Last night's Game of Thrones premiere accomplished something that showrunners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff have struggled with for the past five seasons: giving its female characters the chance to really reign.
This piece will include information and plot details from the premiere. If you haven't watched the episode yet and are looking to steer clear of spoilers, consider yourself warned.
One of the most important scenes in the episode takes place between Brienne of Tarth and Sansa Stark. After massacring a group of Ramsay Bolton's men to save Sansa and Theon Greyjoy (otherwise referred to as Reek), Brienne bows down before the eldest Stark and pledges her sword. Sansa, now the head of House Stark, recites the same words her father Ned Stark used to give to the men who pledged their sword to him.
It's a confusing and surreal moment for Sansa, who never imagined she would become the head of the house, or as Salon's Sonia Saraiya wrote, the new Queen of the North. When the series first started, Sansa had a very specific role within her family, and to a much larger extent, within the world she knew. She was to marry a man of similar wealth and standing, birth his children and live her life as an honorable and respectful wife. Now, however, her older brother Robb has been killed and she doesn't know if younger brother Bran is alive or dead. Her role has changed dramatically from the time the series started, but throughout it all, she's embraced what's been thrown at her.
The most important part of the scene, which is magnificently shot, is Sansa's decision to become an active figure in the battle for Winterfell. She's no longer a pawn of whoever she's married to or Littlefinger, her mother's friend who's helped her get back to her childhood home. Instead, she is a warrior and a queen, ready to command other soldiers and actively fight. What she used to mock younger sister Arya for wanting is now a role she's stepping into and learning. It's a crucial moment for one of the most developed characters on the show.
The fact that it's Sansa who's taking back some of the power in this scene and making some of the decisions for herself is also very important to the development of her character. Last season, Sansa was forced to not only endure a constant stream of physical and emotional abuse from Ramsay, but she was also subjected to one of the most contested and controversial scenes in the show's history. On her wedding night, she was raped by Ramsay while he forced Theon to watch. After already being subjected to countless scenes of torture from former fiance Joffrey Baratheon, it felt especially cruel to her character. Sansa, as strong-willed and as courageous as she's been, was slowly and violently being drained of the little control she had over her own life.
But this scene was the first step to rectifying that. It felt like Benioff and Weiss finally listened to what fans and critics had been saying, and instead of keeping Sansa around as the go-to victim that could be used like a rag doll in theses types of situations, they gave her back the power she had lost.
She's no longer a pawn of whoever she's married to
For the first time, she's in charge of what happens next and she gets to make the decisions that will affect her life. It was a major win for her character, and instantly brought me back to the series that I had become bored and confused by.
Sansa wasn't the only arc that made me believe the showrunners had finally received the message that they had been writing their female characters rather poorly. Over in Dorne, the city that seems forgotten about until it randomly appears during an episode, Ellaria Sand was able to finally figure out a way to have Prince Doran Martell and his son Trystane killed. It may not seem like a major plot development, and it probably isn't considering just how little the show cares about Dorne, but it was another example of men being killed at the hands of a woman.
Women in Game of Thrones are usually used for a couple of reasons, and rarely does that change. They're wives, mothers, prostitutes or princesses. Or to simplify it, they're around to be used and shown off by the various men in the series, like prized show horses that are worth a pretty penny when they're young and beautiful, but who lose the interest of most when they lose their looks.
Last night's episode turned away from that narrative, however, in a couple of ways, and giving women the daggers and swords to kill the men that use and abuse them is a perfect example. It's symbolic of the desire from the female characters on the show to have their own freedom and showcase their own brilliant minds and talents without having to do so quietly behind the backs of the men that rule over them. Like I said previously, the violent methods of attaining their goals against the men is just a means to an end. What these women want is to be able to reign, and if wiping out the men that stand in their way is the best way to do it, then so be it.
They're wives, mothers, prostitutes or princesses.
That's not to say the show still doesn't have problems with its depiction of women and the importance of beauty, but there seems to be a reason for it now. One of the most jarring moments during last night's episode was the revelation that Melisandre, the sorceress who uses her beauty to entrance men and get her way, is actually an ancient woman hiding behind the skin of a young maiden. Her true form is supposed to be hideous, or at the very least, that's what I assume Benioff and Weiss were going for.
But the message behind the revelation is interesting: a woman can only exist within an army of men if she is young, beautiful and charming. The reality of women aging and being forgotten about by men is an issue just as prevalent in the series as it is in real life.
We're supposed to be shocked that this beautiful woman is actually an elderly figure, drawn up as a saggy, withering being. We're supposed to be horrified that age not only happens to men, but also affects women as well. It is supposed to be an incredibly disturbing scene, but I found it to be quite insightful. That we, as women, must hide behind a layer of products that hide any wrinkles in order to be perceived as someone worth paying attention to actually is the horrifying part and it's one that I think the show nails head on.
Game of Thrones has a far way to go, and I'm sure there will still be plenty of nudity this season to appease those looking for it, but for the first time, it feels like women are being taken seriously as contenders in the war for the Iron Throne and not just as pretty things to look at while the battle wages on.