Warning: This post contains spoilers for the sixth season of Game of Thrones.
This season of Game of Thrones has been called the year of the women by the show’s creators and by critics. And to a certain extent, that is true: The final episode of season six gave us several triumphant moments for female characters, from little Lyanna Mormont’s inspiring speech to Cersei’s terrifying ascent to the Iron Throne.
But to focus solely on the ascent of women is to miss the bigger picture: This season of Thrones, indeed the entire show, has been about the rise of the underestimated—both male and female. By the end of the season six finale, all the men who rightly inherited their titles within the aristocratic system have been killed or committed suicide. Those who never should have even tasted power are in control—women, bastards, dwarves. Though the High Sparrow is dead, a version of his message lives on: The once-meek shall inherit the earth.
Yes, this includes the rise of women who for six seasons were ignored and abused because of their sex. People laughed at Arya for wanting to learn how to wield a sword, and now she’s an assassin. Dany was once sold away as a war bride, and now she’s the one calling the shots about everything from her marital status to what cities her dragons should set aflame. Sansa, who once dreamed of being a princess, dismissed the man who promised her just that.
Even Cersei, our new baddie, fits the narrative: When Cersei beseeched Tywin to utilize her skills, he said all she could do was marry Loras and have babies. The High Sparrow also thought that he had dealt Cersei a fatal blow by parading her through the streets naked. Now Tywin, Loras and the High Sparrow are all dead, and Cersei sits on the Iron Throne.
But also consider the other triumphant moments from the episode. Jon, a “bastard” and once an outcast from the Stark family, becomes King of the North. Sam, who was shunned by his father for being a weakling, is fulfilling his childhood dream of becoming a Maester. Despite his disability, Bran is the new Three-Eyed Raven and the most powerful character on the show. And, perhaps most poignantly, the ever-mocked and underestimated Tyrion has not only risen to a position of power as Hand to the Queen, but also found a place where he is respected. (After all, Dany takes his advice and breaks up with Daario.)
None of these characters—Arya, Dany, Sansa, Cersei, Jon, Sam, Bran or Tyrion—were meant to have any power in the traditional societal structure. They either lacked the title, the strength or the male anatomy to rule.
And each character was brought very low before his or her triumphal moment, whether that be a rape or a maiming or literally being killed and resurrected. But now that they have risen, they’re proving they might be more benevolent leaders because of their own experiences. Dany sums it up nicely in the penultimate episode of the season: “Our fathers were evil men. They left the world worse than they found it. We’re going to leave it better than we found it.”
This trajectory from subjugated to strong can also be found in other parts of the show. Dany’s army is made up of freed slaves, Jon’s of Wildlings. Varys, once the victim of a sorcerer, has found a way to work his own magic with the power of his words. Lady Marmont proves herself to be the bravest leader of the North despite her age and stature. Even a character we didn’t see this season—poor Gendry, who’s still rowing away on that boat—could follow the same path, from bastard to king.
It’ll be interesting, then, to see whom among these characters remembers the lessons of their earlier years now that they are in control. Will they become haughty and corrupt? Tyrion has been careful to remind Dany several times that her father let his power go to his head. That could be sage advice or foreshadowing.
Thrones has long preached nihilism: Everything bad that can happen, will happen. But it’s what you make of those bad experiences, it seems, that matters. If Thrones has a new, more optimistic message, it’s the power of humility.