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Game of Thrones: Redux

2011 June 27

Ten weeks ago we saw Ed Stark and pals being grim and gritty for the start of HBO’s Game of Thrones series, adapted from the George R. R. Martin fantasy novels. Now the series is over, so it’s time to look back and see how it fared over the course of its run. Please note, there will almost certainly be spoilers ahead, so don’t carry on if you’ve yet to watch it all.

In my initial review of the first episode I said that the female characters were a bit weak, and didn’t get much screen time. But, like their counterparts in the books, there was a good chance we’d get to see them develop into a pretty well-rounded bunch of characters. Let’s take a look at a few of them to see how HBO did.

Danaerys Targaryen

Emilia Clarke as Danaerys, a young woman with long white-blonde hair and large grey-green eyes with a wary expression on her faceDanaerys (Emilia Clarke) was one of the more problematic characters in the first episode. She’s presented as a mostly passive tool for her brother’s plans of conquest, and pushed into a forced marriage with a disturbingly non-consensual first night. By the finale episode things have… sort of improved? She has definitely developed as a character, becoming a leader in her own right and banishing any notions that she might be passive or weak (“I do not have a gentle heart,” she declares).

She’s stood up to her brother, dealt out harsh justice, and worked to improve people’s lives by attempting to make the Dothraki end their practise of raping prisoners from their raids. Oh, and she’s got her own dragons, the first to be seen in a long, long time. On the other hand, the presentation of the dragons highlights one of the remaining issues in how she’s depicted. Rather than striding into the fire untouched and walking out resplendent, a reborn queen with her dragons behind her, she’s found the next day, curled up and naked, providing the episode’s HBO nipple quota. It’s also possibly the first use of a strategically placed dragon in mainstream TV.

The other issue with Danaerys is that her entire relationship with Khal Drogo just feels more than a little Stockholm Syndrome-y. The show never really addresses that first night, or the other occasions where we see her having sex against her will. Instead, she just learns to love him, and most of his respect for her seems to come solely from the fact she’s carrying his child. It’s not ideal.

Continuing the theme of arranged marriages…Lena Headey as Cersei, a woman in her thirties with long blonde hair and pale skin, sitting in a chair in a blue medieval-style dress with an imperious expression on her face

Cersei Lannister

Evil, incestuous, and an arch-schemer, Cersei (Lena Headey) was presented initially as almost a caricature of the Ice Queen archetype. Ten episodes on, and she’s still evil, still incestuous, and still manipulative. But she’s also a lot more human and almost sympathetic. We’re given a genuinely revealing conversation between her and King Robert (Mark Addy), in which we glimpse a young woman who was married for political reasons to a king who was in love with a dead woman. We see how, raised for almost exactly this purpose, she tried to make it work, and how their flaws destroyed them and bought them to the sad state they’re in now. It makes her something a little more interesting than just evil for evil’s sake.

Sansa Stark

Sophie Turner as Sansa, a young white woman with long auburn hair and a blue medieval style dressThe last character linked by an arranged marriage is the young Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner). She’s perhaps the one we’ve seen the least progress out of. Raised from birth to meet the expectations of what a noble lady should be, and to someday marry a prince and have lots of little noble children, she’s got a lot of conditioning to overcome.

By the end of the series she’s still the most passive of the characters, still being used in other peoples’ schemes instead of forming her own. But she has at least seen that the dream she was sold was a false one, and that Joffrey is not a good king to marry, or even a remotely decent person. We get a brief glimpse of some steel in her as she talks back to him and moves to throw him off the castle wall. It’s not much, and she’s punished for it, but it gives us a hint that she might eventually get to be as cool as her sister.

Sansa: “I’m supposed to marry Prince Joffrey. I love him, and I’m meant to be his Queen and have his babies!”

Arya: “Seven hells!”

Which leads us to…

Arya Stark

Maisie Williams as Arya, a young girl with long, untidy scraped back dark hair, with an expression of wonder on her faceAh yes, Sansa’s sister. Standing alongside Peter Dinklage’s Tyrion Lannister as one of the best cast characters in a well cast show, Maisie Williams’s Arya is the polar opposite of her big sister. Sword-wielding, cat-chasing and adventurous, Arya actively rebels against the rules for what a noble’s daughter ought to be. On the one hand, this makes her incredibly badass. On the other hand it’s notable that she only gets away with things and survives because people mistake her for a boy. It highlights just how tight the gender roles are in the Seven Kingdoms, that even her father – a remarkably open minded man for the setting – can’t conceive of a life for her that doesn’t involve marrying a lord and having lots of offspring.

Where Arya is allowed to practise her sword fighting only as a father’s indulgence for his wilful child, and told she’ll never be a knight, her brother Bran continues to train in archery back at Winterfell. Arya is the more skilled of the two (shown in the very first episode, as she makes a shot Bran can’t), but as a girl it’s inconceivable that she could live that life, just as it’s impossible for Bran not to.

