How Game of Thrones has failed its female characters

And so our watch has almost ended. In a few days we will know who gets to sit on the Iron Throne (well metaphorically anyway given I’m fairly sure the Iron Throne is a molten pile of slag right about now). There are so many questions still to be answered. Who is the prince that was promised? Did Melisandre’s prophecy about Arya killing someone with green eyes refer to Daenerys, or Drogon or was it just misdirection? Will Bronn get High Garden? (I want only good things for Bronn, he’s earned it.) Will Bran finally get to do something that justifies his terminably dull Three Eyed Raven storyline? And most importantly have I really just spent eight long years of my life watching a show that has decided at the eleventh hour that cocks are important?

We now know that the final battle will not be as we had assumed a Stark/Targaryen army versus Cersei but the brave and noble Starks against a mad as a box of frogs Targaryen. So everything old is new again. It’s not that I object to the plot coming full circle but I do very much object to the female characters being thrown under a bus so showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss can have their painfully trite “Mad Queen” storyline.

Look I get it, wrapping up a multi season show of this complexity isn’t easy. When I tried to think of long running shows that really stuck the landing pretty much only Breaking Bad sprang to mind. The Sopranos non ending was either a work of narrative genius or cowardice depending on your viewpoint. Seinfeld’s ending was true to its characters but deeply unsatisfying. Sherlock introduced a random mad evil sister that its genius hero forgot he had because that made sense. How I Met Your Mother ended so badly I haven’t been able to bear watching a single episode since.

How I Met Your Mother is a good example of how picking an ending in advance and sticking to it can go horribly wrong. The showrunners decided at the beginning that the show would end with Ted and Robin together. However by the time the show ended the characters had evolved to a point where resurrecting that pairing simply wasn’t emotionally truthful. By forcing that ending they completely ruined the show and tainted what had gone before. A similar problem beset Avengers Endgame. Bringing a conclusion to an epic 22 film arc was not an easy feat and they were doing so well, right up to the point where they decided to have Captain America marry Peggy Carter. On the face of it this is a gloriously romantic ending. Only problem is it doesn’t actually make narrative sense. More fatally pairing up Steve and Peggy required him to sit back and do nothing while his friend is tortured, multiple people are assassinated and his wife’s workplace is infiltrated by actual Nazis. Captain America allowing these things to happen so he can live the quiet life and get laid is flat out character assassination.

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In short picking an end point and forcing your characters through tortured plot machinations to get them where you want them to be instead of allowing your characters to reach that point organically rarely works out well. The problem with this final season of Game of Thrones is that our characters are being forced to act in ridiculous ways that are completely out of character and that are not remotely emotionally truthful in order for them to reach their final places on the chess board. By forcing the pace of the show the Game of Thrones showrunners are not serving their characters well. In fact with one notable exception Game of Thrones in its final season has managed to completely fail its female characters. Because eight years of beautiful, delicate political intrigue has been reduced to “bitches are fucking crazy amirite?”

Before we talk about how badly the women have been written this year we need to briefly touch on the two main male characters who have spent the entire season acting like they don’t have a brain cell to rub between them in order to facilitate the ‘Mad Queen” storyline.

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Tyrion is by miles the best character on the show. It has been truly painful to watch the smartest man in Kings Landing reduced to a village idiot. Having Sansa look at him with abject pity this season and tell him sadly that she used to think he was the smartest person in the world was a tough moment for us all. In order for the showrunners to highlight that maybe Daenerys isn’t all that much cop as a ruler Tyrion had to be shown to be completely inept. I like the notion that Daenerys somehow melted his cynical heart and that his profound failings as an advisor come from him being more human but…nah it’s just terrible writing isn’t it?

