Game of Thrones season 6 premiered this week, and many outlets are praising the first episode as a victory for “women’s empowerment.” Ironically, the most empowering moments were also the least compelling, as a group of women carelessly murdered three very powerful men. “The Red Woman” had great moments as well, but underdeveloped violent heroines are more of a weakness than an asset.
Feminists have long complained about a certain fiction trope, the “strong female character.” In our feminist age, authors of books, films, and television began to realize that most of the central heroes were men. In order to balance the scales, they introduced women as action heroines, but failed to give them a compelling backstory or any real character development. Feminists rightly complained that the “damsel in distress” trope was merely replaced by the “strong female character” trope, with no real progress in terms of creating compelling female characters.
Up until season 5, Game of Thrones was entirely immune from this defect. Each woman and girl fought to gain power and respect in a male-dominated world, but they had strong reasons for doing so, and their development was not only compelling, it was liberating. Then along came the Dorne storyline, and all of that hard work went out the window.
Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) was essentially sold into slavery to the barbarian Khal Drogo, who raped her on their wedding night. Nevertheless, Daenerys learned how to make her man happy, and started taking control of her own life.
Catelyn Stark (Michelle Fairley) nurtured love in an arranged marriage, and fiercely fought for the safety of her daughters. She made one very large mistake, but it was fundamentally fitting with her character as a mother devoted to her family.
Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie) is freakishly strong for a woman, but from the beginning she has had a very compelling storyline. Devoted to a king who gave her compassion, Brienne follows honor, and becomes as true a knight as any man. While her strength may be unbelievable, her character is excellent, and Game of Thrones deserves immense credit for making a woman like that not only impressive, but compelling as a human being.
Even Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey), whom audiences long hated for her cunning betrayal of the noble Ned Stark and her passionate defenses of the wicked boy king Joffrey, has come across as human and compelling. After the flashback in season 5, the death of Joffrey, and her “Walk of Atonement” last season, even the backstabbing Cersei has become a sympathetic character. Talk about a success for character development!
The black mark on this stellar record came last year, when the show introduced the “Sand Snakes.” These ladies have the last name “Sand” because they are the bastard daughters of Oberyn Martell (Pedro Pascal). Obara (Keisha Castle-Hughes), Tyene (Rosabell Laurenti Sellers), and Nymeria (Jessica Henwick) each loved their father dearly, and want revenge after his death. Led by Ellaria Sand (Indira Varma), Oberyn’s long-time paramour, they will stop at nothing to take vengeance on the Lannister family.
Besides Ellaria, each of these ladies gets about one sentence of backstory. Everything about them is summed up in their attitude: they are kick-ass teenage assassins who exist to show how badass and sexy young ladies can be. This attitude birthed the widely mocked line from last year, “You want a good girl but you need the bad p*ssy.”
But it gets worse. Obara, Tyene, and Nymeria each have their special weapons: knives, a whip, and spears. These weapons are less a natural fit for their characters and more a flashy action nod, like the different weapons of each ninja turtle. This style renders such female characters almost farcical, compared to the fleshed-out complex characters of Daenerys, Catelyn, Brienne, and Cersei. Gone is any sense of restraint and seriousness — these women are the teenage dream of girls who are into action or boys who want to combine their lust with violence onscreen.
Ironically, George R.R. Martin, author of the book series A Song of Ice and Fire, on which the show is based, had created a complex female character in just the same position as the Sand Snakes. Arianne Martell is daughter to the ruler of Dorne and heir to his kingdom. She is not only angry at her father for delaying vengeance, but also for usurping her birthright, and she makes some big mistakes in the show, but nothing as stupid as the Sand Snakes.
Indeed, the big action sequence featuring these women (and the final confirmation that Arianne will not be in the show) is one of the major reasons why “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken” is consistently ranked as the absolute worst of all Thrones episodes thus far.
Next Page: How the season premiere gave the Sand Snakes center stage.
The final nail in the coffin for Game of Thrones‘ southern storyline was Sunday night’s episode. In a matter of minutes, three main characters met their deaths. But it wasn’t in the usual Thrones way: a noble (or ignoble) character slowly sowing the seeds of his own destruction (such as Ned Stark, or Robb Stark, or Jon Snow), suddenly snuffed out in a shocking twist that nonetheless makes perfect sense given the character’s own actions.
Instead, Prince Doran Martell (Alexander Siddig), Areo Hotah (Deobia Oparei), and Trystane Martell (Toby Sebastian) meet their deaths because Doran is patient, and the Sand Snakes are very much not. The bastard daughters carry out a seamless coup — that lasts approximately two minutes — where they backstab the leaders of their country for delaying vengeance.
Laughably, one assassin kills Areo Hotah, a legendary warrior and guard, with a single blow. He falls, without so much as striking back, and his fellow guards just sit there as Ellaria plunges a dagger into the prince’s heart. Meanwhile, two other Sand Snakes toy with Trystane, the heir to Dorne, eventually spearing him in the head from behind. The saddest part is, the action wasn’t even that good.
Not only is this ignoble in the highest degree, but it is wasteful of these characters and downright infuriating to audiences who loved the strong storytelling that launched Thrones in the first place. These deaths were shocking, but not nearly as powerful as they should have been, with maybe one or two more episodes of build-up, and a final decision on the part of Prince Doran which sealed their fates. Instead, we get a jumbled assassination that feels out of place at best.
Don’t get me wrong, this season premiere was strong. It featured some great moments, from the banter between Tyrion Lannister and Lord Varys, to Daenerys confronting the Dothraki, to Davos Seaworth defending the body of Jon Snow. Theon Greyjoy, sorry Reek, no it actually is Theon now, got a strong moment of redemption, saving Brienne and Podrick Payne from death in a fight scene, and urging Sansa Stark to accept the woman knight’s service.
The big reveal at the end — that Melisandre (Carice van Houten) is very, very old — was fantastic and mythical, directly in line with Thrones‘ ability to surprise and fascinate. To see a woman whose naked body had enchanted so many men for the old crone she is ranked like something out of the Brothers Grimm. It also arguably set up well for the Jon Snow resurrection coming to a season 6 episode near you…
Nevertheless, these great moments cannot excuse the marring of the show’s nearly perfect record of fascinating character development. Let’s hope Game of Thrones either kills off the Sand Snakes, or gives them some much-needed character depth as soon as possible.