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The Fallacy of GoT’s Women on Top Part 2: Characters

Kylie

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Welcome to the second installment of “Sexism & Season 6,” which focuses on tackling the horrifyingly common misconception that Game of Thrones (GoT) is somehow a feminist’s dream. Or even a remotely progressive narrative. That showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss, along with their writing team (all referred to under the monolithic “D&D”) somehow “fixed” their “woman problem” this year, the problem that had been plaguing the HBO Series basically since its inception.

See, there’s this vague sort of consensus that women had their way this year!

The “dames of Thrones” were boss ass individuals who did not put up with those foolish men, and often as a result, found themselves in positions of power. Ellaria murdered Doran the “weak man” with the backing of all of Dorne, Daenerys and Yara made a queenly alliance centered on the promise that they’d rid the world of idiot dudes who don’t think women should rule, and Sansa actually found recourse against her rapist by murdering him.

Yara: We’d like you to help us murder an uncle or two who don’t think a woman’s fit to rule.

Daenerys: Reasonable.

Reasonable.

Then add to that the wonderfully intelligent Tyrell ladies, the wonderfully sassy Tarly ladies, and the wonderfully badass fighters in characters like Arya and Brienne. With all these strong female characters battlin’ the patriarchy, it seems like GoT’s “Women on Top!” marketing campaign was quite on the nose!

Except if you think about any of it for more than two seconds.

I already spoke in Part 1 of this essay series about how D&D’s setting has no sort of internal consistency and simply adapts to the needs of a scene. For that reason, there’s no way women (or anyone) can truly triumph and find themselves “on top,” since what they’re on top of is utterly meaningless. These are hollow victories, and frankly the focus that it’s now “women on top” comes across as nothing more than pandering, given the completely superficial exploration of gender dynamics this series offers.

In this section, however, I would like to focus on the actual scripting of the female characters. Because even if we pretend, just for a second, that their achieving power does have feminist takeaways beyond seal-clapping at their shiny crowns, it doesn’t change that the way they’re penned is strikingly sexist.

I’d say “surprisingly,” but I’ve also been saying this since before Season 6 began:

“I don’t really want to shock anyone, but these multitudes of “strong women” simply don’t exist.”

In the linked essay, I brought special attention to the characters of Dany, Brienne, Sansa, Margaery, and Myranda, and how through the past year, their scripting was not only not empowering, but quite offensive. And this was all after I painstakingly went through all of Season 5 to detail the primary sexist tropes D&D employed in the writing of all their characters.

Now this is not to say it couldn’t have gotten better in Season 6, of course. I’m just here to explain to you why it didn’t.

I think I’ll open with Dany, because “Khaleesi” is the face of female empowerment in modern media, isn’t she? She’s a queen with dragons who hates slavery; how awesome is that?!

Not that I’m defending slavery, of course.

Like, we can agree that this is a pretty dang low bar, yes?

Dany this year was interesting, because she sort of had a two chapter journey, if you will. The first chapter involved her navigating her captivity by the Dothraki, whereas the second chapter involved her return to Meereen to handle the situation with the slavers and make plans for the future.

This is where it becomes difficult not to retread ground with Part 1, because the utterly contrived nature of how the Dothraki treated her is part and parcel of the mystifying way in which she navigated it. But we just have to accept certain things, most importantly including the Dosh Khaleen’s magically disappearing authority within Vaes Dothrak.

I’m quite certain D&D meant for us to find Dany rattling off her titles to the khal in “The Red Woman” to be an empowering moment. After all, he was telling her that he’d rape her, and she had an ace in her pocket about why she wouldn’t. Except that…why didn’t she say this at the get-go? Does she live for the rush of high risk situations? I’m not trying to say that a character withholding information that would benefit her is definitive proof that the scripting is sexist, but what I am saying is that it betrays entirely a lack of care about the characters, and it’s all in favor of creating false tension and cheap moments of victory. In other words, it’s this facade of “women on top” when what we should be questioning is why she was on the bottom in the first place.

There’s also the issue of characters deciding to do everything off-screen. Yes, this allows for “reveals,” but when absolutely nothing is seeded to preserve the shock, what follows feels random. How are we supposed to have any grasp on a character when we don’t see them struggling or planning? Dany fell further victim to this in “Book of the Stranger,” the episode where she decided to burn down Vaes Dothrak. For profit. When did she formulate this plan? During her pee break with the other former khaleesi who seemed to like the idea of avoiding rape? Did Dany know that the Council of Khals (the suddenly existing legislative body of Vaes Dothrak) would decide her fate at night, that there’d be braziers in this tent, and that the dirt would be magically flammable?

The point I’m making is that her Empowered Moment falls apart with a minimal level of scrutiny. And even if we somehow manage to ignore the multitude of contrivances required for it to take place, there’s the problem of take-away. If the Council of Khals was supposed to make us feel as though this was Dany’s only way out, that was completely undercut by Daario and Jorah showing up and offering her escape in the scene prior. If we were supposed to believe that this was the “best course of action” because the khals were such a danger to her, then why were there no threats against Dany (and it seemed like they were going to allow her to join the Dosh Khaleen, the supposed ruling class of the Dothraki) until after she started insulting the khals by saying they were weak and only she was fit to rule?

The only conclusion I can reasonably come to is that we were supposed to fist-pump for Dany’s actions because Dothraki culture is gross and rapey and this is the best course of action for *humanity*. So therefore D&D’s idea of female empowerment is a white woman, with a family history tied to slavery and conquest, standing proudly after destroying another culture’s holy place, while the brown people who had outright called her a “witch” dropped to their knees. I hate strawman rapists as much as the next person, but there were people who actually felt…good…about this?

Sorry, but white feminism is not empowering. Or feminism.

You know what else isn’t empowering? Having a female character whose only good ideas come from a dude. This was a trend with Dany that started last year, and boy howdy did it continue into Season 6. The second she got back to Meereen, she began formulating ideas involving mass murder, and what a good thing for all of us that Tyrion was there to talk some sense into her. So then the entire Battle of Meereen scenario was the enactment of his plan on how to handle the slavers, and let’s not forget, he’s the one who fixed her mistake of locking up Rhaegal and Viseron so that they could help lead her victory as well.

Then Tyrion tells Dany to dump Daario and she does (though empowerdly not having emotions about it, because emotions are so weak). And of course when she and Yara, two women in positions of power, hash out terms of an alliance, we’re treated to this moment:

Oh well, at least Yara listens to her dudes as well:

And yes, people listening to advisors is fine, but it’s the pattern. A pattern which in the case of Dany, is completely infantilizing. I guess the best that could be said is that without her men, she’d have still won the loyalty of the Dothraki this year? But then we have to remember why it is that people who just saw their holy place get burned down by a witch would pledge their loyalty in the first place…

There’s one last thing about Dany’s scripting that I think is a bit of an elephant in the room, because it involves dreaded *book knowledge*. I’m all for ending the conflation of GoT and A Song of Ice and Fire, but it’s rather impossible for me not to notice that Tyrion’s plotline this year was Dany’s plotline from A Dance with Dragons. They more or less jettisoned her out of her own arc, and literally retconned developments away so that Tyrion could have her ADWD plot-points to tackle. Hizdahr’s deal with Yunkai and Astapor? Gone. The navy Daario won for Dany? Oh no, a random fire! Granted, everything Tyrion did doesn’t quite line up to the books since the show presents us with a ridiculously simplified situation, but it really does feel as though a woman was shoved aside and put in a position to be a prisoner of strawmen so that they could carry out her plotline with their preferred protagonist, a white dude.

Yikes, I had more to say about Dany than I realized. I guess it’s because of all that empowerment! But I do think it’s an important exercise to demonstrate how just because a woman wins victories and is a ruler in her own right, it’s not automatically progressive.

Same goes for this idea that if a woman is “badass,” then that’s that—it’s a feminist victory!

Arya is really the perfect example of that this season. Granted, her plotline actually came under major scrutiny when her plot armor rivaled that of James Bond’s in Live and Let Die. I do have to think the sheer ridiculousness of her survival detracted a little from her Badass™ status, though aside from these complaints and perhaps a few grumbles about her season finale teleportation, I’ve heard little criticism levied at her scripting.

Arya in and of herself I think is supposed to be a slightly disturbing character, right? Like, her overly violent murders of Trant last year and Walder Frey this year were supposed to be at least a little morally ambiguous? It’s hard to tell, because D&D went out of their way to paint both men as incredibly disgusting and “bad,” but I just don’t think I can imagine anyone who would be able to write or direct those scenes with the intent of them being 100% fine, fist-pumping moments of awesome.

Okay…maybe two or three names spring to mind.

However, the curious thing about Arya is that other than when she pops up to carry out these grisly executions, she’s actually quite passive. This was the case last year, and certainly continuing into this year, where a good chunk of her episodes revolved around being smacked with a stick. Even after she got her eyes back, we see more stick smacking. Then she was assigned to kill an actor and was so bad at her job that her mark ended up noticing her and they developed a friendly rapport. The one proactive decision Arya made was to not kill Lady Crane, which like, okay, I could totally buy doing that not jiving with her moral code, I guess. And then the plot required her to be stupid and go from sleeping with Needle drawn to smirking her way around Braavos:

Or did I mean “empowered”?

The rest was simply parkouring to victory.

Even despite her very passive scripting, all if this might have been somewhat forgiven if it weren’t for D&D’s mystifying pattern of injecting catty women into every corner of Braavos. I’ve explained the sexist underpinnings of this trope before:

“[‘Women are Catty’] is based on the assumption that women are always in competition with one another, because their mode of operation is based around getting a man. With intimate heterosexuality being needed to complete them, exclusive male attention becomes their ultimate goal, inherently pitting them against other women who are vying for the same thing. If a man strays from his woman, it is her fault, because she lost out to another woman. And of course, women are not mature enough to snap out of this dynamic, unlike ‘bros before hoes.'”

