The female characters are learning how to navigate the tricky gender politics of Westeros.
"Do you understand? I am no ordinary woman."
When Ned Stark was beheaded in the penultimate episode of Game of Thrones' first season, it left a power gap in Westeros—and a main character-sized hole in the show. Some questioned whether or not the series could sustain its narrative thrust without Sean Bean's solid leading performance, but that gap has largely been filled by Game of Thrones' ever-increasing stable of terrific female leads. Last night's episode, "The Old Gods and the New," gives new insight into the struggles of Westeros' women—and the increasingly sophisticated methods by which those struggles are being overcome.
Game of Thrones' second season has centered on "a clash of kings," but it's quickly become clear that the old maxim holds true: Behind every king, there's an even greater woman. Renly had the ambitious, pragmatic Margaery Tyrell, who shrugged off his homosexuality by citing the urgent political need for Renly to "put a baby" in her belly. Stannis owes his success to his puppet mistress Melisandre—the only player in the game of thrones whose attack has successfully killed a king. Joffrey has his mother Cersei, who unsuccessfully advised that he spare Ned Stark's life—a mercy which would likely have kept the Starks from declaring war on the Lannisters. And Robb has his mother Catelyn, who warned that Theon Greyjoy would betray the Starks—a prediction that came true with the siege of Winterfell in "The Old Gods and the New." And even Theon, who has unconvincingly crowned himself a prince, has been outmaneuvered by his sister Yara at every turn—and still needs her "five hundred men" to retain control of his new kingdom.
MORE ON GAME OF THRONES
Though Game of Thrones' strongest women have managed to vie for power through men, in a subtler (though just as high-stakes) clash of queens, they're hamstrung by Westeros' gender politics. Highborn daughters are still treated with political expediency by Targaryens, Lannisters, and Starks alike. For all their differences, Cersei Lannister and Catelyn Stark have at least one point of common ground: They were each maneuvered into political marriages. And their daughters look to be following the same path; even Ned Stark consented to the marriage between Sansa and Joffrey, which would have tied the Starks and Baratheons together and secured the alliance between the north and south. In "The Old Gods and the New," Tyrion's scheme to earn a new ally by marrying off the young Princess Myrcella finally comes to pass as she's shipped off to Dorne against Cersei's will in "The Old Gods and the New." For all Cersei's power, the only power she has against Tyrion taking her daughter is her threats.
Given Westero's lopsided sexual politics, it's unsurprising that the women of Game of Thrones are finding their closest allies in other women. In last week's episode, Brienne and Catelyn Stark swore oaths to one another, with Brienne specifically praising Catelyn for possessing "a woman's kind of courage." "The Old Gods and the New" sees a comparable alliance between Sansa and Shae—two women whose lives are entirely controlled by Lannister men. When Shae warns Sansa that she shouldn't trust anyone, she's speaking with the hard-earned wisdom of Game of Thrones' lower-born women, who have developed their own methods of survival. Earlier this season, Lord Varys explained his method of survival in the cutthroat world of Westeros: "The big fish eat the little fish, and I keep on paddling." In "The Old Gods and the New," the wildling Osha expresses herself similarly about the besieged Winterfell: "The ocean has come to swallow this place. I ain't letting it drown me." But Osha has one weapon in her arsenal that Varys doesn't—her sexuality—and she's not afraid to use it. (It's significant that Ygritte—who vexes Jon Snow in "The Old Gods and the New"—and Osha are the only wildlings we've met who have survived longer than a scene.)
Osha manages to turn Theon's sexism into a weapon she can use. But her sacrifice also shows that from the highest courts of King's Landing to the trials of lowborn life, the women of Westeros are in a perilous position sexually. The threat of sexual violence is constant, as Sansa experienced in last night's horrific riot scene. But sex also can be—and has been—used to gain power by Westeros' women, and not just in the means practiced by Osha in her escape from Winterfell. Sex has also changed Westeros' entire political landscape. By avoiding giving birth to a legitimate heir of King Robert's, Cersei singlehandedly ended the Baratheon reign in Westeros—a feat that none of his battlefield enemies was able to accomplish.
But for all the powerful women in Westeros, the most promising harbinger of female power in Game of Thrones lies across the Narrow Sea. Unlike the rest of Game of Thrones' highborn women (and apart from Melisandre, whose long-term motives can only be guessed at), Daenerys seeks the Iron Throne not for a son or husband, but for herself. And most significantly, Daenerys is powerful in a way directly and singularly tied to her womanhood. "Mother of Dragons" isn't just a clever name—Daenerys hatched the dragons and raised them on her breast milk. The dragons, when grown, will change the entire scope of warfare in Westeros, but they're not her weapons; they're her children, and her love for them is stronger than any political angle. There are three kings left in Westeros, and one would-be queen beyond the Narrow Sea. I know which I'd be betting on.
Note: For the sake of viewers who are experiencing the Game of Thrones story for the first time, we request that those who have read the Song of Ice and Fire series avoid revealing spoilers for upcoming episodes in the comments section below.