Game of Thrones Analysis: Female Power and Identity in Season 6 Episode 1, “The Red Woman”

For the past year, devoted fans of Game of Thrones have been eagerly waiting to learn the fate of Jon Snow, who seemingly met his end during season 5’s finale. Was he, in fact, dead? Could he live on by “warging” into his direwolf, Ghost? Perhaps the Red Woman, Melisandre, would use her power to bring him back to life. The name of the episode only added fuel to the fire.

The following post contains spoilers for season 6 episode 1, of Game of Thrones, “The Red Woman.”

As it turned out, the premiere episode of season 6 was not really about Jon Snow, but more about other characters having to deal with the repercussions of his death. Ser Alliser Thorne, the perpetrator of Jon’s murder, had to go through some rather torturous logic to convince himself and the Night’s Watch that his “loyalty” remained intact, despite betraying the Lord-Commander. On the other side, Davos and Jon’s friends must figure out how to survive what has become an incredibly tense situation. Davos, notably, has no more king to serve; perhaps now he has found another cause to support in defending the legacy of Jon Snow?

The Red Woman’s Crisis of Faith

But what I really want to discuss is the response of Melisandre, the titular Red Woman, to Jon’s death. With her presence at Castle Black, we had expected or imagined or hoped for a magical resolution to the loss of Jon Snow. Many fans had put their faith in her to bring back a beloved character, but she herself seems to be having a crisis of faith. In her visions, Melisandre had seen Stannis victorious over the Boltons and Jon Snow fighting at Winterfell, but none of that has come true. Jon’s death contributes to the idea that she has somehow been abandoned or misguided by her “Lord of Light.”

Melisandre’s power and identity extends from two sources: her fervent faith in the Lord of Light, whom she thought would make her visions come true, and her sexual confidence and beauty as a woman. The two had existed in conjunction, but now that she has started to lose her faith, so too does the other aspect of her identity collapse. When she takes off her necklace, she reveals her true form as a tired, withered old woman; she is no longer the confident, beautiful religious fanatic she once was.

Like us, Melisandre expected Jon Snow to play a major role within an expected narrative. For us, it was a story of heroism, in which Jon Snow would be the successful hero his father and brother were not; for the Red Woman, he was to fight alongside Stannis, as her prophecies suggested. But with his death, Game of Thrones subverts the standard narrative and, with his lack of resurrection, reminds us that there are no easy, magical answers. Should we have “faith” in the narrative and believe that Jon Snow will return? Will regaining faith in her god and in her own power allow Melisandre to somehow bring the narrative back on track by restoring Jon Snow to life? We shall have to see.

The central theme of this episode has to do with the nature of female power and identity. As we’ve seen, the story at Castle Black may depend on Melisandre overcoming her crisis of faith and using the power of her god to bring back Jon Snow.

Sansa and the Fate of the North

Similarly, the political realities at Winterfell are shifting on the basis of Sansa regaining her power and identity. Last season, under the guidance of Littlefinger, she seemed to be coming into her own as a master of intrigue, but she (disappointingly) became a victim once again after being married to Ramsay. Still, under her own initiative, she did encourage Reek (a.k.a. Theon) to resist his master and the two ended up escaping from the clutches of the Boltons.

In this episode, they are nearly re-captured by Bolton thugs, at which point Brienne and Pod show up to save the day. Sansa, despite what she’s been through, remains as poised as she can and manages to speak the formal words needed to accept Brienne’s service.

Something about the whole scene still bothered me, despite Sansa’s good luck, and I think it was the fact that Sansa seemed to be relying on others–Theon and Brienne–to “save her” once more. On her own, Sansa has proven quite ineffective at almost everything, and has consistently needed help to get anything done at all. The difference now seems to be that Theon’s change in attitude was a result of her encouragement. Brienne’s aid, unlike that of Littlefinger, is without self-interest and comes not from a man trying to take advantage of Sansa, but from a powerful female figure motivated by honorable goals.

The exchange of these oaths, which normally occurs between a lord and his generally male knight, now takes place between two women, with the men there only in an advisory capacity. Sansa turns to Theon, who nods his agreement, before accepting Brienne’s aid, and Podrick has to assist her with the wording of her oath, but in the end, this scene is about Sansa once more becoming (or at least trying to be) a true Lady and Brienne finding someone she can serve with honor and integrity.

Back at Winterfell, the Boltons are coming off their huge victory against Stannis, but their political position has become increasingly precarious after Sansa’s escape–a fact that Roose points out to Ramsay. They had placed their hopes at dominating the North into Ramsay’s marriage to Sansa and having control over a Stark heir. This was what made Ramsay valuable to his father. But without Sansa, Ramsay is no longer quite as important, and so, Roose now threatens to make Lady Walda’s unborn child the Bolton heir instead.

We have seen, traditionally, a woman’s power and standing depending on her relationship with a man. Consider Margaery, whose position in King’s Landing depends on her marriage to Tommen. In this case, the reverse is true: Ramsay’s political standing and the success of the Boltons in controlling the North relies primarily on a female figure–Sansa.

