"Game" recognize game: Let's pour out some Arbor Gold for Olenna Tyrell

Here's why the demise of Westeros' baddest mama left so many of us bereft

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published August 3, 2017 7:00PM (EDT)

Diana Rigg as Olenna Tyrell in "Game of Thrones" (HBO/Helen Sloan)
Diana Rigg as Olenna Tyrell in "Game of Thrones" (HBO/Helen Sloan)

Grandfather clocks do not exist in “Game of Thrones.” That means when beloved characters die, there’s no pendulum to stop. Instead, the tick-tock march of death can often be measured in the clomping of hooves as destruction runs down a house on horseback. This is how Olenna Tyrell (Diana Rigg) faces her end in “The Queen’s Justice,” staring at Lannister soldiers stomping toward Highgarden. When Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) came into her chamber the lady made her last stand in the only way she knew how, by calling Jaime's dead son Joffrey a c—t.

So passes Olenna Tyrell, the last of her name. The Unsilenced. Queen of Thorns, Lady of Highgarden. The Savage Rose. Thrower of Shade and Breaker of Quills. The Mother of Giving Zero F—ks.

We shall miss her so very, very much.

George R.R. Martin realized a number of complex and daunting female characters in “Game of Thrones” and the other novels in “A Song of Ice and Fire,” upon which HBO’s series is based. Olenna, though, is in a class by herself. The Internet is heavy with odes to Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) and a fierce embrace of everything Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) stands for. It’s easy to be fierce when you have three dragons at your back.

To be an elderly woman who refuses to defer to the patriarchy of Westeros wherever she confronts it  — and Olenna simply is not having it, ever — takes hardcore ovaries. Even as death walks up to her in gleaming golden armor bearing a sword named Widow’s Wail, Olenna does not quake. She curses. This is why women wish they had Olenna Tyrell as their grandmothers and also why they want to grow up to be Olenna Tyrell. She’s the toughest of the Golden Girls, for sure.

Though “Game of Thrones” viewers only received the slightest taste of Tyrell history in the series, Olenna lets us know that she's a woman born with a rapier-sharp intelligence, surrounded entirely by men who enjoy higher status and possess markedly lower IQs.  Maternal affection didn’t not preclude her from softening her views about the dumbasses in her orbit; even the male she gave birth to was, in her estimation, nothing more than a “fathead.”

Lesser men and Cersei have cowered before the likes of Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance), but Olenna has no problem pulling his writing instrument out of his hands and snapping it in two to get his attention. He attempts to intimidate her by threatening her with the knowledge that her grandson is gay; she counters by intimating that she's aware his grand kids are products of incest. Cersei (Lena Headey) tries to match her father Tywin in Olenna’s estimation but fails miserably, even if the woman on the Iron Throne wins in the end.

Rigg’s casting in the role, too, was sublime and perhaps fated. Few other actresses of her caliber can embody a character who has outlived so very many clever men and maneuvered her way into power by flouting male estimations of her sex. Olenna is a rose, after all, and Rigg, an actress known for playing one of television’s classiest femme fatales, Emma Peel of "The Avengers," portrayed Olenna with a sharp awareness of the skewed value men place on beauty. And she is unafraid to use that knowledge, as well as the common preconceptions concerning elderly women, to manipulate her way into power.

Her heavy influence in raising her granddaughter Margaery (Natalie Dormer) shone throughout the young queen’s time in the story, too; the younger Tyrell’s strategic prowess and seductive appeal made her such a ferocious opponent that Cersei  had to take her out in a tower of Wildfire.

Had Olenna’s sole skill consisted of summoning lightning strike rejoinders, she’d merely be entertaining. Don’t get me wrong, “Game of Thrones” benefits from humor whenever its employed with purpose and taste. But the reason women, in particular, miss Olenna so much is that she displayed a strong loyalty to women of the realm who are like her – women who defy their prescribed place the political and cultural structure of Westeros.

Olenna’s championship of her gender is a supreme joy to behold, especially women who stand tall in spite of being consistently dismissed. Upon first meeting Brienne, Olenna compliments her magnificence, for example, praising her for knocking her grandson Loras into the dirt “like the silly little boy that he is.”

In those scenes Olenna evokes warmth. In many others, she’s the quintessential Iron Lady who uses her power to get what she wants for the good of her family. And in others, such as when she displayed kindness to the beaten-down woman Sansa (Sophie Turner), she’s a bit of both; she was kind to Sansa as she and Margaery pried information out of the abused Stark daughter, but she also made Sansa an unwitting accomplice in murder.

That Cersei and Jaime bring about the end of the Highgarden’s matriarch is neither a shame nor a complete tragedy thanks to Olenna’s deathbed jab, in which she gulps down a cup of poison and calmly confesses to poisoning Joffrey, goading Jaime to tell Cersei that she's the culprit. Jaime could have run her through there and then with Widow's Wail, and that would have been poetic.

He couldn't, of course, because the always elegant, never genteel Olenna already had delivered the coup de grace in that duel. The Lannisters may have taken down the Tyrells, and even now "the rains weep o'er [their] halls." But in that moment, a kingslayer bent the knee to a kingslayer. Game recognize game, the saying goes, and Olenna became a timeless legend, undefeated in hearts.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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