Game of Thrones - Season 8
“Daenerys and Cersei are portrayed as too ambitious and emotionally unfit to rule the Seven Kingdoms.”
Title: Game of Thrones
Episodes Reviewed: Season 8
Creators: David Benioff 👨🏼🇺🇸 and D.B. Weiss 👨🏼🇺🇸 based on the books by George R.R. Martin 👨🏼🇺🇸
Writers: David Benioff 👨🏼🇺🇸 (4 eps), D.B. Weiss 👨🏼🇺🇸 (4 eps), Dave Hill 👨🏼🇺🇸 (1 ep), and Bryan Cogman 👨🏼🇺🇸 (1 ep)
Directors: David Nutter 👨🏼🇺🇸 (3 eps), Miguel Sapochnik 👨🏽🇬🇧 (2 eps), David Benioff 👨🏼🇺🇸 (1 ep), and D.B. Weiss 👨🏼🇺🇸 (1 ep)
Reviewed by Li 👩🏻🇺🇸
Author’s Note: So here’s the tea. I’ve been putting off a review of Game of Thrones for a long time. Between not wanting to deal with internet trolls and the daunting task of consolidating a decade’s worth of television into one pat examination of inclusiveness, it’s been easier to kick that can down the road. But that road has ended, so now feels like the right time to reflect on the show’s complicated relationship with diversity.
I’m as much a fan of Game of Thrones as its louder proponents. A lifelong enjoyment of fantasy—yes, I’ve played tabletop D&D if you need the receipts—and a love of epic battle scenes primed me for George R.R. Martin’s adaptation. Once I caught the pilot in 2011, I never looked back. And while the books didn’t quite make it onto my Kindle, I’ve marveled at the show’s high production values, cringed at its gratuitous torture, and cheered along with the rest of its fan base every time Dany’s dragons set something ablaze (which made for a lot of cheering).
With that in mind, here’s my take on the final season of HBO’s legendary Game of Thrones. I hope you enjoy it, and maybe even find a new way of looking at the show that has come to define this decade and that will continue to reverberate across pop culture for years to come.
There’s nothing more for me to add here than the internet’s collective response to the deeply mediocre Season 8 of Game of Thrones. A picture is worth a thousand words, right?
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES, sometimes
Game of Thrones alludes to female empowerment through devices like the centering of Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke)’s quest for power, the appointment of Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) as Queen of the North, or the slaying of the Night King by Arya Stark (Maisie Williams). But beneath these glossy veneers you’ll find a world inhabited by men and their ideas of what constitutes “strong women.” An all-male roster of showrunners, writers, and directors this season hardly begs a different result.
Accordingly, a slew of sexist throw-your-hands-up-in-defeat moments plague its final movie-length episodes. Most egregiously, the writers posit the warring Daenerys and Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) as both too ambitious and emotionally unfit to rule the Seven Kingdoms, yet the reluctant, puppy-eyed Jon Snow (Kit Harington) is the levelheaded king everyone wants and deserves.
Then we have our fan favorites like teen assassin Arya, child ruler Lyanna Mormont (Bella Ramsey), and towering knight Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie), all of whom objectively—and literally—kick ass. But their “cool factor” stems from a traditionally masculine embrace of violence. All three women are trained to fight and kill. Arya, especially, exhibits sociopathic tendencies that are fun as hell to watch but recall a macho, Quentin Tarantino-style action hero.
While Sansa may represent more “feminine” strengths, using an empathetic understanding of people to command respect as a quiet leader, her narrative feels utterly tainted by the writers’ idiotic assertion that Sansa’s maturation was contingent on being raped in earlier seasons. Rape that, mind you, was never even in Martin’s canon.
Perhaps nothing delivers the point of Game of Thrones’s endemic sexism more than clear-cut data. According to Ceretai, a Swedish start-up that uses machine learning to examine diversity, Season 8 saw just 22% of speaking time go toward female characters. The series finale fared among the worst across all eight years, where women spoke for just one minute to every four minutes of mens’ voices. As BBC News puts it, women in Game of Thrones are “seen but not heard.”
All that is to say, the show exhibits a mercurial mix of feminism and sexism. There are no easy answers because writers simultaneously empower female characters while stuffing them into tired tropes. But if I had to draw a conclusion on this topic, no other conversation reflects my feelings more than the one that took place at The Lily between two longtime fans, where Courtney Sender says:
Despite gestures toward a long arc of women’s empowerment [...] the writers reveal a fundamental limitation of imagination: they can’t envision power roles for women as a group, only for exceptional women as individual heroes.
Name a single person of color (POC) in Season 8’s Game of Thrones whose story stands on its own. Do it—I dare you.
I imagine you conjure the commander of the Unsullied, Grey Worm (Jacob Anderson), and his love interest Missandei (Nathalie Emmanuel). If so, it’s depressing to note that Grey Worm acts as Daenerys’s freed slave errand boy while Missandei, also an ex-slave, gets ignominiously fridged in “The Last of the Starks” (Season 8, Episode 4). To note, both Grey Worm and Missandei are played by light-skinned, biracial actors, so enjoy that bit of colorism too. It will provide the perfect accompaniment to the broad mistreatment of POC in Season 8 overall.