In my opinion, there’s really no way to reconcile the character of “The Waif” in GoT. What is her problem?! The best explanation is that she has a thing for Jaqen and feels threatened, but this is a woman who simply hates Arya. She smacks her with sticks repeatedly, and the one time Arya counters her blow, angry tears fill her eyes. Then we learn after Arya bails on her contract that The Waif had asked Jaqen for special permission to murder her in the case of such an event. Which she then skips off to do so with glee:

Swiggity swooty, off to kill that booty.

Maybe this wouldn’t have seemed quite so awful if it weren’t for the fact that Jaqen is presented to us as the voice of reason between the two? He’s the one who brings Arya back to the temple, he’s the one who grants her the eyes, he’s the one who gives her another chance, he’s even the one who after the killy-conclusion of their confrontation, gives Arya a bizarre Nod of Approval. Fighting is for the women, reconciliation is for the men.

Add to this the weird rivalry within the theater troupe, where the Sansa actor was very clearly the one who hired the Faceless Men to kill Lady Crane because jealousy, and Lady Crane in turn mutilated her.

What makes this worse is that I almost was won over by the positive interaction with Lady Crane and Arya because that’s how lacking it is on this show, but it was unfortunately overshadowed by Crane’s disturbing trait of stabbing ex-lovers and then, of course, her graphic Shock™ death, demonstrating that positive female interaction on this show is only to tug at the heartstrings.

But whatever, we can tell Arya is a badass because she pops in to murder people in season finales with inexplicably honed skills that we were never shown before. What were we shown instead?

Brienne is another character that you can tell is meant to be a Certifiable Badass because she like, carries a sword or something? And it was nifty of her to save Sansa and Theon from the disappearing hounds when she magically realized that they must have left Winterfell.

However past that, we were treated to another season of her failing at her mission. What was the point of her going to Riverrun, exactly? For a fanservice moment with Jaime that was immediately followed by the scene of him declaring his undying love to Cersei? Brienne failed to secure the Tully army, and failed to even convince Brynden Blackfish to personally help out his niece.

The killer is that with just few tweaks and this show could be so good. Tumblr user “turtle-paced” pointed out in her review of “No One” how easily Brienne’s exchange with Blackfish could have been altered to A.) make us feel that Brienne is more than just a convenient sword, and B.) actually make us feel like this show is more than a series of discrete moments of random shocks:

“Hey, remember when Catelyn dragged Brienne out of a perilous situation saying “fight for the living, not the dead”? Neither do I, it didn’t happen in the show. What show!Catelyn did say in that situation was “you can’t avenge Renly if you’re dead” which seems like advice that’s at least analogous to what’s going on here. Isn’t it neat that the adaptation made the space for a parallel where the beneficiary of that advice has a chance to pay it back to her dead advisor’s kin – oh. No. Brynden got killed offscreen.”

Someone, oh someone, please explain to me how Brienne is supposed to be remotely interesting or empowering? She stalks around killing the people the plot requires her to kill and failing at everything else. Sometimes she gets hit on by Tormund as a joke.

I think our last of the Badasses™ is Yara.

She’s at least supposed to be battle-hardened and stuff, right? And here’s the thing: I was really close to being won over by her after “Home,” when she yelled at her dad about the futility of the reaving lifestyle and later seemed to want to be Queen not just because it was her duty, but because she felt she could elicit positive change.

Then she screamed at Theon for being too traumatized to come with her (back in Season 4) and coldly yelled at him to stop crying. Then she stood passively in the background of her own goddamn queensmoot and let Theon argue everything for her. Then she screamed at him even more for his trauma because it was inconvenient to her, and told him to kill himself if he wasn’t going to be useful. Then she raped a sex slave because she apparently didn’t care about the iron price anymore, nor the concepts of slavery and consent. Then she tried to argue against Dany outlawing raping because that was the Ironborn “way of life”—the same way of life she had argued against in the episode I just praised. Then, of course, her season closed out with Theon’s Nod of Approval after she and Dany vowed to kill all those stupid men.

So am I seriously supposed to see an abuser like Yara, who also can’t seem to argue her own cases and make her own decisions without the help of her brother, as an “empowered” woman? If so, may I ask why?

Speaking of women standing quietly in a corner and being ineffectual at everything they do, there was Sansa this year. That’s right, Ms. “Boss Ass Bitch” herself, according to Sophie Turner.

Losing your voice as the plot demands is tough!

To be fair, there were a few scenes where Sansa really came out swinging. She whipped the letter from Ramsay out of Jon’s hands and read it in a cool, calm fashion. She met with Littlefinger and screamed in his face that his plan last year was stupid.

Those who voted in ballot for the Season 6 “Carol Awards” know that I often joke about the many different personalities of Sansa, but does it really need to be pointed out this assertive, in-charge, has-a-totally-accurate-reading-on-the-situation sits in complete contention with the Sansa last year who agreed to the world’s worst plan without so much as a follow-up question because of some amorphous promise of revenge?

The good news, however, is that it doesn’t overly matter because after only a few episodes of this Boss-Ass scripting, Sansa was reduced to a character who would stand quietly in a corner while other people argued her case for her. She failed to persuade Lyanna Mormont and Lord Glover to help at all (as did Jon, to be fair), then she sat quietly fuming during a war strategy session when a few episodes prior, we had seen her speak up in the exact same situation. She yelled at Jon for not calling on her, as if she was some school girl who wanted to present a report, only to claim that she didn’t know anything when he finally listened. Then why were you upset?  Plus Sansa also withheld crucial information about the Vale troops that cost some six hundred thousand of her countrymen their lives, only to be hand-waved away in the finale with an apology.

“Only a fool would trust Littlefinger. I should have told you about him, about the Knights of the Vale. I’m sorry.”

Oh. Okay then.

The one bright-spot of her scripting was that Jon fared even worse, so some critics praised her as the “smart one,” comparatively. However, this also came undone in the final episode, when every single Northern Lord forgot about her claim despite the fact that she was sitting right there. And like, this could have been so easily fixed if Sansa had been the one to argue for Jon’s kingship (also because it would have read as a middle finger to Littlefinger, and who doesn’t want that?). But no, that came from Lyanna Mormont, the 10-year-old girl with unquestioning authority who didn’t even consider the proper succession.

Sansa’s face at the end suggested that all of this was done for more tension. Once again, if she wasn’t for it, she could have spoken up. “Hey, how about a ‘Queen in the North’ instead? I’m literally Robb’s heir, and I’m the one who saved you. I’m the reason we have the support of the Vale, and my Tully connection even puts the Lords of the riverlands potentially on the table for us. My doofus brother did nothing but march everyone into a trap that I warned him about.” Wait, did her voice stop working during this scene again?

Literally the only proactive thing Sansa did this season was write a letter begging help that she had already turned down from the dude who sold her to her rapist. And then afterwards when Littlefinger told her he wanted to marry her and co-rule Westeros, she called it a “pretty picture.”

I should point out that I am purposely going to save discussing the full implications of Sansa’s arc with Ramsay until Part 3 of this series: The Fallacy of Violence as Empowerment (or something). However, given the fact that her murder of him was most certainly framed as the climax of her arc, and given the fact that it would have made far more sense for the Vale knights’ eleventh hour save had Sansa actually remained there the whole time (this would have avoided her weird and costly refusal to tell Jon about the troops), we need to take a moment to appreciate that Sansa was in fact displaced from her book-arc for nothing more than a two-season long revenge porn. She was raped in the most illogical context possible because the rape created two seasons worth of drama.

Even if we want to pretend this was a matter of D&D prioritizing Ramsay’s story over Sansa’s (which is very telling in and of itself), there’s the issue that the most important part of Ramsay marrying “a Stark” in the books was that he had the one thing Jon was willing to break his vows over—and at a great cost, ultimately. It’s why the Northern Lords outside of Winterfell were clamoring to get there as fast as possible, champing at the bit to go to war. To save “Ned’s little girl.” The Glovers weren’t praising the Boltons; Robett Glover was in White Harbor with Wyman Manderly trying everything they can to find Rickon Stark, while Sybelle Glover sent clansmen sworn to Deepwood Motte with Stannis to march on Winterfell.

What happened in the show though? D&D replaced that Stark hostage with Rickon, who was used only as a prop to die and make us feel bad. As for Sansa having married Ramsay, Lyanna Mormont held that against her. Aside from her, not a single person in the North gave any shits. Sansa in Winterfell affected nothing in the Northern theater other than motivating Theon to have a Stark-centric “redemption” arc that was punted out the window the second they needed him to head back to the Iron Islands, and spurring Sansa to become “strong” and “hardened,” because rape needed to be her teacher. That is never forgivable, and that is never feminist.

Hey, this is going to shock you, but you know one character who I unironically always have found feminist on this show? The character who was actually my favorite? Cersei. I mean it; this is not a bit of mine.

Now I should clarify, I 100% mean Show!Cersei here, because Book!Cersei has nothing to do with her. However, for the past few seasons, D&D have been telling a very consistent story of a woman who faces abuses, is very much shut out of power, and who sees her children fall victim to exploitative and dangerous situations. As a result, she does what she can with the recourse that she has. Arming the Faith was myopic, certainly, but by all accounts she was fooled by the High Sparrow who had been preaching tolerance and nonviolence up until that point.

You can count the “bad” things Cersei has done on this show on one-hand and have fingers left over. From Season 4 on, you would still have five.

This season continued that narrative…until it didn’t. In fact, it continued that narrative in every single episode but the last one. We saw a Cersei who was continually put upon: she couldn’t go to her daughter’s funeral because her son had found her slutshaming effective, she was barred from contributing to the Small Council, she was sent to stand in the gallery while her son delivered an announcement for the crime of being a woman… Heck, even when she “chose violence” it was because a group of armed bullies wanted to drag her out of the Keep for no discernible reason—though she really did luck out that the High Sparrow was apparently never told about this (or else why was he mystified when she didn’t come to her trial?).

