Game of Thrones was a high-fantasy show cataloging an embittered battle for the Iron Throne among royal and not-so-royal families. It’s now over. On Sunday, May 19, the story ended with a woman known as the mother of dragons, Queen Daenerys Targaryen, a woman who — up until last week went out of her way to protect women and children, got stabbed by her lover and partner. Basically, Game of Thrones ended in the same way it began: as a show where plot points are “resolved” with violence toward women. It was a bad ending. It was also consistent with the entire series. Relative to how women have been treated on Thrones the ending was largely more of the same.
Spoilers ahead for the last episode of Game of Thrones.
The last season of Game of Thrones earned buckets of criticism for the way it treated Daenerys. More recently many felt frustrated or and betrayed by her heel-turn in the penultimate episode when she decides, after seasons and seasons of not killing women and children, to burn King’s Landing and it’s half a million citizens to a crisp. Committing a veritable genocide was not really in Dany’s character development plan so far, but she did it, and on some level, it seems like the narrative decided she had to pay.
Mere minutes after burning the city, Daenerys walks to what remains of the Red Keep to gaze upon the Iron Throne: her life’s goal and ambition. She only gets to touch the throne – not sit on it — before Jon Snow enters the throne room after a deeply affecting conversation with Tyrion Lannister, who has just been imprisoned and will likely die for betraying Dany.
They have a brief conversation about the throne itself and then Dany begs Jon to rule beside her, as equals, King and Queen. (This is the second or third time she’s done so in the season and been rejected.) Jon responds, in turn, by telling Dany that she will always be his queen, forever, and then he stabs her in the gut and leaves her to die. Daenerys doesn’t even get a final word. Drogon feels her death nearly immediately and inexplicably, gaining a sense of class consciousness, burns the symbol of monarchical rule, the Iron Throne itself, to the ground before taking Dany’s corpse and flying away with it.
Dany is now, in death, one of the many victims of domestic violence. And yes, Westeros is not the United States, so it’s not entirely a 1 to 1 comparison to point to the fact that one woman in every 20 minutes is abused by a partner and that intimate partner violence accounts for 15 percent of violent crime or that women between the ages of 18-24 are most commonly abused by a romantic partner or that 19 percent of domestic violence is committed with a weapon or that 72 percent of murder-suicides involve an intimate partner. Or that globally, 50,000 women a year are murdered by their intimate partners.
But the show-runners and novelist George R. R. Martin are Americans. The stories they write reflect, to an extent, the culture that they live in. So it’s frustrating to watch such an other-worldly show rely on one of the most commonly-used tropes in fiction to wrap up its story: the murder of women. A show that had three fire-breathing dragons, men who came back to life from death, a man who was plugged in to a tree and could see all of the future and humanity, an army of eunuchs, an army of the dead, assassins who can change their face at will, giants, elephants, and huge wolves ended in the most real-world way possible: intimate partner violence.
For seasons, the murder and torture of women, stabbed and hung, naked, choked by former lovers for betrayal, raped by abusers in graphic detail, have peppered a show that has always claimed to deal with the darkest sides of power. Watching evil men do evil things to women is not unrealistic, per se. But it’s also not edgy or new, and neither is the way they ended Dany’s story. Popular culture has long relied on the bodies of women (there is a whole trope called the Woman in Refrigerator Trope, about the death of a woman motivating a man to do something crazy) to make a narrative point. But this show was supposed to be different — and could have been.
It’s not that Dany is a good person, or even that she should live after committing a genocide. But it’s hard to forget what Ramsay Bolton once said: “If you think this has a happy ending, you haven’t been paying attention.” What other kinds of unhappy ending could the show have had then to keep Daenerys alive and the future of Westeros uncertain? Instead, her fate is cleared away in 20 minutes with a little stabby-stab, Jon Snow gets to live as a free man beyond the wall, and a new male king gets to rule, despite never being in the fray for the throne and expressing any interest or desire in ruling.
Tyrion, despite committing treason and being implicated in such genocide, becomes Hand of the King again — some penance! Although Sansa and Arya get the endings they deserve, with Sansa becoming the queen of an independent North and Arya off to travel the world, Brienne ends the series by writing Jaime’s history in the Kingsguard book, not her own. The show has long been flawed in its portrayal of feminist storylines. And none of this is to say that the truly feminist thing to do would be to never harm female characters in a tv show ever. But perhaps a more powerful meditation on the corruptive nature of power would have been to keep the wheel in motion — and the endless cycle of war ongoing. After all, Sansa made the point that Bran could never have children, and neither could Dany. We’ve known that since the end of the first season when Drogo dies and their baby is more or less stillborn.
There are so many questions everyone is still wrestling with: Yes, the burning of King’s Landing is unforgivable. But what was the problem with Dany exactly? That her quest for power didn’t stop at Kings’ Landing? Was she too ambitious? Too “crazy”? Too inconvenient?
In every way, it appears the show should have ended with her still in power — and that would have been a bad thing, at least relative to the narrative. But letting Dany live also would have reflected the true nature of the show: the good guys almost never win. And letting Dany live also would have sidestepped the worst tendency of the show: killing women to advance the plot.
Instead, Game of Thrones split the difference and instead of being high fantasy, sunk to a sad and low reality.