The following was written by SMIW’s Bruce Vain.
This is a feminist review of Battle of the Bastards – the 9th episode of the 6th and ongoing season of Game of Thrones (GoT) – the hugely popular HBO series based on the equally popular books by George R R Martin.
Beware. GoT shredding ahead. Splinter is coming.
So, who’s a GoT enthusiast here? I expect many of you bending the knee, going “your grace!” and truly, one can’t deny the HUGE impact the series has had (and continues to have) on today’s pop culture and its audiences. That includes a large fan base in India as well.
Admittedly, the series is addictive and exhilarating. However, it is not without its problematic aspects. Many criticise it for the graphic depiction of violence while others take issue with the glorification of war and power games that plot lines revolve around. At the same time, there are defenders of the (fourth) wall who draw parallels between the show and the modern capitalist society and, some who think it is a commentary on global warming.
That said, some of the fiercest criticism of the show has been aimed at the blatant misogyny, objectification and violence against women that it regularly contains. Even worse, most of it is just to add to the shock and awe, without making any plot line advancement or character developments. Not that it is excusable when it does those things. However, the show makers seem to have paid heed to the ever growing feminist voices in its critique and have done many things right this season. In fact, Battle of the Bastards (BoB) may have been the show’s most progressive episode yet – one that almost stands alone against an army of its misogynistic predecessors. Let’s see how.
Now, I realise that this is an unusual thing to do – reviewing a single episode from a series when there are tens of (58 to be precise) previous episodes. Which is why I’ll try to build some context as I go along.
Also, since we are staying true to tradition over the last few days (shameless plug), here’s an obligatory GoT styled spoiler meme:
The Queen and (her?) Future Queen
Throughout the series, Daenerys Targaryen’s story arc has been about a woman’s struggle and conquest against an inherently male-dominated system of oppression.
From starting off as a helpless woman sold off by her own brother to a war lord in exchange for an army – that the said brother needed to claim his father’s kingdom and, being repeatedly raped by her new husband – she has gone on to become the Khaleesi, the mother (and more importantly, controller) of three dragons, the breaker of chains and the queen of Mereen. With BoB, her status as the undisputed queen of the eastern cities is now solidified beyond doubt – as she stood up to the slave masters one last time and asked them to watch as she burned their plans of a siege to ashes – quite literally.
The most awesome thing happened immediately after though, as Yara Greyjoy (with her brother Theon, who reeks of newfound confidence – thanks to Yara’s pep talk) showed up with an offering of 100 ships in exchange of Dany’s support to reclaim their kingdom, the Iron islands. Although, the speed at which they managed to complete their journey to Mereen makes one wonder if laws of time and motion are applicable in GoT-verse.
However, what followed next was one of the best exchanges between two characters in the history of the show.
Yara, who has been a revelation this season, didn’t flinch from reminding Dany of her father’s mad ways or, from comparing them to her own father’s bad governance. Neither did she miss an opportunity to make a pass at Dany.
In one of the most badass moments of the show, Yara told Dany that her uncle Euron, who killed her father and sent her running, soon plans to make an offer of his own to Dany – one that includes a marriage proposal. To this, Dany inquired if Yara’s demand also came with a marriage proposal, and Yara nonchalantly quipped, “I never demand, but I’m up for anything, really.”
The two women proceeded to eye-gaze some more before they shook on helping each other regain their family thrones and suddenly, an entirely new future became possible. One where the Khaleesi and the iron born princess rule Westeros together – maybe even as a couple!
In all seriousness, this is major commentary on how there has to be a king in a queen’s life. Not if you’re the mother of dragons, I guess.
Sansa’s Got Swag
If there’s any female character on the show who has had a harder and more unfavourable character arc than Daenerys, then it is Sansa Stark, the eldest daughter of the noble fool, Lord Eddard (Ned) Stark.
The only difference is that she never got her redemption – until now.
BoB was full of Sansa Swag. In one of the first scenes in the episode, as the two titular bastards – Jon Snow and Ramsay Bolton (erstwhile Snow) discuss terms of surrender and trade schoolboy insults, it’s Sansa who saves the day.
Seriously, picture this.
Ramsay: “I’m better than you Jon.. I have an army and everything. Uh.. Surrender now and I’ll show mercy.”
Jon: “Uh, umm. No. I’m better than you Ramsay.. Let’s fight now to find out. Ok?”
Ramsay: “Lol. umm. Oh wait, you’re serious! Uh.. No way. But wait.. Here – I will throw down this severed wolf head I’ve somehow perfectly preserved for months to prove my superiority.”
Sansa: “Seriously, boys. Just stop. You will be dead tomorrow Lord Bolton. Rest well.”
Just in time too, because the exchange up until then was beginning to remind me of that one time I fell asleep in the bathroom and woke up to find the John snowed.
