This story contains spoilers for HBO’s Game of Thrones.
If the title of Sunday’s (April 24) season premiere of Game of Thrones, “The Red Woman,” wasn’t clear enough, then perhaps the spear through a man’s face, the touching oath of fealty from one heroine to another, or the nude female body that actually served a story point (instead of bait for the male gaze) affirmed it—this season is all about women, and it’ll give them the chance to exact some vengeance against entrenched systems that, much like in real life, are dominated by men.
One of the prevailing criticisms of HBO’s wildly popular fantasy series has centered on its treatment of female characters. Nearly every episode features some scene of gratuitous female nudity, but the show rarely does the same with male characters. More than that, though, the show has depicted more instances of abuse of women—both emotional and physical, including several horrifying rapes—than one can count on two hands.
Part of the problem is that the show hadn’t featured nearly enough scenes of female empowerment to balance out the constant misogynist brutality. Until now.
At least, HBO seems eager to assert that this will be the season of powerful women. Weeks ago, the network let us know that women would finally get some payback: HBO’s president of programming, Michael Lombardo, told Entertainment Weekly as part of its “Dame of Thrones” cover story that women are now at the heart of the show. ”The women are rocking this season,” he said. “They power this season. It’s organic to the storytelling, yet a radical shift. It’s the women that are the hope.”
Part of that rung true in Sunday’s season six premiere. The mighty Brienne of Tarth, fresh off killing a king, pledged her loyalty to Sansa Stark—herself recently free (for now) of her latest demented male abuser. It was a fantastic moment between two female characters exercising their power for the first time.
Elsewhere, Daenerys Targaryen plainly saying “nope” to her male captor’s threat of rape was a welcome change to how those conversations usually go on Game of Thrones.
Even the episode’s shocking ending, in which the beautiful priestess Melisandre reveals herself to be a centuries-old crone with sagging, wrinkly gray skin, created a new vulnerability that should make her a stronger character, and perhaps a more interesting one.
But the episode also at times tipped its hand that this newfound empowerment is not necessarily all organic. Chief among the show’s missteps is its cringeworthy Dornish story line, involving Ellaria Sand and the “Sand Snakes” staging a violent coup in which a prince and his heir are murdered within the span of minutes—one stabbed in the heart, the other, a young man, skewered through the back of the head with a pike. It was the visual metaphor to end all visual metaphors, and it was one that made little logical sense, as fans on Reddit loudly pointed out.
The show’s creators have insisted that the new female story lines are not in any way a reaction to criticism. “The thing that’s slightly frustrating 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,” David Benioff, one half of the Thrones show-running duo, told Entertainment Weekly. Added Dan Weiss, the other half of the duo: “I can literally say that not one word of the scripts this season have been changed in any way, shape or form by what people said on the Internet, or elsewhere.”
Most of “The Red Woman” suggests we should take them at their word. Brienne and Sansa’s alliance, Daenerys’ confidence, and Melisandre’s transformation are all plot points that made perfect sense within the world of the show. Game of Thrones still has a lot of work to do to honor its female characters in a way that doesn’t feel forced, but if this premiere was any indication, it’s well on its way to balancing the brutality with badass-ness.