Writing about HBO’s Game of Thrones is a little like taking a week to travel in Westeros itself; once you cross into that territory, it’s hard to imagine what good you’re likely to do. But now that Season 5 has come to a close, it’s time to state quite clearly that Game of Thrones (hereinafter GoT) still isn’t doing any kind of narrative justice to its female characters. And this is a genuine failing for reasons both ethical and practical. On the strictly practical side, it means the show has no idea how to handle a large portion of its audience, i.e., people who respect and like women. And that is, or ought to be, embarrassing for the decision-makers behind the series. It is, or ought to be, disenchanting for us.
I’m sure the showrunners, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, think a lot about how to manage reaction to the show. You can almost see them mulling it over: How are we going to handle our viewership? How far can we push them; what visual and narrative bones can we throw them to blunt the force of the inevitable wave of moral outrage? And for the most part, they’re very accomplished audience-wranglers—indeed, they’re so good at dazzling us with fantastic locations, costumes, and actors, that a piece in Salon argued we ought to retain our “faith” in the series partly because spectacle on the level of GoT takes a lot of work, money and organization to achieve. So, cut the fellas a break, huh? They are knocking themselves out for us. It would be ungrateful to protest.
But just because a finished product takes work, money, and organization to achieve, it doesn’t mean it automatically deserves our faith. For instance, lots of resources, labor and brainpower went into the creation of Italian Renaissance city-states, per Niccolò Machiavelli, who tells us in The Prince that any ruler worth his salt—plus his automated gold salt-cellar featuring the naked goddess Diana—must embody the quality of virtù, which is precisely the ability to get shit done in a highly visible, ruthless way. Now, I love me some Machiavelli, who is a far more brilliant, grief-shot, and subtle writer than many people realize. But as he knew, and tried pretty hard to tell us, his Prince was at best a necessary evil. And neither Benioff nor Weiss, nor their shaping of George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, can lay claim to that status. Therefore, those of us who are troubled by elements of what they’re doing, should speak up.
Let’s talk about the ways women died, in Season 5 of Game of Thrones. Yes, I know some of the main players are still kicking: Arya and Sansa Stark, and Cersei Lannister, and the Divine Daenerys T., for instance. Yes, I know men die in Game of Thrones too—more of them, and more often. But the manner and method of men’s onscreen deaths, in the HBO series, distinguishes them from the enervating, clumsy, and badly construed processes by which female characters meet their end in Benioff and Weiss’s Westeros. Men die when they’re outmaneuvered, outnumbered, or do something ragingly stupid. Such are the fortunes of war and high politics, and as those bodies fall the story doesn’t play with many conventions, or attempt to wiggle out of established forms. Some GoT representations of perishing men do strike me as disingenuous (for instance, why does Lord Janos’s public admission of cowardice in episode 5.3. implicitly motivate his execution by Jon Snow, when both showrunners argue in a post-production interview that Snow made an entirely utilitarian decision?) But the amount of moral paltering that accompanies violent, premature male death in GoT is nothing to the amount of visual and rhetorical hypocrisy that accompanies violent, premature female death in the series. Over the course of Season 5, Woman’s Demise was increasingly presented as the result of helpless enthrallment to reproductive biology; or the natural consequence of structural powerlessness; even as the series tried to have it both ways, and made false claims to empower its female characters. And, folks, if that formulation doesn’t make you mad, it’s time to stop reading, ‘cos there is nothing here for you, nothing at all.
We’re going to skip over the first two-thirds of the season, because Benioff and Weiss are economically-minded dispensers of doom and know what to hold in reserve. They know that killing women and girls onscreen packs an extra-horrific punch, and shouldn’t be over-used as a dramatic device. “Steady,” you see them thinking, as Season 5 wears on and men die singly and in clusters—an execution here (Lord Janos, 5.3), a politically-motivated Pyrrhic struggle there (the mutual slaughter of the Unsullied and the Sons of the Harpy, in Meereen.) “Steady…hold on…no females yet.” The murder of women will better serve pathos’s purposes in a finale than an introit. It’s really a lot like fireworks—small explosions first, big rockets last. Their timing is smart. A pity, then, that once they begin their concluding volley of destruction, and start to dispatch a selection of the series’ carefully individuated female characters, the results are so confoundedly idiotic.
