Failing to subvert

CN: rape, violence, frequent use of the word “mad”, spoilers for final season of GoT

It is safe to say that Game of Thrones has been one of the biggest pop culture phenomena of recent years. While the books themselves were sleeper hits, the TV show based on them became a mammoth force far outstripping them in popularity. Thrones managed to break out of the fantasy show ghetto and be respected as a drama despite the presence of dragons, zombies and prophecies. It won awards and attracted highly respected actors to its lineup while simultaneously making stars out of its new blood.

But the show also garnered a lot of criticism. Fans and critics alike called out the show for putting in even more sexual assault where there was none in the books, in addition to drastically reducing the number of POC within the cast compared to the original. These criticisms were either answered or ignored over the years of the show’s run. Either way, GoT maintained its massive following all the way up to the start of the last season. The actors were everywhere – every magazine possible had them on its cover, every prediction that could be made about the show’s ending was being made. Bookies were even taking bets over who would end up sitting on the most impractical throne in the world.

And then the first episode aired. Reactions were generally good. The same happened with episode two. Then episode three aired. A backlash began. Then episode four followed. The backlash didn’t just catch fire, it exploded – and it wasn’t just fans saying the show had lost the plot. The critics were, too.

At the centre of the complaints was Daenerys Stormborn (Emilia Clarke) and the heavy-handed way the writers were foreshadowing her becoming the ‘Mad Queen’. With numerous different leaks floating around the internet about the next episodes, fans were desperate to believe that the writers weren’t doing exactly what it looked like they were.

Except that they were, and they did. By episode five, the consensus was clear: the show had destroyed itself on the landing stretch.

To put the problem with Daenerys’ arc simply: her character turn happened because the writers could not conceive of an endgame where a benevolent woman holds the reins of power

So what was the issue? The main problem, as far as Daenerys was concerned, was that fans felt her turn to complete tyranny was rushed and unearned. But there was a far bigger problem to the treatment of Daenerys by the showrunners, one that is reflective of a problem not just of how the show treats its other female characters, but of a long-standing issue in the relationship between female characters and power.

First, a very quick introduction to Daenerys. She is from the near-extinct House Targaryen, with her and her brother exiled to Essos to avoid being killed by their political enemies. Her brother Viserys is abusive towards her, selling her into marriage to a man who rapes her nightly. Things start to change for Daenerys when she hatches three dragons and gains the loyalty of both her new husband and also his people, leading to her brother’s death at her husband’s hands.

From there she starts to make her own play for the Iron Throne – the seat of power in the world of GoT – in order to achieve not just the restoration of her house, but to make positive changes in both Essos and Westeros. Over the course of seven seasons, Daenerys liberates several slave cities, refuses to leave for Westeros before making sure the liberated cities remain free, raises her three dragons and learns to ride them in battle and collects titles and loyal armies the way most people collect credit card debt. At the start of Season Eight, Daenerys is a serious contender for the Iron Throne, and only two things have kept her from taking King’s Landing already: her desire to avoid the death of innocents, and her promise to help Jon Snow kill the Night King (read: king ice zombie).

All of Daenerys’ arc as a positive force in Westeros is then undone within seconds at the end of episode five of Season 8, when she has her dragon slaughter hundreds of innocents in King’s Landing. That she had effectively already won the Game of Thrones against Cersei and had no logical reason to do this led to many fans and critics revolting against the show and its writers.

The real issue is not that this character turn was sudden or jarring. That was just a symptom of a bigger, three-headed disease. First, Daenerys’ fall is nothing less than a cliche and is far from the shocking subversion the writers hoped it was. Second, the framing of the events leading up to Daenerys’ fall (among other things) show why women’s perspective is desperately needed on writing teams. And third, all of this is harshly contrasted with the treatment of the male characters within the show.

To put the problem with Daenerys’ arc simply: her character turn happened because the writers (or G.R.R. Martin) could not conceive of an endgame where a benevolent woman holds the reins of power.

