In April 2011, then–New York Times TV critic Ginia Bellafante got caught up in a critical imbroglio for her suggestion that the then-new HBO series Game of Thrones, like other Tolkien-ish fantasy series, was not really for female audiences. Bellafante was, obviously, mistaken, but I can still see where she went wrong: Game of Thrones sure looked like an extraordinarily macho show, the sort of grim, internecine, don’t-call-it-a-soap-opera dynastic saga in which nameless female characters flaunt their areola and everyone wears fur, but it makes you look like a linebacker. Game of Thrones’ macho front helped establish it as prestige TV, but it also turned the show into a kind of Trojan Horse, smuggling a plethora of powerful women into positions of power in a story that appeared, at first, to be about the squabbling of men.
Dany, Arya, Sansa, Brienne, Cersei, Melisandre: These women survived to the series’ waning episodes, while would-be male rulers—Robert, Ned, Robb, Joffrey, Tywin, Viserys, Roose, Ramsay, Stannis—have fallen. Doing the Game of Thrones equivalent of dancing backward in heels (stepping over horse shit while sword fighting?) the women of GoT have become the most powerful and storied characters in Westeros—rivaled, at this point, only by the noble but witless Jon Snow. Cocks may, as Varys (RIP) remarked, be as important to ruling as ever, but the show is full of literally and figuratively castrated men—witless Jon, robotic Bran, foolish Tyrion—while women prompt the action: Their wills, their plans, even their deaths are driving the whole series. The show’s universal point of view character, the type of human the cameras cut to again and again to show the audience how terrifying and serious the stakes are for the common man—it’s a little girl.
If the role of women in Game of Thrones was not entirely clear when it first premiered in 2012, neither were the future events that would make those fictional women so allegorically powerful. Game of Thrones debuted during the relative stability of Obama-era America and seemed to share with the then-president a kind of wonkish, technocratic approach to genre. (How do you finance wars? How much grain do you need to feed an army?) As the detail-oriented GoT has faded during the show’s pell-mell dash toward completion (“What do dragons eat anyway?” got played for a laugh in the final season’s first episode), its biggest themes have become front-page news: the morality of tyranny, the intractable conflict between would-be countrymen, and last but certainly not least, what does a qualified woman have to do to win power over a less qualified would-be-autocrat anyway? Game of Thrones lends itself to endless dissection because it is such a ready scrim upon which to project whatever contemporary issue is at hand: global warming, WMDs, tyranny, democracy, industrialization, etc. Trump’s election, or rather Hillary Clinton’s defeat, turned gender politics—specifically, the question of whether or not a woman can ever successfully rule—into the baggage-ridden theme upon which the whole show hangs.
Daenerys Targaryen became the focal point for the slippage between reality and fiction. Despite being played by one of the weaker actresses in the cast, Dany has become an all-purpose stand-in for powerful women (You could even argue that Emilia Clarke’s blank performance makes her a better screen upon which to project.) Dany is a Strong Female Character, a badass, the freer of slaves, the inspirer of men, the Mother of Dragons. Perhaps her will-to-power was a touch messianic, but see how far a woman gets with Jon Snow’s aw-shucks “I don’t want to rule” schtick. Dany shouldered the hopes, not so much of her would-be subjects (most of whom had never heard of her), but the audience, who could see in her a viable female candidate, one with the dragonfire to hold her ground against less-qualified men.
In this, they were enabled by the show, which for many seasons gave Dany a hero’s arc: winning over armies, freeing cities from slavery, regularly encountering cynical men (Tyrion, Varys) and convincing them she was truly special. As the show continued, Dany remained, for season upon season, the great blond hope, making mistakes but continually learning, a despot who might actually be enlightened—a timely riff on the protagonist in a fantasy quest who believes he is destined for something great and always turns out to be right. Dany’s experience as a young woman—being ignored, traded, terrorized—made her sensitive to injustice, to the underdog. Her femaleness was not irrelevant to her larger claim, but part of her particular sensitivity. Up to and through agreeing to go fight the white walkers for the greater good, her demons were in check to the angels of her better nature. And in the larger context of what was and is happening in America at this particular juncture, all of this turned Dany into a version of The Feminist Hero We Need Right Now, compared by Emilia Clarke to Ruth Bader Ginsburg, backed by Elizabeth Warren, memed as Hillary Clinton (even, perhaps, opposed by Donald Trump). She became more than a character, she became a symbol, a fantasy, of the woman who could thread the impossible double standards to rule lesser men, rewriting genre, history, and the future in the process.
But Game of Thrones’ final season has hit Dany believers especially hard. The last two episodes have engaged in a kind of fast-forward destruction of Dany’s psyche, culminating in her turn from enlightened liberator to full-fledged war criminal. Not long ago, Dany still seemed like a normal-feeling person, and now she’s lighting up millions of innocents, triggered by her boyfriend not wanting to sleep with her because she’s his aunt. She couldn’t even do the sensible dragon-based thing and blast the Red Keep to smithereens, killing Cersei but leaving most of the city’s innocents unburnt
With Game of Thrones, viewers are on extremely unstable ground: In addition to whatever plot twists are being lobbed our way, there is also a deficit of artistry that is giving the whole show a whole lot of wiggle it shouldn’t rightly have. Game of Thrones, the show, is working off an ending delivered by George R. R. Martin, an ending that makes sense inside of the moral world he has created—where good and evil co-exist inside the same people, war is awful, and history never ends. But in delivering that ending, the show is hitting viewers in the nose, extremely hard, with an idea that has been latent since the beginning: that rooting for anyone is a loser’s game.
Underplaying this permitted many members of the audience to ignore that Dany has always been motivated by something fundamentally gross—the idea that she is destined to be a ruler; that she is owed the fealty of millions of people; that she will be a fantastic ruler despite never having demonstrated a knack for it—and instead to see her as the allegorical dragon queen we want her to be. Even if Dany had kept her bloodthirsty tendencies in check, she’d still leave Westeros where it has always been: waiting for the inevitable day when one of her nutty descendants terrorizes people with nuclear dragons.
That Game of Thrones’ final stretch has been badly written and badly paced should not obscure that the overall story is still doing interesting work, forcing invested viewers into all sorts of morally awkward positions, and posing questions that it can actually be salubrious to think about in the realm of fiction, rather than life. How far does a ruler have to go before you break with them? What is an enlightened tyrant, even? How much does gender influence our loyalty?
Dany was always, at best, a lesser of numerous evils. Her downfall, which is also her ascension to the Iron Throne, happened in a dramatically inept way that is, nonetheless, in keeping with the larger moral lessons of the series. It is sloppy craftsmanship but not, I don’t believe, anti-feminist, as I saw suggested all over Twitter (though a few female writers might have kept the show from suggesting that Jon’s sexual rejection was her final breaking point). Despite being set in some imagined, backward, medieval past, Game of Thrones is way ahead of us in having women in positions of actual authority, and this means that Dany’s madwoman arc does not have to stand in for all women everywhere. Not only did this episode feature one previous mad queen, Cersei, acting less than mad; and another female superhero, Arya, showing remarkable signs of humanity; the only living non-idiot on the show is still a queen in the North. Dany might have seemed, at one point, like the best female hope for Westeros, but she’s not the last.