A year ago this week, Tyrion Lannister gave his now-famous speech, Bran became Bran the Broken and the king of Westeros, Jon Snow ventured north, and Game of Thrones came to an end. In honor of the conclusion of the last piece of monoculture, The Ringer will spend all week looking back on Thrones—focusing not just on its final season, but celebrating its entire eight-season run, reminiscing about its host of memorable characters, and pondering where some of them may be one year later.
They did Brienne dirty. They, meaning her insincere early suitors on the island of Tarth. The boors who dubbed her “Brienne the Beauty.” The Smoke Monster, which kills her beloved Renly Baratheon. Her Kingsguard buddies who do not buy the Smoke Monster thing and try to kill her. (She kills them.) Stannis, who commanded the Smoke Monster. (She kills him later.) Walder Frey and the Lannisters, who kill her beloved Catelyn Stark. (Other people kill them.) The Boltons, and Locke especially. The bear. Cersei. The Hound. (She beats the crap out of him.) Littlefinger. The Boltons again. (She kills a few of them.) Various wights; innumerable misogynists. Anyone who says any variation of Holy shit, it’s a woman when she appears on screen, which is most people. Climactically (heh), Jaime Lannister.
Finally, and most severely, she was done dirty by your old pals David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, Game of Thrones cocreators and final-season-ruiners. Brienne’s Season 8 arc is maddening. Not quite Let’s make Bran king because he sucks or There’s a Starbucks cup on the table maddening, but nevertheless. When those two clowns did a stupid victory-lap cameo in a recent Westworld episode, true justice would’ve entailed our favorite knight popping by as well to take them offline, if you know what I mean.
But she prevailed. She thrived. In all likelihood, she’s still thriving. The vast majority of her adversaries that she didn’t already kill now wallow far beneath her—in rank, in honor, in public esteem. (Benioff and Weiss especially.) She was knighted, as you might recall, in what remains (as you might agree) the only good scene in Season 8. Then a bunch of stupid crap happened and she got promoted again. Kindly refer to her now as Ser Brienne of Tarth, Lord Commander of the Kingsguard. She proudly sits on the small council and for sure is more qualified to do so, in both ethical and experiential terms, than fucking Bronn, or for that matter Sam or Davos. No offense. I think we can all agree, at least, that “I think we can all agree that ships take precedence over brothels” is a very Brienne line to go out on.
Good for Westeros. Good for her. She is hardened by innumerable battles, and betrayals, and cheeseball plot contrivances. She is not cynical, exactly, but bluntly pragmatic in a manner all the more effective for how guileless and overly credulous she used to be. She lost her innocence but won in pretty much every other respect. Given that even King Bran is as bummed out about the idea of King Bran as we are, one might further argue that in the end few Thrones characters got more of what they wanted.
What she didn’t get, of course, is Jaime, but as it turns out, Jaime was a ponce, and a year later, doubtless she’s come to see him as a flaming arrow dodged. Fantastic. Probably she’s not even angry anymore. And if it pleases the lady, I will still be angry enough for the both of us.
It is frankly amazing that she survived at all. When we first meet Brienne, as played by the English actress and fashion-magazine starlet Gwendoline Christie, she is arguably the most noble, the most moral, the most honorable, the most temperamentally rigid Game of Thrones character, which, as the show never tired of reminding us, is a death sentence. She takes so many oaths—and is so maddeningly insistent on keeping them—that she names her fucking sword Oathkeeper. We’re talking Ned Stark levels of Lawful Good here, which, yikes. In Westeros, as Grand Maester Dark Helmet once put it, “Evil will always triumph, because good is dumb.”
You tell her that, though. Brienne debuts in Season 2, Episode 3, auditioning for doomed Iron Throne candidate Renly Baratheon by engaging in a brutish and almost drunken-feeling brawl with Ser Loras Tyrell—a renowned fighter, we are told. But lo, this mysterious, hulking, badass figure in clunky armor beats the crap out of him, and then gets one of those classic action-movie moments (shout-out Blade 2, or for that matter Metroid) where the mysterious badass takes off his helmet and holy shit, it’s a woman.
“You fought bravely today, Lady Brienne,” Catelyn Stark observes, and Brienne’s response is wooden to the point of robotic: “I fought for my king. Soon I’ll fight for him on the battlefield. Die for him if I must.” And then, her thesis statement: “And, if it please you, Brienne’s enough. I’m no lady.” Yeah. OK. Got it.
For the rest of Thrones’ reign, we will watch Brienne evolve both as a badass oath-keeping warrior (her various one-on-one battles double as legit character development) and as, yes, a woman, which is tough to do on a show with some serious women problems. Season 8’s misbegotten endgame inarguably peaks with her being knighted—a sublime communal moment of hard-earned tenderness in a comically tenderness-averse environment—and arguably sucks the hardest when the chump who knighted her soon thereafter leaves her sobbing in the street, lovelorn and broken and utterly unlike herself. The Sad Woman Left Behind is an action-movie cliché, too, and fathoms beneath her. That’s more like it, Game of Thrones; that’s what you get for rooting for anything, or anyone.
The show, of course, trained its characters and its viewers alike to expect the worst and prepare for the somehow even worse. Season 2 Brienne’s very intense scream-and-sob reaction to Renly getting housed by the Smoke Monster is her introduction to the idea that Thrones is anarchic and vicious and cruel, and gets crueler the more virtuous (or more benign) you imagine yourself to be. “There’s no safety, you dumb bitch,” the Hound informs her in the Season 4 finale, shortly before their extra-brutal brawl to determine who is better suited to protecting Arya Stark. “If you don’t know that by now, you’re the wrong one to watch over her.” But she knows it. And she proceeds to beat the crap out of him.
