Last night's Season 5 finale of 'Game Of Thrones' was a very stressful episode -- and none of it was very good for the women involved. If you haven't watched "Mother's Mercy" yet, look away now.
A lot happened. There was blood, there was gore, there was murder, there was battle and there was betrayal.
But what stood out most during this season is how everything has gone to sh*t for the women of Westeros. Every moment of happiness the female characters experienced was tempered with a development that's bad at best, deadly at worst.
Arya finally murdered Meryn Trant, then promptly went blind. Myrcella had a bonding moment with Jaime, then succumbed to poison. Melisandre triumphantly told Stannis that her visions came to pass and the snow had thawed, only to abandon his camp when she discovered that half the army had deserted and Selyse had committed suicide. Danaerys found safety from the Sons of the Harpy, but was surrounded by a menacing whirlpool of Dothraki riders when Drogon refused to cooperate. Cersei was told she was free to go from her prison cell, but then subjected to an incredibly humiliating, public punishment. And Sansa was finally able to light a candle in the broken tower -- only to find that no one was coming to help.
Only Brienne of Tarth came out on top. But even her triumph of finally killing Stannis to avenge Renly came at a cost -- she missed Sansa's call for aid.
"Thrones" has long been criticized for its treatment of women, in particular the pain and suffering inflicted on young girls, most of whom are treated as nothing but pawns or possessions. This season we saw Sansa being brutally raped by Ramsay Bolton, Princess Shireen being burned alive while her parents watched and Gilly narrowly escaping assault at the hands of brothers of the Night's Watch.
Some have argued that these events are just a reflection of the fictional world the show is set in, while others consider the sexual violence gratuitous and disgusting. What's frustrating is not only are the scenes in which women we've learned to root for are harmed, raped and killed incredibly difficult to watch, but also the motives of their attackers are often difficult to understand. Westeros is full of power-hungry men like Stannis, disgruntled soldiers like the men at the Wall, and straight-up psychopaths like Ramsay Bolton. In a world so dominated by terrible men, there is little point in hoping for a woman in Westeros to find a happy ending. Even when you think a female character's story can't get any worse, it nearly always does.
The "Game of Thrones" women problem isn't just about the brutalization of women who are largely innocent of wrongdoing. After all, everyone in Westeros is a bit twisted. But the only character who gets publicly called out and punished for his or her actions is not a perpetrator of horrendous violence against women, but Cersei. The Queen Mother probably deserves to be taken down a peg or two since she's been high on power for so long, but her punishment is completely disconnected from her actual misdeeds.
In a world filled with manipulators, liars, rapists and killers, only Cersei pays for her sins in a public arena, paraded naked in front of every person in King's Landing for confessing to fornicating with her cousin. (Lancel, no one liked you anyway). Justice in "Game Of Thrones" doesn't match up to the crimes committed, and rarely comes to those who deserve it.
Yes, some male characters eventually get what's coming to them, but the comeuppance of the show's men is often too late to feel gratifying -- and linked to the deaths of the innocent women unfortunate enough to be connected to them. Stannis (no longer "the mannis") is only punished for his many, many crimes after he murders his daughter "for the cause." He loses half his army, his wife, his spiritual guidance counselor, his battle, and then his life. Jaime, who once tried to kill Bran Stark by pushing him out of a window, watches his daughter die in his arms years later.
After such a brutal season, is there any hope for the women of Westeros?
Maybe Sansa survived that jump off the walls of Winterfell, magically unmaimed, and finds her way to safety and eventually power. Maybe Arya won't be blind forever. Maybe Melisandre atones for making Stannis burn his daughter alive and does something useful with herself. Maybe the Dothraki help Danaerys. Maybe Margaery will get out of prison. And at least Gilly was saved, by the most unlikely hero at the Wall.
But if "Mother's Mercy" taught us one thing, it's this: Not one single woman on this show is truly free.
Brienne is limited by her vows to avenge Renly and protect the Stark girls. Arya is bound by her promises to Jaqen H'ghar. Sansa is almost literally owned by Ramsay Bolton. Melisandre is in thrall to the Lord of Light. Ellaria is consumed by her need for revenge. Cersei and Margaery are controlled by the High Sparrow. The Sand Snakes have more freedom than most women on the show, but are essentially controlled by Doran. Gilly depends on Sam for her safety. Danaerys would be dead if not for Jorah, Daario, Tyrion and Drogon.
In Westeros, the only path to freedom for a woman is death.