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Game of Thrones excels at staging shocking moments, but keeps screwing up their aftermaths

Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

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.

Todd VanDerWerff: Your frustration with Game of Thrones' increasing darkness is interesting, Zack, because it reminds me of this piece by Film Crit Hulk, who, despite the gimmick, is one of the better critics on the internet. (Warning: that post contains some mild spoilers for the books.) What Hulk wrote was that George R. R. Martin, excited by how much the death of Ned Stark had juiced his narrative and made readers gasp, kept endlessly trying to chase that high — but never quite got it back.

See, I think the TV show has reached that point now as well, with everybody involved trying like hell to top the Red Wedding (arguably the show's single biggest moment) and falling short. The problem with these twists is that they all center on misery, and the problem with overloading a story like this with misery is that all of its characters exist under miserable circumstances already.

That's why the response to Sansa's rape has been so extensive. Viewed in isolation, the scene's plot developments make sense, and you could even make an argument for its aesthetics telling a story about women being brutally subjugated in this society. (I would argue that focusing on Theon at the end was a complete mistake, but otherwise I could see it.)

The problem is that it's impossible to watch the scene in isolation. Game of Thrones is full of characters who have survived all manner of trauma, but the show has yet to truly dig into the after-effects of said trauma. (Arguably it's trying to do so with Arya, which may be why she's the character who seems least affected by everything that's happened.) Viewed in that context, it's much harder to imagine that Sansa's rape will be explored with any depth or nuance, until it comes time for her to destroy the Boltons (as you know she inevitably will). Trauma isn't a character study on Game of Thrones; it's a plot point.

Those who believe the angry response to the rape scene is overblown argue that the people who were upset by it apparently don't care about Game of Thrones' endless parade of murder and torture. But that's just the thing — many of us do. I don't know how long I spent during season three feeling frustrated that the show portrayed Theon's torture as a long string of painful incidents, with little focus on what he was actually experiencing.

This, honestly, is a problem endemic to the show, and one that may eventually tear it down. On Game of Thrones, suffering isn't something characters go through; it's something the writers visit on the characters. It often seems as if the show starts from the premise of, What's the worst thing that could happen to this person? and then presses that button over and over again.

There's nothing inherently wrong with this storytelling technique, but when it seems like your only storytelling technique, it eventually becomes wearying and stale. When season five began, I wrote that the show was finally overcoming a fourth season that felt repetitive and stuck in one gear. And that was true for a little while, but in recent episodes Game of Thrones has simply dug back into that big bag to pull out the one trick it knows to play.

I agree with you, Zack, that there are hints of light here and there. The Dorne scenes are fun, and Tyrion and Jorah have made for an inspired pairing at times. Arya's storyline feels like it's just gaining momentum, and I'm definitely ready for some of the characters who've been battered and beaten to seize back some of their agency. But the show has now made me a little jumpy, a little sure that just when things seem to be going one way, it might brutally pull the rug out from underneath us.

A lot has been written this week about the decision by the site the Mary Sue to stop covering the show, outside of occasional news hits. I think, in some ways, this is an abrogation of the site's duty — one of the chief ways to hold a series like Game of Thrones to task is through forceful, forthright criticism that points out its flaws — but at the same time, I sort of understand it. At this point in the show's run, it feels like it does this one thing, and you either like that thing or you don't. But good storytelling is about variety and about empathy for the characters on screen, two qualities that are in increasingly short supply here.

Nonetheless, there was a whole lot more to this episode, even if it's easy to reduce it to that final scene. Anybody have thoughts on anything else that happened?

Read the recap. Come back soon for more discussion.

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