WHEN YOU SPOIL THE GAME OF THRONES, YOU DIE!
It can’t always be fun and games with Game of Thrones. Sunday’s episode “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken” proved to be one of the show’s most controversial yet. Fans have been pissed at the show before, but all kinds of people from the Editors of The Mary Sue to U.S. Senators have announced that they are discontinuing covering or watching the show, specifically or cumulatively due to the closing moments of the last episode.
Sansa Stark was raped by Ramsay Bolton on their wedding night and Theon was forced to watch by Ramsay. Let us not mince words about what technically happened. It was rape. Never mind the in-setting marital laws, and yes, you could make a pseudo Kantian argument that Sansa choose/accepted what Ramsay did to her. But the bottom line is that what Ramsay did was cruel, malicious and unwanted and by all accounts came across as hard to watch.
So yeah, the scene was horrifying as it was meant to be. But so was Ned Stark’s Death, so was Sansa getting sexually assaulted by the mob in season 2, so was the Red Wedding, so was Oberyn’s death. Each of these scenes and many others are remembered as good defining dramatic moments.
Here I hope to contribute to a discussion of why this scene has elicited such a pronounced negative response. And to explain my own reaction to it. I’ll say up front, I am not as outraged by this scene as many people are. The best way to explain my reasons would be to consider the main objections to it and pair them with some merits I see in the scene.
This is a different and better scene than the Cersei/Jaime scene last season.
I’ve seen a lot of fans lump these two scenes together as the go-to examples of the show mishandling sexual assault and changing the books so clumsily to do so. In and of itself, I did not have a viscerally negative reaction to the Jaime/Cersei scene in “Breaker of Chains”. What got me riled up was the way episode director Alex Graves talked about the scene after the controversy blew up.
We all remember Cersei repeatedly saying “no” and “it’s not right” and Jaime saying “I don’t care,” throughout the scene right? Well Alex Graves said; “Well, it becomes consensual by the end, because anything for them ultimately results in a turn-on, especially a power struggle.”
*SIGH* still makes me headdesk.
If you wanted to show that scene ultimately became consensual, than why not keep it the way it was in the books where Cersei eventually does give enthusiastic consent? Why did they cut it so decisively short? That was dumb. Also a dubious scene in retrospect because there were really no consequences from the scene for Jaime or Cersei.
Sansa’s wedding scene hasn’t had this meta-problem. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken” producer and writer Bryan Cogman spoke about the scene.
When asked to respond to fans who say “How could you do this to Sansa?!” Cogman said; ““This is Game of Thrones. This isn’t a timid little girl walking into a wedding night with Joffrey. This is a hardened woman making a choice and she sees this as the way to get back her homeland. Sansa has a wedding night in the sense she never thought she would with one of the monsters of the show. It’s pretty intense and awful and the character will have to deal with it.” Cogman also refers to what went on in the scene “abuse”. And after the interview he elaborated on Twitter that he was talking solely about Sansa’s choice and commitment to returning to Winterfell and marrying into the Boltons to get her homeland back. Cogman was not in any way saying that Ramsay raping Sansa was Sansa’s fault.
I really feel this is an important difference between the Cersei/Jaime and Sansa/Ramsay scenes. With the ladder, there isn’t a disturbing dissonance between the creator’s stated intents for the scene and how the scene came across. It’s hard to watch and the creators were going for that and acknowledging that.
Also, on the matter of changing things from the books, the Sansa/Ramsay scene was actually toned down a bit compared to the Cersei/Jaime scene being made worse. The show Sansa/Ramsay scene at least had a discretionary shot and didn’t have Theon sexually participating.
And finally, Cogman seems to make it clear that this scene won’t end up being gratuitous in the sense that there won’t be consequences later on in the season, unlike the Cersei/Jaime scene. The way that Sansa’s arc is set up seems like it’s can’t let this scene happen without consequences. Hopefully the show’s handling of Sansa in the aftermath of this scene will be nuanced and thoughtful. Personally I’m looking forward to seeing Sansa get the better of Ramsay all the more now.
But it’s Sansa!
I don’t mean this to be disingenuous to anybody but I can’t help wondering what the reaction would have been like if it hadn’t been Sansa in this scene. For example if it had been the tertiary character Jeyne Poole marrying Ramsay and this scene had just been an incidental episode of torture like Theon’s had been all through season 3.
Perhaps there’s nothing deeper to read into than obviously, people have stronger reactions to the suffering of people they know and care about than less familiar people. But people are still calling the scene gratuitous, unbelievably shocking, all sorts of hyperbolic negatives.
As mentioned above, Sansa’s Wedding scene used a liberal discretionary shot and took advantage of it with Theon’s reaction. There have been far worse scenes of sexual violence in terms of what was shown on camera. Joffrey forces Ros to beat Daisy in season 2, the scene with Sansa and the mob in Season 2 gets much more physical, Talisa gets mauled in her pregnant belly at the Red Wedding. Ramsay also castrates Theon.
A lot of fans are also saying that this completely negates Sansa’s growth as a character with agency and I really think we need to see the rest of the season before making that call. As for the scene in and of itself, Ramsay raping Sansa doesn’t mean that Sansa suddenly has no agency any more, any ambitions and desires of her own or that she’s going to regress into a naïve helpless character.