Would the Tyrion of the Battle of Black Water Bay really have believed that Daenerys would call off the attack on Kings Landing once she heard the bells ring out? He might have hoped somewhere in his dark, booze addled heart that she would. But he would also have had a back up plan if she didn’t. And why in gods name did he betray Varys? Of all the terrible plot turns this year that was the worst. Tyrion being such a Targaryen loyalist doesn’t really make much sense. She never gave him a reason to believe that she was capable of doing all the things she promised (beyond owning terrifying dragons). Peter Dinklage is the best actor on the show (sharing joint honours with Lena Headey) and has done wonders allowing us to see his dawning horror that he has well and truly backed the wrong horse. So why out of nowhere did he betray his oldest friend and then stand there calmly and let him be executed? Well I mean, I know why. It’s because that shot of Drogon emerging from the darkness was genuinely terrifying. Conleth Hill (possibly the classiest actor on the show) gave a masterclass in doing a lot with almost nothing and at least he went out true to his character but the fact that plot decisions are clearly being made to facilitate cool moments rather than because they make narrative sense is infuriating. I pray that the finale redeems this rather dim and timid Tyrion.

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Then we have our hero, Jon Snow. Much has been made of the fact that the show is inevitably going to end up with a male on the throne instead of an infinitely more capable woman. I like Jon Snow. Kit isn’t the strongest player but he’s always consistently played Snow as his father’s son – brave (suicidally so), true, honest, kind and dumb as a bucket of rocks. I mean he’s a nice boy but I wouldn’t trust him with a gold fish much less the Iron Throne. Snow owes much to the women in his life, Ygritte kept him alive when he was with the Wildlings (yes she shot him through with an arrow but that was just flirting), Melisandre gave him life after he was murdered, he has Winterfell and his allegiances thanks to Sansa and a victory over the dead thanks to Arya and Dany’s dragons. So it’s more than a little annoying that he is now being considered for the highest position in Westeros simply because he possesses a penis. Oh and because he doesn’t want it. Not wanting a position doesn’t mean that you are instantly suited for it. I don’t want to be Wimbledon champion. That doesn’t mean I deserve to be Wimbledon champion when I have zero hand/eye co-ordination and run away screaming when anyone hits a ball in my direction. The fact that he is being set up as the saviour simply because he possesses male genitalia is maddening. It is however a perfect example of how the show has diminished its female characters in its race to the finish line.

I know, I know. Being angry about the women being written poorly in a show that is, as Ian McShane once beautifully described it, all about “tits and dragons” is an exercise in futility. The show used to pride itself on featuring as many tits on screen as it could. Many women I know stopped watching after the horrifying storyline when Ramsay Bolton raped Sansa. Only two episodes in its entire eight year run were written by women and they have only had one female director. That’s truly abysmal and given what a sausagefest the whole thing is it’s rather astonishing that we got any remotely decent female characters at all.

The female characters in Game of Thrones fit into several broad catagories – sex slaves, fearsome warriors/mystics, barking mad or scheming matriarchs/vixens (oh Margaery Tyrrell how you are missed). Those that don’t fit into those categories are the pure souls – Catelyn Stark, Shireen, Lady Walda and Talisa Stark all of whom of course were brutally murdered in the most savage of ways. To say that this show is rough on its female characters is an understatement. But with the exception of Arya Stark, first of her name and killer of the Night King this final season really has turfed characterisation and logic out of the window in its treatment of the remaining female characters.

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Brienne of Tarth has always been one of the best supporting characters on the show and Gwendolyn Christie plays her with a ferocious vulnerableness. Barring Arya knifing the Night King the best moment of the season so far has been Brienne’s joy at finally becoming a knight. Pod’s pride and her beautiful smile of pure joy made me weep for days. It was a moment of pure happiness and richly deserved. And then they hooked her up with Jaime.

I was in the minority that wasn’t rooting for them to get together at all. Brienne was a crucial part of Jaime’s redemption arc. He goes from mocking her at every turn to fighting for her, even losing his hand protecting her from being raped. Brienne made Jaime want to be better. He wanted her to understand why he was the Kingslayer (poor Jaime truly was an unsung hero.) But I never saw their chemistry as sexual and was disappointed they went that route. It’s not that I object to Brienne getting some (especially after Tyrion’s classless remark) but for me the beauty of their friendship was that Jaime truly saw and respected her as his equal. He never treated Bronn or any other male character on the show (that wasn’t Tyrion) with an ounce of the respect he showed Brienne. He was overjoyed to repay her for her trust and faith in him (and for her vouching for him in front of Sansa and Daenerys) by knighting her. We so rarely get male/female platonic friendships depicted on screen so it was a shame that it all ended in sex.

