In the lead up to Season 6 of Game of Thrones, which kicked off last night with a serviceable episode, HBO insisted that the show’s female characters would finally be empowered. “The women are rocking this season—and I’m not just saying that because they’re on your cover,” HBO programming president Michael Lombardo told Entertainment Weekly. “They power this season. It’s organic to the storytelling, yet a radical shift. It’s the women that are the hope that we’re watching as the chess pieces move this season, and it’s very exciting.” At the time, these declarations seemed like no more than attempts to save face with Thrones’ female audience, after so many women (and men) hit their breaking point with the show's depiction of violence against women last season. They knew they botched Sansa’s rape scene, and these statements were a form of groveling: “We swear we respect women and our female characters, just watch.”
Since that Sansa scene wasn't the first time GoT has followed up a tonal mistake with another tonal mistake though, all of the statements made before Sunday night were hard to take seriously. But if episode one is any indication, what they were saying may be true. The women of Game of Thrones are now the center of the show.
Think about it: the first five seasons have been a methodical purging of male “heroes.” Ned and Robb Stark, Khal Drogo, Oberyn Martell—all dead. And while all those men were getting themselves killed, the women around them were surviving; playing a longer game that is starting to pan out. The Starks specifically are a microcosm of what's happening in Game of Thrones as a whole. The patriarch and his prince of a son appeared to be valiant leaders, but they lost, and now the family name is on the shoulders of two Stark daughters. Arya took a step back at the House of the Black and White last season, but seems to still be on a path that eventually leads to immense strength and control, while Sansa may finally be in a position that allows her to wield some power, after escaping the grips of her abusive husband. And how did she finally escape? Who saved her from a band of Boltons last night? Brienne of Tarth, another woman who has long been ignored and disrespected by the men on this show.
Cersei, debased by the men of Westeros and the show last year, is set to destroy the people who ruined her and her family, but what's more remarkable is that she seems to lead Jaime, not the other way around. Daenerys meanwhile, begins the episode in chains, being berated and ogled by Dothraki. But she ends the episode unbound, and possibly with a new ally in Khal Moro, through no agency other than her own tongue and fearlessness.
And in Dorne, well, just ask Prince Trystane's face if women in this world should be taken seriously. Ellaria and the Sand Snakes’ coup, while questionable strategically, was an example of women taking and getting what they want, something we've yet to see much of in Thrones. "Weak men will never rule Dorne again," Ellaria tells Doran Martell as he bleeds out.
Jon Snow may be the last traditional male hero this show has (let's not get into Bran just yet), and he spent the entirety of last night laying dead on a table. And do you know how he might end up getting off that table? Melisandre, a character who's often been cast aside as just some witch; a character who was given more depth last night than in the 19 episodes she's appeared in prior. The scene in which her true self was revealed—a decrepit, centuries-old woman, tired, broken, and ashamed—humanized the Red Woman better than ever before. She had a man's daughter burned alive, she led an army into outright slaughter—she's been a irredeemable character for her entire stay on Thrones, but against all odds, that's changing. We were finally allowed to see Melisandre's soul last night. We were finally allowed to empathize with her. Game of Thrones has been able to pull this trick and make us change our alliances with male characters before—see: Jaime Lannister. It's about time they gave this sort of treatment to a female character.
The show everyone's watching is more about a handful of women's journeys (to the top?) than anything else right now. These female characters are at the center of the story: they're driving the plot, they're calling the shots, and they're giving the men in power a serious shock. As a group of female TV critics told us last week, Game of Thrones has a long way to go in its depiction of women, but last night’s season premiere was a compelling step in the right direction.