Movies & TV

The Game of Thrones Finale Failed Its Female Characters One Last Time

Emilia Clarke and Sophie Turner shouldn't have to defend the show.
IMAGE HBO
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The final episode of Game of Thrones was stunning, until it wasn’t. Your stomach dropped as Daenerys Targaryen strode out to address her troops, Drogon’s wings extended behind her, itching to be airborne. For a moment, you forgot her bloodlust as she finally set her eyes on the Iron Throne, ash drifting down around her. You almost forgave her as she laid out a plan for a free Westeros to Jon, until he got close enough to stab a knife into her chest. Up until the moment Drogon flew away with Dany cradled in his claws, Game of Thrones delivered a finale that was beautiful for its Dragon Queen. And then, on the other side of a bewildering time jump, she was all but forgotten.

Game of Thrones had an enormous challenge before heading into the final season: to do right by the female characters it had put through hell. And then, it had an equally enormous challenge before the final episode: to see these female characters get the endings they'd fought for. The writers failed to rise to the challenge. They made Daenerys' transition to tyrant too abrupt, and then, like whiplash, they killed her off. After her death, as we tried to grapple with the loss of the show's most dynamic lead, they barely acknowledged her existence. Nor did they give the other female characters essential voices in creating the new Westeros. In the series finale, Game of Thrones failed its heroines for the last time.

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At a gathering of lords in the Dragonpit, Bran was handed the kingdom they'd waged long and bloody war over with no debate. No one questioned the danger of an all-seeing entity controlling the Seven Kingdoms (kind of sounds like the Westerosi equivalent of Bush's Patriot Act). They didn't stop to consider that perhaps the reason Daenerys had gone mad had nothing to do with her Targaryen bloodline—where madness wasn’t all that common, anyway. Perhaps instead it could be traced back to the immense power she’d coalesced over years of struggle and the lack of foresight on behalf of her advisors, like Jon and Tyrion, to temper it. We felt Dany's shadow loom over the council, but they were oblivious.

To them, Daenerys was just a woman suddenly gone mad with revenge. And because they refused to see a lesson worth learning in her demise, they handed that same power to Bran. Bran, whose credentials for the job amounted to being a man with an interesting backstory—even though it wasn't comparable to Arya's, Sansa's, or even Jon's—who'd also never shown interest in leading anyone. Then, they saddled him with equally incompetent advisors (Bronn as Master of Coin?).

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It was stupidly simple for the lords to move on from Dany. It wasn't clear why the Unsullied and the Dothraki suddenly gave up and allowed Bran to be king. But the fans wanted answers as to why the character we'd followed for 10 long years was suddenly forgotten, even if the rest of Westeros couldn't be bothered to ask. 

Emilia Clarke worked overtime to supply answers out here in the real world, whether that was her intention or not. In two separate interviews published after the finale, Clarke, who plays Daenerys, went deep into an analysis of Dany’s emotions, her weaknesses, her strengths, and her ultimate character development. She told Entertainment Weekly how she justified Dany’s quick transition to evil and described how upset she was by the ending. She told the New Yorker about her distaste with the title “Mad Queen” and her attempt to channel Dany’s past to make her death scene resonate. Clarke’s analysis almost made Dany’s rapid transition from savior to villain feel less rushed, her death less in vain. She gave us lessons to learn from where the Westerosi lords had picked up on none.

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In another example of the show utterly wasting years of harrowing character development, the steeliness Sansa developed after being put through rape, manipulation, and loneliness was abandoned. She stepped aside to let her brother Bran be king and retreated to the North. Her biggest contribution to Season Eight was being absolutely right about Dany, and she was given no credit. Sure, she secured independence for the North, but that was hardly the hard-won triumph her character deserved. She never flexed her strength (besides telling her idiot uncle to sit down). And Arya, who had toiled in Braavos for seasons to perfect the art of assassination among the Faceless Men, did not once have to use it. Instead, she sailed away to explore the West, when a quick heads up from the all-seeing Bran could have saved her the hassle.

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By then, if you were left in King’s Landing, you got a seat at Bran’s council—and before Brienne joined it, it was just another collection of men who had no idea what there were doing. But they sure did love a good brothel joke.

While the first part of the episode allowed characters like Tyrion and Dany time to talk through their ideas, giving us the riveting dialogue we love from the show, the second part of the episode skidded past meaningful conversations involving some of the show’s most intriguing characters, like Arya, Sansa, Brienne, and Yara. They had very little say in the making of their new kingdom, and they seemed fine with that—despite years of them speaking out and stepping up when male characters would rather they not. All but Brienne simply scampered off to their own respective corners of the world, but even she was writing a man's history and not her own.

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Some of the actors, put on the defensive by the anger fans felt at its ending, took the dialogue outside the show. In an interview with The New York Times, Sophie Turner stood by Sansa’s uncomplicated choice—”She would be a fair and loving ruler, and it’s what she’s been striving for this whole series: to go back home, to protect her home"—and said she thought the “petitions and things” asking HBO to remake Season Eight were “disrespectful” to the Game of Thrones crew. Isaac Hempstead Wright called the petition a “weird, juvenile gesture.” Before the season had even aired, Kit Harington told Esquire that all its critics could “go fuck themselves.”

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But we won't go fuck ourselves. After Daenerys died, there was so little adversity in the show it felt like the conclusion of a Disney movie. The final season and the final episode were so empty of deeper character analysis the actors had to fill in the blanks. It was so boring that now its stars have to defend it, where it should have been able to speak for itself. And none of the female character showed off the strength we know they have. In the Game of Thrones series finale, not a single lesson was learned. Hopefully George R.R. Martin can make their strength matter.

This story originally appeared on Esquire.com.

* Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.

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