And then she blew everything up and didn’t bother to check on how this might affect her son.

The weirdest part is that I seem to be one of the only people who views this as out-of-character. Because I guess her being snippy with Margaery is the same thing as her willingness to commit mass-murder, while drinking and smirking about it?

Yes, in moments of extreme stress she would talk about burning down cities to save her children, and this is probably what D&D consider “foreshadowing,” but again, saying and doing are different things. There’s simply a major disconnect between the woman who was backed into a corner and sad about it for three years, and the woman who packed the sept with C-4.

Oh and then Cersei went and turned the nun who had been in charge during her imprisonment over to Gregor Clegane, to be slowly tortured (and likely raped). Why the septa got this extra torture when the High Sparrow, who had literally ordered Cersei’s imprisonment and walk of atonement, was just blown to smithereens is anyone’s guess. I suppose we can pretend that the off-screen extraction mission to the sept (or to Margaery’s quarters…this is the same septa who was tailing her) could only handle a low-security target.

So as Cersei sat back and drank her wine, I had to sit back and see the death of the only feminist character on the dang show. Yeah, she randomly ascended to power as a result, but the entire framing of this was that she was a crazed villain. Are we supposed to be lauding the Wicked Witch of the West as a feminist icon because she had winged monkeys who answered to her? (Wicked fans, please don’t answer this.) How about Cruella de Vil? She was enterprising.

Speaking of enterprising ladies, while I have never been particularly compelled by Margaery the Sexual Manipulator, or even found her to be that good of person (did she have any ambitions in all of Season 5 beyond winning a cat fight?), I cannot deny that D&D have gone to great lengths to paint her as a savvy woman who is usually in control of the situation. Except that time last year when she inexplicably needs to summon her grandmother because she didn’t feel like bothering to try and have a conversation with Cersei about the Loras situation. Or bothering to go down to the Sept herself despite being well-loved by the people.

Yeah, no, just scream at your abuse victim…this is a much better solution.

Yes, there is the troubling fact that D&D penned Margaery to be a statutory rapist, and apparently didn’t realize it, because Tommen’s abuse is never actually addressed by the narrative. Like, you could make an argument that his suicide was that follow-up, so maybe they did understand; that Tommen was realistically penned as a young, impressionable kid who could not handle losing his abuser, and this was something that might happen as a consequence of that. Yet when you listen to D&D discuss his suicide, here’s what they have to say:

“Meanwhile, while this is happening, Tommen’s alone. This malleable, fragile, devastated child, basically is sitting there without anyone to comfort him, and if [Cersei] had been there, he wouldn’t have gone out that window. She failed him, and she alone failed him here.” –Dan Weiss

Then Benioff jumps in to talk about how Cersei’s children are the one thing that humanized her, because idealized motherhood isn’t sexist at all. But still, we are given the impression that despite their acknowledgements of Tommen’s impressionable nature, it is merely his tipsy mother to blame rather than, like, his rapist.

For this reason, when talking about Margaery as a feminist character, I’m truly at a loss. It’s great that she’s smart? But why the heck is she presented to us in a remotely positive light?

However, even ignoring that she’s accidentally a rapist (oh yay, she and Yara share in that girl power!), this season, her intellect was punted out the window too. Now, it is important to note that she’s not acting in her self-interest: her sole motivation was to save her brother from his [implied] torture. This wasn’t to improve her House’s position; this wasn’t to help her standing—it was all because Loras told her that he wanted “it” to stop, and she was going to make that happen.

This would have been fine, except the path she took to do so was utterly nonsensical. Rather than trying to even get time with her Grandmother to plan something, she immediately jumped to fake piety, selling out Loras’s claim, persuading Tommen to…establish a religious oligarchy?? (it was never made clear what this alliance meant past “the Kingsguard wear seven-pointed stars”), and despite all that, she couldn’t even get the dude out on bail. Also, she was forced to have a septa follow her around everywhere for her crime of perjury. Keep in mind that at the same time, Cersei, who was still accused of high treason, was prancing around with a reanimated corpse, crashing Small Council meetings, making out with her brother (this was still literally one of her charges), and killing Faith Militant members without anyone saying boo. Marg, honey, your deal really sucked.

Why did Margaery ask the Tyrell army to stand down when she did? Because they probably could have freed Loras right there and then. Even if we want to pretend that she truly thought the fake-piety-amorphous-Faith-union was the best path to saving her brother, you’re telling me that once she stepped out into the sunlight and saw largest army in the Seven Kingdoms, being led by her father, standing right there, it wouldn’t have maybe changed her read on the situation?

Also not to bring up the books, but in the books, just one of Mace’s bannermen marching to the city with his troops convinced the Faith to release Margaery from her prison (yay to Randyll Tarly for doing something other than being a jerk at a dinner table), when she had faced much more serious charges than her show counterpart.

Stepping back and looking at the season as a whole, Margaery was nothing more than a hapless victim. She was imprisoned for no discernable crime, and then came up with a sucky plan to save her brother that only resulted in the power of her House crippled and him mutilated. Then she blew up. And I am told that she’s a very feminist character.

We also have her grandmother, who is unquestionably the official negotiator of House Tyrell despite the patriarchy existing to punish her granddaughter and Cersei. How does she wield this power? By refusing to go to war repeatedly to save the future of her House. The only thing that eventually convinces her is the idea of Margaery also facing a Walk of Atonement. Though at least the walk would have freed her, which is more than Olenna’s plan of doing nothing involved.

Later, Margaery slips her a note that assures Olenna this piety thing is an act, and maybe also a warning, so she high-tails it out of King’s Landing. Then everyone she cares about blows up, so she decides her best course of action is to ally with a group of murderous women who just slaughtered their own House. Or maybe it was because of the possibility of an alliance with Dany? Who knows, but at least she sasses Obara for “looking like a boy” so that we know she’s empowered. And she wants revenge, which is being sold to us as empowerment too. Too bad she didn’t have this fighting spirit during a time where it might have helped anything.

While we’re in Dorne, please don’t make me rehash the awfulness that is the petty, catty Sand Snakes and Ellaria. I was confused why anyone talked about how great it was that they “took on the patriarchy,” when these women were A.) clearly presented to us in a bad light, and B.) embracing toxically patriarchal values by murdering men who didn’t mean their “strong” standards, aka out for blood and showing a refusal to make any sort of peace.

I would also prefer not to yet again dredge up my issues with how Gilly and the women of Horn Hill were penned. Yeah, it’s hard not to agree with someone yelling at Randyll Tarly. But it’s as utterly out of place and pandering as if bell hooks was zapped into Meereen to read Tyrion passages of Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. It’s not magically ~feminism~ if the actual condition of women in the established setting is ignored, or if the setting is too inconsistent for there to *be* a condition of women.

Speaking of pandering, we have Lyanna Mormont. Thanks to D&D’s insightful “Inside the Episode” commentary, we know that they thought it would simply be a “fun” scene to watch to have a 10-year-old girl be a tough negotiator. But despite intent, she actually was a bit of a joy to see on our screen. With her deeply rooted sense of authority and a refusal to be infantilized, she’s the closest thing to Arianne Martell we’ve had on this show to date. The only issue is that this is the same person who gave Stannis a middle finger because she only serves a STARK, yet then dismisses Jon and Sansa’s request for help (it’s a Snow and a Bolton, apparently), even after they tell her that Rickon [STARK] is being held hostage. She only agrees to join their cause when Davos mentions zombies. However, the next scene where she speaks, she’s shaming other Northern Lords for not joining the Starks.

But… You just…

I like the concept of Lyanna, however with her execution, it’s clear that there was no thought put into her character past “wouldn’t it be fun if…”

A similarly shallow line of thought seemed to be followed for Melisandre this season. “Wouldn’t it be cool if we revealed that she was old?” Would it? Do I really need to get into the sexist implications of sagging tits being framed as a Shocking™ moment (why was she naked in the first place?). Also why did this matter in the slightest? The only thing it seemed to influence, forgive me for suggesting, is a notable dialing back in her character’s overt displays of sexuality. She spent a good part of Season 5 sexually harassing Jon, but now that the audience knows her hot bod is an illusion, she’s desexualized?

There’s also the fact that Melisandre was pretty much shunted to the side for the entire season. It was Davos’s idea for her to resurrect Jon, and when she did so successfully, the people thought of him as a god. Why would they give two craps about the sorceress? Then she sat quietly through a war council meeting. Then she was basically off the screen. I guess it’s nifty that there is a woman with *magic powers*, but given that she only uses them when prompted by men is a bit… There’s a word for it. “Sexism.”

I’ll be perfectly honest: I almost forgot about Meera Reed this season. She uh…was sad about her brother for a scene until Leaf told her that she needed to stop it because Bran needed her. She did pretty well holding her own against zombies. She’s not not feminist, so much as she is a non-entity.

That just leaves Missandei. I’m not going to lie: I found it very refreshing and yes, feminist, when Missandei had the following exchange with Tyrion:

Missandei: How many days were you a slave?

Tyrion: Long enough to know.

Missandei: Not long enough to understand.

Unfortunately, that’s kind of it for Missandei this season. She gives public support for Tyrion’s crappy plans in front of other former slaves, and then fades to the background to be a prop for thinly veiled rape jokes, while Grey Worm is the only one who [rightfully] continues to challenge him.

Tyrion: Let’s play a game. You don’t play games, either one of you, ever

Grey Worm: Games are for children.

Missandei: My master Kraznys would sometimes make us play games.

Tyrion: There, that’s a start.

Missandei: Only the girls.

Tyrion: No, no, no. Not that. Of course not that. Innocent games. Fun games. Drinking games.

