An argument for women in the writer’s room and behind the camera
By Bex Peterson, Editor-in-Chief
Warning: This article contains spoilers for the final season of Game of Thrones.
By now, the series finale of HBO phenomenon Game of Thrones has been out in the world long enough to be thoroughly consumed, digested, and parsed through filter after filter of internet hot take scrutiny. Whether you loved it or hated it, it’s definitely a thing that happened. I’m not here to comment on the finale itself, however. Instead, I’d like to take a closer look at a troubling aspect of production: The lack of women behind the scenes.
Chief TV critic for Variety Maureen Ryan broke down the numbers in a Twitter thread last year, pointing out some uncomfortable percentages. Out of 19 total directors for the series, only one was a woman: Vancouver’s own Michelle Maclaren, and she only directed four of the 73 episodes. Only four episodes exist where women held a full or even partial writing credit. No women were hired to write or direct any episodes of the final season. As Ryan grimly ended her thread, “Number of Daves writing #GoT: 2. Number of women: 2.”
The problems with Game of Thrones’ final season and the lack of women behind the camera wouldn’t have been so glaring if the series pivoted strictly on men’s character arcs and decisions (though please keep in mind I’m not saying that it should have done that). But because so much of the final season centred on the complex inner motivations of women, good and evil, entire story beats fell entirely flat because quite frankly the men writing the story either could not or were not willing to see their characters as three-dimensional beings.
In place of time spent developing complex female characters to drive the plot, the women at the heart of Game of Thrones’ final season just sort of… do things, and say things, with placeholder reasons relying on stale tropes as their motivators. Cersei could have been a formidable foe and is touted as a tyrant, but we never see what she’s actually like as a ruler. It’s said time and time again that her only motivation is her children (in this case, an unborn child), but if that were the case, wouldn’t she want to flee somewhere safe so she can give birth and be a mother in peace? In previous seasons, Cersei’s desire for power was far more evident as a primary motivation. Now that she has it as queen, the writers couldn’t seem to think of anything interesting for her to do with her authority beyond sipping wine and smirking ominously.
Daenerys, of course, was given arguably the most controversial arc of the season, if not the entire show. Is it possible that a woman dedicated to justice and liberating the downtrodden could flip and become a tyrannical mass murderer? Of course. People in favour of Daenerys’ “Mad Queen” arc often argue that those critical of it missed clues and foreshadowing in previous seasons, but I haven’t seen many people argue that the transition from liberator to tyrant itself was a terrible creative choice. Rather, the motivations behind it and the lead-up to it was what made the moment feel flat and sour for so many.
A writer who could conceive of Daenerys and Cersei as individuals driven by obsessive ideals and a rich inner world might have written a conflict between the two that highlighted not only the very worst of the characters themselves, but the very worst of human nature. What might have happened if the unstoppable force of Daenerys Targaryen met the immovable object of a Cersei Lannister that would rather watch her city burn than give up her rule? A city in ashes and a brutal, gritty conflict in which there are no winners, only broken people. I would have killed for a Daenerys that breaks not because of some genetic madness, not because “women be crazy,” not because the boy she likes feels weird about banging his aunt, but because she has absolutely become the monster she always sought to destroy and is consumed by despair—not put down like a rabid dog because we needed Jon to do something relevant this season. Would that kind of self-destruction not have been more in line with the kind of “no heroes, no villains, no victories” writing Game of Thrones was once lauded for?
Am I saying that a woman would have automatically written these arcs better by virtue of being a woman? No, but the presence of women in the writers’ rooms and behind the camera would have added some much-needed dimension and, God help us, empathy. A woman might have seen the draft of the script where Sansa proudly states that being brutalized and assaulted made her a stronger, better person and pointed out that the scene was lacking some serious nuance. It’s not that some assault victims haven’t chosen to internalize their experience as a growing point, but it’s rarely discussed with the coy, tough girl smirk that Sansa delivered the lines with. Growing from sexual trauma is a cold comfort, not a victory. A woman might have known that.
A woman might have questioned Daenerys’ mad-eyed desperation for someone to love her and her complete inability to read the mood when Jon entered the ash-coated throne room of the Red Keep with a hangdog “time to put down the family pet” look on his face. A woman might have wanted to know more about Cersei’s rule as queen. A woman might have blinked a few times at Tyrion’s proclamation that “no one” had a better story of survival and growth than Bran Stark, waved at nearly every other woman present for the Great Council, and marked a few giant red question marks on the page.
The presence of women in primary creative roles could have challenged assumptions of women’s behaviours, motivations, and weaknesses, and might have added some much-needed complexity to the final arcs of the series. We’ll never know what Game of Thrones could have looked like with a deeper and more empathetic understanding of women at the heart of it, but I can only hope that future creative teams learn the right lesson from all this. The centring of women’s choices in the Game of Thrones finale wasn’t the wrong angle to take. The lack of women involved in its creation, however, ended up being its downfall.