Tuesday, June 3, 2014

The Women of Westeros: The Ladies of Game of Thrones- Part 1

     I have to give credit where credit is due: Game of Thrones is an amazing TV show, and the books the show is based on, the "A Song of Ice and Fire" series, are just as amazing. As a general rule, I'm not an avid reader of fantasy. It took me years to even get around to reading the Harry Potter novels (and of course, I devoured them once I did.) Game of Thrones was just wrapping its glorious third season when my husband and I started watching the show, and we got addicted almost immediately. Now, 2 episodes away from the Season 4 finale, I am simultaneously anxiously awaiting the final episodes and already dreading it being over. It's baffling and horrifying that I'll have to wait until spring of 2015 to be reunited with some of the best characters on television, and continue the struggle for power that has all of Westeros locked in a gory war.
      The author of the series, George R. R. Martin, once famously said of his female characters, "I'm of the controversial opinion that women are people, and people are interesting." This conviction is highly admirable, and apparently very rare. None of the women of Game of Thrones are props or can be summed up as "Someone's Girlfriend" or "Someone's Sister." Even if they are those things, they are their own entities, and they have their own desires and wants, personalities and conflicts, and their own ways of struggling for their own power. The medieval-inspired world of Westeros and its surrounding lands are not kind in their treatment of women. Women only have power if they are married to, fathered by, or mother to a man who already has it, and rape and violence toward women are considered an unfortunate but unavoidable aspect of womanhood. The show is not kind in this regard; it has been heavily criticized for its use of rape as a plot device, and it's often deeply unpleasant depictions of violence against women, particularly when that incident of violence is not present in the original source material. Despite that, the women in the show find their own ways to vie for power in a man's world, and it makes them deeply fascinating and some of the best characters on TV. Here are my top favorite women of Game of Thrones.
       For those of you who are not caught up on your Game of Thrones, or just need to be given a brief recap of what this complicated series is about, Westeros is made up of several powerful families: the wealthy and influential but ruthless Lannisters, the honorable but flawed Starks, the batshit crazy Targareyens, the powerful Baratheons, the brooding Greyjoys, and the well off, clever Tyrells. These families are supported by smaller families (the Arryns, the Boltons, the Tullys, etc.) The smaller families choose to align themselves with one of the larger ones in times of war in exchange for more power or influence. The problem is that whichever side you choose, there are inevitably other families who now consider you an enemy, and in the Battle of Five Kings, having more enemies than allies deadly. 

*NOTE: This is posted as of the 8th episode of Season 4. SPOILERS AHOY.*

12) Lysa Arryn
House Arryn: As High As Honor
Lives In: The Eeyrie, a well-gaurded mountain keep that is shielded by 100 warriors at any moment

Crazy Aunt Lysa. We scarcely knew ye, before ye were flung out the moon door by your murderous husband so he could actively pursue your beautiful niece because she looks like your sister, whom he's always loved. (And that's one of the most subtle plotlines on GoT!) Though the family lines of Westeros are as complicated and tangled as the earphones you found in your jacket pocket from last winter, Lysa Arryn's origins are a bit more simple. Originally born of House Tully, Lysa is Catelyn Stark's sister. Lysa was married to Jon Arryn, whose mysterious death, presumably at the hands of the Lannisters sets the story in motion. Always considered "eccentric," Lysa has now delved into full on insanity. She's hypocritical, neurotic, obsessive and overly protective of her 10 year old son, whom she babies to the point of continuing to nurse him from her own breast. She is originally introduced to the story when she attempts to frame Tyrion Lannister for the murder of her husband Jon Arryn. She is unsuccessful, but it is revealed in later seasons that she herself poisoned her husband to win the affection of Petyr Baelish, the Master of Coin. Petyr, however, has always loved Lysa's sister, Catelyn, who married Ned Stark. Unfortunately, it is through Petyr Baelish that Lysa meets her end- when she becomes jealous of the attentions that Petyr showers on Catelyn's beautiful daughter Sansa, she threatens to throw Sansa through the Moon Door (an opening in her floor that hovers over a 1000 foot drop, which is used primarily for getting rid of unwelcome visitors and enemies.) Petyr, having married Lysa and officially claimed himself as ward of the Eeyrie, rids himself of his crazy wife by dropping the most epic truth bomb ever: "I have only loved one woman my entire life. Only one. Your sister, Cat," and tossing Lysa out the moon door to plummet to her death. 

