Time to Talk About Game of Thrones, I Guess…-Part II: The Last of the Starks

***The Following Post May Contain Spoilers! Read at your own Risk!*** 

I came into Season 8, Episode 4 feeling a little jaded in regards to the Battle of Winterfell, but I don’t think I even realized at the time how jaded I was. I accepted a lot of things throughout the course of HBO’s adaptation over the years, but the sinking dread that they were rushing through what should feel like a epic, poignant ending was starting to wear on me. A lot of fans have been climbing toward this ending for more than two decades, many of them knowing they might never get closure otherwise, and expectations have been incredibly high.

I once knew a guy liked to claim he was never disappointed because he had no expectations, but putting that into practice is a lot harder than it sounds. I expected George R.R. Martin to follow through on his claims multiple times when he said “Book Six is coming next year”. Every time he said those words I was disappointed, and after the first two times it was truly my bad for putting my faith in someone who had already fooled me twice. SHAME ON ME! But the thing about the HBO adaptation is until this point I was fairly content with what they were doing. Was it perfect? Of course not. I can’t even begin to count the number of people I know who quit watching when they marched Cersei Lannister through the streets of King’s Landing ringing that bell to mark her shame, but I know that number escalated rather quickly when Sansa was repeatedly raped and brutalized after she was married to Ramsay Bolton, and doubled again when Melisandre convinced Stannis to burn his little girl at the stake for the sake of his rule.

 

Consider me a shameful pragmatist because I kept watching, the greatest part of me hoping their misogyny would at least give these women fuel to rise above the ashes–empowered and unwilling to take it anymore. It was a huge ask, I know that, but along with my pragmatism comes an even more shameful ability to forgive and look for the changes in the world (both fiction and real) that deep down even I fear will never come. For a long time, I didn’t really get it. As a victim of sexual trauma and abuse, I should have been one of the first people to put the book down, turn off the TV, but they were doing such a great job with the other aspects of the story that I was able to overlook it and realistically note that despite relying on these hideous truths to depict a reflection of our own society in high fantasy fiction, the truth of the matter is rape and misogyny ARE a prominent part of our world culture, even in the most seemingly developed countries. As awful as they are to witness, I would be suspicious if they never showed up in fiction, but Game of Thrones tends to glorify even the most hideous aspects of our society, and the glorification of rape is never okay.

The funny thing is, (not funny in the least, actually,) no one was raped in Season 8, Episode 4, but they made a move with Sansa that made me more than a little sick to my stomach. In the aftermath of the Battle of Winterfell, the survivors celebrate their victory and mourn their dead. During this celebration, they methodically pair characters for their farewells as the series is winding down and more people are obviously going to die. Among those farewells was a scene between Sansa Stark and “The Hound”, Sandor Clegane. As The Hound points out that she’s no longer the little bird he once looked after at King’s Landing, he tells her that none of the horrific things she endured would have happened if she’d fled King’s Landing with him, to which Sansa replies that all of her suffering made her stronger. Ramsay’s rape, Littlefinger’s manipulations… they made her the woman she is today, and without them she would have been a little bird all her life. I don’t even know what to say about that because as I’ve tried to imagine what my life might have been had I never been sexually abused as a child and young girl, I have never once thanked my abuser for making me a stronger person. Am I stronger because I endured those things? Maybe I am, but to say I would never have become the empowered person I am without those experience is as shortsighted as it is far too forgiving.

I have struggled for two weeks to put this into words, and in some ways I am sure I will fail to fully articulate exactly how I feel, but our current social climate only serves to enhance the injustice of Game of Thrones’ poor treatment of its female characters. We need strong female role models right now, women in powerful positions who can not only handle that power and the pressure and responsibility that go with it, but who rise to the occasion despite all odds. And yes, Sansa has done that, especially considering everything she’s been through since she left Winterfell with her father to marry Joffrey all those years ago, but glorifying her suffering the way they have has been unforgivable. Hearing her personally claim with a soft smile that she would not be who she is without that suffering doubly so.