While in a controlled and oppressed state, Sansa had little power or autonomy in defining her identity, and that allowed the Boltons to use her name, lineage, and identity for their own political advantage. Now that she has partially reclaimed that identity as a Stark lady, the pendulum of power is starting to swing away from the Boltons back to the Starks. The entire political fate of the North may very well depend on Sansa’s actions at this point.

Being No One

Sansa begins to earn some measure of power by re-affirming her status as a Stark lady of noble blood, which is a traditional source of female power in Game of Thrones. Her sister Arya, however, has approached the issue of feminine identity in a very different way. She did not identify as a Stark noblewoman, but rather a warrior, as signified by her sword, Needle. But during the last season, she was asked to get rid of Needle (she only hid it), forget about Arya Stark, and become No One, a member of the Faceless Men.

Being anonymous grants the Faceless Men their power. Unlike Sansa, it seems that Arya’s power was to come from casting aside her Stark identity. In killing Ser Meryn, Arya showed that she could not do so and was punished, placed into a helpless state of blindness, as a result.

This series of events reminded me of the Cyclops episode in the Odyssey. Calling himself “No One” lets Odysseus fool the Cyclops, but his later decision to boast of his heroic identity as a warrior leads to his being cursed by Poseidon.

Although we do want Arya to regain her power, I don’t think we would like it very much if she permanently lets go of who she is. It’s a careful negotiation she will have to go through. How far can she go in her quest for power as a nameless assassin? Can she ever return to her identity as a Stark, and what form would that take?

Full Circle

In this episode, Daenerys faces the struggle of defining herself in the male-dominated world of the Dothraki. When she is captured and brought before Khal Moro, it is assumed that she is to be a sex slave or that she is a foreign, white-haired witch. In a powerful performance by Emilia Clarke, Dany unleashes a huge list in the Dothraki language of her titles and achievements, but these mean nothing to Moro. Her conquests and political successes–what she has, generally, earned by her own actions–are irrelevant.

It is only the revelation that she was once married to Khal Drogo that has any significance to Moro, who begins to treat her with some respect. Dany had fought for a long time to earn power and authority on her own terms, but she is once more brought back into the narrow box of being defined by her relationship to a man. She tries to revert back to her status as queen and political leader by negotiating with the Dothraki to let her return to Meereen. However, according to the standards of Dothraki society, she cannot claim such a non-traditional status: she must instead conform to the expected role of a Khal’s widow and live out her days at Vaes Dothrak. As a woman, she has no claim to her own identity, except that placed on her by others. (Back in Meereen, she has become a tyrant to some, instead of the great leader she hoped to be.)

Death in Dorne

Now consider what happens in Dorne, a society where men and women, it is said, are supposed to be equal, which apparently means that women are as capable of using violence and murder to take their revenge and seize power as men are. We see this when Ellaria Sand and the Sand Snakes brutally murder Prince Doran Martell and his son Trystane.

It remains unclear the purpose of all this. It seems that Ellaria and the Sand Snakes have short-sightedly steered themselves directly into war with the Lannisters. As usual, the long view–whether of Jon Snow in saving the Wildlings, or of Prince Martell in preserving peace–proves to be less popular than anger and retribution.

Cersei Loses Hope?

Let’s conclude with Cersei, who is losing grip on her identity as a mother, after Joffrey and now Myrcella have died. Like Melisandre, she must contend with the role of prophecy in her life. For the Red Woman, the prophecies of the Lord of Light had given her faith, only for them to fail her. Meanwhile, for Cersei, the prophecy given to her by the witch–of her children’s death–is beginning to come true, and by buying into that narrative, she begins to lose hope in everything (as indicated by her grim comments about dead bodies and crypts): not only the future of her remaining child, King Tommen, but herself, for it is only through him that she possesses any political power at all.

Jaime attempts to counteract the prophecy and turn things around by affirming Cersei’s identity as a Lannister and as his lover/sister. “F*** prophecy!” F*** everyone who’s not us!”  he says. “We’re the only ones who matter in this world!” I had thought Jaime was becoming a better man, but it seems that his daughter’s death has changed that. It remains to be seen whether Cersei buys into this vengeful “us-versus-them” mentality that Jaime’s trying to create. Will it help Cersei be able to return to her scheming “old self”?

Conclusions

So, if the first episode of the season is any indication, it seems that female power and identity will be major issues in season 6 of Game of Thrones. The fate of Jon Snow may depend on Melisandre re-capturing her identity, just as the political future of the North depends on Sansa re-affirming her status. Brienne seems to have found the identity she has sought, while Daenerys is still fighting to identify herself as a great political leader on her own merits. And the outcome of the coming war between the Lannisters and Dorne may very well depend on the role of “female power.” We’ll have to see how this theme develops throughout the rest of the season.

Some sections of this post were based on ideas brought up in this io9 article. Be sure also to watch “After the Thrones” on HBO for additional discussion of the latest episode.

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