who poisoned her husband, Jon Arryn, which brought Ned Stark to King’s Landing; she was also the one who blamed Arryn’s death on the Lannisters, which triggered the war. Brienne of Tarth is back on the road—a far more worldly and intimidating figure than her hapless male squire, Podrick Payne. And the poor women of Craster’s Keep—the fortified homestead beyond The Wall where two separate regimes made rape and infanticide routine—finally get their revenge by helping Jon Snow and his brothers of the Night’s Watch defeat the defectors who have been torturing them for months.
“Craster beat us and worse,” says one survivor after Snow offers her shelter at The Wall. “Your own Crows beat us and worse. We’ll find our own way.” She spits toward the Keep. “Burn it to the ground—and all the dead with it.”
That, I would argue, is how Game of Thrones views its women. They’re always ready—and able—to burn it to the ground.