Tormund and Brienne Are a Rare 'Game of Thrones' Bright Spot
What began as a silly reaction shot is now HBO's exciting experimentation in gender performance.
Game of Thrones returned for Season 7 this week in a maelstrom of fire, blood, and Ed Sheeran’s singing voice. The premiere satisfied fans all over the world by finally bringing Dany to Westeros and letting Arya cull the Freys with righteous brutality. The episode also nodded momentarily at everyone’s favorite couple-to-be, the wildling Tormund Giantsbane and Brienne of Tarth.
A reminder: showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss didn’t intend for Tormund to fall in love with Brienne, and they included only a single phrase in the script regarding their relationship. The fact that they didn’t consider Brienne as a person who could inspire sexual desire speaks volumes, and the fact that the actors in the scene found their chemistry naturally makes the relationship all the more exciting.
A Brief History of Tormund Lusting After Brienne
“[Tormund] stares at Brienne,” Benioff and Weiss’s script read, “because he’s never seen a woman like that before.” What was meant to be read on actor Kristofer Hivju’s face as pure surprise accidentally read as earth-shattering desire, and the showrunners liked it so much that they just ran with it.
Apparently pleased by the showrunners’ reactions, Hivju added a couple more thirsty facial expressions when his character found himself near Brienne. Tormund stared longingly at her while eating a chicken leg, and she avoided his gaze. As they both prepared to leave Castle Black, he stared down the line of soldiers at her with a little boyish grin. The build-up in excitement among fans happened quickly, though the characters have yet to exchange any dialogue.
Now, as both characters survived Season 6, we’re slated to enjoy more scripted looks between them. In the Season 7 premiere, Tormund approaches Brienne while she’s training Podrick in combat, and the very sight of Tormund’s googly-eyed admiration is enough to distract Brienne for a moment. Podrick sees his opening, lands a blow, and Brienne is embarrassed enough to really smack Podrick hard.
The whole spectacle is thrilling to Tormund, who tells Podrick he’s a lucky guy. The implication suggestion there, of course, is that Tormund wants any kind of physical contact with Brienne, especially if it involves her besting him in a fight.
What their teased coupledom says about gender on television.
Tormund’s desire for Brienne is radical, not only because she presents masculine-of-center on HBO, a network whose sexual imagery has historically catered to the lowest common denominator male viewer, but also because Tormund isn’t threatened by her non-traditional gender performance. It should be said that Gwendoline Christie presents far more traditionally feminine than her character, but within the world of the show, Brienne looks and acts differently from any other woman in Westeros.
Tormund, who is almost a Northern-Westerosi answer to Khal Drogo’s aesthetic, seems thrilled by the prospect of a physical match in Brienne, someone whose skills and values clearly mirror his own. It should be noted that in Wildlings culture, unlike the Dothraki, their women act as equals (think Ygritte and Brienne), whereas the Dothraki see women as property, lesser in status than their beloved horses. It was a huge breach of canon when HBO had Khal Drogo brutally rape his new wife, Dany, because their first sexual encounter in Martin’s novels had eroticized consent in a lovely way. According to Benioff and Weiss’s writing, Dany “earned” Drogo’s respect after he assaulted her; in the novels, she simply had it upon meeting him.
The power dynamic at play between Brienne and Tormund actually recalls Jon Snow’s (Kit Harington) courtship with Ygritte (Rose Leslie), whose performance of feminity differed from the women Jon had known in court as a young Stark. None of the characters involved are asked to hyper feminize themselves in order to attract and keep their partner’s attention.
Jon and Ygritte’s conversation about silk dresses demonstrated Benioff and Weiss’s careful tip-toe toward slightly queered (as in, not fully heteronormative, though still heterosexual) romantic storylines. The scene from Season 3, in which Ygritte suggests that Jon has never met a woman like her, actually revealed Ygritte’s internalized misogyny. In mocking the women she imagined Jon being attracted to, she inadvertently exposed her own vulnerability, communicating that old damaging message, “I’m not like other girls and am therefore superior.” Brienne’s self-identification as neither a “knight” or a “lady” feels like a next step in the show’s commentary on gender.
We know Brienne loved Renly, the gay Baratheon brother whose gender performance leaned as far toward the feminine as Brienne’s does masculine, and we know she has an affection of some kind toward Jamie Lannister. Though Jamie is known around Westeros for being a powerful swordsman, it was only after he lost his fighting hand that Brienne fostered a real connection with him; essentially, in losing his phallic source of power (his ability to wield a weapon), Jamie was able to connect with another character occupying a non-traditional gender role.
Of course, this being an HBO production, and the most popular TV program in the world, Brienne and Tormund’s relationship is most radical and non-traditional we’re likely to get - which is to say, not that radical at all. At the very least, if there’s a butt of the joke in Tormund and Brienne’s scenes, it’s not Brienne for being a novel image of beauty, but Tormund for being so obviously caught up in her. It’s also notable that many examples of Tormund/Brienne fan art popping up on Tumblr and Twitter feminize Tormund as a sexual “subject” while making Brienne into a stoic “object” of his desire.
It wasn’t Brienne’s ability to be a sexual “subject” and desire someone else that was in question; it was her role as the object of someone else’s desire that we hadn’t seen yet. Gender theorist Judith Butler, in grappling with German philosopher Hegel’s theories in socio-political identity, wrote quite a bit about the role of the subject and object in human desire. Hegel believed that consciousness meant making “I” statements, whereas Butler suggested that gender theory makes that relationship more complicated. Letting Brienne, who up until this point has only been the subject of desire (loving Renly, desiring Jamie), experience being the “object” of desire (being desired by Tormund) isn’t an empowering move for women viewers per se, though it is a diversification of how men and women are framed in the show.
As for other queer and non-traditional characters, Season 7 trailers teased a kiss between Yara Greyjoy and Ellaria Sand, both canonically queer women. There’s a chance that “kiss” might just be another an assassination attempt (via Dorne’s poison lipstick), but since Dorne and Yara are currently allied, it’s likely sincere. In any case, if Yara survives the makeout session, she may have a shot at flirting with Dany again, especially because her uncle Euron is now in King’s Landing attempting to woo Cersei Lannister.
However, no characters, regardless of their gender identity or performance, are likely to get a happy ending. As Game of Thrones constantly reminds us, all men (including and especially men who fuck men, as Renly, Loras and Oberyn can tell you) must die.