11) Shae
House: Unknown
Lives in: King's Landing, the Capital of Westeros

Shae's origins remain a mystery, but since she spends most of her time on the show as Tyrion Lannister's prostitute/girlfriend, we can say safely that she's currently on Team Lannister. Shae is headstrong, sassy, and loyal to Tyrion... or so it seemed, until she testified against him for murdering King Joffrey in Season 4. This seemed to be an abrupt departure from her usual character, and it caught several viewers off guard. Despite their class differences, Shae has always seemed to legitimately love Tyrion and he clearly loves her. There is great danger in him being in love with and intimately connected to a prostitute with no family name- Tyrion has loved women of the night before, only to have his powerful father Tywin Lannister destroy them to spite his son. Shae has always been depicted as above all of that. She refuses to divulge much information about where she is from or how she came to be a prostitute in King's Landing, but we've always felt that she had noble intentions. However, all good things must end, particularly in Westeros, where you legitimately can't get too attached to anyone. When Tyrion is framed for the murder of King Joffrey, Shae is brought in as a surprise witness.. for the prosecution. There, she tells what is mostly the truth, including their intimate secrets together, framed in the worst possible light. It is a damning testimony. For that reason, Shae is low on this list. She's not as annoying as Crazy Aunt Lysa, but anyone who betrays Tyrion Lannister is not ok with me. (We don't know why she did what she did, but I'm going to hope that she was being coerced by Tywin Lannister and had no choice but to do so to protect herself, and not that she simply turned on Tyrion when he sent her away from King's Landing for her own safety.)

10) Arya Stark
House Stark: Winter is Coming
Currently In: The Eeyrie, but heading toward Braavos

I know a lot of people would be surprised to see Arya Stark so far down on the list. Ned Stark's youngest daughter is quite the fan favorite due to her bloodlust and gradual transition from spunky tomboy to coldblooded killer. I like Arya, but she lacks some of the depth I see in the other characters; much of that is due to her age, but much if it is just due to the writing being a little less subtle than it is for the other characters. With that said, Arya has taken a fascinating route to where she is. After Ned Stark is beheaded by King Joffrey in Season 1, Arya is smuggled out of King's Landing and dressed as a boy to disguise herself. Most of those in King's Landing presume she is dead, and has been for several years. She has encountered all sorts of misfortune- being shuffled along with a group of vagrant boys, becoming a servant to  Tywin Lannister himself, losing several of her friends, and being mere moments away from being reunited with her mother and brother, only to be present when they are both brutally slaughtered. For all of season 4, she has been travelling the Riverlands with Sandor Clegane, the King's Hound, whom she loathes. He is holding her captive, and intends to ransom her to Lysa Arryn, her aunt. To say that Arya's life has been tragic is a colossal understatement- not only did she watch her father die at the hands of a boy she hates, she has also lost her home, her family name, and her mother and brother to that same man. She's very much a wondering vagrant, and all this misfortune has caused a rage to build inside of her. She's always been tomboyish and impatient with the frilly, unimportant tasks assigned to women, but now, having been in the company of men almost exclusively since she escaped from King's Landing, Arya has taken on the wrong man's bloodlust. Before bed every night, she repeats the names of those she wants to kill, almost as if in prayer. Thus far, she hasn't gotten a chance to knock many names off her list, but with the skillful, cold way in which she can dispense of a man now, it's hard to imagine she won't get her chance.

