'Game of Thrones' fates of Cersei and Daenerys Targaryen send mixed messages about female power

"Game of Thrones" has always saved its biggest moments for a season's penultimate episode. And "The Bells" did not disappoint.
Kings Landing burns in season eight of "Game of Thrones."
Kings Landing burns in season eight of "Game of Thrones."HBO
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By Ani Bundel

“Game of Thrones” has been a radical series since its 2011 premiere, both in terms of money spent ($60 million on the first season) as well as the disposability of its characters. The series killed off the most famous actor in the cast, Sean Bean, for god’s sake. Even more surprising, however, was when showrunners killed him. The production used Ned Stark’s death to anchor the penultimate episode of the first season, leaving the finale to set-up a cliffhanger for the next. Since then, “Game of Thrones” has stuck with this format, putting many of its biggest shocks (the Red Wedding, Shireen’s murder, Viserion’s death) and the biggest battles (Blackwater, Castle Black, the Battle of the Bastards) in the second-to-last installment. No matter how long the season, the penultimate episode is the moment the show crescendos.

(Spoilers below.)

No matter how long the season, the penultimate episode is the moment the show crescendos.

Season eight is the shortest season thus far, but this narrative formula still holds. Despite the “Battle of Winterfell” episode breaking records a few weeks ago, the penultimate episode arrived promising another massive fight sequence, as the forces of King’s Landing prepared to battle Daenerys Targaryen, her one remaining dragon and her forces from the north.

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Most fans also assumed the evil Queen Cersei Lannister would finally be pried from her position ruling the Seven Kingdoms on Sunday night. Cersei’s one humanizing trait over the years has been her love for her children, making a Mother’s Day death feel even more appropriate. (After all, the end of season four, which saw the death of Cersei’s father, Tywin, aired on Father’s Day — presumably an unplanned happy accident.) Jaime Lannister’s leave-taking from Winterfell last week also forewarned an untimely death. Both Jaime and Cersei's passings came at the end of the episode, in one of the show’s more tender moments. Their deaths ended one of the most complex relationships in the series.

But even with so many loose threads starting to come together, showrunners still managed to shock fans as the world of Westeros seems to have finally driven Daenerys Targaryen insane. Despite the intimidating might of her dragon, Daenerys decides to methodically burn King’s Landing to the ground, massacring the citizens she’s spent so many seasons claiming she wants to save. The moral here is that war makes everyone look bad. But it's unfortunate that the showrunners had to turn a female lead into the stereotypical “crazy woman” to get this message across.

The moral here is that war makes everyone look bad. But it's unfortunate that the showrunners had to turn their female lead into a stereotypical “crazy woman” to get this message across.

There will no doubt be a lot of ink spilled over this development as fans and critics digest what may very well be the final major twist in a television show a decade in the making and 25 years in the writing. In the end, author George R.R. Martin’s story is in part that of a woman who spent her entire life training and studying to one day become the leader of Westeros, only to become someone the country’s elites deem “too dangerous” to be allowed to take power. It looks increasingly likely that the savior of the country will be a man who knows almost nothing about ruling it. Even knowing this is based on an ending Martin had plotted out decades ago, the shades of the 2016 election are too hard to ignore.

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The “A Song of Ice and Fire” novels and the “Game of Thrones” adaptation both appeal in part because of their anti-patriarchal themes. But the idea that toxic masculinity hurts everyone has always existed in contrast to a production and writing team comprised almost exclusively of white men. (The show has had an all-male writing and directing team from season five onward.) Daenerys’ madness, unfortunately, will play like another moment of “badly written women,” when in fact, it merely is the series following the plot points laid out decades before.

Unlike in the show, the novels describes many of the biggest surprises from the character’s viewpoint. In this first-person perspective, the events make more sense. Ned believes the world is honorable. Catelyn and Robb believe their allies have their backs. Losing that connection is a mistake. Daenerys would almost certainly have been better served by being able to narrate her own thought process ahead of her apparent moment of madness. Instead, bells rang and a woman who had been hanging by a thread, driven to the brink by a patriarchy that does not want her, snapped.

The Battle of Winterfell may have taken longer to shoot, been harder to coordinate and required massive amounts of stunt work and stage combat. But the destruction of King’s Landing was something else altogether. We watched a city burn, its air choked with dust and stone, its people dying in the streets. It was all the horrors of war, shoved in the face of an audience who have been waiting for this last war since the very beginning. Perhaps it’s no surprise some fans reacted badly.

It was a nightmare, and one that has officially brought this final shortened season to its apex. As we head into the final episode, it’s all fallout and resetting as the patriarchy looks to once again strike down a woman for an insane display of power.