“The dark is coming for all of us.”
After Ned was permanently removed from play in last week's episode, many Game of Thrones viewers took to the Internet, complaining that the series had made a mistake—that the character was just too vital to the series' success for it to go on without him. Last night’s Game of Thrones finale, “Fire & Blood,” proves those concerns unfounded. "Fire & Blood" makes up for the loss of Ned by deepening its focus on the show's massive ensemble cast, any number of whom could plausibly be called our new protagonist. And—significantly, given the criticism that Game of Thrones has sometimes drawn for its gender dynamics—the majority of the major players left in the game of thrones are women.
No character in Game of Thrones has undergone a more dramatic change since the beginning of the season than Daenerys Targeryen. When Daenerys was first introduced, she was completely controlled by her brother Viserys. He offered her up to the fearsome Khal Drogo, and when she finally, meekly protested, her brother replied, "I would let his whole tribe fuck you, all forty thousand men, and their horses too, if that's what it took." Daenerys followed her Viserys' command, and suffered a horrific rape at the hands of Khal Drogo on her wedding night.
But she didn't remain a victim for long. Daenerys asserted her equality to her new husband, and embraced her new culture, learning the Dothraki language and gamely participating in Dothraki rituals, like the eating of a horse's heart. Before long, she was actively inciting change in the hyper-masculine Dothraki culture—particularly when she appealed to her husband to stop the systematic rape of captured women.
Last night's finale saw the completion of Daenerys's transformation. Coming out of the fire naked, with her three young dragons, it was as if she'd been reborn. Though Daenerys loved Khal Drogo, she doesn't need him anymore; she can raise a khalasar on her own. If Daenerys is truly "the dragon," the hatched eggs are almost a surrogate for the son she lost in childbirth. And with her new allies, she's poised to take back the iron throne. Daenerys once said, "I do not have a gentle heart." If her treatment of the witch Mirri Maz Duur in last night's episode is any indication, Daenerys has no mercy left in her.
There is, of course, another powerful, golden-haired woman without a gentle heart in Game of Thrones. There are intriguing parallels between Daenerys and Queen Cersei; the forced marriages, the sheer strength of will, and the attitude of utter ruthlessness toward their enemies. Much like Daenerys in her marriage with Khal Drogo, Queen Cersei exercised her own greatest power in her marriage to Robert Baratheon: her ability to conceive children. Bloodline and succession is the quickest, surest way to assert strength in Westeros, and Cersei made the decision to have hers with Jaime, not Robert. The fact that Robert died without a true heir in place is Cersei's greatest power—and greatest revenge.
It's easy to hate the cold, manipulative Cersei. But there was a time, not so long ago, when she was a lot like Sansa Stark: young, hopeful, and betrothed to a man who, in the end, never offered her the life she wanted. Cersei knows how to use Sansa so skillfully because she herself was once used, in a similarly politically motivated marriage, benefitting both the Baratheons and the Lannisters at the expense of her own personal happiness. Cersei has overcome the limitations Westerosi society has imposed on her by strategy and treachery, and though she's far from sympathetic—this is, after all, a woman who had a boy pushed out of a window to protect her secret affair with her brother—it's not impossible to understand how she became the cold-hearted woman she is.
For all of Cersei's scheming, however, it's Lady Catelyn Stark who demonstrates both power and compassion. As the Stark family deals with the aftermath of Ned's execution, Catelyn proves to be the strongest Stark of all. Her son Robb is named "King in the North" by his loyal followers. It's a title he deserves; he's proven as honorable as his father, but less naive, and he's demonstrated his ability to lead well. But it's Lady Catelyn who comforts her son after they learn of Ned's death, not the other way around. And it's Lady Catelyn who coolly, pragmatically defines out the Starks' battle strategy for the "King in the North": "We have to get the girls back. And then we will kill them all."
And as for the girls themselves, left stranded in King's Landing after Ned's execution? Arya—who's had to grow up a lot in the past few episodes, between her first kill and the beheading of her father—is carted off, in disguise, to serve as a new recruit at the Wall. It's both sad and somehow poetic that her survival rests on her ability to blend in as a young boy. Of course, tomboyishness is not the same thing as masculinity, and it would be a mistake to equate the two—Arya is every bit as female as her sister Sansa. But Westeros has a very specific set of rules for noble-born women, and Arya's not interested in playing by any of them.
The tension between who Arya is and who she's expected to be has been present since her very first scene, when she shot a perfectly aimed arrow that bested the efforts of her brother Bran. Bran, despite his disabilities, is still being trained to fight, while Ned spoke to Arya about how she would marry a lord and raising a slew of noble-born children someday. Ned wasn't actively trying to build Arya a life that would make her unhappy. But Arya's actual dreams diverge so much from the norms for a Westerosi female that Ned could never even have conceived of them. Tellingly, Arya was given the sword she dubbed "Needle" by Jon Snow—a man who also knows something about being an outcast. Arya, like Jon Snow, would be best off at the Wall, where she could continue her sword training and live a life of adventure, regardless of rank or title—if she were a man.
Of course, Arya was also spared the terrible burden place on her older sister Sansa: the arranged marriage to the sadistic King Joffrey Baratheon. Sansa has long been groomed for her eventual wedding to Joffrey, which offered a political benefit to both the Starks and the Baratheons, despite the fact that both Ned and Catelyn are well aware of Joffrey's shortcomings. Though Sansa's infatuation with Joffrey ended the moment he had her father executed—and "Fire & Blood" features a brief, tantalizing moment when she considers pushing Joffrey from the castle's walls—Sansa is powerless to stop the wedding from happening. If Arya is too out of sync with her time and place in history, Sansa is absolutely trapped in hers; when Joffrey speaks coldly about "putting a baby" in her as soon as she bleeds, she has no real choice but to nod meekly in agreement or be killed.
But even Sansa is finding ways to assert herself under Joffrey's watchful eye. Joffrey cruelly orders Sansa to look at Ned and Septa's heads on the castle walls, and she agrees to keep her eyes on the heads until he lets her go. But Sansa looks again after Joffrey leaves. For a girl who's been criticized by many fans as snotty and immature, it's a turning point; when she looks on her father and handmaiden's heads of her own free will, it's an act of defiance, and of sorrow, and of guilt. Not so long ago, Sansa was naïve, but the scales have clearly fallen from her eyes—and as she stands, she's the best-positioned Stark to strike back at the Lannisters.
As "Fire & Blood" draws to a close, Westeros is descending even further into the "madness" decried by Tywin Lannister. The Night's Watch has ventured north of the Wall to confront the White Walkers and whatever other creatures lie beyond. Daenerys readies her new army, complete with newly hatched dragons—the same creatures that her family used to conquer all of Westeros many years before. And the Wolf and the Lion remain at each other's throats. There are wars to be fought, lives to be lost, and games to be won when Game of Thrones returns to HBO in Spring of 2012. And winter—as the old saying goes—is coming.
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