It’s a revenge that, even for Game of Thrones, is particularly horrifying, and particularly cruel. But the murders in question, the death of the one daughter avenged by the apparent death of the other, have something in common: The horror starts, in both cases, with a poison kiss.
Poison, in Game of Thrones as in the world beyond it, is traditionally a weapon of last resort. It is calculating. It is deliberate. It reveals itself not on the battlefield, but in the background. And it is used, generally, not for crimes of passion, but rather for killings that are planned, patiently, over time. Poison is a tool of asymmetric warfare—one that is used, often, when the other side is unaware that there is a war being fought in the first place. A little bit science, a little bit magic, it is deployed, in general, by those who have no other choice.
Which is to say that, in pop cultural stereotype if not in practice, poison is often considered a weapon of women. As that ancient adage goes, “Trust none of the dishes at dinner: Those pies are steaming-black with the poison Mummy put there.” As that Dixie Chicks song demurs, “Those black-eyed peas, they tasted alright to me, Earl.” In England, the House of Lords tried to pass a law forbidding women to buy arsenic. The attempt was made in the 19th century—and yet the thinking that led to it persists today. It’s not that boy, after all—miss her, kiss her, love her—who is poison.
Game of Thrones has, over its six-plus seasons, both embraced and complicated that stereotype. On the one hand, poison, true to its cultural resonances, has been a favorite weapon of the show’s women: characters who are often relatively powerless, characters who are often relatively desperate. Ellaria used poison—delivered via, yes, that deadly kiss—to murder Myrcella. Arya used poison to kill the Freys and their confederates: a mass murder executed with ease, with the help of poisoned wine. Lysa Arryn used a similar tactic (wine, laced with toxin) to kill her husband Jon. Olenna, the Tyrell matriarch confirmed on Sunday, used poison to kill Joffrey at his wedding. And the Sand Snakes, the daughters of Oberyn, were distinguished in Game of Thrones not merely according to their signature weapons, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle-style, but also through their affinity for weaponized venom. Snakes, and all that.
“I heard it said that poison is a woman’s weapon,” Ned Stark tells Maester Pycelle, at the outset of Game of Thrones. “Yes,” Pycelle replies. “Women, cravens ... and eunuchs.”
As the show has advanced, though, it has complicated that blandly gendered idea, considering poison not just in relation to gender politics, but also in relation to power politics more broadly. The Sand Snakes picked up their toxin-appreciation, after all, from their swaggering father. “Any man who calls a poison ‘a woman’s weapon’ is a traitor to his fellow men,” Oberyn declares. “A dagger, arrow, axe. These are the arms of passion. But poison is cold, calculating. Poison is the thought that wakes you in the morning, and lulls you to sleep at night. You watch your victim die a thousand times before you ever offer him that fateful taste. Is a man’s hate so inferior to a woman’s that we are to be denied such a weapon?”