It may be hard to remember now, but there once was a time when Daenerys was the most exciting character on Game of Thrones. Played by Emilia Clarke, the exiled royal best embodied the HBO drama's paradoxical appeal: its mix of historical authenticity and rousing fantasy. Reduced to currency by her own brother Viserys (Harry Lloyd), who trades her to Khal Drogo (Jason Momoa) for the promise of a Dothraki army, Daenerys was first introduced to us as the glue that bonds one man to another. That social role — as insurance on the best days, a hostage on the worst — has been the lot of highborn women for millennia, and it's one the series has repeatedly exposed as traumatically isolating and dehumanizing. Daenerys, for her part, is raped on her wedding night by her husband, with whom she cannot initially communicate verbally. But by the end of Thrones' first season, Daenerys manages to maneuver her way into dignity, power, and reverence.
As the new abolitionist conqueror of Meereen, the Mother of Dragons has come a long way — and she's not the only one. When the series returns for its fifth season on Sunday, April 12, it will bring back not just the usual female outliers — Daenerys, tomboyish Arya (Maisie Williams), and burly Brienne (Gwendoline Christie), the rare knight who has both a breastplate and breasts — but a transformed Westeros where scheming, dueling, warring women are the norm. If the series once seemed radical (if occasionally hard to sit through) for laying bare the harsh realities of princessdom, it now feels invigoratingly subversive for its fantasies of female authority and violence.
Last season ended with the murder of Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance), the de facto ruler of the Seven Kingdoms as the Hand to boy-king Tommen (Dean-Charles Chapman). As the fifth season gets under way, the Westerosi clans begin plotting the dethroning of the Lannisters from the seats of power at King's Landing. But within the walls of the royal castle are two more attempted coups: those of Queen Mother Cersei (Lena Headey) — who claims with false modesty that she wouldn't dare take her deceased father's place as the Hand on account of her gender, but refuses to name a new chief adviser — and of Queen Margaery (Natalie Dormer) — who finds it easy to win young Tommen's affection, yet difficult to manipulate him into action, especially when her mother-in-law Cersei opposes her at every turn.
Cersei isn't a naturally likable character — she's nowhere near as clever as she thinks she is, and she's petty and arbitrarily vindictive to boot — but she's commanded increasing respect and sympathy over the course of Thrones. As part of her quasi-redemption tour, the fifth season begins with a flashback to her childhood, when she was a curious and adventurous girl anxious about being given away in marriage to a stranger — a fear that goes a long way in explaining her seemingly irrational attachments to those closest to her: her twin brother (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and her deceased mother, for whose death she blames her baby brother Tyrion (Peter Dinklage).
"You'll be queen," young Cersei is told by a clairvoyant. "For a time." It's hard to root for Cersei's success, given what a terrible sovereign she'd make. When she raises a small army of religious fanatics in the first few episodes of the new season, all they manage to do is sow organized chaos around town.
The genius of Thrones is that it makes it difficult to root against someone so emotionally damaged, for no one deserves a fate as awful as the one that seems to lie in store for her. And whoever ends up the winner in Cersei and Margaery's war for Tommen's heart, there's hope that female ambition will be rewarded.
But, of course, women have been fighting with one another to get into men's good graces since the beginning of the patriarchy. While the ladies in the king's court wield soft power, other royal females fight with swords. Arya finally embarks on her shapeshifting-assassin training with the Braavosi Jaqen H'ghar (Tom Wlaschiha), in which she's confronted by a doppelgänger of sorts — another girl-warrior to whom she again plays the little sibling. (I'd be perfectly happy if the series ended with the reunion of the two Stark sisters.) Brienne continues to pledge her unwanted protection to the former Winterfell daughters, driving swords into the necks of her enemies while telling sad tales of being the gawky girl at the dance to her new squire, Pod (Daniel Portman). If the two-person dialogues that make up most of Thrones' scenes aren't already a staple in acting classes, at least Brienne's story should be.
Down in Dorne — which, along with Braavos, are the new additions to the show's map — Oberyn's combat-trained daughters (Jessica Henwick, Rosabell Laurenti Sellers, and Oscar nominee Keisha Castle-Hughes) seek vengeance for their father's gruesome death. Even once-ditzy Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) resolves to avenge the murdered members of her now-decimated family.
None of this is to imply that Thrones has now become a pocket of feminist utopia on TV. A visual joke in the third episode that serves as meta-commentary on Daenerys's popularity as a fanboy object of desire turns out more icky than funny. And, of course, the series is as much a tit parade as ever, creating an uncomfortable virgin-and-whore — or maybe fighter-and-prostitute — dichotomy that divides the female characters into sympathetic women and random pairs of breasts (and, behind the scenes, into protected cast members and exploitable extras).
And, of course, the showrunning team of David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have yet to prove that they learned something from the debacle of Cersei's "eventually consensual rape" by her brother last year. That Game of Thrones remains one of TV's best series for female characters even after that fiasco is a testament to the bravely ambitious and wondrously audacious girls and women author George R. R. Martin, Benioff and Weiss, and the actresses have created.
As the show loves to say, all men must die. I just want to see all women (have the chance to) strive.
Games of Thrones Season 5 premieres Sunday, April 12 on HBO.
Inkoo Kang is the TV Critic for the Village Voice. She publishes widely on film and television and tweets at @thinkovision.