One of the best moments of the Game Of Thrones finale finds Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) encountering Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie), her first time meeting a female warrior. Arya asks Brienne who taught her to fight, and they acknowledge each other as warriors. In one of the high points of Orange Is the New Black’s second season, Red (Kate Mulgrew), the former ruler of Litchfield Prison’s kitchen and controller of its contraband smuggling operation, warily confronts Vee (Lorraine Toussaint), the current queen, and an old nemesis of Red’s. The two have been locked in conflict, but share a moment of mutual respect as players of the same game—as close as Litchfield will get to Brienne’s mastery of the sword. Neither of these apparent connections lasts long, but their similarities—each finding two battle-hardened women recognizing a fellow fighter in a world that has gone out of its way to kill them or worse—get at something powerful about the relationship between Orange Is the New Black and Game Of Thrones.
The two shows are some of the most hyped television series of the last few years, and both began (or ended) their seasons within the last couple of weeks, but it’s still odd to compare a show about a women’s prison in the present day with one set in a medieval fantasy world. There is, at first, only one clear similarity: their massive casts of characters. Orange radiates outward from Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), sucking up the life stories of practically every inmate and guard at the prison before moving on to the people who are important in their lives, up to and including the warden’s husband’s campaign for the state Senate. Minor characters are introduced to the show, practically as asides, and snowball until they can sustain their own episode. Similarly, Game Of Thrones began with a tight focus on Ned Stark (Sean Bean) but has expanded enormously, trying to craft a unified story with players separated by oceans and a giant wall of ice. Though there are cynical reasons for Game Of Thrones’ enormous cast—the show often reads as if it’s introducing new characters just so it can kill them off—it’s still managed to build up a cast of dozens it can comfortably spend time with.
The thematic connections between Orange Is the New Black and Game Of Thrones run deeper. Take the element that arguably does the most to distinguish Orange Is The New Black from most currently airing prestige television: it's a show that’s mostly about women. The series does pay attention to its male characters, especially prison staff Healey (Michael Hartley) and Caputo (Nick Sandow) and Piper’s erstwhile, aimless ex-fiancé Larry (Jason Biggs), but for the most part it’s all about the women of Litchfield. The series is steadfast in its desire to plumb what it means for the prisoners to be prisoners as women. They experience mistreatment at the hands of guards, use tampons as tools in their day-to-day lives (for smuggling), and deal with a particularly complex thicket of issues when they enter lesbian relationships, whether they prefer the company of women or not. One amusing, sad subplot centers on several arguments about the female anatomy, and whether or not there’s a separate pee hole. That debate is finally resolved by Sophia (Laverne Cox), a transgender woman who is an expert on vaginas—after all, she built her own. Even Assistant Warden Figueroa (Alysia Reiner), one of the show’s most straightforward villains, endures sexual harassment at the hands of powerful men and frustration in her marriage to an ambitious politico.
By contrast, Game Of Thrones, though it often examines the consequences of a world in which women are denied many of their most fundamental rights—“Everywhere in the world, they hurt little girls”—still frequently depicts its female characters as sex objects. Without delving too deeply into the massive amount of writing about the show’s gender issues or professing to contribute too much to it, it seems safe to say that Game Of Thrones is, at the very least, less empathetic and less thoughtful in its depiction of womanhood and what it means to be a woman in the show’s world (give or take the transformation of the Stark girls). Thrones unflinchingly puts its actresses in front of the camera without giving the same treatment to its male stars, it gives the female characters sexual assault stories and suggests that Cersei (Lena Headey) being raped by her brother is maybe not such a big deal. The nature of each show’s treatment of gender hints at something that might be shocking to Thrones viewers—Orange Is the New Black is much, much better at dealing with much of the same thematic subject matter.
