Game Of Thrones isn’t what it used to be.

Ever since a certain character—with well-conditioned hair and an infamous lack of knowledge—came back to life, the show has struggled with narrative bloat and an overall inevitability. Gone are the gloriously unpredictable days when fans cursed author George R.R. Martin, days when a beloved swashbuckler would find his devilishly handsome head squelched open like an unsightly egg, making the world gasp. This is because the show has now overtaken the perpetually-in-progress novels it is based on and is treading a more conventional path to the final scrimmage. Also, since the endgame is near, the usual suspects can’t be killed off as whimsically, just to mess with the audience, as Martin likes.

The show started feeling long in the tooth two seasons ago, with the last year proving to be an utter drag. Despite a striking battle sequence and a cinematic finale with killer music, this was a season where a dashing hero sat around telling jokes and then explaining them.

Ah, but the show has rediscovered its mojo. At the time of writing this, I have watched five of the seven episodes we will get to see this year, and the volume knob has decidedly been turned up. Things are now genuinely captivating, and while this piece tries not to spoil anything, I must specifically applaud the fourth episode. It may well go down as one of the best ever, since it presents a massive battle with neither side good or bad, and all warriors humanized. We can, and do, choose a side, but we feel for protagonists on either end because of how well we’ve come to know them over the last six years. War cinema, in stark contrast, almost always starts by taking sides. Our allegiance is meant to lie with the protagonists while their enemy is painted as a villain. This episode of television, therefore, compelling us to have a stake in both flags, is something rather special.

Diana Rigg as Emma Peel in the TV series ‘The Avengers’ (1965-68).
Diana Rigg as Emma Peel in the TV series ‘The Avengers’ (1965-68).

Actual action sequences, however, have never been the mainstay of the intrigue-and-incest tapestry woven by Martin and HBO creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. This is a show that runs deeper and forces the viewer to confront the greyness in its characters. One of the show’s longest-running criticisms has been its visible misogyny, the unhealthy way female characters find themselves assaulted and abused and raped and paraded naked. The primary reason this seventh season feels so tantalizing, so rejuvenated, is because, as the pieces fall into place, the contenders toying with their own outsized versions of the Game Of Thrones board-game are all women.

Khaleesi, the mother of dragons, after years of being mansplained to and forced to show pyrotechnic displays to stay in power, is now firmly in charge, stubbornly ordering the show’s leading man to bend his knee. Cersei Lannister, who sits on the current throne and has the biggest board of all, is weaving her strategic web with Machiavellian expertise. Young Arya Stark, fickle of face and shape, appears to be the most dangerous fighter in the seven kingdoms. And, because it can’t be a Game Of Thrones piece without some speculation, I hereby wager that Sansa Stark, who has seen every aspect of what used to be the world of men and moulded herself accordingly, will be the eventual queen of the seven kingdoms—if, that is, there is a throne left at the end of it all.

The men on the show, meanwhile, are frowning, swallowing orders, and frequently caught with their pants down—literally and figuratively. They squirm in discomfort at being told what to do, and bare their bodies more than the girls do. Even if this is a transparent reaction by the show’s creators to the loudest criticism, it is a welcome and well-executed change. Perhaps we can now dare to look forward to a Game Of Thrones where black people have interesting, non-enslaved roles. For now, however, the very fact that we are getting to see women in charge—after seasons and seasons of abuse—is in itself thrilling enough to change the face of the show.

Finally, I must doff my hat to the grandest heroine of them all. Dame Diana Rigg grew up in Bikaner, learnt Hindi at school (and still uses it when ordering Indian food), and was an Avenger. Before Marvel Comics used the term to throw together its heroes, there was a classic British television show called The Avengers about a sexy and futuristic spy duo, and nobody—repeat, nobody—was as cool as Rigg’s Emma Peel. Uma Thurman tried her best in a 1990s remake, but the real Peel is too much to match. Look up an old rerun on YouTube and marvel at Rigg as a bodacious badass, and then watch the way she absolutely owns every Game Of Thrones scene as the eternally wise Lady Olenna Tyrell. Tyrell is one of the finest, most canny characters the show has had and—I suspect—has already given us the best lines we’re likely to hear all year. She is the one who gets to say it best and always, always has the last word.

No, Game Of Thrones isn’t what it used to be. Thank you, ladies.

Stream of Stories is a weekly column on what to watch online.

He tweets at @rajasen

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