Not to mention we’re treated to at least four different scenes of Tyrion explaining some concept to Missandei and Grey Worm, be it dragon taming or drinking games, with the tone of a teacher patiently educating the inner-city kids. I *think* it’s supposed to be uncomfortable since his plans still result in the masters attacking, but at the same time it does mean that Missandei and Grey Worm are accorded almost no narrative space of their own; they’re props for that discomfort to play out. Yay.

Aaaaaand then, that’s Season 6! I gotta say, I’m looking for all these “strong women” that are propelling GoT to the status of a “feminist fable,” and I’m simply coming up short. Where are they? Can you help me locate them?

Because really, all I’m seeing are female characters written by two dudes who don’t seem to be aware of any of the sexist assumptions they’re making in the writers’ room, nor any implications that might come out of it. Why did the Waif hate Arya? Why did Theon argue for Yara at the kingsmoot? Why was Sansa’s path to empowerment told through rape (especially when that path had already been established in Season 4)?

And all I’m seeing are critics who think a woman giving an order is inherently feminist, without bothering to listen to what that order actually is.


The final part of this series the concept of “violence = empowerment,” and why this is not the pathway to a feminist narrative.

Images courtesy of HBO

Kylie is a Managing Editor at The Fandomentals on a mission to slay all the tropes. She has a penchant for complex familial dynamics and is easily pleased when authors include in-depth business details.

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Analysis

Brimstone Is More Grimdark Nonsense Posing As Feminist Empowerment

Antoine

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The road to hell is sometimes paved with good acting but not even Dakota Fanning can save "Brimstone". (Image Credit: Momentum Pictures)
Content warning: article contains discussions of incest, sadism, and torture porn. Spoiler warning for the movie Brimstone.

Brimstone is the latest victim of the Grimdark plague afflicting too many narratives nowadays. To the point that I’ve started accidentally calling the movie “Grimstone” or “Brimdark”. Dakota Fanning is convincing in the lead role of a traumatized, hunted survivor, but no amount of good acting can redeem such an unpleasant, painfully long (nearly 2.5 hours)  and pointlessly sadistic ordeal. Not even Kit Harington’s somewhat brief appearance and sad puppy face is worth it.

The Road to Hell is Paved with Faux-Feminist Tales of Empowerment™

For some reason that still escapes me, the Political Film Society (whatever that is) has nominated Brimstone as “best film on human rights of 2017”. They have praised director-screenwriter Martin Koolhoven for daring to expose the “extreme debasement of women” in a the mid-19th century American West, while making a jaw-dropping political comment,

“Another theme is the depiction of the American West as lawless, hinting that within American culture there is an extraordinary macho strain that continues in family life and politics, what Theodore Adorno called the ‘authoritarian personality,’ which maintains strict discipline at home and votes for those who appear strong enough to break the rules to get things done. Brimstone was released at a time when filmviewers may find resonance in the story with the rise of Donald Trump to the presidency.”

Sure, it’s easy to connect “the rise of Donald Trump” to misogyny (it’s also lazy and simplistic). The problem is that Brimstone is not actually exposing or denouncing it; it’s actively participating in constructing it. Depicting the “extreme debasement of women” (the wording used by the Political Film Society should already give you a clue) in an exploitive, pornified, Grimdark framework reminiscent of Justine, or the Misfortunes of Virtue is not the way to bring attention to misogyny, rape culture, or violence against women. It brings us back to the old debate of Depiction vs. Endorsement which is actually way older than we might think.

Before diving headfirst into the disturbing, depressing universe of Brimstone, I propose a short trip into the historical origins of the Grimdark subgenre. This topic deserves its own piece, which will be fully fleshed out in the future, but let’s start with a quick overview.

Gothic vs. Grimdark and the Sadean Narrative

Unlike David Benioff and Dan Weiss (D&D), the infamous (around here) showrunners of Game of Thrones, Brimstone director Martin Koolhoven at least never pretended he was writing a Dramatically Satisfying “Gothic Horror,” though it does contain similar tropes. Indeed, it’s hard not to compare the two. So much so I had to pause while watching Brimstone to check if they shared a screenwriter or ‘creative genius’ in common rather than just Kit Harington and Carice van Houten (they don’t seem to).

As a historian of the French Revolution and the 18th century, it’s also difficult not to see the similarities between the Grimdark narrative to which Benioff, Weiss, and Koolhoven subscribe and Sade’s Justine, or the Misfortunes of Virtue. Especially when the former attempt to root their stories in “historical accuracy” or “historical realism.”

Some of the main themes of the Gothic genre are impossible to separate from the historical era in which it originates. Like most fiction, the eternal battle between Good and Evil is at the forefront. In this case, the concepts most commonly used during the period were those of Virtue and Vice, in which the Apostles of Vice try to tempt, lure or corrupt the Champions of Virtue.

Gothic fiction is further characterized by decay and corruption, which parallel that of the Ancien Régime itself. The old protectors (nobility) and moral guardians (clergy) were the institutions that used to champion Virtue. However, by the 18th century, they are increasingly failing in their duties; they were no longer capable of playing and fulfilling their roles, or deliberately stood against them, leading to the rise of new “Champions of Virtue.” These new heroes will define the 19th century with new struggles. In this period, the revolutionary acts as a substitute for the fallen figure of the “Knight in Shining Armor” and “Protector of the Innocent.”

As a moral and political critique of the Ancien Régime, Gothic fiction shares much in common with epistolary novels of that century, but they both differ from Sade in significant ways. Most importantly, in the former Virtue ultimately triumphs. Sure, it won’t get out of the fight unscathed. Its champion will lose their innocence; they might fall from grace, they may even die, often by sacrificing themselves, but what they represent will endure.

The same holds true of contemporary Gothic fiction. Even the Hannibal series, which seemingly showcases a perfect Sadean villain (he even plays the harpsichord, come on!), is not Sadean itself. Despite the temptation, corruption, and fall of the hero, Virtue still prevails and triumphs (beautifully, I must say).

Will Graham considers to fall literally after his metaphorical Fall from Grace

I’d say, right about here.

As “Love Crime” (the song playing during this moment) says it best, the characters embodying this thematic struggle play an ageless “deadly game”, on which depends the meaning not just of good and evil, but of life and humanity.

This narrative, however, bores a certain type of people who long to see ‘the villains win for a change’, who wish the world was shown as it ‘truly, realistically, accurately is’—from their point of view—in all its gritty darkness and villainy. One of these was the Marquis de Sade (that’s the first and last time I will dignify him of his title and particle).

Over the course of his career, Sade brought forward arguments extremely similar to the usual apologetic discourse excusing the Grimdark turn in storytelling. Like history as the true source of atrocities and the necessity to depict evil in the most horrifying (and graphic) ways to make sure that evil is understood and loathed as such.

In the preface to his 1791 edition of Justine, he bragged about his “originality” in inserting a plot twist that had “undoubtedly” never been done before: letting the villains win and rewarding them in the narrative while the Champions of Virtue remain forever miserable and meet atrocity after atrocity.

“The scheme of this novel (less a novel than one might suppose) is undoubtedly new; the victory gained by Virtue over Vice, the rewarding of good, the punishment of evil, such is the usual scheme in every other work of this type: shouldn’t we be tired of such a hackneyed lesson!”

In other words, it’s boring when the Good Guys win, especially if they don’t face horrific circumstances to make us appreciate their (seemingly vain) struggle.

The 1791 edition pretended to be a moralistic cautionary tale—and a “most sublime” one at that, as he praises it himself—destined to make people, especially women, “love Virtue more” by making her champion “suffer beautifully and sublimely.” Sade’s 1799 re-edition (La Nouvelle Justine) featured even more exploitation, more torture, more rape, and more murder. His intentions had taken a much darker turn.

By 1799, his sarcastic praise of Virtue had vanished. Virtue is now a “ridiculous idol” worshiped by “imbeciles” who fail to realize they will never be rewarded for their good deeds. It’s better to “abandon oneself to Vice than to resist it,” because “Virtue is too weak to fight against Vice” and choosing her side is a sure way to lose. For these reasons, he proclaims he must “courageously dare” to depict crime as it is, “that is, always triumphant and sublime, always happy and fortunate”, while virtue is “always dour and always sad, always pedantic and always miserable.”

Sade was also a troll, both in history and literature. On July 3, 1789, when tensions were already high, he screamed from his cell in the Bastille that prisoners were being butchered and that people needed to come and free him. (It wasn’t true – and the revolutionaries who later stormed the prison were disappointed to find out there were only seven prisoners inside). He also trolled the philosophical themes of the Enlightenment and the Revolutionary politics, parodying them, twisting them, and pushing them to absurd limits.

Sade weaponized irony and ambiguity in a way that wouldn’t seem out of place on 4chan (coughs). His prose is nauseating, yet inevitably boring. Even in the 18th century Shock and Awe got old pretty fast. His style ripped off other pornographic novels of the century, like Thérèse Philosophe (1748), in which porn was intercut with philosophical ramblings. Only for Sade, his blandly described, repetitive “porn” was made of rape, abuse, torture, and murder, while the “philosophy” provided “natural” justifications for these.

In short, Sade created his own Grimdark “satire” of Gothic horror in which he corrupted the roles of the main characters. The protagonist/Champion of Virtue, often an Ingénue (usually female but sometimes male), becomes a Doom Magnet bringing death and disaster everywhere they go. The calamities that befall the protagonist extend to every good person who has the misfortune to cross their path, befriend them, or want to help them. Nothing can save them, not even Providence/God is on their side. Their belief in goodness, honor, and virtuous principles is mocked, and they are punished for holding onto them.

Meanwhile the villain who, as in Gothic fiction, is often a Depraved Aristocrat or a Corrupt Priest or Nun becomes an overpowered Villain Sue, deflects karma, and is rewarded for understanding the ‘truth’ about ‘human nature’. This is the Sadean Narrative.