So where does that leave her? What is she going to do with this power she’s gained through a ridiculous amount of suffering? Poised to take the throne, more than likely. Her rivalry with Daenerys was firmly established in the first episode of season eight, when she snubbed the Targaryen queen upon arrival at Winterfell. Much like the rest of the choices they’ve made regarding Sansa’s character, I’m not entirely sure how I feel about her hating Daenerys on sight, though on some level I get it. After everything they worked for, Jon being raised to position as King in the North before he went off to treat with the Dragon Queen put Sansa in an incredibly powerful position. Coming back, knee-bent and perfectly happy to turn over his power to Daenerys stripped Sansa of any hopes she might have had of reigning in the North. At every turn, Sansa makes her distaste for Daenerys more than well-known in a petty and antagonistic display reminiscent of the one woman who, in my humble opinion, truly made Sansa who she is: Cersei. What about the North? What happens to the North? And Daenerys cannot stomach the other woman’s refusal to yield, an obvious set up for the true showdown between Ice and Fire, I think. Sansa took everything she learned at King’s Landing, everything she learned from Cersei, and not only implemented it in her life, but surpassed her teacher as she spilled Jon’s secret heritage to the one person she knew would spread it faster than wildfire: Tyrion Lannister.

I could talk about Sansa’s evolution a power-hungry queen-in-training all day, but let’s move on to another interesting choice regarding an incredibly powerful female character: Brienne of Tarth. I am not going to lie to you. From the moment Brienne and Jaime set out together on their journey to recover the Stark girls in the books, I’ve been rooting for both of them. Not even so much that they got together (but yeah, I totally shipped it even though while reading I pretty much denied the probability because of who Jaime Lannister was,) but mostly that the time he spent with her–an honorable knight and woman–would help Jaime recognize his own worth. For a time I think it did. Their journey made them both much stronger characters, but reflective of real life bad decisions while drinking, sleeping together after the Battle of Winterfell weakened them. I will say that as much as Brienne’s reaction to Jaime’s choice to go back to Cersei bothered me, I respected it because despite her tough demeanor Brienne was still a woman. Underneath her armor she was soft; she had heart; she wanted the same thing everyone (not just women) want: to be respected, cherished, loved just as she is. I was bothered at first by her emotional breakdown when Jaime decided to leave and go back to Cersei, maybe because I shipped them so hard in my heart for so long, but in the end I felt like her reaction was well done. She spent this entire story hardened, distrusting, leery, and afraid, and given the way her fellow soldiers and the male population in general treated her, it’s understandable. To see her let her guard down and give in to heart was a beautiful thing, and it played off her emotional failings beautifully. Jaime was never going to change. He gave his heart to Cersei on the day he was born, but it was nice to see what else life might have offered if things were different. My only complaint goes back to the season itself feeling rushed. They could have strengthened that heartbreak by given them more time. Maybe they spent months together, Jaime happy enough with her on the surface that even Brienne is convinced, and when he leaves in the night after very few signs of his unhappiness, BLAMMO! Heartbreak City, yo. But I digress.

In parallel to this, we have the relationship between Gendry and Arya–another ship I’ve been sailing since they were wee little bebbies traveling the King’s Road to the Wall with Yoren. Arya has always been a complicated character, and by far one of the strongest females in the series. Her suffering has been consistently brutal, and considering everything she endured (and the show’s tendency to rape and/or murder female characters,) it’s no small miracle she’s come as far as she has. Much like Brienne and Jaime, I wanted Gendry and Arya to come together, and I was happy to see Arya turn him down when he offered her the traditional women’s role by his side as Lady of Storm’s End. Poor Gendry, fretful that he was never good enough for her despite his kingly paternity, and he’s finally given a leg up so he can be the noble man a woman of Arya’s standing deserves, but THAT WAS NEVER HER! And the fact that despite everything her character has remained consistent has been a beautiful thing. No complaints on that, not even when she rides up to meet The Hound on the road to King’s Landing to take out their enemies and close out their personal revenge lists because honestly, that was always what Arya was going to do, right? Finishing off Cersei Lannister was one of the things that drove her even during the most desperate of times. (I’ll talk more about this next blog post, promise!)