But what made me want to scream was the scene where Brienne, dressed in her dressing gown, cries over Jaime leaving. It’s not that she cried. It’s that she cried in public. I had no issues with Jaime leaving. It was one of the few character decisions that felt completely true to me. Jaime may respect Brienne and be happy to share her bed but Cersei is his North Star. He knows what she is and he loves her anyway. Jaime not being prepared to allow the love of his life to die alone was entirely true to his character. But if the showrunners had a woman on the writing staff she would have told them that women don’t cry in public if we can help it. We just don’t. Cry in the toilets where noone else can bother you if you have to but in public? Never. Because here’s the thing. If a woman cries in public she immediately loses the respect of every man in the vicinity. That shouldn’t be the case but it is. If you cry especially in the workplace you are branded as weak, emotional, hysterical, every term that has ever been used to denigrate women over the years. Womens’ tears are seen as a reason to dismiss women, to see them as something lesser. “Oh her! You don’t want to pay any attention to her. Right drama queen she is. Cries at the drop of a hat”. Brienne who has had to deal her entire life with lesser men unable to cope with her brilliance mocking and degrading her at every turn would never cry in public. She would never give anyone the satisfaction of seeing her tears. Seeing her reduced to crying in a dressing gown begging the man she unwisely loves not to go, not caring who sees her weeping? Hell no. I hope she gets a killer moment in the finale as I will be sad if the last we see of her is her begging a guy she shagged twice not to leave her.

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Missandei – I was so sure she would live. That she would go out into the world and rule a little kingdom of her own. From sex slave to ruler. It seemed a lovely arc to me. But I should have remembered that there are no female writers on the staff this season and the men had another fate in mind for Missandei. Really? REALLY? The only woman of colour in the entire show gets brutally beheaded. And to add insult to injury she dies in chains with Cersei mocking her status as a slave. I mean did noone think for a second about how grotesquely insulting that was? In the final season people were going to die but Missandei didn’t die bravely fighting the dead or the Iron Fleet or the Golden Company or even Cersei herself. No she died for the reason women are always fridged, to cause another character pain and further their storyline. It’s not progressive that in this case Missandei was fridged so a white woman would have an excuse for bloody vengeance. Her death was utterly unnecessary. Yes Cersei is Cersei but would she really have murdered Missandei like that when Dany is sat there on a big old dragon that could have burnt her to a crisp in a second? Cersei is smarter than that. I also have an issue with her last words. Yes if I was up there in chains, about to be beheaded I probably wouldn’t be feeling peachy about it but would Missandei really have used her last breath to urge Dany to raze Kings Landing to the ground? As a former slave she would not have wanted many thousands of innocents to die on her account. That her last words were an expression of vengeance rather than of love or hope just felt completely wrong to me.

Missandei had to die purely so Daenerys had a reason to snap. If we must have a Mad Queen storyline it would have been far more interesting to have seen Dany get everything she wanted with all her advisors (Missandei, Ser Jorah) and dragons intact and then still completely lose it over Jon as a perceived threat to her throne because absolute power corrupts absolutely. Slapping a black woman in chains and callously murdering her simply so a white woman can go loco is as crass as it comes.

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Sansa Stark – Hello and welcome to my Ted Talk about why Sansa Stark is the only person qualified to take the Iron Throne. Sansa hasn’t had the most eventful of seasons (bar the beautiful moment between her and Tyrion in the Battle of Winterfell). Her siblings have had way more exciting stuff to do. Jon has been banging his Aunt, learning to ride a dragon, ineffectually battling the armies of the dead and ineffectually stopping his barking mad hook up from committing mass genocide. Arya has been out there stabbing the people that need to get stabbed. Bran has been doing…well whatever the hell it is that blanket covered creeper does (please god let his storyline make sense in the finale!) But Sansa? Well she’s been building alliances, rebuilding and fortifying Winterfell and ensuring that the grain stores are replenished so her people won’t starve to death in the winter. In short Sansa is already ruling Winterfell and is the only person remotely qualified to take the throne. Which of course means that one of her penis owning brothers will be crowned instead. But even with my Team Sansa flag waving high I’m still painfully aware that her characterisation this year has been awful.

