Warning: Spoilers for season 6 of Game of Thrones ahead. Fans of Game of Thrones may have noticed something a little different this season. The first hint was Ellaria Sand shoving her dagger into Doran Martell’s heart in the season premiere. The women of Game of Thrones are ready for power and will take it, by force if necessary. Ten episodes later, a woman sits on the Iron Throne. It’s about time, too. After five seasons filled with violence, prostitution, rape, and gratuitous boob shots, season 6 finally finds women playing an active role in their own destinies. Cersei Lannister, after lying low all season, unleashes her wrath of fire and takes the Iron Throne by sheer force of will. Three major houses of Westeros — Greyjoy, Martell (via the Sand Snakes), and Tyrell — are now ruled by women, all of whom are backing Daenerys on her quest to conquer the land of her forefathers. For her part, the Dragon Queen showed the Dothraki khals and the slave masters who run the world (girls) by burning them both to a crisp. Arya Stark has left the Faceless Men to become her own girl. Sansa plays an integral role in retaking her ancestral home, literally feeds her rapist to the dogs, and is playing her own mini-game of thrones with Jon Snow and Littlefinger. Even poor Margaery outwits the High Sparrow and seems like a key player in the future of King's Landing up until the moment she meets her end in Cersei's wildfire inferno. The men, on the other hand, follow the opposite trajectory. In fact, they've been pretty much useless. Tyrion, once the heart and soul of the show, spends most of the season sitting on his ass in Meereen, trying to pry an ounce of humor out of Grey Worm and Missandei. Rickon's unexpected reappearance is only a plot device to make Jon lose his cool during the Battle of the Bastards. Daario is basically a sex object with a sword. Tommen quickly replaces Olly as the most hated prepubescent boy on this show, before committing suicide at the sight of the flaming Great Sept of Baelor. Bran may be the Three-Eyed Raven, but he wouldn't get very far without Meera. And after enjoying a lifetime of attention as the golden twin, Jaime is now relegated to the shadows as his sister is crowned queen. As for Jon Snow, he owes his life and his newfound status as King in the North to no less than three women: Melisandre, who literally brings him back to life; Sansa, who spurs him on to retake Winterfell and then saves his ass at the last minute; and 10-year-old Lyanna Mormont, who shames the lords of the North into declaring allegiance to the "White Wolf."
The landscape has changed and the future is female.
Beyond power struggles, this season also gave women agency in their sexual appetites. Game of Thrones has always been about sex, of course. But it has usually been male-focused. When they weren't been used for "sexposition," the practice that requires naked ladies to gyrate in the background to keep audiences interested while two men have a serious conversation, the show's women have often been relegated to secondary storylines used to further those of their male counterparts. (There are clear exceptions. Arya and Daenerys are the two female characters who have owned their storylines throughout the series.) But Yara's coming out as an unapologetically sexual queer woman, all those steamy Brienne-Tormund glances, and the show's first full-frontal penis shot all indicate a change in power dynamics in the sexual as well as in the political spheres.
It's unclear what exactly caused this shift in narrative. Some have speculated that the uproar caused by Sansa's rape in season 5 spurred the creators to redress their so-called "woman problem" this time around. Co-creator David Benioff has denied that this is the case. “The thing that’s slightly frustrating,“ he said, “is the idea that we’re responding to criticism from last year, so therefore we’re going to beef up the female roles — that’s blatantly untrue.” Maybe it's as simple as the show realizing that fans just want to see Daenerys and her dragons burn things down. (This season has been all about fan gratification, which just goes to show that viewers were more than ready for women to play their part in this story.) Regardless of the reason, it's clear that someone, somewhere made a conscious choice to let female characters shine. And lo and behold: It has paid off. According to recent data, there has been a marked increase in viewership overall from last season. While some of this can be attributed to devoted fandom and increased access to HBO via digital platforms, it is proof that women-driven storylines can attract more than just female viewers.
The season finale left us with a lot of questions. What will a Cersei-ruled Westeros look like? Will Sansa accept being relegated to the sidelines of Winterfell? Or will she change her mind and join Littlefinger in his bid for power? Has Arya been irredeemably corrupted by her hate? Is Daenerys ready to finally wage her war of blood and fire? One thing, at least, is clear. The landscape has changed and the future is female. For now.