In one of the show's best episodes, we see how far the women of Westeros have journeyed—and how much more they'll have to overcome.
Photos courtesy of HBO
FYI This post contains spoilers.
This season, we've seen entire character arcs distilled in on-the-nose interactions with Bran Stark, sentient Jaden Smith tweet.
In last night's magnificent episode, Bran's conversation with Meera confirmed her defining core as the loss of her brother Jojen during their journey north; she appropriately rejects his distant response by declaring the Bran she knew died north of The Wall. When Littlefinger visits Bran, he believes he's meeting Lord Stark to gauge a potential player in his political intrigues, but instead Petyr gets clocked by the all-seeing Three-Eyed Raven. Bran cuts through Littlefinger's pretense by unveiling "chaos is a ladder"—a line Littlefinger first said to Varys in season three, when the then-Master of Coin revealed his goal to sit on the Iron Throne.
And when Bran is reunited with his sister Arya, their conversation instantly reveals her darkest character motivation: vengeance. While viewers have long brewed in Arya's murderous abilities and intentions, all of Winterfell learned of them after an extremely satisfying reunion of Stark children and a pooling of their knowledge and harrowing experiences.
Sansa and Arya reference their sad and brutal journeys during their reunion in the crypt, and while many have contrasted the sisters as two sides of the same coin (a pretty direct tomboy/girly-girl binary), Sansa's story is better examined in comparison to Daenerys's. Both of their characters function as radical subversions of the "princess" trope—rather than a storybook ending with a handsome prince; they were both engaged multiple times, married off and raped, and left to find their own ways out.
Naturally, Dany emerges more convincingly as a whole person (hard not to as the Mother of Dragons). Although Daenerys was the first character seen raped on the show, so much has happened to her in seven seasons since then that it really doesn't define her in the same way it does continually for Sansa, whose rape was only two seasons ago. And rather than Dany's character "overcoming" trauma by getting revenge on her rapist (like Sansa with Ramsay), she takes on the bigger mission to demolish oppressive systems and "break the wheel."
Sansa serves as the other half of Dany's subversion of the princess ideal—her thread demonstrates the true horror of living within that idealized class of womanhood. But even if we accept rape as a character-building experience and view the cruelty she suffers as subversive of chivalry and fantasy, is Sansa an effective foil? Some believe she is a political prodigy because there have been a few scenes showing her advising armor-making, organizing grainery stores, and generally being good at leading. While we see that ruling suits Sansa and she's often able to think one step ahead, most of her power up to this point has rested on consistently holding men who want to harm or possess her at bay.
Even the writers chose Sansa's rape as the topic of conversation for her reunion with Bran, cementing it as her biggest character milestone. Perhaps a better option would have been Sansa's time in The Eyrie, where she was nearly murdered by her aunt, who she then watched fall to her death. Showrunners illustrated a shift in her character after that with Sansa's calculated testimony and all-black wardrobe that did not yet translate into the real power or strength she was projecting. Ultimately it is hard to believe that season five's handling of Sansa (and women) wasn't clumsy, but the larger questions of Sansa's suffering and growth leave more complicated feelings of unease.
This point is only driven harder when Sansa walks off after seeing Arya and Brienne duel. It's hard not to sympathize with her: All three of Sansa's remaining siblings returned home with inconceivable, other-worldly abilities, and all she got was Littlefinger. Sansa's squib storyline feels especially sad juxtaposed with those of Arya and Brienne, two women who are some of the show's best written characters.
Arya, a rogue/assassin/thief, is the most self-defined character in the entire series. After having a literal identity crisis while learning to become "no one," she re-shapes a foreign philosophy (aka Braavosi death cult) around her own ideals, needs, and moral compass. She's also one of the deadliest characters we've ever seen: We've almost never witnessed Brienne defeated in combat, but in a fight with Arya, she was caught off guard and bested two out of three times.
Brienne is also self-defined (though not nearly as literally as Arya) as a woman on a textbook knight's mission, complete with rare items (Oathkeeper), side quests (delivering a hostage), and squire (the best in the game).
"Each knight, when not following the banner of his sovereign, was in himself an independent being, acting from his own sense of virtue," Charles Mills writes of the virtues of knighthood in The History of Chivalry of Knighthood and Its Times, Volume 2. "This independence of action exalted his character; and, nourished by that pride and energy of soul which belong to man in an early state of society, all the higher and sterner qualities of the mind—dignity, uncompromising fidelity to obligations, self-denial, and generousness, both of sentiment and conduct—became the virtues of chivalry."
Compared to every other knightly figure in Game of Thrones (there aren't that many), Brienne is one of the best embodiments of these virtues:
- Ser Gregor Clegane aka The Mountain is the worst knight by a lot, since he's essentially an undead demon motivated only by rape and murder.
- Ser Edmure Tully, Catelyn's brother, isn't a terrible or great knight by any means (we feel sympathy for him) but he's mostly out of sight and out of mind.
- Ser Loras Tyrell was somewhat knightly because he was motivated by love; Ser Barristan Selmy even more so because he was motivated by loyalty and chivalry.
- Ser Jorah Mormont is a (sometimes gross) subversion of knighthood, having been exiled for selling people into slavery but emerging as someone who has proved his knowledge in combat, culture, and lore.
- Ser Jaime Lannister is generally despised by the public, but we know he is extremely loyal to his family and at times, the greater good.
There are only two people who compete with Brienne for the title of Favorite Knight in Westeros: Ser Davos Seaworth, a rags-to-riches knight who was born in Flea Bottom and worked as a smuggler before becoming the just and wise advisor we know today.
And Ser Bronn of the Blackwater, a profit-motivated subversion of knighthood who didn't go to "fancy lad school." In "The Spoils of War," Bronn's knightly virtues shine when the Lannister army is attacked by Dany, Drogon, and a Dothraki army.
It was thrilling to see Dany in action like we did last night (that distinct reverberation after she says "Dracarys" will always give us goosebumps) and astonishing to see how utterly devastating even one dragon is in warfare. Though it felt like mom and dad were fighting when Bronn tried to hold his own against Dany—and although none of us wanted to see Drogon injured—Bronn emerged as a more deeply appreciated hero (and dare I say daddy). He abandoned his gold to save the troops, served as Jaime's literal right hand, and went head-to-head with a dragon to save him—basically all the knightliest moves in the book.