What was with the constant side eyeing of Daenerys? Were we meant to look at this ridiculous behaviour in retrospect and go “aha see someone else realised Dany wasn’t all that. What fools we were it was all right there on screen”. No. Just no. Sansa survived Joffrey and Ramsay, two vicious psychopaths. She also learnt at the feet of Cersei and Littlefinger. She is nobodys’ fool. There is no way she would treat a Queen, particularly one possessed of an army which could take Winterfell without breaking a sweat, with the degree of snide disrespect she treated Daenerys. It was just wildly out of character and made her seem petty and vindictive and small. Her concerns about the North were justified but all that time watching Littlefinger (a man whose allegiances were never truly clear) would have taught her to be far more circumspect. Sansa side eying Dany just made her seem jealous which is a tired, tired old trope. And don’t get me started on her appalling conversation with the Hound in which male writers had a female character declare that her brutal rape made her a stronger person. The Hound was consistently crass so his comment about her having been “broken in hard” was in keeping but her agreement that her rapes made her the woman she is today is grotesque. Sansa was always strong. Her trials just made her realise that she had always been stronger and cleverer than anyone gave her credit for including herself. Ramsay Bolton was a sadistic rapist who deserved to be eaten by his own dogs. Sansa had nothing to learn from him. To suggest that her degradation made her strong is despicable. I’m disappointed at how Sansa has acted up until now this season and they can make it up to me by crowning her Queen of the North which she bloody deserves.

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Cersei Lannister – Oh my golden haired lioness. They did you wrong. The show’s single biggest crime this year has been the atrocious waste of Cersei. I hope that Lena Headey was paid very very handsomely indeed for doing absolutely nothing. Seriously Cersei has spent the entire season looking fabulous, sipping wine, having pity sex with a man she clearly despised, looking pensively out of windows and then when it came to it dying in a scene where she begged for her life and her child’s life in dialogue that sounded nothing like words that would ever leave Cersei’s lips. To waste her in this way is utterly unforgivable.

Cersei was our favourite monster, capable of doing the most atrocious, hateful things and yet in Lena Headey’s skilled hands it was hard not to root for her. Like Sansa and Daenerys she was sold into marriage, in her case to Robert Baratheon in order to build an alliance between their two houses. Despite being by far the sharpest and most capable of Tywin’s children because of her gender she was treated as nothing but a brood mare. She survived Robert’s constant adultery and beatings bearing the true love of her life three children (and dear god all the credit to Headey and Nikolaj Coster –Waldau for managing to make incest seem almost sweet). And then because she’s Cersei she also banged her cousin and got him to murder her husband for her and frame it to look like an accident, an action which started this whole sorry mess.

We watched Cersei battle her way to power dealing with horrors along the way. She had to deal with so much. Condescension and dismissal from the idiot men in the court who didn’t want to waste their time talking to “the Queen Mother” as if she hadn’t spent years learning to be every bit as brutally ruthless as her father and then some. She lost all three of her children. Sure Joffrey was barking mad and it was probably a tiny bit of a relief when he died but watching your child die in screaming agony in front of your eyes can’t have been fun. Marcella’s death was horrendously cruel and Cersei has never been more terrifying than when she was calmly poisoning Tyene Sand and dooming Ellaria Sand to spend the rest of her days in chains watching her daughter decompose in front of her. The Faith Militant storyline was deeply frustrating as it required dumbing her character down considerably but at least there was a built in excuse. Cersei was so distressed by the prophecy of a young queen taking everything away from her that she resolved to destroy Margaery any way she could (even though of course the prophecy was about Daenerys). So she armed the religious nutters and gave them power failing to realise that she would be their most obvious next target. Cersei had to endure torture and the degrading humiliation of a naked walk of atonement. So when she retaliated by bombing the fuck out of each and every one of them with wildfire you couldn’t really blame her. It seemed a proportional response. But it was a pyrrhic victory as Margaery’s death lead to the suicide of her remaining child. Cersei has been through the depths of hell and clawed her way to power and once she took the Iron Throne the show did…absolutely nothing with her.