And lastly, amongst our main characters…

Catelyn Stark

Michelle Fairley as Catelyn, a white middle-aged woman with long auburn hair wearing earthy-coloured garments and a fur wrap. Image from Wikimedia Commons, shared under a Creative Commons licenceShe’s quite possibly the best of the bunch, in a quiet and determined way. She’s not got Danaerys’s flair or Cersei’s scheming prowess, but she gets things done and will not be stopped. It’s Catelyn (Michelle Fairley) who comforts her son after Ed’s death, not the other way round. It’s she who sums up what needs to be done: “We get the girls back. Then we kill them all.” It’s she who walks into a not-entirely-friendly castle keep alone to make the deal that’ll get their army across a major river. It’s nice to see an older female character on this show who knows what needs doing and gets it done.

On the other hand, there’s an issue with the repercussions of some of what she gets done. Her capture of Tyrion sparks a lot of drama, sees people killed and injured, and is one of the contributing factors to the war that breaks out. The whole treatment of it smacks a little too much of “flighty women do not think their actions through, and men must pick up the pieces.” It’s a key part of the plot in the books though, so that’s on Martin as much as it is on HBO.

There’s half a dozen secondary characters worth discussing as well (Shae, the Wildling woman, Sansa’s nursemaid, Catelyn’s sister), but not nearly enough room to discuss them. Damn you GoT for being so sprawling. Overall though, there are still definite issues, and there’s always the obligatory HBO nipples in each episode, but the characters are improving and will hopefully continue to do so if they stick to the course of the books. Roll on Spring 2012 and Season 2.

All images copyright HBO, taken from A Wiki of Ice and Fire

7 Responses leave one →
  1. Stephen B permalink
    June 27, 2011

    I just don’t understand it. Fair enough, George RR Martin chose to go medieval and have women be just as oppressed and powerless as they were histoically – it’s a shame our fantasies so rarely go the other way when they’re meant to be imaginative, but fine, that’s the book.

    What I don’t get is why HBO then invented entirely new things, especially the epic racefail that is most scenes with the Dothraki. Danaerys’ first night was NOT a rape in the books, her relationship with Drogo was completely different, HE was different – more intelligent, communicative and subtle, and the entire Dothraki culture was a full culture, not the charicatured savages HBO went with.

    There are several decisions about the female characters which stay the same as the books, mostly as you say where they start off oppressed and later become kick-ass. I’m okay with that IF it causes the viewer/reader to see their situation and want it to get better. I think GRRM manages this. But HBO invented so much of the dynamic between Danaerys and Drogo (and the Dothraki) in the show that this is entirely on them.

    They do have fantastic actresses though :) Especially Maisie Williams and Michelle Fairley. It’s incredibly rare for women over 40 to get screentime at all, and scenes such as the one with only Catelyn and the very old Lord she is bargaining with have no shiny teens in them, just amazing acting.

    Overall I thought the series came out as a win, but with some inexplicable decisions from HBO.

    • Rebecca permalink
      June 27, 2011

      I totally agree with you about Danaerys and Drogo. I feel like it makes both of them come off as much weaker than they actually are, and also makes some things not make sense. When Drogo is so protective of Danaerys claiming the women from the village they raid, in the book it makes total sense because he’s actively defending her point of view rather than her personal safety. In the series it’s a bit…I don’t know, less rounded as an action. Both of them end up looking wrong in some ways – I found Danaerys in the books really manipulative and clever. In the series she comes off as all brute strength and force of will, which is part of it but I don’t think it’s the whole story.

      Arya is my absolute favourite character in the books and I wish she got more time on the screen :( Something I liked about the books is that -all- of the characters started off almost stereotypical and developed over time. Not just the women, though it was definitely refreshing to see it happening for both. The only male characters that I can really see developing like they do in the books are Tyrion and Jon, and to be honest they get the most screen time so it’s not surprising.

      Mixed feelings about it but overall erring towards pleasantly surprised I think. However if they mess up my Arya I kill them. Dead.

  2. James R permalink
    June 27, 2011

    I concur with the above: I read the book after the series and the distinction between Dany’s wedding night is just a bit odd. It’s rather less rapey in the book and I’m not really sure why they took the choice they did, here.

  3. Mark W permalink
    June 28, 2011

    What I’m wondering is how they’re going to treat Brienne of Tarth when she appears.

  4. July 4, 2011

    Martin said that they went with the less consensual first night with Drogo because it was never meant to be OK, in the book, Dany is much younger (many of the characters are), so with an older Dany, things happening as they did in the book didn’t sufficiently highlight how fucked up the situation her brother put her in was.

    That said, the later stages of that arc are a lovely reversal of one of the more unpleasantly misogynistic tropes common in genre fiction these days. By which I mean that’s one big manly refrigerator right there.

    • Stephen B permalink
      July 5, 2011

      Interesting! (Why am I not surprised that GRRM said “You know? This isn’t grim enough. Make it nastier.”)

      As for men in the fridge (awesome) I keep thinking of this:

      • Miranda permalink*
        July 5, 2011

        It makes “Do you remember our first ride?” bloody nonsensical, though, dunnit.

        Both Rob and I went “YOU KNOW, WITH ALL THAT TEARFUL NON-CON SEX! THAT RIDE!” at the screen when she said that.

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