Warning: Spoilers for Season 6, Episodes 1-5 of Game of Thrones
Throughout the first half of season 6, Game of Thrones has been giving its viewers what they want (with some exceptions: RIP Hodor). The most obvious example is Jon Snow’s resurrection from the dead in Episode 2, an event all fans fully believed would happen while remaining very anxious that it might not. This season has also briskly rearranged the chess board by wiping out some of the old guard: along with the death of Stannis Baratheon last season, Balon Greyjoy, Doran Tyrell, and Roose Bolton have all now met their demises. Perhaps most importantly, however, Game of Thrones has positioned its female characters as the most powerful in the game.
In general, this season has emphasized women’s power; Entertainment Weekly pointed this out even before the season started, announcing that women would “rule” Season 6. They were right, and it’s unfortunate for viewers like those at The Mary Sue that they gave up on the show last season. From the minor to the major, female characters have been taking control, even having a “renaissance of the ‘Dames of Thrones,’” as Laura Bogart at A.V. Club puts it. So far, we have seen Ellaria and the Sand Snakes seize power in Dorne through a quick and bloody coup. Melisandre may have revealed vulnerability in her despair—and in the revelation of her true age—in the first episode, but by the second she had raised someone from the dead. Cersei’s grief at her daughter’s death quickly sublimated itself into a return to her usual determined scheming, precariously aligned with the equally cunning Olenna Tyrell. There’s a new red priestess who has managed to shake Varys’s self-assurance, something viewers haven’t seen before. Meera and even Leaf of the Children of the Forest have had their moments of heroism.
Then there are the long-suffering Stark sisters and Brienne, who are all coming into their own. I’ve written before about Sansa Stark’s potential as a heroine, and this season she is more than fulfilling that promise, as other viewers, including Casey Cipriani at Bustle, have recognized. Some even declare her the best character on the show, and the one who has grown the most. She has played a central role in three of this season’s most moving and emotionally rewarding moments so far. The first was Sansa and Brienne exchanging their vows of loyalty as lady and knight. (This followed a sequence so typical in most fantasy series but so rare and precious in this one, of a knight riding in at just the right minute to save a lady—in this case, Brienne rescuing Sansa from recapture by Ramsay Bolton.) Finally, Sansa was out of the hands of sleazy or sadistic men, and instead had the protection of a fiercely loyal female knight in shining armor determined to protect her.
A second deeply cathartic moment soon followed, with Sansa’s reunion with her (supposed) half-brother Jon, whom she urges to help her retake Winterfell from her former tormentor. She even gets the chance, in another crucial scene in episode five, to confront Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish for putting her in the power of the Boltons. She forces him to confront not just the emotional, but the physical pain she endured. She emphasizes that some of that pain involved things “ladies don’t talk about,” but she is not ashamed to bring them up; the shame is all, rightly, Littlefinger’s. While her lie to Jon about her meeting with Littlefinger suggests she may not have fully severed the latter’s puppet strings, she is undoubtedly becoming a force to be reckoned with.
The show sets Sansa’s impressive and hard-earned courage alongside Arya Stark’s accelerated training as an assassin in Braavos and the return of her eyesight. Arya has reached a cross-roads where she must decide what her identity will be from this point forward—will she remain Arya Stark, or become No One, as she must to serve the Many-Faced god? Will she sacrifice her own moral judgment, and her own quest for vengeance? While we have yet to learn the full significance of the choice, it seems clear that what she decides will have impact on the story as a whole.
While the entire season has been putting women front and center, nowhere is women’s power more emphasized than in Episode 4, perhaps the most compelling episode of the season so far. This is the episode in which Sansa’s bravery and queenliness shine through, as she plans to return to the place she has just escaped, telling Jon Snow: “I want your help, but I’ll do it myself if I have to.” In this same episode, Osha heroically sacrifices her life out of loyalty to the Starks, and Margery Tyrell and Yara Greyjoy (Asha in the books) reveal themselves to be more determined than their brothers to keep playing the dangerous game of thrones. (Interestingly, though, Theon has never seemed more mature as a man than when he shows himself ready to support his sister’s authority in the face of those who mock the idea of a female ruler.)
And then, of course, there’s Daenerys. Men on the show are constantly underestimating Daenerys, and one of the pleasures for female viewers is seeing those men turned to cinders when they do so. Dany spends the first three episodes of the season captive to the Dothraki warlords who verbally assault her and threaten her with rape. At the end of Episode 4, they argue her fate amongst themselves, and are astonished when she dares to ask, “Don’t you want to know what I think?” Naturally, she is told her voice means nothing, and when she suggests that only she is fit to lead the Dothraki, they respond with threats of brutal assault. “Did you think we would serve you?” they sneer. “You’re not going to serve. You’re going to die,” she tells them, overturning all the torches and burning them all to the ground. She, the blood of the dragon whom fire cannot harm, emerges unscathed. All the Dothraki outside fall to their knees in awe and reverence.
Why is that scene so spine-tinglingly wonderful, even for someone who would happily dispense with much of the violence on this show? I think it’s because Dany has been forced to put up with the kind of macho BS all women have to put up with, but especially when they dare to exert authority or just to use their voice in public. Women who speak up for other women on the internet or other public forums are particularly often silenced by barrages of hateful and threatening comments, and sometimes by actual physical violence. That’s what gives such sweetness to Dany’s being able to dismiss her captors as “small men,” and to turn their intended violence back on them. She does so instead of attempting to flee with her would-be rescuers, Daario and Jorah, and without even the help of one of her dragons swooping in. This is a specifically female brand of wish-fulfillment fantasy. And that’s not something a Season 1 viewer would ever have expected from Game of Thrones.