Note: This piece contains spoilers for all of Season 6.
Winter has arrived in Westeros, and so have its women. At the end of last night’s season finale, we had Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) finally setting sail for King’s Landing with Yara (Gemma Whelan) at her side to become the Seven Kingdoms’ second queen. After standing at the side of three kings, Cersei (Lena Headey) became the first woman to sit on the Iron Throne, an ascent she had evidently planned for judging by the armor-inspired, grief-ready black dress she’d donned even before her last child, Tommen (Dean-Charles Chapman), walked out of his window. (Poor Cersei; her achievement as a female pioneer seems about as enthusiastically received as Hillary Clinton’s.) In Dorne, the mourning Olenna (Diana Rigg) and Ellaria (Indira Varma) plot revenge against Westeros’s most hated (and most powerful)
woman person. Jon Snow (Kit Harington) was the sole man to rise to power, but only because his sister-cousin Sansa (Sophie Turner) masterminded his takeover of House Stark.
Not too shabby, feminism-wise, for a series that’s rightly notorious for serving up boobs with the relish Arya (Maisie Williams) displays while feeding Walder Frey (David Bradley) his sons in a pie. (Though bereft of dragons, an armada, and allies, the younger Stark sister remains a dark-horse candidate for ending Queen Cersei’s inevitably unmerciful rule.) As with previous years, the sixth season of HBO's Game of Thrones slowed to a crawl the farther it got away from King’s Landing. We stayed far too long in Dorne, Braavos, Meereen, and wherever the snowy fuck Bran is. And the show’s crowd-pleasing characters run too broad for me; Hodor’s time-traveling back/front story and Sam’s eternal need for other people to validate his masculinity were so, so dumb.
But Season 6 was a return to form for the show, as well as the first steps forward in a new direction. Largely freed from the shackles of adaptation (though still faithful to author George R.R. Martin’s outlines for his next book), showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss ended this year’s story lines so superbly that the sluggish bits hardly register anymore. Surprising, propulsive, and achingly true to its characters, “Battle of the Bastards” and “The Winds of Winter,” the ninth and 10th episodes of the season, were some of the best of the series. And the installments before it found Benioff and Weiss more playful with the show’s format, too. The play about Ned and Joffrey’s deaths was an unexpected delight, even if it went on for a bit too long, as was the new fuck-the-Wall attitude from Jon Snow, the return of the Hound (Rory McCann), and the steely spine of little Lady Lyanna (Bella Ramsey).
But the season’s biggest shocker was the semi-gradual rise of its female monarchs, conquerors, pretenders, and assassins. (We were also treated to various examples of women helping women: Brienne (Gwendoline Christie) rescuing Sansa, Arya (temporarily) saving an actress (Essie Davis), Daenerys showing mercy to a fellow Dothraki widow. And that’s exciting not only because women are the most imperiled group in Westeros, their rapes and deaths so often used as illustrations of this universe’s nihilism, but because Daenerys, the most likely victor of the upcoming war over King’s Landing, represents hope for better, fairer, learned rule.
It’s not that there’s something biologically inherent to women that makes them less tyrannical — Cersei’s the prime counterexample of that hypothesis. Having once been on the bottom, Daenerys will be gentler to those still there once she’s on top. “Our fathers were evil men,” she told Tyrion (Peter Dinklage), Yara, and Theon (Alfie Allen) last week. “They left the world worse than they found it. We’re going to leave the world better than we found it.” Game of Thrones derives great narrative power from its medieval setting, but its path, it now seems clear, is a way out of feudal backwardness into modernity. And a key idea of our modern age is that we can learn from the past and improve upon the world, generation by generation. That’s why the show rewards characters for looking beyond their tribal clannishness, those like Tyrion, who kneels before the woman who seeks to oust his own sister from the throne. And that’s why Daenerys’s rule is so promising, even if it means the restoration of a dynasty with a pretty spotty track record. Unlike practically every other ruler Game of Thrones has seen, she doesn’t just wish to cling to power or keep the peace or even be exquisitely fair like the noble Ned. She wants to make the world a better place.
To be sure, the feminism spun by the finale is of the lean-in sort; there’s no guarantee, necessarily, that a queen will make the world a nicer place to live for common women. But Daenerys has no intention of making herself an anomaly. “Who comes after you? Who can follow Daenerys Stormborn, the Mother of Dragons?” whines Daario (Michiel Huisman), missing the point because he’s too busy thinking with his dick. Daenerys doesn’t miss a beat: “A great number of women, I imagine.”
I’m with her.