A few weeks ago on Game of Thrones, when Brienne of Tarth became a knight and Arya Stark decided to have sex for the first time, it seemed like the show committed to an idea that’s been building in recent seasons: that female characters can be defined by something other than marriage or sexual trauma, and they can be powerful outside of their familial relationships with men. Brienne wanted something other than a mate, Arya took charge of her own sexual destiny, and both of their desires were validated. In a show full of rape and driven by women tearing each other down to gain power, “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” suggested that women could be defined by something other than their pain.
Then, in Sunday’s episode, “The Last of the Starks,” all of that beautiful character work went straight to hell.
First, Brienne and Jaime sleep together. We assume they sleep together, that is; the scene is unusually demure for Game of Thrones. There is one abrupt kiss before the episode cuts to another story, and the next time we see them, Brienne’s asleep. We get no signals of her pleasure, or his. This event is the culmination of a story that’s been simmering for seven seasons, and it should’ve felt like the payoff of years of animosity and rancor between them, a relationship that turned into begrudging respect, and finally, real allyship. It should’ve felt awkward, or triumphant, or sweet — it could’ve felt like anything, really, as long as it felt like something.
It did not. Instead, Brienne’s first time was everything Arya’s was not: rushed, ill-considered, and so underwritten that it was almost cruel. After years spent defining Brienne as an honorable, modest woman, someone whose relationship with her body has never fit easily into the world and whose relationship with herself as a sexual person has never felt comfortable, Game of Thrones hands Brienne a drink, whips her shirt off, and declares the deed done. The episode hurries along, treating Brienne’s virginity like a Chekov’s gun that, once discovered, could not be left unfired. Except “The Last of the Starks” didn’t even have the good grace to leave some space between introducing the weapon and pulling the trigger.
Then Brienne is abandoned. After years of pining for Jaime, achieving the hard-fought recognition of her peers, fighting for her life in a poorly conceived battle, being forced to admit she’s a virgin, and then rushing into sex with Jaime in one grief-powered, wine-soaked plunge … what must Brienne have woken up thinking the next morning? What must she have felt? The event itself is cursory, but it could’ve been saved by giving Brienne an opportunity to talk about it after the fact, to express pleasure or horror at what happened. But there is nothing.
The only postmortem commentary comes from Tyrion and Jaime, who joke good-naturedly about how, at last, Jaime has to do a little “climbing” in bed. The line is meant as a joke about the fact that Brienne is taller than Jaime, and that Tyrion’s stature means that he’s always had to be a climber. Intentionally or not, it’s also a joke about who has the power in heterosexual sex, because in a metaphor about climbing, the mountain just sits quietly and waits to be climbed. Brienne, a knight of the Seven Kingdoms, deserves more than that.
Brienne came out of episodes two and three as a victorious knight who’d at last attained the full power and respect of her peers. She comes out of episode four not even dressed, covered in a black cape, weeping because her man is abandoning her. Everything powerful about Ser Brienne is stripped away; her only lines after her big romantic consummation are to beg Jaime not to leave. All of her agency is reduced to pleading with Jaime not to leave her for another woman. Given more time or more dialogue where Brienne could articulate her perspective, that scene could have been vastly more devastating for these two characters, combining Brienne’s vulnerability with Jaime’s unwinnable choice between Brienne and Cersei. In its hastiness, the scene prioritizes Jaime’s departure and shortchanges Brienne’s growth.
If Brienne’s story were just one misstep in an otherwise strong episode, it might’ve been easier to forgive. But “The Last of the Starks” finds similarly depressing beats for most of the show’s major female characters. Dany, after surviving the Battle of Winterfell, can only muster one emotion: jealousy, at not being popular enough. Sansa, in an infuriating bit of dialogue, tells the Hound that “without Littlefinger and Ramsay and the rest” — without being raped and tortured, that is — she “would’ve stayed a little bird all [her] life.” Being raped and tortured helped her grow up, she’s saying. The disastrous implication is that Sansa could not have matured without experiencing trauma; she is made to be thankful for her attackers.
“The Last of the Starks” leaves the worst for the very end. Missandei, Dany’s loyal handmaiden, is captured by Euron’s fleet and beheaded on the walls of King’s Landing to prove that Cersei will never surrender. Missandei’s ending would’ve been bad enough if it’d just been about her death. She was freed from slavery but remained in servitude, she fell in love with a man, she dreamed about what their lives could be like together if they could ever escape this war, and then she was beheaded. Not only does that arc force Missandei to remain Dany’s subject for her entire life, but it reduces her to only three things: her service, her brief love affair, and her violent death. She was the only woman of color left on this show, and she was killed without ever getting the chance to live her own life.
But Game of Thrones doesn’t even treat Missandei’s death as its own distinct horror, because for “The Last of the Starks,” the point is not the tragedy of her beheading. The point is that her death fuels Dany’s rage and vengefulness. Missandei’s execution has no space to be an event in and of itself; it is not framed as Missandei’s story. It’s just a catalyst for Dany’s change.
Missandei does get one last word before the Mountain chops her head off, and she says it proudly: “Dracarys.” She enunciates it clearly and with intention, making it a statement of strength and freedom, a rebellion against what’s about to happen to her. But when Dany says that word, a dragon opens its mouth and fire rains down from the sky and her enemies are shriveled into nothingness. When Missandei says it, the word has no power. The language of her mistress’s dragon does not work for her; she is disempowered by the final word she speaks. Missandei dies as a pawn rather than a person.
That Missandei dies as an instrument in the conflict between Cersei and Dany does not make her death better, or more feminist. Nor does it make things better that Cersei and Dany are also women who have been defined by the traumas done to them. Instead it suggests that Game of Thrones, eight seasons in, still cannot conceive of a way for most women to exist in its world beyond being sexual partners, being mothers, or tearing one another apart. For a short period on this show, it looked as if Sansa, Cersei, and Daenerys might be the figures of strength left at the end, a trio of women who might rid themselves of the idiot men whose battles shaped the map of Westeros. Now, it looks as if they’re all just another layer of obstacles who will destroy one another so that Jon Snow can take the throne.
There is one big exception: Arya moves through Westeros with her own agency, following her own self-defined path, which is why her polite dismissal of Gendry’s marriage proposal is the best thing “The Last of the Starks” does. Gendry’s proposal lets both of them articulate their feelings about what’s happened between them, and Arya’s refusal still reinforces the elements of her character that the show has shaped since the end of season one. She is not a lady. She never has been. Just like Sansa, Arya’s childhood was defined by the trauma inflicted on her, but Arya hasn’t been made to express appreciation for the people who crushed her youth. She, alone, has been given the space to unapologetically hate them. If, at the end of Game of Thrones, the story somehow twists back around to Arya’s point of view, if it finds a way to suggest that pain is not noble and that trauma is not inherently important, then perhaps the damage this show has inflicted on its women will be mitigated, at least a little. Even under that best-case scenario, though it’s hard to imagine the last two episodes of Game of Thrones could fully recover from the way “The Last of the Starks” betrays Brienne, Sansa, and Missandei.