Beaten, raped, kidnapped, tortured, widowed, belittled, ruthlessly ridiculed, dragged across the country, abandoned by their lovers, shot up with crossbows, stabbed in the uterus while pregnant, molested by their own fathers, literally hunted by dogs, made to marry men they barely know, made to marry men who are openly gay, made to marry men who are sociopaths, locked up in towers, forced to watch their families be slaughtered, and murdered at their brother’s weddings, the women of the Seven Kingdoms have seen and experienced just about any horror you can name. This isn’t to say that their male counterparts are let off easy: I still have nightmares about that maester cleaning Jaime’s bloody stump.
The women of Game of Thrones are undoubtedly creatures of power. It would be foolish to believe that they aren’t. But this episode, while it wasn’t exclusively limited to the travails of its XX-bearing characters, served as a striking, disturbing reminder of the fact that to be female in Westeros is to be a pawn, even—and especially—when you think you’re in control.
Of all the horrific moments in Game of Thrones—the slaughter, the bloodshed, the cruelty—Cersei’s rape at the hands of her twin brother may have been the most difficult to watch. For the past three seasons, Cersei has rained fury on any creature who dares stand between her and power. Despite her worst actions and behaviors (ahem, sitting idly by as Joffrey rained madness down upon his subjects) we’re continually reminded of the fact that Cersei’s entire life has been controlled and managed by her tyrannical father. But her relationship with Jaime—as disturbing as you may find it to be—was her only haven.
The entire scene in the sept was an exercise in Cersei’s belittlement. She watched her father degrade and dishonor (albeit truthfully) her firstborn’s legacy and then manipulate her youngest into serving as his marionette. Then, on the floor next to the body of her dead son, the only man she’s ever taken into her confidence abused that trust in the most vile way imaginable. It was, more than any throat cutting or execution, the very worst of this world.
At moments in the past few episodes, Arya has seemed downright satisfied with life on the road with The Hound. The end of one episode saw them trotting merrily down the lane, content to scavenge and steal—and occasionally go Full Metal Jacket on a crew of unsavory bandits. Yes, Arya is vengeful and sometimes violent. But for all the camaraderie and kinship that she may have found with Clegane in the past, theirs is not an equitable relationship. The Hound commands, Arya supplicates. When his utter lack of morals empowers him to steal or maim or destroy, as they did with the kindly farmer and his daughter, Arya can only scream and protest, and then must follow him off into the woods.
For once, Sansa believed she possessed some agency—that her mercy in saving the Fool’s life had bound him to her. Of course, that was an illusion, as fake as the gems in the supposedly priceless necklace he had bestowed on her. And so yet again Sansa is passed from one man to another, powerless to stop an innocent man’s death and powerless to bring a guilty man to justice.
At times, it’s hard to believe that Daenerys is anything other than entirely in control. When she projects her voice across the dusty plains (“I am Daenerys Stormborn…”) she stands tall and mighty and asserts an authority that could make warriors cower. And Dany has admirably evolved from shrinking sister to obedient wife to commanding queen. But even her display of might at the gates of Meereen was but a small part of the city’s surrender. Daenerys could not fight Meereen’s champion herself; one of her many male companions was sent into combat. Two men literally engaged in a pissing match while she was forced to wait patiently. Yes, she is on the brink of bringing another city to its knees; but the Mother of Dragons isn’t exempt from bald sexism and mockery.
Though Margaery’s time in this week’s episode was brief, it offered a telling glimpse of her fate as an again unwed woman. First married off to a man who “openly preferred the company of other men,” and then to a boy who “tortures animals,” (not to mention humans) Margaery’s situation appears ripe for some empathy. None was forthcoming. Her grandmother’s rejoinder that watching as Joffrey died was a far better fate than living as Joffrey’s bride was callous, yet true: Losing the crown was a small price to pay for a life free from the little Lannister’s barbarity. But it was the Queen of Thorns' final remark, that hint at “next time,” that served to remind us how many sacrifices some women must make to serve the needs of their kin.
Formerly subjected to the wanton licentiousness of her own father, Gilly is now subjected to the wanton licentiousness of a horde of criminals and cutthroats. She has escaped a home full of powerless women, only to end up in a castle full of powerful men. The threat that she might be raped appears real—though it’s entirely possible that Sam is more afraid of his own lust than the randiness of his Night’s Watch brothers. But no matter the source of the threat, Gilly’s very gender is the source of her danger and the reason for her banishment to—of all places—a whorehouse.
Hillary Kelly is the digital media editor at The New Republic.