Throughout history, across the globe, women with power have been depicted as evil. Women ruling monarchs have been called “she-wolves” by writers of their day, the very fact of their ruling being seen as inherently unnatural and corrupting of their feminine nature. Queen Mary I of England was known as “Bloody Mary” due to her reputation for killing Protestants, but no such nickname dogged either Edward VI or her father Henry VIII despite them killing a similar or greater amount of people comparatively.

The archetype of a woman with power being inherently evil is baked into the literature of our society. The two main roles of women in fairy tales are either the princess or the witch. The princess is beautiful and virtuous but powerless, whereas the witch is powerful but ugly and evil. This isn’t unique to western Europe by any means. Asian folklore is similarly split along roles of the good housewife and mother versus the evil demon witch who tries to exert power outside of her ‘proper’ place.

This reading continues in films and TV shows to this day, with women’s careers taking the place of political power. A woman’s career is often treated as unimportant even when she is given a starring film role, and she is expected to choose between her love life/family and her career, while no such limitation is imposed on a male character. If this doesn’t happen, then the career-driven woman is presented as misguided and we are expected to see it as a happy ending when a far less ambitious man comes along and derails her focus (this happens for example in Disney films such as The Princess and the Frog, the science fiction film Contact and in its creepiest manifestation, the space drama Passengers).

I think this rejection of the expression of any form of women’s power comes from an inherent anxiety surrounding the protection of the status quo. If Daenerys were to be both powerful and good, then real change could happen in Westeros, like the change enacted in Essos. But the writers do not want to, or cannot conceive of what this world would look like, and therefore Daenerys must become evil to justify taking her out of the game. The entirety of the writing surrounding her storyline has to serve this end, no matter how inorganic or contrived it becomes. There is, according to GoT, simply no other option for Daenerys, and so the entire show suffers as a result.

It serves as one of the greatest ironies of the last season that despite the writers’ alleged obsession with subverting expectations, Daenerys being killed was one thing many critics were predicting even before her turn to tyranny. As a society we can’t bring ourselves to conceive of the just woman ruler, as much as many fans of the character wanted that ending for her.

Through Daenerys the writers directly deliver the message that we shouldn’t try and hold evil men accountable, lest we become the monsters ourselves. In other words, once again implying that powerlessness is better than power for women

More tiring than the predictable cliches are the implications it leaves in its wake. In having Daenerys start as a victim of abuse who becomes powerful and then an evil tyrant, the show implies that it would have been better for everyone for her to remain a victim of abuse and rape. In suggesting Daenerys’ lack of reaction to her abusive brother’s death was a sign of her ‘madness’, the show implies that wanting repercussions against abusers is a sign of evil. And perhaps the greatest bad take comes from her advisor Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage), who implies Daenerys’ increased bloodlust comes because people cheered her when she killed rapists and abusers on her path to power.

With her growing tyranny, the viewers are expected to agree with Lannister’s assertion and therein lies the worst message of all: that Daenerys’ becoming evil herself is partly a result of trying to hold evil rapists, abusers and slavers accountable for their actions. It expects us to look back at every time she executed a slaver, rapist or abuser and think that it wasn’t a righteous action, but that it was a sign of her turn towards ruthlessness and demonstrated her potential for evil. The status quo is therefore preserved – through Daenerys the writers directly deliver the message that we shouldn’t try and hold evil men accountable, lest we become the monsters ourselves. In other words, once again implying that powerlessness is better than power for women.

A number of events that the show tries to frame as proof of Daenerys’ madness also fall short and show a complete lack of empathy with the female perspective. Events meant to show Daenerys’ increasing ‘madness’ instead suggest a double standard within the series. For example, she executes a man for plotting against her and this is framed as evidence of her changing mental state. Other characters do much the same and it is presented as the politically smart thing to do.

Worse than this, however, is that the characters imply her inability to have children renders her unsuitable to rule while Bran Stark’s infertility is presented as advantageous to his ruling at the end of the show.