That’s not all though, Jon Snow, not a least bit embarrassed by his totally basic trash talking skills, proceeds to ignore Sansa completely while drawing up battle plans with a guy whose biggest claim to fame is smuggling onions through a creek and another, who, well, doesn’t know what pincer means.
Incredible how even the guy who knows nothing knows patriarchal conditioning.
Thankfully though, the old Sansa who’d stand idly by and pledge allegiance is gone. The newfound Sansa mode was in full effect as she gave a piece of her mind to Jon, reminding him that it is her, not him, who knows Ramsay inside out.
Watching this scene, you’d be tempted to think maybe Jon Snow purposely walked into that one – that he has a thing for Redheaded women telling him he knows nothing.
But alas, as it turned out, he really does know nothing! Something he proved yet again the next morning, by charging at the Bolton army ALONE when Ramsay shot an arrow through his captive brother, Rickon’s heart.
DESPITE Sansa telling him that it’s EXACTLY what the cruel bastard would do and the noble bastard SHOULD NOT fall for it.
Yet, it was Sansa again who saved the day – this time quite literally so – as her secret alliance with Petyr Baelish aka Littlefinger was revealed and the Knights of Vale rode in just as Jon and his army were on the verge of being crushed – and not just figuratively.
Finally, it was Sansa getting her much awaited and much poetic revenge on Ramsay – feeding him to his own dogs – thirsting for blood because their cruel master had starved them for a week. It was Sansa all the way, as Ramsay Bolton’s one dimensional and by-now-irritating character arc came to a much needed end.
Like I said above, the oldest Stark alive has had a really rough journey on GoT. She has been tortured and raped by men who she was betrothed to (Joffery, Ramsay) and let down by the men who promised to protect her (Ned Stark, Tyrion, and Littlefinger). Her only true, selfless ally on the show who’s helped her in time of need is the phenomenal Brienne (someone I’d have loved to see take part in the episode’s battle to add more women-power points, but I guess the time and motion laws do apply in GoT to some extent).
So, it’s extremely liberating to see Sansa Stark slowly make the transition from victim, to survivor, to victor.
Sansa’s best moment in the episode – also a solid commentary on the hollowness of patriarchal notions surrounding ‘protection’ of women – came right after she had schooled Jon at the battle plan table, and he told her he’d protect her no matter what. To which, she said:
“You can’t protect me. No one can protect anyone.” **mic drop**
The Promise of a Better World
Let’s build some much needed context here. Game of Thrones is a about a fictional world that may or may not have been inspired in parts by the real world and may or may not mirror the real world’s fallacies.
However, one thing that has remained constant in the series is the pointlessness of life and death and, the never ending fight for power. The fictional world – called Realm of Men – needs to be protected from its own men who are out to destroy it in their quest for power. Which makes one wonder – was that naming done purposely by R R Martin, to highlight how it is men who rule the realm and men who destroy it? I think so.
Who do you think saves it then? There may have been some foreshadowing done around that too in this episode. Let’s go back to the iconic Khaleesi – Yara exchange.
While asking Dany for her help, Yara also asks for the Iron Islands’ freedom. Meaning, when Danerys becomes queen of Westeros, she declares the Iron Islands independent (a status the islands enjoyed before Dany’s ancestors rode to Westeros on dragons and united the kingdoms under one rule). This by the way is more than a subtle nod to colonialism and how it has affected the modern world. Anyway, in response to Yara’s request, Dany said she would be willing to do so, provided Yara promises that the iron born give up their thieving, stealing and raping ways.
More context. The people of the Iron Islands aka the Iron born, believe in paying the ‘iron price’ for things – meaning they take what they want and look down upon those who pay the ‘gold price’ – meaning paying in cash or kind for any acquisitions. Daenerys Targaryen, the breaker of chains, wants this practice to end. So, when Yara seems hesitant – “But that is our way!” – Dany tells her:
“Our fathers were evil men. They left the world worse than they found it. We’re going to leave the world better than we found it.”
THERE IT IS! The destruction and depravity brought on by their fathers – men – who left the world – the realm of men – truly worse than they found it, will only be offset by the good that the women of the realm do – to make it better.
And that, really, was one of the most feministy pieces of foreshadowing I have seen the show do so far.
So, while this one episode doesn’t undo the years and years of pointless nudity, gender violence, inexplicable rape scenes and a general steroid level depiction of masculinity that we’ve seen on the show, it does makes one want to believe that the narrative tide may finally be turning and the upcoming payoff may have hopes of being non-problematic, after all.
Game of Thrones, Season 06 airs on HBO on Sundays 9 p.m. EDT and on STAR World Premiere HD on Tuesdays 10 p.m. IST.
About the Author:
Bruce is co-founder of The Spoilt Modern Indian Woman initiative and the person behind the popular campaign Spoilt Modern Desi Women.