About a month ago, a friend asked me what I thought of Game of Thrones. I am new to the show, having only watched the first three seasons in quick succession late this winter and before hopping on the bandwagon to watch season four live, and perhaps he wanted my fresh perspective.
Game of Thrones was easy enough to consume—the show chews through plot at an alarming rate and gets a viewer so hooked on desensitized sex and violence that if there is ever, by some miracle, a stretch of time without either, one starts to become a little antsy.
Its speed and breadth put Game of Thrones in danger of becoming the kind of show that disappears from your mind the moment the binge ends like, say, House of Cards or Scandal. But what ultimately stops that drive by phenomenon from happening is Game of Thrones’ insistence on breaking the rules. Just when you think you’re cruising through the show at a nice pace, it delivers a punch to the gut or crossbow to the chest and kills someone that you thought was completely off limits.
So I admitted that to this friend (a lover of Game of Thrones and the Mother of Dragons): it defies convention and does what other shows are not willing to do. Great. Awesome. Do you want a prize? Also, Peter Dinklage is pretty good.
Far more important is something that is still distressingly rare on television—especially shows that have captured the elusive 18-34 male demographic—which is that Game of Thrones is actually interested in telling the stories of many different women. A vicious queen, a delicate lady, her little sister who wishes she was a boy, a female warrior, a scorn wildling, and a mother of dragons who has gone through such a transformation in four seasons that it gives you whiplash to think about it. None are purely good or purely evil; none have only one story to tell.
So a month ago, I would have told you that I liked Game of Thrones for its storytelling and complex female characters. But that, I’m afraid, is before I got into Orange is the New Black.
If Game of Thrones is bolstered by its willingness to highlight complex women, OITNB is completely centered on the concept. Set in a women’s prison, OITNB doesn’t just pass the Bechdel test, the show harpoons it and then dances on its grave. Conversations between women is all the show has, and they range from race to education to religion to power dynamics to identity. The show may be set in a distinctly confined space, but there is no topic the writing can’t reach.
And if we’re talking about things that OITNB has shattered, how about my illusion that Game of Thrones had a cast of diverse women? When I list all of them out like that, from delicate lady to female warrior, it seems kind of diverse, right? But when you set them next to the different sexualities, gender identities, colors, nationalities, ages, sizes, and religions of the women of Litchfield, the cast of Game of Thrones starts to look suspiciously like a long line of pretty, privileged white girls.
I finished season one of OITNB the day that season two dropped on Netflix, so there was no missed beat in my viewing. There was such a clear difference, though, between the two seasons when it came to Piper Chapman, and how she went from the story’s focus and antihero to just another player in the most brilliant and complicated ensemble on television (or, you know, streaming video). The show recognized the potential it had beneath its pretty, blond girl, and the writers didn’t hesitant to move her into the background to tell the stories of women like Rosie, Suzanne, Sophia, Taystee, Poussey, and Gloria.
But for the sake of comparison, let’s stick with our pretty, blond girls. If there is a lead in OITNB, it’s Piper, and if there’s a lead (or hero) in Game of Thrones, the argument can be made that it’s Daenerys Targaryen.
Each character has had an intense arc since the beginning of the show—we met Dany as a timid, young teenager that her brother was selling into marriage, and Piper was a horrified, naïve WASP entering a women’s prison having actually studied for it. Now, Dany is a woman in command of an army, multiple cities, dragons, and her own sexuality. Piper has dead eyes, beat an enemy to a pulp, and, in her own words, is “a lone wolf, and a vicious one—don’t make me rip your throat out with my teeth.”
So how do these two shows treat their lead blondes? Dany is rarely painted in a negative light. Her one bad moment this season was ordering the death of hundreds of men who had already been responsible for the death of hundreds of children—merciless, definitely, but not exactly a fatal flaw that makes you question your loyalty to the character. She’s developed a bit of a savior complex, and plenty of issues were taken with the finale of season three, in which the very pale, very blond girl was lifted onto the shoulders of hundreds of brown people to a majestic soundtrack. Game of Thrones is clear: this girl is a hero in a show full of selfish people.
Piper, on the other hand, is regularly the butt of her show’s joke. She’s selfish, narcissistic, and regularly radiates a lack of self-awareness. Piper can make anyone else’s problem (which is almost always so much worse than her own) about her. In fact, the more I reflect on Piper, the more she reminds me of so many of the male antiheroes that we have been treated to in the last decade of television. Don Draper, Walter White, Tony Soprano—their shows center on them, but they never valorize them or their questionable behavior.
Piper, like all of them women in Litchfield, is morally complicated and heartbreakingly misunderstood. But what makes her such a unique character is the fact that the show is willing to judge her in all of her WASPishness. As a privileged, white woman, it is easy for me to look at Piper and say, “That girl didn’t do anything wrong other than carry one bag of money ten years ago because her heart had her priorities messed up. She doesn’t belong in prison like other people do.”
But OITNB will not let you think that. It does not let the viewer or Piper off the hook and it does not make things easy. Just as Piper is constantly being forced to face that maybe she’s not as good of a person as she thought she was (and she’s not), the viewer is constantly being forced to evaluate why we think what we think and how wrong we may be about other people. OITNB, like prison, shoves you uncomfortably close to other people that you wouldn’t otherwise be around and asks you to take a hard look at their stories.
Women, like all people, are fluid, complex, conflicting. No show that I’ve ever seen demonstrates that as well as Orange is the New Black. When you put it side by side with Game of Thrones, you get two shows with plenty of women, plenty of nudity, and plenty of violence, but it seems to me like there’s little comparison.