The show’s justification for a man stabbing his lover to death in a moment of intimacy is framed using the same logic many real-world domestic abusers would use for violence against their partner – their partner could not be reasoned with and left them no choice but to be violent

Most uncomfortable of all is her being stabbed by Jon whilst the two are locked in a passionate kiss. The show’s justification for a man stabbing his lover to death in a moment of intimacy is framed using the same logic many real-world domestic abusers would use for violence against their partner – their partner could not be reasoned with and left them no choice but to be violent; their partner made them do it. And we are encouraged to empathise with Jon’s perspective, to believe that he was right to murder her over any other choice.

The problematic undercurrent to this action is not lost on critics of the show and is clearly not lost to actor Emilia Clarke who plays Daenerys. Commenting on Jon’s actions she remarked: “[Jon] just doesn’t like women does he? He keeps f****ing killing them. No. If I were to put myself in his shoes I’m not sure what else he could have done aside from … oh, I dunno, other than maybe have a discussion with me about it? Ask my opinion? Warn me?”

All of this suggests that the writers continually expect the viewers to empathise with the male characters on the show over Daenerys, solely to move the storyline into its forced box. Daenerys must become evil, therefore we should empathise with incompetent Tyrion worrying why Daenerys doesn’t want to listen to her advisers anymore. Daenerys must be killed, therefore we should empathise with Jon stabbing her to death and crying over her body. Daenerys actually wanting power to do good and being confident in her titles is pride, and pride is unacceptable in a woman, so we should empathise with the characters lining up to declare that she might be dangerous and evil.

The final issue with all of this is the show’s differing treatment of male characters. Most of the men rulers in the show are not evil but merely incompetent, and those who are evil are that way from the beginning. Unlike Daenerys, there is no implication that getting power corrupted them as they were either evil without it or were always powerful.

Where Daenerys’ desire for power ultimately leads her to evil tyranny, the male characters’ incompetence or lack of ambition sees them be soundly rewarded and presented in the moral right. For example, Jon Snow is a character with a consistent lack of interest in playing the game of thrones. As soon as he is discovered to be a potential heir to the throne, however, many immediately favour him over Daenerys for no real reason other than his gender.

As per the usual with this storyline, there is nothing original about the idea that those who don’t seek power are most deserving of it. It goes back to old folklore and Arthurian legend, stories that are far more idealistic than GoT, which G. R. R. Martin wrote partly to explore the idea of who would make a good ruler in a more grounded way than older stories such as Lord of the Rings did. This assumption that Jon’s uninterest (and frequent unwise insistence on honesty despite the cost) makes him a good potential ruler goes back to lazy cliche – the good hearted but inexperienced man making an excellent ruler is just as much of a cultural stereotype as an ambitious woman becoming an evil queen, and therefore does not subvert expectations but plays right into them.

This excuse-making and banner flying for the incompetent men in the show is a pattern that reoccurs with more than just Jon. This is most notable with Tyrion, whose original role on the show was to be a sharp-tongued mastermind. After he joins Daenerys, however, he makes bad decision after bad decision, costing her significant tactical advantage at every turn.

Not only does the show portray Daenerys losing faith in him as a sign of her increasing madness rather than a justifiable reaction, but Tyrion suffers no real consequences for any of it, even when he conspires to have Jon murder her. An even greater example of this is Bran Stark, who in the end becomes the ruler of the Seven Kingdoms despite having even less political experience than Jon.

So what does all this amount to? Given that fans have disavowed the series left and right because of its disappointing ending, possibly not much but a discussion of how not to treat women characters in a TV show. And it may even be the writers had no intention of creating so many problematic elements in their storyline but were just following the outline provided by the author and had very little time to make any of it work.

Even with those considerations, though, the ‘Evil Mad Queen’ is the most tired ending the show could have taken. My hope now for Game of Thrones, should the books do anything to preserve their status as a pop culture icon, is that Daenerys is allowed to be vengeful against her abusers without being punished for it. That Daenerys is allowed to hold evil men accountable for their actions without being punished for it. And that whatever end she meets does not come solely as a result of her desiring power and having ambitions to make the misogynist mess that is Westeros a better place.