On a narrative level, Game Of Thrones has made its bones on a storytelling approach that might be best described as “anything can happen.” People die, lots of “crazy” stuff goes down, episodes of the show strive to surprise for viewers who haven’t read the books, and increasingly for those who have. Eventually, deaths on the show can feel perfunctory rather than genuinely shocking—viewers get acclimated to the idea that no one is safe. Orange rejects twists as explicit as these, but has its own way of leaving viewers guessing at the direction of each episode, even during a Netflix-enabled binging session. Netflix’s description for episode 10 hints that “a big, lingering secret is finally revealed.” But rather than focusing on the public revelation of Diaz’s pregnancy (which concludes the previous episode), Morello’s crush object Christopher, who she has repeatedly claimed to be her fiancé, comes to the prison to make her obsession with him and the extent of the deceit she’s perpetrated on the other inmates public knowledge. The big shock isn’t anything like a murder (though as the season builds to a conclusion Litchfield sees its fair share of attempts on prisoners’ lives). It matters because Morello is mortified at the prospect of every other inmate seeing her as she really is.
The nature in which Morello’s plight is surprising also highlights one of the biggest similarities between the two shows: the way both series recognize that their stakes are really not so high. Most of the characters on Game Of Thrones are fighting over the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, a mostly-arbitrary political conflict over succession that leads the competitors to ignore the dual magical snowy, zombified threat to the north and massive dragons to the south. There are frequent reminders that, even if we’re invested in the outcome of, say, the Stark-Lannister war from earlier seasons, they’re far from the most important things happening in the show’s universe. In turn, Litchfield is explicitly constructed as a hermetically sealed environment (give or take the contraband Red smuggles in), with a strictly striated power hierarchy of inmates, guards, and administrative officials. The conflicts the series asks us to invest in—Piper’s efforts to start a newsletter, Big Boo and Nicky’s (Lea DeLaria and Natasha Lyonne) sex contest, Vee and Red’s power struggle over smuggling routes—are, by definition, almost microscopic in scope in comparison to the massive battles between the Lannister and Stark armies.
But here’s what’s special about Orange Is the New Black: The show recognizes that those “stupid” little conflicts, over cigarettes and lollipops and who can sleep with the most women, are petty (Red and Vee poignantly acknowledge this), and they’re definitely not “epic” in the same way that the dragons and White Walkers are epic, but they still matter because they matter to the inmates. Red retaking control of the kitchen is important because the writers and Kate Mulgrew have gotten us to invest in Red and care that she gets what she wants. Stannis (Stephen Dillane), Varys (Conleth Hill), and Cersei care who sits on the Iron Throne, and we’ve become invested in them, but it’s often less because of their humanity and more because they are players in the show’s game. There are certain scenes and characters that elevate the show on this level (Mo Ryan identifies one of them, the finale’s stare-down between Arya and The Hound, played by Rory McCann), but they’re often the exception in any particular episode. Orange Is the New Black takes its characters to be valuable because of their humanity, never because of their birth or their power.
To some extent, it’s unfair to compare the shows like this. Part of the reason Thrones comes up short is because it’s equally interested in sweeping moments like the technical marvel of the battle at Castle Black, giants and all, set pieces that are generally enjoyed on a level that Orange isn’t particularly interested in, or capable of, reaching. The more overt fantasy elements of Game Of Thrones, as well as the far-flung nature of the characters’ geographic separation, means that the show is simply less able to drill down into what makes them tick. But Thrones also wants to be taken seriously as a show about those themes—the way we perceive power, the struggles of oppressed women, families. On that level, it’s fair to say that Orange Is The New Black is simply better equipped to (and more keen on) finding the ways those themes effect real people. Thrones might attract more shock and awe (a phenomenon Todd VanDerWerff explained at length at The A.V. Club), and it doesn’t have to be as interested in its characters as people rather than plot devices in order to work. But that also means it has to leave many of its characters by the wayside without dimension, something Orange views as anathema, occasionally to its detriment.
The Game Of Thrones finale begins with an army, led by the battle-hardened, middle-aged king Stannis Baratheon, destroying another army, led by the battle-hardened, middle-aged king (beyond The Wall) Mance Rayder (Ciaran Hainds). It’s a powerful moment, but mostly because it looks really cool to watch people kill other people on horses. We’ve spent a lot of time with Stannis, but exploring his current state of mind has been pushed off to next season. Orange Is the New Black starts its finale with two middle-aged men arriving, cavalry-style, to investigate an assault at the prison. By the end of the episode, the investigators have detailed plans with the wives they’re trying to get home to. It’s true that on Game Of Thrones you win or you die. On Orange Is The New Black, we get to watch people dealing with the fact that they’ve already lost, and have to go on living.
Eric Thurm is a contributing writer. He tweets here.