Every week, a handful of Vox's writers will discuss the latest episode of Game of Thrones. Check out the recap for this episode here, and follow the whole discussion here. This week, we'll be hearing from deputy culture editor Jen Trolio, executive editor Matthew Yglesias, foreign policy writer Zack Beauchamp, and culture editor Todd VanDerWerff. Come back throughout the week for entries.
Jen Trolio: By now, Game of Thrones has conditioned us to expect the worst from weddings, but the brutal start to Sansa Stark and Ramsay Bolton's marriage in the final scene of "Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken" added a new layer of horror to the show's history of unhappy nuptials. Being fatally poisoned at your own reception almost seems preferable to what Sansa experienced — rape at the hands of her new husband while Reek/Theon was forced to watch — and there are so many issues at play in the aftermath of the awful event that I'm struggling to make sense of them all.
One of the primary questions I've been mulling is what the rape scene was intended to achieve. I have not read George R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire novels, so I didn't know what Ramsay had in store for his new bride, regardless of the major change in victim between the books and the show (and the fact that what happened in print was apparently much worse). I'm also not one to shy away from difficult subject matter just because it's difficult subject matter.
But as of this moment — we don't yet know what repercussions might lie ahead — Sansa's rape feels like little more than a controversial plot device, and to what end? I don't think Game of Thrones is guilty of purposely provoking the ire of the internet, but knowing that any rape scene on any TV series will inevitably do so, it's important to understand what the show was going for. I'm not sure I do.
We were already quite familiar with Ramsay's sadistic tendencies, because of his season-long torture of Theon and, as Myranda the kennel master's daughter reminded us while trying to intimidate — or perhaps warn? — Sansa during bath time, his habit of hunting his former lovers for sport. No one can reasonably argue that Ramsay's rape of Sansa was supposed to reveal his crueler side.
And so, one of my first thoughts while watching that scene was, Is this where Theon finally snaps? In that moment, I thought he might attack, and maybe even kill, Ramsay. Game of Thrones has seemingly been building toward some sort of breaking point for Theon, starting with the uncomfortable dinner scene in last week's "Kill the Boy" (where he dutifully held his tongue as Ramsay told Sansa that he'd murdered her little brothers) and continuing this week as Theon was tasked with walking Sansa down the aisle and then ordered to watch as Ramsay forced himself upon her. Troublesome though it may be, I'm inclined to believe that Ramsay's rape of Sansa is merely a catalyst, meant to bring Sansa and Theon together to plot against him. Thus, even though we don't yet know what happens next, it's easy to see why "Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken" left many viewers asking, "What was the damn point?"
There's also the question of Sansa's agency, which until recently had been increasing by the day. Urged on by Littlefinger (which, ugh — more on him in a second), Sansa willingly agreed to marry Ramsay to avenge her family, only to revert to a more passive stance and ultimately pay a terrible price. It was awesome to see Sansa stand her ground against Myranda, but what a step backward for her to then be raped offscreen as we "watched" through Theon's eyes. Not that I wanted to see it, of course, but I think the scene could've had more of an impact if it'd ended with a close-up on Sansa's face, not Theon's. That close-up left viewers with the impression that her rape was ultimately about him.
And how much blame does Littlefinger deserve for putting Sansa in such a ghastly situation in the first place? The popular assumption is that he must have known Ramsay was dangerous — although Game of Thrones producer Bryan Cogman, who wrote this episode, insists that's not the case. As Cogman told Entertainment Weekly, "[Ramsay's] not known everywhere as a psycho. So Littlefinger doesn’t have the intelligence on him. He knows [the Boltons are] scary and creepy and not to be fully trusted and it’s part of a larger plan."
Okay, sure, whatever; Littlefinger is a guy who's known for keeping tabs on just about everyone on the continent. Between his "I live to serve" chit-chat with Cersei and the fact that his undying devotion to himself is challenged only by his undying devotion to Sansa's late mother, Catelyn Stark, I'm completely confused ... and extremely skeptical. What's this weasel really up to?
This isn’t the first time Game of Thrones has come under fire for its depiction of rape; most recently, a season-four scene between Jaime and Cersei in the crypt that held Joffrey's dead body drew widespread outcry, especially because it was written as more consensual in the books than it was in the show. Now with Sansa and Ramsay, Game of Thrones is seemingly confirming that it has no idea how to use rape as a storytelling device — crass as it may sound, fictional sexual violence can be extremely powerful if managed carefully (see: The Americans) — and rape is just about the worst storytelling device to deploy clumsily.
There's so much riding on what comes next, and on how Sansa's story is handled going forward. I'm a bit frustrated that "Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken" ended on such a contentious note, because future episodes might provide valuable context. But that's the nature of episodic television — go out with a big moment to keep people talking until next week. Either way, I hope the series won't dishonor Sansa by reducing her to a pawn.
What do you think, Matt?
Read the recap. Come back soon for more discussion.