Sound familiar?

Sade’s excuses and defenses are the same as D&D’s: invoking historical accuracy, realism, human nature, ‘how things really are or were’, etc. But that’s bullshit. It’s a construction. As much as they pride themselves in showing the so-called truth of human nature, Grimdark writers and their apologists neglect whole parts of it, omit them, erase them in order to create, as Adam Roberts puts it, a cynical, nihilistic, ultraviolent world “where nobody is honorable and Might is Right”.

The same can be said of Martin Koolhoven’s Brimstone.

Brimstone, or the Misfortunes of Virtue

This 149 minute long movie is divided in four chapters: “Revelation,” “Exodus,” “Genesis,” and “Retribution”. The second and third chapters are out-of-order flashbacks explaining how we got here while the last chapter resumes where we left off in the first.

In the first chapter, we meet Liz (Dakota Fanning), who’s mute. She works as the town’s midwife. She’s happily married with two kids, a stepson and a daughter. Everything is going mostly well. However, her past catches up on her when she meets the town’s new reverend. As we’ll later learn, Liz’s real name is Joanna, and the new reverend she’s terrified of isn’t just a sadistic, hypocritical asshole who’s been chasing her for a while, he’s also her incestuous father. The main purpose of the nonlinear narrative serves to conceal this plot twist (somewhat predictable when you know the genre though YMMV).

The chronological beginning of the story is in “Genesis”, in which young Joanna (Emilia Jones) is 13 years old. On the night Joanna menstruates for the first time, she finds her father, the Evil Reverend (Guy Pearce), whipping her mother, Anna (Carice van Houten), in the barn for not putting out. It’s filmed in a voyeuristic, creepy way that hides behind the excuse of “exposing violence against women” to showcase torture porn. This is one of the many pointlessly graphic whipping scenes featured in the movie, another of which involves a child actress who was less than ten years old at the time of filming (Ivy George, who plays Sam, Joanna/Liz’s daughter).

Anna finds out her husband is creeping on their daughter, because “now she’s a woman” and her mother is not fulfilling “her wifely duties.” Presumably to stop her from telling everyone (I assume because it’s never explained), the Evil Reverend gets her a scold’s bridle. It’s ridiculous but hey, it does provide great imagery for the trailer and for the reviews to denounce the “extreme debasement of women.”

"Brimstone" is about exposing misogyny or something

This is about “human rights” or something.

It doesn’t get any better from there on out.

Goodness Gets You Killed

Get used to this basic rule when watching the movie: each nice person dies horribly. Because goodness gets you killed. Because it’s written that way.

  • Anna, Joanna’s mother who could have protected her – hangs herself.
  • Johnny Sand, who tried to save her – shot with his own gun (through the Reverend).
  • Nice Sex Worker Sally – hanged for murder.
  • Random Mourning Father – shot in a rigged duel he could never have won.
  • Nice Friend Elizabeth – stabbed with her own knife (through the Reverend).
  • Nice Husband Eli – disemboweled (by the Reverend).
  • Protective Teenage Stepson Matthew who tried his best to protect his Stepmom and Half-Sister – shot (by the Reverend).
  • Nice Husband’s Father (and Mathew and Sam’s Grandpa) who was helping Joanna and Sam by hiding them – impaled to a door (by the Reverend).

The anvil needs to be dropped about what kind of world Justine, I mean, Joanna, lives in. It’s a Crapsack World from which there is no escape, as the rest of the movie will painfully remind Joanna (and the viewer) each time a spark of hope shines through.

Soon after the Evil Reverend gets the scold’s bridle for his wife, for example, Joanna asks her mother why she lets him treat her that way, and that she would rather die than live like that. This scene leads directly to Anna wandering off and immediately hanging herself right there in the church while her husband is preaching about how evil women are. Awkward. One of the few (maybe even only) people who could have protected Joanna is now dead.

Similarly, the whole subplot involving Kit Harington is ultimately insignificant and only serves to reinforce the lesson that good deeds will lead you to your grave. He’s a Thief With a Heart of Gold who wanders onto the Evil Reverend’s ranch, and Joanna hides him in the barn until he recovers from his wounds. He’s a Good Guy; he turns her down when she reluctantly offers herself to him. Johnny Sand (let’s just call him that) is the only one to oppose the Evil Reverend when he decides to marry his own daughter. He’s even all backlit with glorious sunlight, like a Prince Charming finally showing up!

Don’t get too excited: he dies.

Just as he’s about to shoot the Evil Reverend, he somehow loses grasp on his own gun —SOMEHOW—and the Reverend shoots him instead. Bye Johnny Sand. You tried. You just couldn’t win in this kind of narrative.

After her “wedding” to her father, Joanna runs away to the desert, where she faints, is found, and is ultimately sold to a brothel, Frank’s Inferno. Most of the women she meets are Mean and Catty and mock the 13 year-old child, except for one Nice Sex Worker named Sally who protects the last shreds of Joanna’s innocence. Needless to say, she meets a dire end; she’s hanged by the sheriff for murdering a man who wanted to rape Joanna. Even though she was just defending herself, as Joanna tearfully insists, Frank reminds her “there are rules,” and Sally knew not to defy them.

Several years later, the now grown-up Joanna (played by Dakota Fanning) witnesses a duel between Frank and a mourning father, who blames the former for his daughter’s death and demands a “fair fight.” Joanna, her friend Elizabeth, and all the other women working at Frank’s Inferno cheer for this unnamed man, an unlikely Champion of Virtue in this Crapsack World. He symbolizes The Good Father None Of Those Women Presumably Had:

“It’s men like you, who think their actions have no consequences, who are making this country turn into what it’s turning to. So, for my daughter’s sake, for every daughter’s sake, I have to kill you.”

Much like Johnny Sand earlier, he dies. The duel was rigged anyway so he could never have won. Cue the sad faces of the women who needed another reminder of the world they live in.

Joanna and Elizabeth (right) in "Brimstone"

Because Virtue Just Can’t Win.

But one of the most over-the-top example of this disturbing ‘theme’ is the murder of Joanna/Liz’s stepson, probably punished because he wanted to become a nice person someday. The scene is utterly ridiculous. There’s a blizzard, you can’t see a thing, and yet the Evil Reverend manages to shoot the kid? Who only got out of the wagon because he accidentally dropped his own riffle? Why did any of this have to happen? Because it provides great imagery, I guess.

Symbolism maybe

Blood on pure white snow? Are they trying to say something?

So, to recap: Joanna/Liz’s life sucks. Anybody who tries to save her, protect her, rescue her, or cares about her dies violently. Narrative Acedia strikes again.

The only decent person who makes it out alive is the doctor who refuses to cut out Joanna’s tongue when she comes up with the illogical plan of taking Elizabeth’s place.

Meanwhile, the Evil Reverend is near unkillable. Cut his throat and let him to drown in his own blood in a room you set on fire? He survives that! (The movie never really explains how, nor stops to ponder how impossible this would be even with the best medical care the 19th century could offer.) Set him on fire? He feels nothing apparently, he even seems to embrace it, either because he made a pact with the devil (which I would be willing to accept at this point) or because he’s a Secret Targ. Who the hell knows? Well, Hell might actually know. Liz/Joanna does shoot him out the window, but she should have made sure he was really dead, because he might be Michael Myers’s ancestor.

Secret Targ or Reverend Myers?

Okay…?

Not only does he have exaggerated physical strength—despite his age and job, I mean, he’s not a soldier, he’s a reverend—and can snipe a kid in a blizzard with a mid-19th century weapon (could this even be done?), he seemingly has magical powers or future technology allowing him to consistently find where Joanna is. Did he microchip her? Does he have a GPS? Just how small is the Old West exactly? How does he keep finding her?

It’s a very small world, mostly because it’s written that way, a way that makes no logical sense whatsoever once you stop and think about it for a minute.

In Which the Movie Falls Apart

Besides torture porn, Brimstone has several problems both in regards to its construction and plot. Mostly that it makes no sense. The nonlinear narrative, which seemed interesting at first, does a very good job at concealing this important fact.

When we first meet Liz, she’s mute because her tongue was cut out. How did this happen?

We learn this in the second chapter, “Exodus”, when Joanna takes her dead friend’s identity. Elizabeth was a Nice Friend, so of course this means something bad would inevitably happen to her. In a scene of very gratuitous violence, Frank cuts off her tongue because she bit a customer’s tongue who was trying to kiss her while she had repeatedly told him not to.

The local doctor checks her up and gives her a book on sign language, which she learns along with Joanna. It’s sweet. Liz wants to run, and finds a Nice Older Man (see where I’m going with this?) who lost his wife and doesn’t care about her past, as long as she can cook and doesn’t mind that he already has a son from a previous union. Liz is very excited, and asks Joanna to come with her, and they can pretend to be sisters. Again, it’s kinda cute.

Joanna and LIz in Brimstone

They are such good friends. Wouldn’t it be just AWFUL if something happened to break them apart?

But of course, this nice ending just cannot be. (BECAUSE IT’S WRITTEN THAT WAY.)

On the very evening they plan to run away, they get the visit of a Very Special Customer who pays every woman in the brothel, and Frank is adamant that no matter what he wants, you give it to him. Guess who it is?

Why, it’s the Evil Reverend of course!

He came to find Joanna and is Very Disappointed by “her life choices”—namely, being sold to a brothel—and decides he has to “punish her”. This sentence is said so many times throughout the movie I’m sure it’s only there for a specific part of the audience to masturbate to. But hey, ‘Human Rights’ amirite?!

Elizabeth hears Joanna’s screams and rushes to save her. As you recall, however, she does not survive the confrontation with the Reverend (she’s too nice), yet he somehow manages to survive both having his throat cut and being set on fire.  And this is where the shaky foundations the movie is built on finally collapse.

