Spoilers Ahead: Do not read if you haven’t already seen this week’s episode of Game of Thrones, “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken.”
You know you spend too much time mired in internet outrage culture when one of the most unsettling scenes on TV this year is unfolding right in front of you and you can’t help but think of the number of furious hot takes it’s going to spawn. No, I’m not talking about Louie CK spending the last few minutes of his Saturday Night Live monologue doing a brilliantly transgressive bit on child molesters, though that of course drew the wrath of both the left and right with each side asking the tired yet obligatory “did he go too far?” I’m talking about the last few moments this week’s episode of Game of Thrones. Apparently, we’re going to do this again. We’re going to have the same conversation we’ve had over and over again, the one that’s come to define HBO’s monster hit show within social media circles devoted to being aggrieved over one perceived offense or another.
It was almost a year ago exactly that we published a piece here wondering if anything that happened on Game of Thrones could be considered shocking anymore. At the time, the issue was a rape scene involving two of the show’s main characters, Cersei Lannister and her brother/lover Jamie. The “brother/lover” part should be the first clue that pretty much everything in the world of Westeros is fucked-up, and it’s also worth noting that the same episode in which Jaime raped Cersei — right next to the casket of their dead son who was the product of incest — also featured a group of murderous cannibals killing a kid’s parents and then telling that kid that they were going to eat their bodies. It also featured a somewhat sympathetic character taking a crossbow bolt to the face, compliments of one of the most devious pricks in modern television. Game of Thrones is a show that delights in its depravity and which forces every one its fans to at some point wonder why the hell he or she continues to watch. It’s a show that requires a strong stomach and a willingness to accept that not only do the good guys not always win — they almost never win.
There are very few “rah-rah” moments on Game of Thrones and those it does feed you seem to be there specifically so it hurts all the worse when the show pulls all that hope out from under you.
So, this week, we have poor Sansa Stark, one of the few survivors of the honorable but long-suffering Stark house, being sexually violated by her new husband, Ramsay Bolton, who may very well be the most sadistic and despicable son-of-a-bitch in current pop culture. For weeks, showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have been building up Sansa’s storyline, deviating from the books upon which the show is based and setting up Sansa to potentially exact revenge for the murder of her family at the hands of the Boltons in what was, sincerely, a scene so brutal and disturbing that it was easy to see how someone might want to give up on the show after being put through it. But again, this is Game of Thrones we’re talking about here and with Littlefinger proving, as expected, that his seemingly benevolent stewardship of Sansa was really nothing more than another part of his long con, it left her at the mercy of the plot he engineered. Sansa married Ramsay and their “wedding night” went about as you’d expect from the guy who gleefully unleashed his hunting dogs on a woman last season.
Therein lies the issue, with Vanity Fair‘s Joanna Robinson — as rabid and knowledgeable a Game of Thrones fan as you’ll find online and an awesome person to boot — declaring that “no, we absolutely did not” need to see Sansa being raped and the entire staff of The Mary Sue apparently coming to the conclusion, en masse, that it was no longer going to be writing about Game of Thrones. There’s Deadspin proclaiming that the show is “gross, exploitative and totally out of ideas”, Sen. Claire McCaskill tweeting out that she’s done with the show, and George R.R. Martin once again facing down a slew of difficult questions.
It’s tough to complain about anyone’s decision to finally bail out on the show or to express disapproval over how Sansa was treated, given how cavalier Benioff and Weiss — and Martin — are about trashing people’s feelings for the characters they’ve brought to life. But it’s still difficult to understand why this was the particular breaking point. I’m obviously not going to get into buzzword-filled debates about Sansa’s “agency” or the scene’s promotion of “rape culture,” but simply as a sequence within a show filled with horrific imagery it didn’t hold a candle to, say, the single most honorable person on the show getting his head chopped off at the whim of a sociopath or a pregnant woman being stabbed in the belly during the massacre of an entire family.
The fact is, and I’m going to say this as if concerning ourselves with the affairs of fictional characters is worth our time at all, everyone should have seen this coming. Sansa married Ramsay. Ramsay is a power-mad monster and a sexual sadist. This is what their wedding night was going to look like, as awful as that sounds. It’s true that maybe the scene wasn’t “necessary” in the sense that we didn’t need to witness it, but it’s hard not to understand why Theon Greyjoy — who for the past couple of seasons has been known only as Reek, Ramsay’s pathetic, castrated manservant — would need to see it. Yes, it’s a gruesome plot device to use to snap Theon out of the trance the Boltons have kept him in, but it was damn sure effective. It can definitely be argued that we already knew how terrible Ramsay was and the pain that Sansa had endured, so it was unnecessary to once again illustrate that for the audience, but it wasn’t as if Brienne of Tarth was going to swoop in at the last minute and save both Sansa and Theon. First of all, Game of Thrones isn’t that kind of crowd-pleasing show, and secondly imagine how ham-fisted that would have been.
Just from the point of view of empathy for a character we love, it’s gut-wrenching that Sansa is forced to endure one more ordeal, this one more violative than anything she’s gone through before. But Sophie Turner seems to have been entirely on board for this storyline and if you haven’t given up on the show until now — if you’ve made it past everything else — another reminder that even strong women’s bodies in the quasi-Medieval land of Westeros are regarded as nothing more than chattel by its patriarchy maybe shouldn’t be the final straw. In fact, what stood out about this particular example of the reality that the women of Westeros face is how ugly it was — how it wasn’t treated the least bit lightly. Its viciousness was precisely what made the scene work because no one could walk away from it saying that it was supposed to just be your average sexual encounter. It was rape, brutal and profound. It ate at you as you began to understand what was about to happen and it took the wind out of you as the audience surrogate, Theon, reacted in exactly the way you wanted to.
While what happened to Sansa is deplorable, I’d like to believe that it matters to the narrative and that Sansa — as well as the rest of the remaining Starks — will somehow rise above all this tragedy. I’d like to believe that good will finally triumph, at least somewhat. I’d like to believe that Ramsay will be gutted like a fish at the end of Sansa’s blade at some point.
Then again, admittedly, I’ve been waiting for the good guys to win — even once in a while — on Game of Thrones for five seasons now. I’m still waiting.
Updated to include Sen. Claire McCaskill’s response