"Everywhere in the world they hurt little girls," says Cersei Lannister in "First of His Name" — an episode that marks the halfway point of Game of Thrones' fourth season. It's a moral that could double as a kind of thesis statement for the series — and particularly this season, which has seen an uptick in both the amount and the cruelty of violence against women. This is a world in which highborn women are sold off for marriage like cattle, where prostitutes endure no end of abuse from their clients, and where everyone, regardless of class or social status, is in constant danger from both their enemies and the people they trust.
As Game of Thrones made painfully clear a few episodes ago, not even the queen is truly safe — and Cersei's narrative provides the backbone to Sunday's episode, as she has candid conversations with Margaery Tyrell, her father Tywin, and Oberyn Martell.
Cersei has never been a big fan of her daughter-in-law (and soon-to-be sister-in-law) Margaery, and the opening scene of "First of His Name" — in which Cersei and Margaery both contemplate the role they'll play in King Tommen's regime — seems likely to boil over with their barely concealed animosity. The feud began when Margaery's early attempts to get into Cersei's good graces were rebuffed: "If you ever call me sister again, I'll have you strangled in your sleep," Cersei said last season. (For Margaery's sake, let's hope that's a threat Cersei won't make good on; Margaery calls her both "sister" and "mother" in their brief conversation in "First of His Name.")
There's literally no one else in the world who can relate to the specificity of Cersei and Margaery's situation. Both women are the sole, beautiful daughters of prominent families. Both women became queen through a politically arranged royal marriage. Both women are sharper, savvier, and better suited to rule than their kingly husbands. And despite all those talents, both are expected to defer to the wisdom of the men around them.
In a perfect world, all those similarities would make Cersei and Margaery allies. In Game of Thrones, where there's never enough room at the top, it makes them enemies. But despite their tensions, Cersei has always had a strange tendency to speak candidly about her children with the people she likes and trusts least. In an early scene, she told Catelyn Stark about the trauma of her miscarriage. She even approached Tyrion, her least favorite person on the planet, with her fears about Joffrey's sociopathy. The same pattern holds true in "First of His Name," as she cuts through Margaery's bland niceties to discuss how they both really felt about Joffrey. "He would have been your nightmare. You knew exactly what he was. I did too," said Cersei. "The things he did shocked me."
Of course, anyone who met Joffrey knew what he was — but few could testify to it as thoroughly as the women who were closest to him, and the shared memory offers an unexpected common ground. Game of Thrones has no shortage of compelling female characters, but it's striking how rarely they interact with one another. Arya has been shaped by a rotating cast of older male mentors. Daenerys' most significant relationship was with Khal Drogo, and her closest advisors are Jorah Mormont and Barristan Selmy. Ygritte often seems to be the sole female wildling in Mance Rayder's army. Melisandre sticks to Stannis Baratheon like a shadow.
The few female relationships that have been forged have been uniquely rewarding: Brienne's unwavering loyalty to Catelyn and Shae's protection of Sansa had a kind of purity that eludes all but the show's most honorable male characters. Unfortunately, both of those relationships are over now. After a season with Jaime, Brienne is back on the road with Podrick Payne — looking for Sansa, who has been whisked away by Littlefinger.
Sansa's trip to the Eyrie is, well, eerie. The castle's halls are remote and empty, and her aunt Lysa — who Sansa is meeting for the first time — seems deranged, in both the orgasmic happiness of her wedding night and her intense jealousy over Littlefinger's affection for Sansa. Along the way, Lysa drops another bombshell: The murder of Jon Arryn, which pushed Ned into taking over as King's Hand (and kicked off the entire series), was orchestrated by Littlefinger. Lysa was his willing accomplice, poisoning her own husband and blaming the Lannisters in a letter to Catelyn.
It's not exactly the safe retreat she'd been hoping for. Yes, Sansa is finally free of the Lannisters and King's Landing. Unfortunately, she's now trapped in yet another castle — one that's even harder to escape, and with a truly repulsive candidate for a husband in her adolescent cousin Robin.
Is there any safe place for a woman in Westeros? Perhaps unsurprisingly, it's in the lawless lands north of the Wall that "First of His Name" hints at a revolutionary answer. Game of Thrones heaps miseries on its characters, but few have suffered as much as Craster's daughters. They were raped by their father, then forced to give birth to more children who would join the cycle. They were forced to sacrifice their sons to the White Walkers. When Craster was finally killed, he was replaced by 11 mutinous brothers of the Night's Watch, whose de facto leader encouraged his men to rape them until they died.
Fortunately, their imprisonment was ended by a contingent of men led by Jon Snow. When he'd butchered the last of his enemies — with the help of one of the victims — he offered the women a safe home in Castle Black. But having endured so many horrors at the hands of men, the women aren't interested in embracing yet another chance to be abused. "We'll go our own way," they decide — but not before burning both the home and the corpses of the people who offered them nothing but torture. It's a risky decision, and one that will surely lead to more dangers and hardships ahead — but it's also a choice, and that's a rare and valuable thing for the women of Westeros.
Read more Game of Thrones recaps:
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