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Dead Tree Alert: Veep, Women in Power and Game of Thrones’ Clash of Queens

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Lena Headey as Cersei.

In the current print edition of TIME magazine, my new column (subscription required) is about how–while women candidates may not be as prominent in 2012 as in 2008–TV has become chock-full of women exercising political power. I spend a lot of the column on HBO’s upcoming Veep, which I don’t love as much as Armando Iannucci’s predecessor The Thick of it (I’ll post more about that before its April 22 premiere) but has interesting things to say about women in politics after the year of Clinton and Palin. There’s more, about the political clout of women in shows as disparate as the also-upcoming Scandal, The Good Wife and Parks and Recreation.

Because of space constraints, I didn’t get a chance to delve too deeply into one of the aspects of the subject that interests me a lot right now: HBO’s Game of Thrones (returning Sunday), and the way that season 2, based on the novel A Clash of Kings, is increasingly becoming a clash of queens.

If you’ve read the George R. R. Martin books that the series is based on, this won’t surprise you, as it’s a continuing arc of the saga. (But keep the surprises for everyone else—in other words, no talking about future plot points in the comments, please.) Along with the considerable praise for the show, there’s been a lot of talk about, and criticism of, the way the first season depicted women. Part of that stemmed from conscious choices of the show’s adapters, which involved a lot of sex and nudity—some for purposes of story and character, some seemingly to keep the audience’s interest during talky scenes. (What Myles McNutt dubbed “sexposition.”)

But part of this was also the result of conscious choices made by Martin to be straightforward about the way a medieval society treated and perceived women. Martin’s saga is built on unsentimental honesty: thus the first season was largely about demolishing fairy-tale ideas that honor and honesty conquer all, as Ned Stark could speak to, if he could speak. Likewise, he is clear that he’s depicting societies that, as in the medieval world, largely subjugate women, use rape as a tool of war and operate whorehouses that are not in the least empowering. It’s not pretty, nor are we meant to like it.

Yet much of the power of his story is drawn from the exceptions to the patriarchal rule. Season one, for instance, was so stunning in its Mother-of-Dragons final scene because the entire season was structured as the journey of Dany from chattel bride to charismatic khalessi. And season 2—which begins magnificently and which I’ll be reviewing weekly here—expands its cast of women taking power and learning to use it, even while being frank about the limits their societies place on them.

We still have Dany and her dragon fledglings, though her story isn’t too prominent in the first four episodes I’ve seen. (This is actually a good sign, suggesting the producers have not unnecessarily beefed up her story in a too-short 10-episode season.) There’s also Cersei, now ensconced as Queen Regent behind her sadistic son Joffrey. She’s a fascinating villainness, understandable if not excusable. Like her dwarf brother Tyrion, she’s the capable child of a proud-noble father who discounts her achievement because of a handicap—in her case, being a daughter, not a son. As the season begins, she learns that her father, Tywin—with favorite son Jaime still a POW—has sent Tyrion to babysit Joffrey (and thus also Cersei) as Hand of the King in his stead. Cersei still exercises power, and brutally: there’s a great scene in which the cunning adviser Littlefinger tries to persuade her that knowledge is power, and she counters, “power is power.” As she’s been brought up, subtlety gets you no credit.

Beyond these two queens—as a war rages with several kings also claiming legitimacy in Westeros—Ned Stark’s widow Catelyn is now serving as emissary and negotiator for her son Robb, who’s fighting in the field. But there are also several new female players. In the Iron Islands, Yara (Asha in the books) complicates the homecoming of her brother, Stark hostage/ally Theon, by proving herself a favored heir of their warrior-king father. At the court of Renly Baratheon—brother of poisoned murdered-by-boar King Robert, and now Joffrey’s sworn enemy—a new champion steps forward, the towering female knight Brienne. (Renly also has a new queen, Margaery, who is far from the doe-eyed naif she first appears.) And most intriguingly, Robert’s other brother Stannis, pursuing his own royal claim, is under the Rasputin-like sway of religious mystic Melisandre, who preaches a monotheistic faith of fire, challenging the very gods of Westeros itself. (All this is in addition to several well-drawn female supporting characters from season one, like Arya Stark and two women—wildling Osha and Tyrion’s consort Shae—who come more strongly to life in the series than the book, perhaps in part because of excellent casting.)

Game of Thrones doesn’t just present them all as powerful women who are getting it done just like the men do; their power and actions are informed, and sometimes restricted, by the way their society sees them as women. This is part of what makes this series a mature study of power and how it’s used, not just mythology-intense thriller (which it also is). Even as the series expands, there’s still a simple premise to Game of Thrones: you win or you die. But two sexes can play at that game.