Early Brienne is enormously frustrating, though, what with all the declaring of solemn oaths to serve and protect various people who either die horribly (Renly, Catelyn) or turn out to be extremely hard to protect (Arya, Sansa). She compresses an awful lot of L’s into an awfully short amount of time, such that her valor starts to make her look ridiculous. “So many vows,” Jaime tells her shortly after they meet, amid countless early crude remarks about her appearance. “They make you swear and swear.”
Her initial response to his abuse is Pinterest-board ardor, satisfying but simplistic: “All my life men like you have sneered at me. And all my life I’ve been knocking men like you into the dust.”
But as their relationship deepens as the seasons roll past, she gets much stronger, in a Strong Female Character sense, as she gets just a little more skeptical. “All I ever wanted was to fight for a lord I believed in,’’ she tells her buddy Podrick much later. “Now all the good lords are dead, and the rest are monsters.’’
The superficial gloss on the series finale is that Ser Brienne of Tarth, Lord Commander of the Kingsguard—the full title bears repeating, or in any event is fun to type—is now primed to be if not a lord exactly, then an authority figure worth believing in. The ultra-rare commander (of anything or anyone) that opposes the monsters as opposed to becoming one. The change she wants to see in the world. Who better to protect the realm and oversee the rebuilding (and ideally wildfire-proofing) of King’s Landing? Who better to aid in the reshuffling and bolstering of alliances between various Houses you’ve already forgotten about (innumerable) or just wish you had (Dorne)? Who better to ensure friendly relations with the Starks, most of whom she’s either sparred with or valiantly rescued? She knows, better than anyone, the value of a well-timed and well-spoken oath. She also knows, as certainly as she knows anything, how fragile those oaths can be.
It’s Jaime, of course, who teaches her the most about the terrible slipperiness of oaths, and monsters, and goodness, and belief. When they meet, he is the Starks’ prisoner, but Catelyn lets him go and sends him back to King’s Landing under Brienne’s care, because evil will always triumph, etc., etc., etc. The crude Brienne-Jaime sword fight on the bridge in Season 3, just before Locke and the Boltons (and the bear) arrive, is a marker of how they’ve already both hardened and softened each other.
That process is steeped in both manliness and womanliness: “You have a taste, one taste of the real world, where people have important things taken from them, and you whine and cry and quit,” she spits at him as he sulks, post-hand-amputation. “You sound like a bloody woman.” And it’s an idea further reinforced in both the bath scene (where even their nudity is weaponized) and the bear scene (which features one of the most startling and violently beautiful images in the whole series).
Some time apart from Jaime, soon thereafter, does Brienne good. She gets to kill Stannis, for one thing, and not just because his first response to her arrival is “Bolton has women fighting for him!” She allows him some last words, and he goes with “Go on, do your duty,” which is poignant in its way: Stannis at least understands the notion of duty, though he also, by immediately dying, illustrates that pretty much everyone who even comprehends the notion of duty is condemned to death, possibly by Brienne’s own dutiful hand.
It’s complicated. But I am genuinely moved, still, by the scene where she swoops in to rescue Sansa from some Boltons (“It’s a bloody woman!”) and then declares yet another fucking oath to protect her. Except this time Sansa, too, takes that declaration seriously, and recites her own lines of that oath with a little prompting from Podrick as to the exact wording. (“Meat and mead at my table” and so forth.) Oof, I just teared up again. Brienne is rubbing off on people as surely as they’re rubbing off on her; she is yielding to the chaos without sacrificing her innate moral order.
Brienne’s last major fight-as-character-bonding-moment is with Arya, sparring at Winterfell, where two of the show’s longest-suffering Strong Female Characters get to cut loose for two minutes or so. The cameramen, likewise, have some fun with their height difference.
All of Tormund’s awkward flirtations with “The Big Woman” are fun, too, albeit a bit fan service-y. But then it’s time for Season 8’s increasingly clunky endgame, with Arya improbably leaping out of the darkness to save the day while Brienne and Jaime lurch from (emotional) ecstasy to (narrative) agony. As with the Sansa oath scene, the knighting of Brienne on the eve of the Battle of Winterfell is still quite moving, a satisfyingly odd cross-section of characters literally applauding her as another torrent of formal oath-type verbiage is unleashed and she gets what she’s always dreamed of—and responds with one of the purest and goofiest smiles in the whole series.
It certainly helps, amid all of this, that Gwendoline Christie IRL has a gargantuan, braying laugh that undercuts the ultra-seriousness of all of this. And she doubtless needed that sense of humor to survive her last few major scenes with Jaime, from the long-inevitable sex scene (still rigid and formal, born of her frustration that he can’t untie his own shirt) from his just as inevitable abandonment of her. “Stay here,” she sobs. “Stay with me. Please. Stay.” But Jaime is committed to Cersei, and the show is committed to his commitment. “She’s hateful,” he intones, “and so am I.”
Oh, shut your meadhole. Trolled. At that point, if you were still letting Game of Thrones shock and dismay you, then you’re as naive as a young, idealistic Brienne ever was. But likely, by that point, you’d made your peace with the towering shortcomings of Season 8 and learned to live with disappointment. Just like her. She is primed to thrive in the post-show Seven Kingdoms, with fucking Bran on the throne, and order and righteousness restored, and a wealth of prequel ideas in play but nearly all of them reaching back into the illustrious, lawless past. The future, by contrast, is a ludicrous Morning in Westeros fantasy, and after 60-plus hours of stylized hardness it’s also somewhat of an insult. Certainly she has earned a measure of peace and tranquility, even if the show has not. A false but nonetheless comforting sense of offscreen Happily Ever After is perfect for her, in a Lawless Good sense. But it’s also unworthy of her.