I can’t get over the fact that she had no plan for dealing with Daenerys. None. She waited for the armies of the dead to decimate the other side’s troops, paid for the Golden Company (who were so underused as to be pointless) and banged Euron occasionally to get the Iron Fleet on side and had absolutely no Plan B should Daenerys and her massive fucking dragon show up at her door. Cersei always had a plan. Cersei was always scheming and plotting and thinking ten steps ahead. She was her father’s daughter and just as well versed in counter warfare and military tactics as him. And SHE HAD NO PLAN. It’s so out of character as to make me scream with frustration. The whole execution of Missandei was ridiculous. Would she really have beheaded her when Daenerys could have immediately responded by incinerating everyone? If she really wanted Tyrion dead why didn’t she instruct her soldiers to fire on him? She had the elevated position. She taunted a fellow Queen (who owns a living nuclear weapon) murdered her best friend and then had the audacity to seem surprised when said queen responded by razing her kingdom to the ground.

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In order to force their characters into the necessary positions for the endgame the showrunners dumbed down Cersei and the Khaleesi to an insulting degree. They gave all these hints about Qyburn and his creepy necromancy ways I was sure that Daenerys was going to knock on the door of Kings Landing only to be greeted by Cersei’s personal army of the dead. Instead there was just… nothing. Cersei solely relied on the Iron Fleet, mercenaries and a shield of innocents to protect her. Granted all the scorpions conveniently failing to have any effect when they murdered a dragon in two seconds in the previous battle is just terrible plotting but why didn’t she have a Plan B? Are we supposed to believe that Cersei thought Daenerys would show mercy? The show can’t have it both ways. If they’re now trying to sell the concept that Targaryen’s are genetically disposed to madness and everyone is terrified of them they can’t also have Cersei believing she would be merciful. Cersei didn’t care about murdering innocents when she bombed the citadel why did she think the Dragon Queen would be any different?

Cersei’s final scenes were beautifully acted but painful to watch. Watching Cersei crying as the bells rang out signalling the fall of Kings Landing and having to be ushered to safety by Qyburn was just excruciating (although her “don’t mind me” tiptoeing by the Clegane brothers was joyous). Her death scene with Jaime was lovely but her words weren’t Cersei’s . Begging not to die? Begging for her child’s life? Cersei Lannister doesn’t beg. I don’t have an issue with them dying but death not being their choice is far more problematic. The only person that was ever going to be able to take out Cersei was Jaime. I assumed either they would kill each other or he would end her and then himself but to die rather ignominiously in the rubble of the Keep was just a terrible terrible waste of a character. Farewell Cersei my golden haired Machiavellian goddess. You deserved so so much more.

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Daenerys Targaryen – If you listen very closely you can hear me screaming. The 180 the writers have pulled with the characterisation of Daenerys Tragaryen this season has given me whiplash. They have taken the heroine of the story and reduced her to a crude “mad bitch” stereotype in order to have some sort of doomed romance tragic ending. Because whilst I would like to think that in the finale Daenerys will take a step back, realise the true horror of what she did, do as she always promised (break the wheel), relinquish the power of the Iron Throne and encourage the territories to rule themselves and then step away to live a quiet life of atonement we all know that ain’t about to happen. Nope someone is about to become a Queen Slayer possibly Arya, most likely Tyrion or Jon and it’s utterly infuriating.

Social media is ablaze with people (mostly men) loudly informing people (mostly women) that this was always the way her storyline was going and we were just too dim to see it. I’m sorry but no. There is no way this was planned from the beginning. Foreshadowing is not character development guys. The show now seems to be trying to suggest that because her father was mad it was always the case that power would corrupt Dany in the same way but that’s just lazy storytelling. Our behaviour is not written in our genes. It’s never been suggested prior to this season that the mere existence of a Targaryen was a source of terror to people. In fact in the early seasons the likes of Tywin Lannister are utterly dismissive of the female Targaryen and her baby dragons. Noone sees her as a threat. In fact the other characters really do sleep on Dany and it’s only when she’s in Mereen having assembled an extremely sizeable army and three huge dragons that anyone wakes up to the fact that perhaps the pissing contest they’ve been having with the other houses pales to the significant threat the last remaining Targaryen poses.