9) Melisandre
House: Baratheon, through allegiance. Birth origins are unknown.
Currently in: Dragonstone

In the Battle of Five Kings, Stannis Baratheon was the antagonist, and the loser. After his brother King Robert's death, his alleged "son" Joffrey inherits the throne. However, we know- and most of Westeros knows- that Joffrey isn't Robert's son. He's the inbred son of Robert's wife, Queen Cersei, and her twin brother Jaime Lannister. With this in mind, Stannis Baratheon feels entitled to the throne as the next in line, since Robert sired no trueborn heir. Thus, the war of Kings is declared. Stannis, a brooding warrior-type with a rigid sense of a duty and a scowling face, declares war on King's Landing and is promptly defeated, and has spent most of this season sulking in his dark, batcave-like castle on Dragonstone. There with him as always is Melisandre, the high priestess of the Lord of Light, whose iron grip on Stannis' mind has grown firmer. Melisandre is another female character whose origins are mysterious- it seems to be a running theme amongst the female characters that as long as no one knows where you come from, it's easy to get where you want to go. The men proudly tout their family names, but the women are quieter in that regard. It seems to be easier to get what you want if no one connects you to your powerful (or completely powerless) brother, father, or husband. Melisandre, forever cloaked in scarlet from head to toe and sporting bright red hair, is like a beautiful Rasputin, and she has the entire castle fooled. The deeply devout servant of the Lord of Light (one of many competing gods that those in Westeros defer to,) the Red Woman is forever a flea in Stannis' ear, whispering words of glory and honor, all as long as they play by the Lord of Light's rules. The Lord of Light seems to be a vindictive son of a bitch: he demands absolute belief and complete faith. Anyone who disbelieves, or even questions, should be liberated and cleaned of his mortal shell by fire, and when she isn't hovering over Stannis filling his mind with zealous thoughts, she's making examples of peasants by setting them ablaze on pillars by the sea. Melisandre's tricks of the trade are partially mysterious, and partially completely obvious. She seduces Stannis and keeps him blinded, not only by her promises of victory, but by her sexuality, as well as a serious of magic tricks used to convince him of her god. There are several indications that the Lord of Light is real- unlike the many other gods in Westeros (the Old Gods, the New Gods, the Drowned God, the Seven Faces of God, etc) the Lord of Light has actually shown himself. He eliminated one of the 5 Kings vying for power in Westeros by killing Renly Baratheon, Stannis' own younger brother, who also wanted the throne. But it's hard to tell whether Melisandre really is the holy priestess she claims to be, or if she is simply pulling everyone's leg. She's got the entire castle fooled- even Stannis' devoted wife, Selyse, completely agrees with Stannis cheating on her with Melisandre because it is the "will of the Lord of Light, and nothing done in the name of the Lord of Light can be a sin." Melisandre is the rare woman in Westeros who has complete, untamed power- the only problem is that it exists only as long as she has Stannis' undivided attention. And Melisandre seems to have no intention whatsoever of letting that go.

8) Brienne of Tarth
House: Stark, by loyalty and sworn oath
Currently In: Has just left King's Landing in pursuit of Arya Stark, to try and honor her oath to Catelyn Stark and retrieve her daughters, Sansa and Arya Stark

Brienne of Tarth is not just one of my favorite characters on Game of Thrones, she's one of my favorite characters on television. Brienne is a grand woman, not just in her incredible size and height, but in her extraordinary strength of character. Originally in the service of Renly Baratheon, who was vying for the throne in Season 2, Brienne finds herself unable to protect the king from Melisandre's evil magic and, distraught over the king she loved, swears herself to a new ally- Catelyn Stark, who was aligned with Renly in the war before he died. At this time, Catelyn has taken Jaime Lannister captive, and when she realizes that the gallant female knight is as noble and honorable as she is skillful in battle, she entrusts her with returning Jaime to King's Landing to ransom him for Catelyn's daughters, Sansa and Arya, whom she believes are trapped in the Capital. It is on this journey that we come to love Brienne. Jaime is a smarmy asshole who routinely insults, belittles and antagonizes his transporter. He goes for the low hanging fruit- he calls her a lesbian, a man, and generally annoys her so much that she ends up showing her cards and revealing her true skill: Brienne is a masterful swordswoman. She is as strong, as skilled, as dignified as any knight living, and she begins to win Jaime's begrudging respect. We love Brienne because she is completely devoted to her cause- in Renly's service, she was completely faithful, and when he was no longer around, she pledged her allegiance to the Starks. Despite multiple challenges and risking life and limb, she honors her vow, and has stayed faithful to Catelyn Stark's wishes long after her death. Brienne also has interesting roots. Her father is the lord of the Sapphire Isles, so she was born to some nobility. However, she has eschewed the life of the Lady of the Manor to pursue her passion of service and knighthood, and by all accounts, her family has been quite supportive of this. Despite her great strength and skill, Brienne is the epitome of class in most situations: loyal, intelligent, above reproach, deeply respectful, and possessing a wit as sharp as her sword.

