The second of the last six episodes of HBO’s Game of Thrones was, for the most part, a cheery, pre-battle reunion, packed with scene-after-scene of totally delightful fan service.
Devoid of murder, incest, and other hallmarks of a standard GoT episode, much of “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” was dedicated to well-earned, mushy moments. Brienne is granted a long-overdue knighthood, while Sansa Stark and Theon Greyjoy share a sentimental, vaguely romantic embrace.
Perhaps most significantly, the episode dedicates a few moments to a steamy sex scene between Arya Stark and Gendry Baratheon. That’s right, Arya—teenage assassin at large—did probably the most normal thing she’s done since the show’s kick off: Hooked up with a hot guy she’s been crushing on for the better part of a decade.
The scene, however, sparked some backlash online from critics and viewers. Esquire called it “totally unnecessary” and some Twitter users balked at seeing Arya—who we’ve seen grow up from a child to a young woman on Thrones—in a sexual encounter:
But it’s worth pointing out that Arya (who is now 18) initiates her own first sexual experience, and that she enthusiastically participates in it. This was an anomaly in a series that has rarely chosen to depict sex without violence, incest, coercion, payment, or politics. Not only was the hookup a uniquely positive one for Thrones, but it is perfectly age-appropriate, even for a teenager whose main arc has revolved around murder, vengeance, and trauma.
For the scene, Maisie Williams, the 22-year-old actress who plays Arya, told Entertainment Weekly that the showrunners let her decide how much of her body she wanted to show for the scene, which ended up being very little: “I kept myself pretty private,” she said, “I don’t think it’s important for Arya to flash. This beat isn’t really about that.” Instead, the camera seems to take on Arya’s perspective, and therefore centers on Gendry: We see Arya watching him appreciatively while he’s at work, and the sex scene itself focuses on his body rather than Williams’.
It’s a distinctive (and welcome) shift in perspective for a series that has been referred to as a show about “tits and dragons” thanks to its gratuitous preoccupation with naked (and often brutalized) female bodies.
Indeed, the episode as a whole functioned as a kind of toast to the bravery, intelligence, competence, and power of the show’s girls and women. In addition to Brienne’s knighting, we see Lady Lyanna Mormont shut down her uncle when he tries to keep her away from the impending battle, as well as an unnamed young girl of Winterfell offering to join the fight against the army of the dead, and allowing herself to be talked into instead defending the women and children sheltering in the crypt. Sansa and Dany take quick a moment in their woman-to-woman chat to congratulate themselves for being the only capable leaders in all of Seven Kingdoms, and even Tyrion Lannister—whose penchant for prostitutes has been one of his main character traits—notes that he has sworn off of them.
So for a show that has long-relied upon the sexual and political oppression of women to drive plot, this episode—and Arya’s sex scene in particular—marked a subtle but important turning point. Perhaps its showrunners are trying to make Thrones more palatable in a post-#MeToo world. Perhaps it’s the influence of the “intimacy coordinator” for sex scenes that the show reportedly hired recently, to coach and advocate for actors.
It’s worth mentioning, though, that not much has changed in the gender makeup of those calling the shots or writing the show’s words: There are no women in the writers room this season, according to IMDb, or women directors of episodes, reflecting an almost decade-long failure to include women in the creation of the show.