The last three episodes of Season 5 are “Hardhome,” (5.8) “Dance of Dragons,” (5.9) and “Mother’s Mercy” (5.10). Three notable women die in these episodes: Karsi the wildling chieftainess, who expires under an avalanche of zombie kids in “Hardhome”; Shireen Baratheon who gets burned at the stake in “Dance of Dragons”; and Shireen’s mother, Selyse Baratheon, who hangs herself in “Mother’s Mercy.” The takeaways from these deaths are various. But the audience’s experience of them is conditioned by the first death, Karsi’s, which constitutes a laughably offensive representation of feminine self-slaughter.
I have to say, as soon as I saw the gorgeous, square-shouldered Birgitte Hjort Sørensen—as Karsi—speak wryly and with authority during the counsel of Wildlings and Watchmen in “Hardhome”; and make actual confident eye-contact with the beleaguered Jon Snow; and impress herself on him, and on us, as a person, I thought “nah, they wouldn’t do that only to axe her. Too obvious and stupid.” Och indeed, they didn’t axe her—they made her lie down in the snow and commit suicide via a ravening pack of undead children, because as everyone knows, undead children are basically kryptonite for anyone with ovaries. Except, no. No, they aren’t. I have no idea what slipstream GoT might have been trying to catch from other sectors of popular culture concerning the overall relatability of zombies, but the writers needed to stick to their own world, in which nobody—and particularly no Wildling alpha-female!—gives a flying f*ck for you once you’ve gone over to the Undead. And any TV show suggesting that an adult woman with Karsi’s tough, survival-oriented background would throw herself to the ground in front of a set of immature revenants—instead of hacking them to pieces before heading straight for the mature revenants—has lost a tremendous amount of credibility where feminocentric plotlines are concerned.
So my antennae were up when we came to “Dance of Dragons” and poor Shireen Baratheon, who’s burned as a sacrifice to the Lord of Light in order to advance her father, Stannis’s, military campaign to possess the Iron Throne. And on the one hand, everything to do with Shireen and her death is very interesting and complicated and sad, and says that the showrunners and writers for GoT are thinking hard about things like the inefficacy of scholarly advice and political counsel in an atmosphere of despotism: though, to insist that a cloistered pre-adolescent ought to carry the full weight of that, is something less than fair. And on the other hand, if the showrunners and writers didn’t consider at all that in burning, onscreen, a bookish child who likes to read about dragons they were basically burning their female fans in effigy, they need to have their feet held to the fire. A particularly abhorrent thing about the Shireen sequence is the way it veers between a girl, reading, and the pyre; between an atmosphere of feminine imaginative contemplation, catalyzed by historico-fantastical reading, and its total erasure via the stake and the torch.
For me, a lot of the horror of Shireen’s fate begins with the lavishly illustrated book, The Dance of Dragons, we see her leafing through immediately before her death-scene. That book tells us she’s interested in fantasy literature—i.e., in her own world’s history, which she’s puzzling over and trying to make adaptive sense of. Whether or not it was intended to, Dance of Dragons conjures the dragon-riddled YA forerunners of George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire: Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern, for instance, or E. Nesbit’s The Book of Dragons, or even for all love Tolkien’s Hobbit, where Smaug has most of the best lines. Indeed, if Shireen—with her scaly, scarred cheek—had for once in her brief life experienced some genuine good luck, a decent grownup might have handed her a copy of Rachel Hartman’s recent Seraphina, in which girls can be part dragon and survive.
But. This is a Benioff and Weiss treatment of George R.R. Martin we’re talking about. So thoughtful girls, even fannish ones, are not set up to thrive. Added to which, if their political instincts deviate from GoT’s mainstream dog-eat-dog theory: well. They’re literally toast. “If you had to choose,” Shireen’s father Stannis asks her before he burns her, “who would you have chosen?” He’s speaking of rival royal claimants from the fallen Targaryen dynasty but his eye, always, is on his own “chosen” status, and he’s looking to hear from Shireen that, no matter the cost, he must fulfill his destiny. Out of the mouths of babes, he could then mutter, and go inventory the firewood.
But. Who would I choose? Neither, says Shireen: undecided, as yet, about what the other possibilities might be, but with her story-filled mind hard a-work on lively alternatives. Taking the moment to answer truthfully—revealing the degree to which her reading has already deprogrammed her—she briefly interrupts Stannis’s only line of thought, in which there’s a “correct” Targaryen to support, an echo from the past that points to Shireen’s father as the present-day rightful king. Stannis, and his writers, respond to her deviation from script by striking Shireen from the record, both in conversational address and as a living child.