One aspect of the outrage that I don’t quite understand is that they can’t believe Sansa got raped in the sense that the creators decided to have this happen in the broader context of Sansa’s arc. They’re upset about this particular scene but I haven’t seen it connected to the narrative plausibility and context of the broader arc.
In other words, it seems like some viewers are shocked that Ramsay abusing Sansa, in a plot line wherein Ramsay marries Sansa, could happen. That’s just unrealistic given Ramsay’s character. Viewers say there were hoping Sansa or Theon might have pulled a knife on Ramsay to stop him or even kill him. Cathartic as that would have been, I don’t think we could have reasonably expected something like that. I’ll explain why in just a moment.
The subservience of Sansa’s arc to Theon’s.
This grievance, I understand, and somewhat share. One undeniable aspect of this scene, shared with the books, is that this particular abuse from Ramsay serves as the turning point for Theon to start breaking free of Ramsay’s control and help the “good guys”. Meanwhile Jeyne Poole in the books does basically nothing for herself from that point on. Classic stuffed-in-a-fridge, really. In that sense, it makes it all the more upsetting that its Sansa’s agency getting devalued to advance Theon’s story, instead of Poole’s.
While the focus on Theon’s reaction during the scene obviously indicates that this scene will be big for him, we have to wait and see the aftermath of this scene before we can relegate this scene to the stuffed-in-a-fridge trope completely. As I said, I do not expect Sansa to regress all that much form this scene. She’ll have to deal with it, but I expect that Sansa is the one who’s going to instigate the reaction to Ramsay’s abuse, not Theon.
The Laziness of the Storytelling.
Another complaint that I understand more than the rest. I could understand fans objecting to the showrunners writing Sansa into this scene where rape almost certainly has to happen, as part of her altered arc for the show. Though again, we have to see what happens after this scene to judge properly. Even with this scene, I think having Sansa try to yank Winterfell back from under the Boltons is much more interesting than having her babysit Robin in the Eyrie and wait to marry a completely new character, like in the books.
I’ll admit that Game of Thrones has used lazy gratuitous scenes of sexual violence that accomplish little to nothing meaningful for the story. The Jaime/Cersei scene is a prime example. However, I don’t think that this scene falls into that problematic trap as completely as some fans have argued.
I’ve seen plenty of comments that part of what makes the scene gratuitous is that it isn’t the first time we’ve seen the sexual aspect of Ramsay’s depravity, so it’s not a big reveal. That would be a valid complaint, if trying to establish Ramsay’s sexual depravity was the goal of the scene.
So what is the goal of the scene? We’ve already discussed the expected goal for Theon, but since Sansa is the one who suffered the most in the scene, I expect we’d all like to think that something will be accomplished for Sansa through the scene, and if not a good thing, at least a meaningful thing.
It may sound like a no-brainer or a given but Sansa now knows specifically how dangerous and desperate her situation with Ramsay is.
Since Littlefinger proposed this idea and up until this point, Roose Bolton is the one that Sansa has been most wary of. Everyone knows that Roose Bolton betrayed and murdered Robb Stark, as he’s been known as a cruel Lord of the Dreadfort besides. If Littlefinger of all people knows next to nothing about Ramsay, then Sansa turning a bit of a blind spot to Ramsay’s potential abuse is more understandable.
Many fans have also pointed to the scene where Sansa puts Myranda in her place as a frustrating example of how Sansa exerts her agency only to have it snatched away by the closing scene. I agree that it’s a good demonstration of Sansa’s savviness, but I took something else away from it too. Did Sansa think that Myranda was lying about what Ramsay has done, inventing atrocities and talking about them so casually to scare her? That would make sense with Sansa’s response. She said “This is my home and you can’t frighten me,” not, “This is my home and I will take it back no matter what,” or something along those lines.
I’ll admit this is a very subtle read of the scene but it would help reinforce the episode’s goal of Sansa realizing and eventually, actively dealing with Ramsay’s abuse.
Ramsay, deliberately or not, managed to sway Sansa’s deepest dislike to Theon. The Bolton Dinner scene in “Kill the Boy”, Ramsay forced Theon to admit, (lie), that he had murdered Sansa’s little brothers. That’s a much more personal horror than anything Sansa knows about Ramsay yet, and we were reminded of Sansa’s disgust with Theon when she refused to take his arm. Now Sansa and Theon know both know they have a common tormenter.
And finally, Ramsay, for his monstrous nature, is certainly capable of putting on an act. Sansa had thus far seen Ramsay awkwardly guilt trip Theon and that’s about it. Ramsay kept himself reeled in until the last moment.
This is why, I think, we could not have expected Sansa to pull a knife on Ramsay. She would have had to prepare for that and physical violence is very out of character for Sansa and she’s been largely unaware of Ramsay’s depravity until this moment.
I hope Sansa acts quickly and decisively against the Boltons and at the same time the show doesn’t trivialize the impact of the loss of Sansa’s virginity by Ramsay raping her. In the mean time I would kindly ask fans to consider my thoughts and that we all wait to see what happens next in the North.
The North Remembers.
Next week back to a fun feature! Unless of course Game of Thrones gives us another base-breaking shocking departure from the books having to do with a fan favorite character. Who knows?