Back when Game Of Thrones debuted a year ago, one of the stranger criticisms was that it was made about men, for men. Perhaps in those first few episodes, when it looked like the story of Ned Stark, Viserys Targaryen, Khal Drogo, King Robert, and Jaime Lannister, you could make that argument. Of course, those of us who had read the book knew that it wasn’t about them, not really. Indeed, the characters with the most agency in the first season are women: Danaerys, Cersei, and Catelyn, whose capture of Tyrion triggered the violent confrontation between Lannister and Stark.
In fact, Game Of Thrones deliberately subverts the patriarchal system its characters are stuck in, with a set of strong female characters. In “What Is Dead May Never Die," we meet Brienne Of Tarth, a new member of Renly’s Kingsguard, and Renly’s new wife, Margaery Tyrell. They’ve been joined by Melisandre, the Red Priestess, and Yara Greyjoy. Combine that with the surviving strong women, and the increasingly excellent Arya Stark, and the idea that Game Of Thrones is anti-woman becomes increasingly ridiculous.
Its setting, however, is anti-woman. Westeros is literally built on patriarchy, thanks to its use of agnatic-cognatic primogeniture, in which the oldest male inherits everything, but a female can inherit if no male is in the line—Danaerys Targaryen is the most obvious example here. Therefore these women are officially powerless. But power, as Varys says, resides where men believe it resides, making it entirely possible for women to hold power.
Brienne of Tarth, for instance, introduced as the winner of King Renly’s tournament melee, appropriates the symbols of masculine power—a sword, armor, and so on. Cat tries to call her a “Lady” but Brienne objects, and there’s no feminine form of “Ser.” She appears to be a knight, and has the skills to be a knight, defeating Ser Loras one-on-one (Loras, if you’ll recall, would have won the Hand’s Tourney in the first season). But despite her clear ability, she’ll never be fully accepted, as Loras makes clear when he pushes Renly away for reminding him of his defeat. Brienne will always be fighting on two fronts: one for victory, another for acceptance.This episode did a fine job of introducing her character without making her the entire focus.
If she’d been born ten years earlier, Arya Stark might have been just like Brienne. A younger daughter of a lord, and one far more gifted in martial arts than marital ones. But the patriarchal system sees daughters as wives for alliances, or when things go wrong, as hostages for good behavior. Arya never wanted the former, and used her physical skills to escape from the latter. But that didn’t save her. She’s on the run with a ragtag bunch of Night’s Watch recruits, and the memory of her father’s execution haunts her. When she and the Watch recruiter, Yoren, discuss their dreams of revenge, Yoren talks to her as an equal, albeit a much younger one. But that brief moment of bonding is interrupted by a Lannister attack, leaving Yoren dead and Arya captured:
Princess Myrcella, Joffrey’s rarely-seen younger sister, is a tool of the patriarchy. Beset by enemies in the capital, Tyrion seeks to use her to form an alliance—and use that alliance to figure out who, on the council, is a traitor. He proposes wedding Myrcella to, in order, the neutral and remote House Martell of Dorne (which we’ve never seen), Theon Greyjoy, to sow discontent with the northerners, and Robin Arryn. Myrcella is just a pawn, both for the alliance and for Maester Pycelle to demonstrate that he is the queen’s mole in the Small Council.
Queen Cersei, the biggest villain of the series, takes on new depth when viewed through this lens.Cersei struggles against the sexism of the patriarchal system of the Seven Kingdoms, yes, but she also wants to maintain its power for entirely selfish reasons when she’s on top. She wants to rule like a king (saying that she should be the one “to wear the armor” in the first season), and also be free to keep and protect her children, like Myrcella. Viewed in this fashion, Cersei is less a stereotypical villain than a complex, ambitious, short-sighted woman. Lena Headey was my least favorite actor in the first season, relying far too much on scrunching her face/tilting her up in order to demonstrate every emotion, but given the chance to go bigger with her acting, yelling at and shoving Tyrion, she does well.
But the star turn in the episode comes from Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell. Margaery is, like Myrcella, a pawn in an alliance by marriage between Renly Baratheon and her father, Mace Tyrell, Lord of The Reach (with Dorne, the other of the Seven Kingdoms we’ve seen nothing of). Margaery knows the rules of the game: she exists to make an alliance with the strongest of the kings in the civil war, and that’s an alliance that will only be settled once Renly impregnates her.
This leads to my favorite scene in the episode, where Margaery attempt to seduce the gay King Renly:
He’s unable to perform, so she offers to bring her brother Loras, Renly’s lover, in to help. It’s a statement that could be uncomfortable, much like Theon and Yara’s interlude last week, but Dormer makes the audaciousness of it seem innocent, and makes her ambition seem perfectly reasonable. “Whatever you need to do. You are a king.”
The sprawling cast of characters is one of Game Of Thrones’ biggest potential weaknesses. Keeping track of events in four or five different locations proved one of the bigger barriers to entry for new viewers. Introducing Renly’s court could have been another problem. But, as with the Greyjoys in Pyke, and Stannis’ court at Dragonstone, the important characters are introduced with confidence and style.
Margaery’s portrayal in the show is, in a single scene, deeper than her portrayal in the books, where she’s primarily a cipher. I expected this to happen given how much weight her casting was given in the show’s media between seasons, but it turned out even better than I expected. Yet again, the show does some of its best work when it diverges from the text on the page. Both the Margaery/Renly scene and the Arya/Yoren scene were new.
I’m less certain about accelerating Shae’s storyline to make her Sansa’s maid. The bigger issue is that their dynamic immediately makes Sansa look bad for talking down to her help, even as we should be building sympathy for the Stark hostage. Likewise, Yara/Asha continues to feel more like an extension of Balon Greyjoy than her own character, as she was in the novel.
Finally, no sign of Dany or Robb this week, which may be surprising to viewers, but won’t be to readers. I understand some things have been added or shifted around in order to give these characters more to do this season than they had in the books. Since most of the show’s changes to the text have been more beneficial than detrimental, I’m looking forward to these alterations.