Joanna should be free. She thinks her father is dead. (And he should be, even though he’s not.) The brothel is on fire. She could go wherever she wants, do whatever she wants. But, instead of, I don’t know, doing something that doesn’t involve cutting her own tongue out, she decides to take Liz’s place and identity. Since ‘her’ husband-to-be expects a woman without a tongue, she visits the doctor and asks him to cut out her tongue. He can’t bring himself to do it, so she does it herself.

I can’t stress enough how pointless and gratuitous this is, or how this makes no sense in any kind of reality. There was no reason for her to do that. She didn’t have to take Liz’s place. She didn’t have to cut out her tongue. But that wouldn’t be as Dramatically Satisfying, now would it?

The Voiceless, or Missing the Point of Themes and Metaphors

Brimstone completely fails to grasp any actual theme or metaphor present in the story (besides, maybe, the “Symbolic Blood on the Snow” shot, whatever that meant).

The typical excuse of “historical accuracy” to depict “reality” in all its grittiness mysteriously disappears once it comes to one of the main traits of the protagonist: her being mute because she has no tongue. The addition of that disability to the story is never really explored, neither metaphorically nor realistically. Brimstone treats a self-inflicted disability as a Shock and Awe moment, and then erases its meanings from the narrative, much like Jaime Lannister and Theon Greyjoy in Game of Thrones.

Other than a brief moment with the doctor telling the original Liz how to care for her wound and giving her a book of sign language, and one scene in which Elizabeth teaches Joanna what she learned, the subject is thrown away so fast it almost feels anachronistic. It seems so random and out of place, it’s hard to believe that sign language has a very old, very rich, very interesting history because the movie treats it like a footnote.

"Brimstone": Elizabeth teaches Joanna sign language.

Elizabeth teaches Joanna sign language. Don’t ask me which type it is though, or if the one used is even historically accurate.

Brimstone alsο completely erases any struggle Liz/Joanna might have with her disability while living in the 19th century Old West; it never stresses how dangerous and potentially deadly it would be to cut your own tongue. Which, I might reiterate, was only done to fulfill the plot’s contrived demands. She never has any communication problems. It never actually impacts the narrative. It doesn’t seem to incapacitate her at all. The only reason it happens is so the film can remind us (again) this is a Crapsack World, and she/we just can’t have nice things.

Speaking of the ending, it’s the final cherry on top of the ‘life is crap and good people can’t be happy’ cake. A sheriff from the town where she worked in the brothel drops by, and we learn the original Elizabeth had murdered Frank just before ‘rescuing’ Joanna from the Evil Reverend. As Joanna claimed her identity, she is now guilty of her crime. Conveniently, her daughter (who had been her interpreter) is nowhere to translate for her, but she doesn’t even attempt to explain anything. There’s nothing to explain, really. As the sheriff who comes to arrest her puts it:

“You should’ve changed your name, Liz. How many Elizabeth Brundys you figure there are in this world? And how many of ‘em you figure don’t got no tongue?”

Life sucks.

The sheriff wants to bring her back to the town to hang her and puts her on a boat. In one final act of agency (maybe), Joanna, who is cuffed with heavy chains, decides to throw herself into the river, and drowns. But it’s ok! We see her smiling underwater.

She may be dead, but at least she’s Empowered (TM)!

She may be dead, but at least she’s Empowered!

As this depressing epilogue unfolds, we hear the voice of a narrator, much like we had in the opening of the movie. We realize it was provided by a grown-up Sam. “I remember her well,” she says in the end. “She was a warrior. Always in control.” Well, except from the part where her entire story was controlled by men, including first and foremost by the director-screenwriter.

Life Isn’t Sadistic, The Writer Is

This is a movie that tackles a faux-feminist message yet fails to grasp the meaning in a woman cutting off her own tongue. Martin Koolhoven seemingly has no idea what genre he’s writing, borrowing tropes from Gothic horror, Grimdark edginess, exploitation movies, and slasher films. This would be sad, if he wasn’t so smug, somehow believing he’s the first director-screenwriter to ever tell a Western from ‘a woman’s point of view,’

Koolhoven: So I decided to started (sic) writing one, and then I started thinking, What is it actually that I’m interested in here? Why is it such an interesting genre? There’s this almost boyish quality to it, this adventure and artistic idea of freedom. But then, as I was thinking that, I thought, that’s a very macho approach. It’s only a half-truth because for women, Westerns are not actually about freedom all. I had just read a book called In the Rogue Blood by James Carlos Blake about two brothers, and at some point, the sister runs away and they say, “Okay, what are her options? Either she’s going to marry someone or she’s going to be a prostitute.” And that sort of hit me. I realized that that side of the story is never really told. There’s not a lot of movies about that. Actually, none at all. Then I thought there has to be a movie from that point of view.”

Even if we ignore the many different female-lead Westerns that showcase a great diversity of roles for women, Koolhoven isn’t even the first to tell a story from a sex worker’s perspective; I found a film with four of them.

Though it’s rather simplistically true that, historically, women have more often than not been confined to make a choice between “being a wife or a prostitute,” there were still many ways to navigate and test these limits. Exceptions don’t make the rule, but they still exist. So let’s ignore how there’s a 1993 movie that proves Koolhoven wrong. And the fact that the Old West was a lot queerer than we think.

Nah, let’s just remake Justine, or the Misfortunes of Virtue, set it in the Old West and call it Brimstone. How Bold!

Koolhoven and some interviewers seem to think Brimstone is doing something new, and praise it as “daring” and “provocative”. It’s not. Nothing here is new. This story is old, really old. This has been done already, over and over and over. There are ways to tell the story of a girl then young woman who tries to escape from her abusive father. Brimstone was obviously not the way to do it. Unfortunately, this form of storytelling is in vogue, much like the Grimdark subgenre itself.

At the end of the day, Brimstone is the same old Grimdark exploitation nonsense, the misogynistic, nihilistic, and reductive roots of which go all the way back to Sade. Horror and cruelty do exist, yes, but you can choose how to write about it. You can choose what you show on screen versus what you describe with dialogue. Sometimes “Show, Don’t Tell” doesn’t (shouldn’t) apply. As such, it’s rather easy to tell when the purpose is… well, torture porn.

The existence of evil doesn’t negate the reality of goodness. “Realness” and “historical accuracy” don’t equal “sadistic.” Writers who choose to depict these stories this way and inflict it on us, however, are.


Images courtesy of Momentum Pictures and Sony Pictures Television

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Analysis

Sith Inquisitor’s Journey to Freedom

Angelina

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Minor spoilers for the Sith Inquisitor class quest chain; minor spoilers for the Knights of the Fallen Empire/Eternal Throne DLCs

It is a great part of RPG experience, and even a greater part of RPG enjoyment, to like your character.  And by “RPG” I mean any RPG whatsoever, from LARP to tabletop to video game. Which is only natural, as you can’t really relate to the character you don’t like. And what is RPG if not relating to a character so that you can share its fictional experience?

Which, mind you, doesn’t mean that person should be likable. More like, they should be interesting. An interesting piece of shit, after all, has a much bigger chance to win over your emotions than a bland, shallow Stainless Hero. Like, when you watch The Thief and The Cobbler (the recobbled cut, of course, not that abomination), you sympathize with the first much more than the latter. What a perfect role model he is! But I digress.

When I first set out to play Star Wars: The Old Republic, I was highly unsure if I really wanted to do so. I’ve always had problems with video games in the sense that they don’t actually let you create your character. You get a not-so-wide variety of characters and must choose one to try to empathize with. This makes every game a hit-or-miss case for me: either it’s love at the first sight, or it’s “who are those people and why should I have anything to do with them.”

Sith Academy; a gloomy place, isn’t it?

Meeting the Sith Inquisitor

I confess, I made my initial character choice based on my desire to shoot lightning. I thought it would compensate for the lack of emotional involvement I expected. Luckily, I was mistaken!

The story was captivating right from the start because it had questions to ask. And those questions were directed to me, a player. It was me who had to answer them for myself. It was me who had to choose for myself. Because my course of action depended not on what were my plot goals and neither on my gameplay preferences. It depended on my opinion on certain problems.

Basically, you start in a very unprivileged position, that of a slave. An alien slave, if you really want to experience this story in its full power. You finish in a rather privileged position, that of a Dark Council member. On the surface this seems like a typical rags-to-riches story. However, the action/adventure story is only a minor part of the experience. The main part is the inner path—looking back to your past to create your own future and, more importantly, your future self.

In a nutshell, it is a story exploring how you deal with the trauma from past abuse: do you internalize the point of view of the abuser or the abused? As a survivor myself, I can only praise the way this narrative was given and framed in-game.

Dealing with the Trauma

So, you are a slave. You spend half your Prologue experiencing constant verbal and physical abuse from your sort-of teacher. He wants to get rid of you so that a free, Sith Pureblood candidate will win the golden ticket. But justice is served, and the ticket is finally yours. You are no more a slave, but a Sith—a person in the position of power above all non-Sith. What do you do now? And more importantly, how do you do it?

The game has a Light/Dark Side system in it. Before it was totally remade (broken, I’d rather say) it worked like Paragon/Renegade system in Mass Effect games: you choose one of two alternatives, you get certain amount of Side points, you become more attuned with a certain side of the Force. Or sometimes there is a neutral way, that’s neither. It doesn’t give you any points, but still is important in this storyline.

Your first encounter with Dark vs. Light presents a very typical kill the baby/save the baby dilemma: you can torture a witness to extract the criminal’s name, or you can talk to him and exchange help for information. A very easy choice, is it not? The next encounter is the one that gets under your skin.

It is with the evil mentor who wanted to kill you, who humiliated you, who was your abuser. You can scorn him now that you are free and a Sith in service of a Lord far above your former teacher’s station. You have every reason to hate this man, you have to wish to humiliate him in return. The first option is to threaten him, and while taking it would be extremely understandable, it is not a neutral option–it’s Dark Side. It is still playing along the rules of the system: might is right; you now have both, he has neither.

