I recently wrote about the exciting potential of the early episodes of Game of Thrones season 6, and the second half of the season more than fulfilled the promise of the first half. The last two episodes in particular were each better than most full-length movies. (Also, we got confirmation of the most important of all fan theories: the one regarding Jon Snow’s parentage.) When I wrote about the first half of the season, I mentioned the surprising amount of female wish-fulfillment fantasy it contained; with the second half of the season, the dark side of that wish fulfillment became clear. We were given what we wanted—Sansa’s revenge on Ramsay Bolton, Arya’s on the Freys—only to feel how dark and morally murky our satisfaction with such scenes became.
The two Stark sisters, like Daenerys, have grown increasingly ruthless, and each has been traumatized by her experiences enough that she can look on smiling as a man she’s killed dies gruesomely. It was exhilarating to see Arya use her training to dispatch the inexplicably hostile Waif and, more importantly, to claim her own name and identity: “A girl is Arya Stark of Winterfell, and I’m going home.” But when she feeds Walder Frey his sons in pies and then slits his throat with grisly delight, we should, as the showrunners point out in their ‘Inside the Episode’ conversation, be worried for Arya even though we shed no tears for Walder. We might say the same of Sansa, with her ghostly smile after she feeds Ramsay to his own dogs.
Indeed, Sansa’s storyline leaves us similarly unsure when and how much to cheer. Her astonishing transformation from pawn to major player in the game of thrones seems complete, and fans of the show have already proclaimed her Queen of the North. She refuses to let herself be devalued, as when Jon underestimates the value of her knowledge of Ramsay’s nature, and she asks Jon if it never occurred to him that she might have some insight into how to defeat their common foe. Not only is her assessment that Jon’s battle strategy will play right into Ramsay’s hands correct, but she ultimately makes victory possible by summoning the Knights of the Vale. Jon, in return, allows her to be the one to end Ramsay’s life. She chooses her words and actions in her final confrontation with Ramsay very deliberately for maximum impact: “Your words will disappear. Your house will disappear. All memory of you will disappear,” she tells him, before turning his own cruelty against him, feeding him to the very dogs he has both starved and trained to enjoy human flesh.
It is here, though, that the showrunner’s words about Arya seem to apply to Sansa as well. If anyone deserves a terrible death, it’s Ramsay, and if anyone deserves to enact personal vengeance, it’s Sansa. But should our response to her character arc, and to that little smile she gives as she watches Ramsay die, be purely celebratory? As Sean Collins observes writing for Vulture, we should feel discomfort watching this scene, if only because the show has so often shown us the ugliness of the cycle of revenge.
There’s another aspect to that discomfort as well. Sansa was naïve in the earlier seasons, with her belief in chivalry, beauty, and romance, but isn’t it at all tragic that her survival must mean the death of the gentleness, idealism, and trusting nature that once characterized her? To celebrate the loss of her gentle nature and its replacement by ruthlessness (or “badassery,” if you will) is to privilege traditionally male characteristics and devalue traditionally female ones. Furthermore, does her grisly means of killing Ramsay mean that Ramsay was right that he is now a part of her that she can’t kill? Trauma has changed her profoundly—and I’m not sure it’s just for the better. When she tells Jon that “No one can protect anyone,” those words display the bleakness (however clear-sighted) to which her worldview has been reduced. She doesn’t even trust Jon himself, keeping secret the rather significant card (the Knights of the Vale) she plans to play in the battle, and perhaps continuing to pay too much attention to Littlefinger’s advice.
Both Stark girls have crossed a moral line, and can never return to the people they were. Their steely mother, whom Sansa increasingly resembles, would no doubt approve of her daughters’ vengeances on Ramsay and Walder—but would their noble-hearted father, Ned Stark? Sansa and Arya are survivors as he wasn’t, but at what cost?
Increasing ruthlessness is even more obvious in Danaerys. As much as I delighted in the Khal-roasting antics of Episode 4, in the season’s second half I started to wonder whether the theory that she will become the show’s villain might have some merit. Her inspirational speech to the Dothraki atop Drogon’s back in Episode 6 made me worry for the Westerosi characters she might leave dead in her wake, and Daario’s statement that she was not made to sit in a chair (i.e., to rule) but to conquer seems pretty spot on. When her first plan on her return to Meereen is to crucify the Masters who have betrayed her and burn their cities to the ground, Tyrion points out exactly how much like her father, Mad King Aerys, she is sounding. The show-runners seem to have responded to the Dany-as-villain theory in their ‘Inside the Episode’ commentary on Episode 9, in which they insist that Dany is “not her father, not mad, not a sadist”—but has increasingly developed “Targaryen ruthlessness.”
Dany may not be a villain, but another much more ruthless Mad Queen does indeed come to fill the void in major villains left by Ramsay’s departure. Cersei, who lately had seemed less of an antagonist, commits a breathtaking atrocity in the season finale, wiping out all her enemies at once by unleashing wildfire on the Great Sept. By doing so, she gains the Iron Throne, but she also loses her last remaining child, and with him perhaps her last shred of humanity.
Despite or because of the moral ambiguity of its female characters’ victories, this season seemed like the gift that kept on giving from a feminist angle this season. Even minor female characters seemed to emerge fully realized: among the fandom’s favorites is Lyanna Mormont of Bear Island, a formidable ten-year-old who does not tolerate patronizing behavior. Then there is the new alliance between Olenna Tyrell—seeking (what else?) vengeance—with Ellaria and the Sand Snakes, and ultimately, it would seem, with Dany. And though I didn’t expect to lose Margery Tyrell so soon, at least she went out still the smartest person in the room, as she always has been. There was also the delightful and unexpected flirtation between Yara and Dany; in that scene, they commiserate over the awful patriarchs who have shaped their lives, and over those pesky obstacles, men who think women aren’t fit to rule. Dany says they must make the world a better place, though we wonder what means she will use to achieve her utopian end. Whatever happens, now that she’s sailing west, the War of the Five Kings is receding into memory. The war of many queens has just begun.