Game of Thrones abandoned its female characters in season 8

by Lacy Baugher

Game of Thrones has always been known for its array of strong, complicated female characters. But in its final season, the show left them all behind.

Game of Thrones has always been known for its varied array of richly complicated women.

The show’s female characters are queens and mothers, warriors and tomboys. They’re survivors and fighters and manipulators and lovers. They contain multitudes, and throughout its first seven seasons, Game of Thrones takes particular care to portray them as both morally and emotionally complex.

Which is why it’s such a shame that the series’ final season abandons its female characters almost entirely.

Gone are the layered stories, the complicated motivations, and the clear consideration of why each of these women does what they do.

Instead, Game of Thrones turns its female characters into increasingly bland plot pieces, shuffling them from moment to moment with little explanation for their actions. As characters, they cease to possess any sort of inner lives, and the show abandons the idea that any of its women have perspectives or motivations that the audience might need to see.

Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen. Photo: Courtesy of HBO

Daenerys Targaryen suddenly decides to brutally murder tens of thousands of people during the time it takes the bells of surrender to ring out across King’s Landing, and the show doesn’t seem to think that’s a decision we need to see get made.

Is Daenerys angry that her boyfriend dumped her? Does she just really hate Cersei? Is she still suffering the lingering effects of all the trauma she’s experienced in recent years? Does she hold the people of King’s Landing responsible for everything she lost when her family was overthrown? Is she just kind of hangry?

We have no idea, because the show doesn’t tell us, and as a result one of its marquee female characters is left to twist in the narrative wind. Women just do some crazy stuff sometimes, seems to be the message here, and it’s one that is later reinforced by Daenerys’ out of the blue insistence that only she knows what is good and right.

The thing is, the idea that the Dragon Queen has always been on this path makes a certain amount of sense. Her ending should be a Shakespearian tragedy – one that we can all see coming a mile away, but that breaks our hearts anyway. Here, Game of Thrones decides that Daenerys should burn King’s Landing… because someone has to?

It’s so frustrating, watching so many seasons of character development be abandoned for a shock twist. (Particularly when the same story would have worked better had the show genuinely built up to it!)

Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister. Photo: Helen Sloan/HBO

Elsewhere, season 8’s other queen doesn’t fare much better. Cersei Lannister spends most of Game of Thrones’ final season offscreen. When she is around, she smirks and drinks wine, and engages in a questionable sexual relationship with the series’ most disgusting man.

Also she decides to murder both her brothers, but since that’s a plot point that never actually goes anywhere, I guess we can just ignore that it doesn’t make sense.

Cersei’s pregnancy is ostensibly her primary motivation this season, but that particular storyline was set up so poorly that viewers were arguing about whether or not she was actually expecting a child right up until the very end of the show.

She was, by the way. Which should have been an important aspect of her character to explore, especially given her own tenuous hold on power, the loss of most of her family, and the threat of the literal end of the world marching down from beyond the Wall.

That Cersei dies in the destruction of King’s Landing was not exactly a surprising end for her character. (Few of us likely thought that she was making it out of this story alive anyway.) And her final moments with Jaime were beautifully moving. But the fact that Game of Thrones did so little with her character this season – particularly after the wide and varied journey she’s been on since the show’s first episode – is something of a shock.

Cersei scrapped and fought and murdered her way to the Iron Throne – and believed in her own abilities every step of the way there. That her final chapter sees her virtually trapped in her own keep, with little involvement or agency in the story’s final moments is wildly disappointing.

Sophie Turner as Sansa Stark. Photo: Helen Sloan/HBO

On the plus side, Sansa Stark finally gets the recognition she so richly deserves, establishing a free and independent North and claiming the title of its Queen. Though the minute-long conversation in which this happens is basically ridiculous, the outcome is the correct and deserved one.

Sansa will be a tremendous leader for the North, and a just ruler for its people. Her entire arc has been largely building toward this moment, and the scene in which she is crowned is both emotional and earned.

That said, season 8 has frequently ignored Sansa’s journey, almost completely sidelining her following the Battle of Winterfell. It also devotes the bulk of her storyline to a constantly simmering feud with Daenerys – a distrust that is largely understandable given the backgrounds of both women, but one that just adds another log onto the terrible gender optics of season 8.

That Sansa triumphs is one of the few genuinely satisfying moments of the series’ ending. But if we’re honest, Game of Thrones spent far too little time on her arc this season, leaving it to viewers to fill in her leadership narrative with comments about grain stores and protecting her people.

Maisie Williams as Arya Stark, Isaac Hempstead Wright as Bran Stark, and Sansa Stark. Photo: Macall B. Polay/HBO

Season 8’s final frustration is not just that the show abandoned the interior lives, perspectives and stories of these incredible women that they spent years building. No, it’s that Game of Thrones threw them all over for Bran Stark, a character so bland that he disappeared from the show for an entire season with no real loss to the story, and one who has almost no discernible personality or perspective to speak of.

The fact that Game of Thrones ultimately closes its story with a table of men – Bran the Broken, Tyrion Lannister, Ser Davis, Bronn and Sam – deciding the fate of Westeros, while shunting Sansa off to the North and leaving Brienne with nothing to do but write down the story of the man who had her job before her, feels like a betrayal of everything we were led to believe this show was trying to be.

Yet, we should also remember that a lackluster finale doesn’t undo all the great female characters and stories the series has featured prior to this moment. The show broke new and important ground when it comes to female characters in genre television, giving us a variety of complicated, messy female characters kicking butt, finding their voices, making mistakes and asserting their own agency. That’s worth it, even if Game of Thrones’ final moments weren’t perfect or quite what we wanted in the end.

All isn’t lost. The final words we hear spoken in Westeros are “The queen in the north!”, after all.

Lacy is a digital strategist working in Washington, D.C. who loves to yell about TV in her spare time. Whovian, Ravenclaw and captain of the Sansa Stark Defense Squad. Come say hi on Twitter at @LacyMB.