The Light Side option is to thank him, to break those unholy rules. You may not forget it, and you may be quite bitter later on about your early experience. You may never actually forgive him. Yet you refuse petty revenge, you refuse the power play. Because evil can’t mend or undo another evil.

I swear, something in my heart trembled when that rat of a man smiled to my character in return and thanked him. Because at last I saw the real Dark vs Light narrative, where Light begets more light–and Dark begets more dark.

Thus I understood that I really want to experience that story up to the end.

How can it be Dark Side? It’s fairly innocent… or is it?

Your Choices

While both versions of the Sith Inquisitor’s class story present him dealing with his trauma, I could never get myself to try the Dark one. It was really, really dark; the story of a person broken and driven to the edges of sanity, who would never let anyone have anything that person was once denied. I really couldn’t help pity the creature that person would eventually become. It’s not that this story is exactly bad, but I think it is somewhat toxic and too much in line with “being tortured makes you evil” narrative. Not exactly the trope that is in any way helpful for abuse survivors.

The Neutral path—what you tread if you don’t follow any consistent course of action—was less devastating on the personal level. It is more of a quest for identit-y than anything else. Your character does eventually give in to the darker side of their nature, but also eventually does something truly and genuinely good and selfless. In the end they receive the name Occulus, for being a mystery to everyone , including themselves. Because they really don’t know themselves. After all, the Sith Inquisitor is presumed to be very young; somewhere in their early twenties.

Sith Inquisitor

My own perfect cinnamon roll of an Inquisitor

I really loved the third option, the Light Side. It is a path of empathy, a path of true freedom. It is also the path most difficult both for your character and for you as a player, for it consciously sets you against certain old tropes and easy decisions.

Good Is Not Easy

Many games try to “convince” you to do right thing by making good choices less hard than bad ones. In general, this game is no exception; if you were to take the Dark route as a Jedi Knight, it would require more time and work from you than the opposite. But on this route it’s the other way around. Being a good person here is not—just as in real life—easy. It is hard.

I can’t describe Light!Sith Inquisitor as anything but a Suffering Empath. Having experienced much trauma in the past, this Sith Inquisitor struggles their best to shield others from the same trauma, even when it doesn’t benefit themselves. Even when it means direct harm to themselves.

For example, their power is based on that of the restless spirits they’ve bound to their soul. Letting those spirits go means the Sith Inquisitor goes back to the start, where they are fairly ordinary a Sith and no match for the truly mighty ones. It means a real threat to their life or, at the very least, their well-being. But because it is right, they fulfill their promise and let the spirits go and find peace.

In another instance, they encounter a racist, foul-mouthed, self-infatuated prick, and they don’t kill him. They choose this because that abominable creature is someone else’s loved person. and your own (both player’s and character’s) desire to punish him cannot be given a higher priority than someone else’s love and anxiety.

This route is hard, because it requires additional quests and lines of dialogue. It is hard, because sometimes you really want to teach someone the hard way, to vent your own (player’s) disgust and rage, to punish the bad guys. But as long as you remember the “two wrongs don’t make right” rule, you can really enjoy that story.

Well, “enjoy” is not exactly the right word, but you get it.

When they spoke of finally knowing true freedom (in being released to the Afterlife) I really cried from happyness

True Freedom

This story is about real freedom; that is, spiritual freedom.

One of the easiest paths to achieve your goals in Star Wars universe is by using Mind Trick. You simply make the other person do and think what you wish them to. It is often used as, well, an easy and harmless workaround. It is often marked as a Light Side option in the Jedi class stories (the Dark option being to fight).

But on this route it is never a offer as a good option—usually neutral, but sometimes even bad. Because, y’know, it’s about freedom. What is more abusive, after all, than to deny a person that person’s free will?

I cannot fathom an action more free of will, of an agency more openly expressed, than denying a whole system of oppression while being raised as a part of it. But the Sith Inquisitor does just that.

Every time they eschew their own in favor of someone else’s, they deny that system. Every time they refuse to acquire more power because it would others more dearly, they deny that system. Every time they choose to respect the free will of the others, even if it means problems for themselves, they deny that system.

 Conclusion

What I really wanted to do, right from the beginning, was to thank the author.

Rebecca Harwick created a fascinating story that works perfectly for a genre that requires deep emotional connection with your character. RPG is about living other lives, those we can never experience IRL but those still having an impact on us and our life. We all know that stories matter, and I think we need more stories like that.

And it is a highly satisfying story. You really feel it by the end, that peace and glory that come with being righteous.

Personally, it helped me deal with my own trauma and helped me sort out things and realize that some options are not really an option—that giving in to the abuser’s point of view would really keep me stuck in that trauma forever.

That, while trying to be a good person is often hard, it’s worth it.

P.S.: And Then They Ruined It…

When you experience something that great, you want more of it, do you? Well, I wanted. So I went on to playing DLCs that are supposed to cover the later life of the same hero.

Sadly, the story-line there was clearly written as a continuation of the Jedi Knight’s class story, and any difference in dialogue was purely cosmetic. This actually came out bad for many classes, but the Sith Inquisitor suffers not only plot-and-logic-wise, but also thematically and, I daresay, problematically.
You see, it is generally okay if a privileged golden boy of a Jedi, who was always treated as someone special and a Chosen One, gets a lecture from those still above him about him not being special and his real role being a mere gear in a much greater machine. It serves him right and it even has some thematic significance. I am, of course, referring to the Jedi Knight—the supposed Anakin-done-right hero, the most obviously coded as male and most irritatingly problematic in and of himself.

This kind of lecture is certainly not okay when delivered by two uber-privileged guys (a Jedi Grandmaster and a Head of the Dark Council) to a former slave. They tell this slave to be nothing more than a cogwheel, that freedom is overrated and that they need to subjugate themselves to someone or something greater. They directly say, “you are weak because you fight for your freedom, become a willing slave (to the Force, but still) and you’ll be strong.”

It is problematic, isn’t it?

It really ruined the thing for me. The narrative that was centered around freedom, around acquiring it, understanding it and using it right…it was thrown away in favor of a rather lazy “we all are slaves of the Fate” plot device. And that’s only when we talk themes and not slavery per se, and the narrative completely forgetting about it.

My only solace is, it was written by another person.


Images courtesy EA Entertainment

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Analysis

Will Has a Women Problem

Michelle

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Love him or hate him, you have to admit William Shakespeare wrote some of literature’s most iconic women. Queens such as Cleopatra, Lady Macbeth, and Titania; tragic heroines like Cordelia, Juliet, and Ophelia; the outspoken self-advocates Beatrice, Katherina and Paulina. While only some of Shakespeare’s women wield legitimate, authoritative power, all of them are powerful figures on stage: women of devastating conviction, integrity, and passion At a time in history where women had few legal rights—and couldn’t legally appear on a stage—Shakespeare’s women stood as monuments to women’s potential and women’s reality.

It’s unfortunate, then, that Will, TNT’s ten-episode period drama, does its women a disservice. This is not to say that Will’s women are bad characters. On the contrary, Alice Burbage, Anne Hathaway/Shakespeare, Emilia Bassano and Apelina are powerful, bringing some of the most poignant emotional experiences to the show. Unfortunately, those performances don’t happen for the sake of their own characters’ individual growth. Frustratingly, Will’s women instead end up as tried-and-true tools shaping men’s destinies.

As Will’s love interest, Alice Burbage is the woman most affected by Will’s underlying misogyny (although she’s not the most insidious example). From her first appearance in “The Play’s the Thing,” when she leans out of her window, breasts just short of dropping out of her bodice, Alice is set up as a sexual object for Will’s attention. But it is her brilliance and dedication to the theater that draw Will to her as a lover and intellectual soulmate.

Alice is an “educated woman,” her learning much more advanced than the supposed average early modern daughter or housewife (who actually had to have a decent bit of learning in order to maintain the household, but suspension of disbelief and all that). She can read and write well enough to provide clean copies of scripts for the actors of her father’s theater, and has enough business savvy to help her family with the theater business.

Alice’s intelligence doesn’t exist for herself, though. Rather, it exists for Will. A blossoming-playwright with no experience, Will is a really terrible addition to the Theatre. He has talent with words but little else; he barely understands how theaters and theater-going works. For Will, there is only “the art,” which finally bites him in episode 3, “The Two Gentlemen.” No one will buy Will’s newest play, a complicated piece of poetry with nothing to appeal to an audience. Once he admits Alice is right and he needs her help, though, Alice gives Will access to all the plays in her father’s repertoire and then helps him hit upon the then-not-so-novel idea of stealing the overarching idea.

Once that’s in hand—with Alice guiding him in the selection and the theft—Alice helps him write.

“To him she must be like day, like night, like light. Like light.”

“Like light?”

Even when Alice is asleep, her presence is the thing that spurs Will to continue to write, his eyes fixated on her as he writes passionate speeches for Sylvia. When James discovers them in the morning, it’s Alice’s fury and insistent on its quality—quality she oversaw—that gets it performed.

Alice does the same for Henry VI pt 2. After encouraging Will to write the histories out of order, she gives Will the title for the play:

“Henry VI: The Rise of the Dauphin Menace. When I was reading the histories, I discovered the Dauphin, Charles II, joined forces with Joan of Arc.” (Episode 6)

The pair of them function like this for most of the season: Will comes to Alice with the seeds of a play, the words that are his signature, and Alice provides the necessary structure to see the play succeed and Will’s star rise. She coins the term“prequel” for Henry VI pt 2, decides on the overall plot of that same play, and, perhaps most importantly, suggests Will humanize Richard in Richard III, making his actions more horrific by highlighting the humanity still lurking in the monster. Without that crucial character change, the endgame against Topcliffe would have failed.