7) Olenna Tyrell:
House Tyrell: Growing Strong:
Currently In: King's Landing

Olenna Tyrell is without a doubt the smartest person in King's Landing, and the most fearless. The matriarch of the powerful, wealthy Tyrell family is not intimidated by anyone, not even by the bane of most Westeros nightmares, Tywin Lannister. She easily holds her own against him, and even manages to put him in his place a few times. Snappy, saucy, and just downright sassy, Lady Tyrell is well aware of what's going on- she knows that it is better to have powerful-but-untrustworthy allies than powerful-but-untrustworthy enemies, which is why she agreed to an arranged marriage between her granddaughter Margaery and King Joffrey Baratheon, Tywin's grandson. She finds great humor in the lengths that the nobles in King's Landing will go to for power, gain, or just to stay in Tywin's good graces. She's very protective of her family and proud of her wealth, but she's also leery enough to know when to play the Game of Thrones and who to keep close. Did I mention she's also a coldblooded killer? Lady Olenna, upon realizing that her granddaughter is betrothed to a sadistic monster of a king, decides just to get rid of the little twerp altogether. With Petyr Baelish's help, she poisons him at his own wedding, an unheard of atrocity in a land where it is expressly forbidden to harm a man once he has become a guest in your home. (Though we'll talk later about how well that went over for Robb and Catelyn Stark.) When she later confesses to Margaery what she's done, she doesn't bat an eye. The little beast needed to be out of the way, and now he is. It's about protecting the family, and nobody guards her family more fiercely than Olenna Tyrell.

6) Ygritte
House: Outlander of the Free Cities
Currently In: the North, headed toward the wall for the Battle of Castle Black

Unlike the others on this list, Ygritte has no House and no affiliations. She's a Wildling, a member of the 'free people' in the North who actively eschew the laws and stuffy proprieties of Westeros. The Wildlings operate independent of the rest of the land, and live a life that's arguably more natural: they kill what they want to eat, the sleep with whomever they want, and they roam wherever it pleases them. The hypocritical aristocrats of King's Landing consider them something akin to animals; the Wildings believe they're just ahead of the curve.  Ygritte lives with her band of Wildlings "North of the Wall," meaning a 700 foot wall of snow and ice that guards the perimeter of Westeros. It was erected in olden times to protect Westeros from the monsters and frights that live on the other side, and the Night's Watch, men elected or sentenced to live a chaste life of guarding the wall, are there to make sure they stay on the other side. Jon Snow, the bastard son of Ned Stark, joins the Night's Watch in Season 1, and in Season 3 is captured by the Wildings. They want to march on the Wall and try to cross to seek vengeance on those who have blighted and rejected them, and while in captivity, Jon meets Ygritte. She's completely independent, feisty, sure with an arrow, and very amused by the pretentious nature of society life that Jon describes. She lives a very uninhibited life. She speaks candidly and openly about war, sex, and bodily functions, and irreverently mocks parts of Westeros life held sacred by Jon Snow. She is the first to directly challenge his nobility and his vow of chastity, which he holds as one and the same, and ultimately she influences him to lose his virginity to her. However, Jon is still the noble son of Ned Stark, sworn to the brotherhood of the Night's Watch, and she's still a Wildling. As soon as Jon is able to escape to the wall and warn them of the impending Wildling attack, he does, leaving lovelorn Ygritte all alone... and very, very pissed off. This season, Ygritte is in full Woman Scorned mode. She was vulnerable to him, and he left her. He was more devoted to his damnable honor than his love for her, and she is hellbent on making him pay for it.