Now, it’s time to talk about the Dragon in the middle of the room. I’ve seen a lot of people complaining about Daenerys this season, claiming her descent into madness seems uncharacteristic, and her obsession with everyone bending the knee has gotten out of hand, but is it really out of character? To this point (we’ll talk about points beyond this episode in the next post,) she has pretty much taken the things she wants with fire and blood, usually preceded by a relatively powerful temper tantrum. Not much has changed, except that she maybe underestimated the people of Westeros before sailing over to rule them.

Her arrival in Westeros did something to her character. From the moment she married Drogo and became Khaleesi, confidence surged through her even under the most horrifying odds. She conquered, claimed, and made an incredibly powerful name for herself in Essos, but crossing the Narrow Sea meant shedding those achievements and starting fresh because no one in Westeros cared what she did in Essos. Sure, she came knocking on the gates with three full-grown dragons, two massive armies, and enough Targaryen confidence to shake the country to its very core, but until this point she has not often heard the word no without swiftly punishing the speaker and either changing their answer to yes or obliterating them entirely. But Westeros has been playing this twisted game since before she was born, and despite the fact that she was born there, most people consider her a foreigner. She’s obviously struggling with this, and the fact that she’s not finding the support she craves is definitely pushing at her already fragile mental state. To make matters worse, she lost one of the three most loyal people in her life during the Battle of Winterfell, and she’s getting real tired of Sansa Stark not falling in line. A lot of viewers are upset that they’ve taken her into the realm of madness, some even claiming it happened all of the sudden, but look back at the history. She’s always been teetering on the brink of madness, and as she stands before the gates of King’s Landing and watches another one of her children die, and another of the loyal few who’s been beside her nearly all the way get her head lobbed off, there’s pretty much no turning back the crazy train about to plow through the city.

I think the problem with Dany’s madness is not that they finally pushed her over the edge, it’s that they’ve been really shitty to all the women on the show, and for a while a lot of people were hoping at least one of those powerful women would come out of this better off than when she started. I don’t think that’s possible for her. Sansa… maybe. But Daenerys has too many people needling through her armor from hidden locations, and eventually the poison on those needles is going to infect her. She can’t trust Jon now that she knows he’s a legitimate rival for the Iron Throne, even though he’s told her a thousand times he doesn’t want her stupid throne. As per usual, Jon knows nothing because want it or not, there are a lot of people who are going to want him on that throne over her, and they’ll use that information to destroy her. I get it, but the extent of her madness doesn’t really

I could obviously go on blathering about all of this for several more thousand words. I feel like I’ve barely begun to scratch the surface on the majority of these things, but I’m going to call it after one final sigh: Jon sent his direwolf… the last Stark direwolf… up north with Tormund and the Wildlings without even saying goodbye, or thanks for saving my life, guarding my dead body that one time I got stabbed a bunch of times, sharing a bond with me unlike any other… etc. This bothered me because Ghost has been an afterthought for several seasons. There were times I wasn’t even sure Ghost was still alive at all, and then he’d show up again for a brief cameo and I’d be like, “Huh, I guess he’s not dead after all, and I was right to question the story continuity rather than my own personal sanity.” His goodbye with Samwell Tarly was only slightly more thoughtful, leaving a gaping hole in a lot of hearts.

It’s just lazy writing, in the end, something that has become more and more apparent throughout the course of Season Eight. It’s like the writers are at the end of their senior year at school, getting ready to graduate, and they’ve already secured their grades/paychecks so they spent these last six episodes fucking off because they’re done so who cares? Guess what, writers? PEOPLE CARE, and many of them are really angry with how lazy so much of the farewell season has felt. Seriously, four more episodes would have allowed for more development on some of this stuff, which once more makes me as a viewer feel like they were just so ready to wash their hands of the show that it didn’t matter to them how it ended so long as they were done.

Next post, I’ll talk about Episode 5: The Bells..

 

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