Reviewed by Tania Evans
Part 3 in Tania’s review of the last season of Game of Thrones, read her review of Episode 1 here and Episode 2 here.
There is an oft-repeated saying about battle in in Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire: namely, that women should not be involved in warfare because “a woman’s battle is in the birthing bed.” The latest episode of season eight is all battle: at ninety plus minutes of non-stop warfare it is the longest battle scene in film history, and one that is ended by a heroic woman. The immense scale of the violence and the unusual gender dynamics therein make “The Long Night” an important episode in the series as a whole. For me the battle took on added weight: I watched this episode in fits and starts from hospital chairs as my sister gave birth to her first child. Two battles, two very long nights, but the question of gender, violence, and repetition is central to each.
“The Long Night” sees the battle between the living and the dead take place at Winterfell. Some scenes focus on how individual characters, like Arya, Theon, or Daenerys, are faring against the Night King’s foot soldiers, and other scenes move quickly through locations to show how the fight is progressing. With so much action and few quiet moments the episode is a unique and sometimes uncomfortable viewing experience, but the tension is managed through brief character-focused scenes. We see Tyrion and Sansa share a deep and complex moment together in the crypt while the re-animated corpses of the Stark patriarchs attack the women and children, as well as a seeming redemption of Theon Greyjoy as he defends Bran with his life in the godswood.
The battle is ultimately won by the living as Arya Stark stabs the Night King in the torso as he is about to draw his sword and murder Bran/the Three Eyed Raven, here representing humanity’s capacity for memory, futurity, and progress. The violence is queer in a number of ways: it is perpetrated by a young masculine woman with a history of cross-dressing, and it is Arya’s willingness to cross over binaries – this time, between using her left and right hand – that allows her to save Westeros from the Long Night. Arya’s readiness to change and abandon restrictive gender norms allows her to save the world.
And yet ambiguity remains, both for Arya and for the series’ depiction of violence. Masculinity remains attached to violence, even as that masculinity materialises through a female bodied character. There is a strong sense that warfare can only ever bring about destruction – as when the Night King brings all of the fresh corpses back to life so as to increase his army. However, violence is also figured as the solution to the world’s problems: Arya stabs the Night King and it is this act of interpersonal violence that destroys the creature and his armies. Arya performs this violence with the Valyrian steel dagger that Bran gave her rather than her trademark sword, Needle. The dagger was originally intended to be used to murder Bran in Season One, an event that partially sparked the War of the Five Kings that fueled the game of thrones. The dagger begins and ends two of the major conflicts in the entire series, but it is also a weapon with a patriarchal history. The dagger is passed from one man to another until Bran gives it to Arya because he believes that his disability makes him unable to repeat the pattern.
The ambivalent representation of violence and gender in “The Long Night” raises questions about repetition and the possibility of change. Women characters are shown to be capable actors on multiple battlefields and a willingness to disrupt restricting gender norms is celebrated as heroic. At the same time, masculinity is privileged over femininity and violence is presented as a problem and a solution. With only three episodes left of the series we are left to ask: what battle lines will Game of Thrones draw in relation to violence, gender, race, and dis/ability? What ideas will it give birth to in our culture?
Tania Evans is a cultural studies researcher at the Australian National University, Australia. Her PhD on masculinity and Fantasy in George R. R. Martin’s series A Song of Ice and Fire (1996 - current) and its television adaptation, Game of Thrones (2011-2019), was recently passed and she will be graduating in July 2019. She has written several essays on gender in popular culture, which have been published in Gothic Studies, Fantastika Journal, Masculinities, and Aeternum: The Journal of Contemporary Gothic Studies. She teaches literary studies, film, and feminist theory.
Read more of Tania’s work on Game of Thrones here:
- An article on Cersei in Aeternum: https://www.aeternumjournal.com/issues
- A meme version of this article: http://cass.anu.edu.au/news/10-memes-explain-how-game-thrones-cersei-lannister-blowing-patriarchy
- A book chapter on Shireen: https://www.palgrave.com/jp/book/9783319964560