Thanks to their general scarcity, we really only have two other scenes with characters of color to examine. Concerning the sunkissed Dothraki and the vaguely tanned Unsullied, both armies follow trajectories that resemble either South Park’s “Operation Human Shield” or villainous Nazi armies.
Even Wikipedia states in the episode summary of “The Long Night” (Season 8, Episode 3) that “The Dothraki are obliterated first, then the Unsullied are overwhelmed.”
Yet somehow, despite the episode’s wholesale slaughter of the horseback Dothraki, they reappear in enough numbers to congregate for Daenerys’s impassioned Hitler-inspired speech later on.
To recap: When Daenerys officially turns dictator, she dons a black dress and incites her Dothraki and Unsullied followers with fear-inducing cues, like bleak colors and random bits of stuff on fire in the background. Inexplicably, all the white Northern allies who fought for her during the burning of King’s Landing, just the episode prior, have disappeared. It’s all so on the nose, you have to wonder if showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss were even aware that skin color factored so clearly into their creative decision-making. Or are they truly that oblivious?
Whatever the cause, the result is a clear disposability of brown lives, where POC are treated as “noble savages” at best—evil and inhuman at worst. This trend is hardly contained to just Season 8, making its first stances clear during early Dothraki characterizations as unscrupulous rapists and hedonists, before flippantly introducing (and divesting itself) of Dornish storylines in Seasons 5 and 6. After such a paper trail, the show’s concluding treatment of characters of color only reaffirms how they’ve never meant much to Game of Thrones at all.
I’ve always loved Yara Greyjoy (Gemma Whelan), the swashbuckling ladykiller of the Iron Islands. Unfortunately, her screen time this season has diminished to essentially two cameos: being saved by her brother Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen) during the season premiere, and then a brief glimpse of her on the council during the finale. Both feel good to watch, but neither hands Yara any actual character building. Tasha Robinson details her frustrations for The Verge:
Theon tells Daenerys that Yara is off to reclaim the Iron Islands, [and] we learn she succeeded. How, given her limited resources and most of her people’s proven disinterest in her as a leader? [...] The writers absolutely don’t care, which is frustrating since Yara is one of the show’s few female characters who isn’t being systematically villainized or weakened.
In terms of queer representation, Yara’s brief appearances translate to an absence of any sexual entanglements. If we hadn’t witnessed her same-sex liaisons in years past, she could pass for straight in the show’s final season.
Bonus for Disability: +1.00
Peter Dinklage, in his role as Tyrion Lannister, receives top billing in Game of Thrones. He’s literally listed first on IMDB and according to Looker, a U.S. software company, his character received by far the most lines across Seasons 1-7.
This is fantastic representation for the disability community to have a little person be treated with the most nuance, screen time, and care that a show can offer. And not just any show, Game of Thrones is THE show of the decade.
It’s disappointing of course to see how the writers have failed Tyrion, as he went from the cleverest mind in Westeros to becoming an ineffectual sucker who brought about the grisly deaths of thousands in “The Bells” (Season 8, Episode 5). As Matt Goldberg puts it, “ever since Tyrion crossed the Narrow Sea and partnered up with Daenerys, the show really has no clue what to do with him.”
That said, there’s no denying his importance and it’s been a joy to watch a massively popular series incorporate the unique travails of someone belonging to the disabled community, without ever letting that one trait define their identity.
In a smaller way, Bran also influences this category as a wheelchair user. He falls into tropes, however, as someone rich and powerful enough that he never has to face the cost of living in an inaccessible world. (Think Charles Xavier from X-Men, or Bryan Cranston’s character in The Upside.) In addition, Bran’s superpower as the Three-Eyed Raven, who can see into the past, present, and future, follows the path of other disabled characters who are mythicized rather than treated as actual human beings. And finally, while it’s true that Bran needed to be seen as able-bodied in the show’s very first episode, the ongoing practice in Hollywood of hiring non-disabled actors to take on disabled roles continues to frustrate from an inclusion standpoint.
Game of Thrones takes a crucial step forward in this fight, but it must be noted that these gains are reserved for straight, white, and male characters—a demographic that is vastly overrepresented among the scant disabled roles that exist in media today.
Mediaversity Grade: D 2.25/5
Nobody is watching Game of Thrones for its inclusiveness. Hell, nobody was even watching Season 8 for its storytelling. But what the venerable series has given us means more than another binge watch: It’s given viewers a rare opportunity to congregate around a televised “live” event.
Every Sunday night for six weeks, millions around the country sat through torturous pacing, empty pyrotechnics, and nonsensical plotting. Some may lament the fact of a great series face-planting into its finish line, yet there’s a wry joy to be had in communal hate-watching. Together, fans processed their thoughts through viral tweets and cheeky memes like #DemThrones. For these raucous moments alone, I wholeheartedly thank Game of Thrones for the privilege.