Maiden, mother, crone; child, witch, whore; the meek and the bold, the submissive and the dominant, the loving and the cruel. The infinite and mesmerizing complexity of the feminine was embodied by the incredible women of Game of Thrones in this week’s episode, “Garden of Bones.” While the show can come off as a man’s world in which kings, knights, lords, gentlemen and brutes alike vie for power, “Garden of Bones” reminded the audience that even as they strut in their armor and proclaim their mastery of all they survey, the men are but pieces in this grand game, and that the women are holding the board up – with a flick of their elegant wrists this precarious world will collapse. That they have not yet done so speaks to the quiet bemusement with which they allow the boys to go about their manly and yet hollow pursuits.
That the men of Westeros are ultimately servants to the other half of the sky is evident in several scenes in the episode where men attempt to assert their dominance only to see their egos undercut by feminine power. The arrogant Littlefinger, his very moniker a comment on his masculine limitations, waltzes into Renly Baratheon’s camp, first confronting Margaery Tyrell about Renly’s love that dare not speak its name, then presenting his unrequited crush Catelyn with Ned’s remains and dangling a chance to reunite her with her captive daughters. In both instances the women will have none of it.
Margaery knows well that her marriage is a sham designed to secure a political alliance and is content to act her role, and Catelyn is not so naïve that a shameless appeal to her maternal instincts will excuse Littlefinger’s betrayal of her late husband. Robb Stark is struck speechless by the simple healer Talisa when his proud military victory is utterly diminished by her simple comments to him in the battle’s aftermath, as she accuses him of massacring a bunch of innocents and having no greater plan for the future of the Seven Kingdoms.
Where Littlefinger and Robb respond to their encounters with powerful women with silence, a more sinister path is taken by another profoundly insecure man attempting to assert his dominance over the female – in the skin-crawling scene where petulant King Joffrey commands one prostitute to beat another bloody. He cannot master them with his questionable masculinity, so he uses the coward’s fallback of fear and brutal violence instead. Joffrey’s understanding that he can never equal Robb Stark as a military commander, the more traditional masculine role, leads him to mistreat Sansa instead. Interestingly, while the delicate, virginal Sansa appears to be displaying battered woman syndrome in her continual proclamations of love for Joffrey despite his abuse, she is doing so not out of misplaced devotion but self-preservation – biding her time until she is freed of this monster. Her sister, Arya, utterly defeminised by circumstance (even commenting to Lord Tywin that being a boy made it easier) is likewise still a reserve of indomitable strength, going to sleep each night muttering, like a mantra, the name of each man she means to see dead.
Indeed, the only male character who seems not intimidated by the power of women (at least in this episode) is the one whose masculinity has always been dismissed by his fellow men: Tyrion Lannister. In fact, it is his knowledge of his cousin’s weakness for Queen Cersei’s feminine wiles and his ability to manipulate that awareness that allows him to gain a spy against his scheming sister.
The two sides of motherhood, giving nurturer and ferocious protector, are also on display with the “Mother of Dragons” Daenerys when she is petitioning for entrance to the desert city of Qarth, first pleading that a refusal to admit her people would condemn them to death, then threatening to use her dragons to burn the city to the ground when she is rebuffed. She is the mother of her clan of ragtag Dothraki as much as Catelyn finds herself mother and counselor not only to the Starks but to the men who would be King (treating the battling brothers Baratheon as if they were her own misbehaving children). Where her gilded sibling Viserys was an entitled prat cut from the same unearned royal cloth as Joffrey, Dany’s leadership qualities are being forged through fire.
And speaking of fire, there is Melisandre, the enchantress, trying to tempt grizzled old Davos Seaworth with the secrets beneath her robe. When he finally beholds her stunning (and very pregnant) naked self, the Onion Knight comes face to face with a depiction of the primal fear of all men, what they cannot understand and have never been able to control since the Garden of Eden: the magical temple of life and sexuality that is the woman’s reproductive system, from which emerges in a Freudian ecstasy of smoke and shadow the darkness and horror that Melisandre had cautioned Renly about earlier. To see this sheer force step forth and take shape as the sorceress smiles, at once incomprehensible and weirdly compelling, is the final affirmation in an episode already packed with revelations that the women have written the rules of the Game of Thrones, and they are its referees. For all the talk of the old gods, even Melisandre’s repeated comments about the “Lord of Light,” it is the Goddess, in all her magnificence, elegance, vulnerability, bravery, mystery and cruelty, all her many forms, young and old, beautiful and ugly, wise and foolish, who is running the show.