Daenerys was framed from the get go as the heroine of our tale. While her actions were often not a million miles away from Cersei’s (both believed that their birthright meant that they deserved power, respect and adulation and both showcased repeatedly that they were piss-poor rulers) Daenerys was framed as “good” and Cersei as “bad.” We were with Daenerys every step of the way. We feel for her having to deal with her cruel, power crazed brother. We’re horrified as she is sold into sexual slavery and raped by her new husband. We watch with distinctly mixed feelings as she falls wildly in love with him. We weep for her as she loses her husband and her child. We watch in awe as she walks into the flames holding dragon eggs and emerges naked, unbroken and unburnt with dragons adorning her. We sympathise as she spends the early seasons doing a lot of networking and being condescended to by wildly mediocre men who all have resources that she needs. We cheered triumphantly when she took control of the Unsullied, freeing them from their chains. We were thrilled when she was welcomed as the breaker of chains in Mereen. Every single step of the way Daenerys was the heroine we were rooting for. We wanted her on the Iron Throne. She was our Dragon Queen. And then she burnt the Tarleys alive…

Many of the excuses for Daenerys’ characterisation in The Bells centre on the fact that she has always been ruthless and that is true up to a point. Certainly she believes she was born to take the throne and has been happy to permanently remove obstacles in her path but up until the Tarleys the objects of her wrath were either people who had tried to harm her (like Daxos who tried to steal her dragons and keep her trapped for eternity in the House of the Undying) or people who were genuinely awful. Yes she crucified the slave masters in Mereen but, well, they were slave masters who had themselves crucified children to mark out the territory of their kingdom. She may have threatened to have the dragons eat people but the rich slave owners were funding a terrorist organisation that was murdering her troops.

Would Jon have crucified the slave masters? Probably not. But he had no issue personally executing members of the Black Watch who betrayed him or who failed to respect his authority. Tyrion lest we forget straight up murdered a prostitute who was no real threat to him because she broke his heart and he’s the most loved character on the show. Sansa had Arya off Baelish for entirely dubious reasons that were clearly vengeance for him leaving her with Ramsay to be raped and tortured. Their actions didn’t merit much criticism. The world of the show is a brutal one and noones hands are clean. So yes Daenerys didn’t shy away from executing people if she had to but up until the Tarleys her actions were understandable and proportionate.

The death of the Tarleys came out of nowhere and killed the character stone dead for me. Prisoners of war, no threat to her whatsoever and she executes them via dragon fire because they won’t bend the knee. You can argue that her unwavering belief in her fitness to rule meant that she was always this person but they never actually showed that previously. Yes she was a pretty dismal ruler. Daenerys is a big picture kind of gal. Happy to free slaves and be the breaker of chains not so great on providing homes and jobs and just basic infrastructure to those she freed. She really should have hooked up with Sansa – the two of them would have been unstoppable. But being shit at the boring mechanics of governing is not the same as being the sort of person who massacres people with dragon fire when they are no threat to you.

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It was clear from the first episode of this season where the showrunners were taking Daenerys and you can’t blame people for being furious about it. The bold, brave Mother of Dragons we have been rooting for every step of the way has been reduced to a needy, mad old cow because… what she feels threatened by the true parentage of the wildly ineffectual man who has shunned every position of authority he’s ever been given (Commander of the Watch, King of the North) and has shown repeatedly this season that he can barely look after himself never mind seven kingdoms? Because she lost her “children’ and her best friend? She lost her husband and child early on in the show and didn’t go stark raving mad. Every conversation Daenerys has had with Jon Snow this season I have found myself screaming “Get a bloody grip woman” at the television. Her total lack of military strategy has been embarrassing – why did they feel the need to dumb the character down to this extent? First she nearly loses Drogon during the battle of Winterfell by taking a breather in an area drowning with the dead and then she loses Rhaegal by completely forgetting about the Iron Fleet and their dragon killing weapons. It’s insulting.

There is no way back for the character now. The Mad Queen has committed the mass genocide Jaime Lannister prevented her father from carrying out and thousands of innocents have died at her hands. She is Queen of the Ashes and like any rabid dog will need to be put down. But forgive me for being upset that having invested years in her struggles that the tale of Daenerys Targaryen, Mother of Dragons, Breaker of Chains and the Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea ends with her mad, alone, unloved and most likely murdered by a man.

We’ll find out what happens soon enough but with the inevitability of a man taking the Iron Throne it’s dismaying that after eight long years the message that Game of Thrones wanted to convey to its viewers is that no matter how capable you are if you’re a woman it doesn’t matter because at the end of the day? Cocks are important.