Alice, however, never receives recognition for her significant, life-altering contributions. Will, of course, praises her genius and recognizes that without her, his writing stagnates. But he makes no effort to inform her father, mother, brother or any of the company about her crucial contributions to the plays that have made them and him, so popular. Instead, he sits proud and preening over the work she improved, enjoying her labors and her love until he is forced to end their relationship.

This is perhaps why Alice switches intellectual loyalties—Father Southwell gives her credit. The more entwined Alice becomes in his Catholic plot, the more Southwell praises her devotion and willingness to endanger herself. Southwell, however, is no better than Will, using Alice’s brilliance, grief, and determination to further his cause. As his newest convert, Alice is best suited for smuggling messages since she is thus far unknown to any of Topcliffe’s informants; moreover, her connections to the theater, frequented by one of the Queen’s advisers, give Southwell noble connections he needs to deliver his manifesto to the Queen. Alice, then, is Southwell’s newest and best instrument in his Catholic war. She’s also the one he loses most quickly.

In the end, everyone loses Alice; her destiny finally to leave the world she loved and desired in the hands of a man she can’t stop loving. Her suffering at Topcliffe’s hands encourages the company to perform Richard III (thus altering the torturer’s destiny) and cements Will’s undying love for her—none of which she can share. Instead, Alice must go, freeing herself and Shakespeare from a love she now knows could never be and no longer wants. It is only through that pain, apparently, that Will can go on to right the greatest love story: Romeo and Juliet, where his “bright angel” will shine again.

Alice is just one woman robbed of a life or dream for men’s sake. Another, set up against Alice, is Anne Hathaway. Never one to get a fair treatment in adaptations, Anne is everything Alice isn’t: an obstacle to his art and an intellectual inferior. From her opening line, Anne is portrayed as shrewish and incapable of seeing Will’s greatness: “Who will want a play by William Shakespeare?” (“The Play’s the Thing”). Anne is incapable of seeing Will’s art, and clouds his genius with mundane concerns like the survival of his family.

Is the sarcasm evident?

Anne’s demotion to a tool of Will’s destiny is briefer than Alice’s but just as unfair because she deserves better, from both Will and Will. However, her dire situation is never taken seriously. When Anne brings Will’s children to London to visit him, and  learns about his affair with Alice, her hurt is shown as unjustified. Alice understands Will in a way Anne simply can’t; how dare Anne reject Will for something as simple as a connection with an intellectual equal?

Moreover, when Anne finally admits to Will her situation in Stratford, he cannot fully recognize or accept her pain or the fear that fuels her inability to believe in him. Living as a servant to his parents, with the threat of homelessness and beggardom, Anne physically can’t believe in his dream because a dream can’t help them now. It can’t provide them food or shelter. It can’t give them a livelihood and future. The money Will makes as a writer isn’t enough to ensure her and her children’s safety if they are forced out by his family and his father’s poor business practices. But Will sees her insistence that he take responsibility for them, that he look after them as he promised to, as manipulative and cruel.

All of this is heartbreaking because Anne loves, or at least loved, Will, and at some point, Will loved her. At the tavern, after she’s accepted by the company even after her fumbles, Anne and Will dance, smile and laugh. As they walk home and speak of the early days of their relationship, there is genuine warmth and affection in the shared memories. But domesticity chafes Will. It suffocates him in a way Anne is able to—and has to—endure, and he can no longer return the love she still extends to him. At his distress over Topcliffe’s threats against his family and Southwell’s inability to understand his situation, Anne reaches out to him,

“Yet you do not talk of your struggles with me. I am here to listen and to ease your burdens, as a wife should. If you would share with me.”

For her pains—for her labor, emotional and physical—all she gets in return is Will insistence he can’t, and won’t, share with her.

“I cannot speak of what’s inside of me. That is why I write.”

But Anne can’t read. Will’s writing—his plays, his dreams—is an impassable barrier between them, one which Will doesn’t bother to pull down and which Anne eventually accepts.

That’s Anne’s destiny: acceptance of being not even second best. “It’s not about the girl,” Anne tells him in episode 6, “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” as she piles their children in a carriage bound for Stratford. Anne is Alice’s inferior, but more than that, Anne is not theater. She is not the escape, the support and the adoration Will craves and now enjoys in the London theater. Anne is just the mother of his children, a burden to his art. Although it clearly pains her to realize it, she has to step aside; her only purpose left in his life is, as she says, “to leave you free to be who you wish to be” and fade quietly into a lonely life, awaiting money and the occasional letter.

Anne’s grieved blessing and disappearance are required. No longer a figure in Will’s life or thoughts—she’s referenced not even a handful of times after her departure and is never seen again—Anne no longer obstructs his art or his destiny. With this freedom, Will is able to put his pen and his talent to bringing the Theatre up and tearing Topcliffe down with one of his most powerful plays. He can take the first steps into the fame that will follow him for centuries.

Alice and Anne’s roles as destiny-tools are specific: they shape Will, and to a lesser extent Topcliffe and Southwell, into who they are meant to be. Emilia Bassano and Apelina don’t operate in quite the same way. Although they also, indirectly, affect Will’s destiny, their characters exist as more generalized comments on the role of women in Will’s narrative world.

At her first appearance in “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” Emilia Bassano seems to be a noble woman. Alice, however, breaks that illusion. She reveals that Emilia is Lord Hunsdon’s newest mistress—replacing the one from episode one—and although she was once nobility, she’s fallen on hard times. The daughter of a Venetian musician and “impoverished Moroccan royalty,” Emilia has taken up residence with Lord Hunsdon as a companion skilled in conversation and poetry.

She has absolutely no illusions about her purpose and position. “Thou art sorely misguided,” she tells Will in episode seven, “What Dreams May Come,” “None of this is mine. It belongs to Lord Hunsdon, just as I do.” Emilia is property, dressed up in the finest the Queen’s advisor and cousin can offer but with the knowledge that she is no longer her own. Emilia is a thing now, a thing as pretty as her dresses and jewelry, but expected to perform certain duties and services or suffer unspoken consequences.

Her status as high-class property affords Emilia some freedom, but nearly all of it is used to serve others, most often as facilitator. She puts Will in touch with Lord Fortuscue, whose commission for A Midsummer Night’s Dream saves the Theatre from closing. She overhears Lord Hunsdon’s conversations and then shares important details about Topcliffe’s promotion and Alice’s increasing role in Southwell’s plot with Will. But Emilia also provides what she can, especially when Will rescues Alice from Topcliffe’s clutches. She opens Lord Hunsdon’s house to them and gives them access to her own personal physician, even knowing the danger it puts her in.

As Emilia said, nothing she owns is hers. If Lord Hunsdon, cousin of the Queen cousin and–until the last episode–Topcliffe supporter, learns of her aiding and harboring Catholics plotting against him, her life could be in danger. But no one ever addresses or acknowledges this. Emilia is not important enough for fear. Convenient when she is needed, shelved when she is not, the precariousness of her situation—a situation Will brings her into with a well-written sonnet—is never given serious consideration by anyone.

Nor is Apelina’s, although she is confronted with the danger of her choices almost daily. Her situation, in many ways, mimics Emilia’s: they’re both owned, although by different classes of people. Emilia is a nobleman’s mistress, Apelina a peasant sex worker. Apelina has a nearby brother to consider while Emilia is separated from apparently all she’s ever known (but never seems bothered by that fact). However, the most important difference between these two women is that Apelina is given no identity within the narrative.

From her first appearance in “The Play’s the Thing” to her death in “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” Apelina has no personal identity or discernible history apart from “motherless whore,” “dirt-some punk,” and Presto’s sister. Her name is never even mentioned in the show; it only ever appears in the ending credits, a brief half-second flash near the end of the cast list. Without an identity, Apelina occupies the lowest space for women in Will: a complete and total object, to be used, cast aside, and then briefly mourned, if she’s lucky.

She is somewhat “lucky,” in that regard. Her brother Presto is clearly devoted to her, or at least to the idea of her being free. He takes up thieving to pay for her freedom and tortures himself with every day she suffers under Doll’s thumb. Apelina shares that love, and fully verbalizes it when Doll tries to sell Presto to Topcliffe. She helps him escape and undergoes torture to keep him safe. When Presto is caught and agrees to prostitution, she tries to make it as easy as she can for him, giving him alcohol to ease the pain and offering him a compartmentalization technique that has always helped her.

None of this, though, is for her.

Everything Apelina does is as Presto’s sister; everything she does, and says, and is, is for Presto’s growth. Presto needs to suffer, needs to steal from the Theatre and then feel the intense grief and pain to move him into position for Will’s final endgame. But unlike Alice’s case, it is a private grief. No one apart from Presto and Will ever know about Apelina and her role, and even they speak of it only in passing.

In a way, it makes sense that the women in this period drama are so suppressed. Will focuses on the downside of pursuing dreams: the things lost when dreams become obsessions and are followed without any sort of consideration for the lives affected. Yet, Will never took the opportunity to explore the women’s dreams. Alice could have been shown learning that she would never inherit the Theatre and then working to change that reality. Anne could have turned her attention to a different destiny than the happy, stable marriage she once desired. Emilia could have looked for ways to restore her status, or to bring unmentioned family to her side. We could have seen Apelina dreaming of a life of freedom, a home for herself and her brother.

But Will doesn’t care about women’s dreams and women’s destinies; there are dozens of women in Will, named and unnamed alike, and none of them exceed Alice’s crucial instrumentality or Apelina’s limited use. Even Queen Elizabeth I is only referenced, never seen. Will’s world is a man’s world, and male destinies, desires, and hopes are the only ones that matter. Women—their needs, their livelihood, their lives, their bodies—are considered only so far as they work to further or hinder men’s destinies. They are tools, sharpened for use and discarded when no longer needed.

Instead of characters, they are caricatures.


Images courtesy of TNT Productions

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