That’s awful, if you care about young women and about fantasy literature. But, in some ways, worse is still to come in Season 5. It does so in a manner that hasn’t been generally remarked on, and mines the convention—derived from classical tragedy—that injured and despairing women prefer suicide to revenge. But the series’ deployment of this convention is fundamentally disingenuous, leading with one set of classical antecedents and swapping them out the moment they threaten to suggest that women might actually be able to turn the tables on male powers-that-be.
I’m referring to the fate of the steely fanatic Selyse Baratheon, who shocked everyone by displaying emotion at the time of Shireen’s death. “Gah. Do you think Selyse goes Clytemnestra now or later?” asked a friend, in hopeful anger, after we’d all seen “Dance of Dragons” and before we’d seen “Mother’s Mercy.” It was a very good question. As the Greek tragedians tell us, queen Clytemnestra’s homicidal fury against her husband, Agamemnon, resulted directly from his decision to sacrifice their daughter Iphigenia for political reasons. The parallels suggested by Shireen’s immolation and everything surrounding it are clear: Stannis Baratheon, his army halted by weather north of Winterfell, is Agamemnon becalmed at Aulis on his way to Troy. Both men are told by agents of the gods that their daughters’ deaths are the price of forward motion; both men, pleading ragion di stato and military duty, agree to the grisly tax. Both men’s queen-wives are horrified and distressed—and that is precisely where Selyse seals her resemblance to Clytemnestra, by breaking down and taking off the mask of power as soon as she fully understands her child is going to die.
Iphigenia: You are silent. But the tears keep falling.
Mother, why these tears for me?
(Euripides, Iphigenia at Aulis, trans. Merwin: ll.1941-2.)
Iphigenia’s state-sponsored murder leads Clytemnestra first to collapse, then to reassume and reinvent her own authority and, eventually, avenge her daughter. Hence, my friend’s musings about Selyse. When’s she going to go Clytemnestra? And, look, no one expects the parallels to run right the way through, and no one was gagging for Selyse to poleaxe Stannis in the bath, even supposing a bath could be somehow located. But having started to think about when and how it might make sense for Stannis’s queen to pull a full Tyndarean, I just about lunged for the television screen when Selyse quietly hung herself at the start of the season finale. “Mother’s Mercy?” Mother f*ck! When it came to the clutch, Stannis’s queen wasn’t allowed anywhere near Clytemnestra. Heaven forbid. That would pitch her firmly, though OF COURSE problematically, into the realm of public action. No, she goes Antigone; Phaedra; just about any agency-deprived Greek female suicide in the canon of ancient tragedy. Which is a sham, and a shame. You can’t mine literary precedent as extensively and specifically as GoT mines the Iphigenia story and then say ‘whoops, have another play instead,’ simply because you’d prefer not to deal with an enraged quasi-Argive queen who might be inconvenient or even (imagine!) unexpectedly scary. The whole Selyse story-arc is an utter cheat, and deserves to be recognized as such. I hope Clytemnestra’s having a good laugh, somewhere, about the fact that she can still make male directors quake in their boots.
To sum up. These are some of the things we’ve been shown, where female characters are concerned, during season 5 of Game of Thrones. Ridiculous vignettes arguing that women turn suicidal when their maternal instincts are supernaturally violated (Karsi); bathetic, poorly construed depictions of victimized pre-adolescent girls (Shireen); and a hack job on classical drama, involving nervous handwaving over the question of what a man might have to do in order to turn his own wife against him in the world of high politics (Selyse.) And, in an effort to justify these visceral, highly-produced visions, a lot of the Internet commentary on GoT has argued that what we’re seeing is OK, because the offensiveness of the material is intended to alert our feminist consciences. Ladies, ladies, and friends of ladies, Benioff and Weiss (et al.) are doing this for you!
But if they were, they’d probably be able to modulate the results better. They're very good at what they choose to be good at. The production values of the series are impeccable; the unwieldy weight of the books has been trimmed with machinelike efficiency, and translated to the visual medium in a manner it’s hard to argue with. The GoT team are kings of spectacle, Princes of persuasion…when they care. When they don’t, their work is bad. The women of Westeros deserve better. So does the GoT audience, which won’t lend its faith on such terms, despite all virtù can do.
Catherine Rockwood has been a fantasy reader since age 6, which led somehow to a doctorate in Renaissance Studies 22 years later. She lives and writes in the suburbs of Boston.