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Game of Thrones still can’t figure out what it wants to say about trauma

As the finale approaches, a scene between Sansa and the Hound frustrated some fans.

Game of Thrones
Sansa and The Hound chat for the first time in years.
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.

On May 17, 2015, Game of Thrones aired one of its two or three most controversial moments and crystallized an entire conversation around the show’s depiction of sexual assault.

The season five episode “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken” featured the wedding of young Sansa Stark, a teenager, to the vicious, psychopathic Ramsay Bolton, who had swept in and taken command of Winterfell. Ramsay’s marriage to Sansa, the one child of Ned and Catelyn Stark anyone could find at the time, solidified his hold on the North. But Ramsay was, as mentioned, a vicious psychopath — and as he raped Sansa on their wedding night, the camera panned away from the assault to focus on the trembling face of Theon Greyjoy, a tear trickling down his face.

The whole sequence was unusual as far as Game of Thrones controversies are concerned, because nobody involved would dare claim that something other than what seemed to be happening on screen had happened. (The source of Game of Thrones’ greatest controversy — a season four scene between Jaime and Cersei that many viewers interpreted as rape and people involved with the show said was not intended as a rape — does not fit this profile.) Ramsay raped Sansa. Theon was made to watch.

But the reason the sequence became so upsetting to some viewers and was defended so loudly by others was that it became a stand-in for Game of Thrones’ treatment of sexual assault as a whole. Yes, the show’s depiction of the medieval world’s brutality toward women was realistic on some level. But was it merely trying to depict that world as it was, or was it reveling in it tastelessly?

It’s worth noting that after that controversial fifth season — which contained other scenes that were even more borderline in terms of tawdry sexual assault — Game of Thrones tamped down its depiction of rape. Sansa escaped Ramsay and became an immensely powerful woman, the Lady of Winterfell and one of the rulers of the North.

But in the show’s most recent episode, the dim echoes of these earlier criticisms sounded all over again.

In “The Last of the Starks,” Sansa sells the abuse she suffered as an integral part of her life story. But the show’s take on this is trickier to parse.

Game of Thrones
Sansa’s wedding day led to some of the most heated, angry discussions around the show.

“The Last of the Starks” features the very first meeting between Sansa and the Hound since the hulk of a man was assigned by the Lannisters to “protect” Sansa — a.k.a. keep her from escaping King’s Landing — in season two. At the time, she was engaged to King Joffrey, a murderous psychopath (this happens to Sansa a lot). The Hound developed a grudging liking of his charge, whom he dubbed Little Bird, and he eventually offered to take her away from King’s Landing in “Valar Morghulis,” the show’s season two finale. She refused.

The Hound wound up traveling with a different Stark sister — Arya — while Sansa became a political pawn, physically and sexually abused by Ramsay and emotionally manipulated by the sly, dark-hearted Littlefinger.

When the two meet again in “The Last of the Starks,” their encounter is a strange bit of business right from the jump. The ostensible purpose of the scene is for her to catch up with a former acquaintance. But it’s never clear why Sansa might want to chat with the Hound, beyond “the episode’s screenwriters — series creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss — need her to enter the scene.” As with too many events on Game of Thrones in its last few seasons, the character motivation mostly boils down to “do a thing that fans want to see.”

So she goes to talk to the Hound after he rebuffs some Wildling women who want to take him to bed, and he remarks that she used to be unable to look at him, whereas now she fixes on him with a steely gaze. She says she’s now seen worse than him.

It’s what happens next that made people so angry. The Hound tries to provoke a reaction by saying something horrible: “Yes, I’ve heard,” he says. “Heard you were broken in. Heard you were broken in rough.”

Sansa doesn’t take the bait. She tells the Hound that Ramsay got what he deserved when she fed him to hounds. The two share a laugh — as you do in Westeros when discussing feeding your tormenter to his dogs — and then the Hound says, “You’ve changed, Little Bird. None of it would have happened if you’d left King’s Landing with me. No Littlefinger, no Ramsay. None of it.”

Sansa isn’t having it. She smiles slightly and ends the scene: “Without Littlefinger, and Ramsay and the rest, I would have stayed a Little Bird all my life.”

The popular read of this scene by its detractors — as explained in this excellent piece by Sonia Saraiya — is that Sansa is saying, on some level, that she is thankful for her rape and assault, that while her abuse might have been horrible, it has also been crucial in creating who she is today. She has, in other words, chosen to rewrite her trauma as something she overcame in vaguely inspiring fashion. (In my own review of “The Last of the Starks,” I compared Sansa’s comments to something a character might say in a screenwriting manual, as opposed to an organic way someone might discuss a painful experience from their past.)

On further reflection, I think both of our reads miss the mark, at least a little bit. Sansa isn’t saying she’s thankful for what happened to her. She’s saying that what happened to her happened, and it was a part of what made her who she is. It’s a subtle distinction, but a necessary one. Response to trauma isn’t a one-size-fits-all kind of thing.

Some people do find ways to integrate their past traumas into their ongoing stories of themselves, and it would make sense that Sansa, who was raised in a brutal world, would have to find a way to do just that to acquire any of the power she’s risen to since then.

What’s more, I don’t think this scene would have caused a stir if it (or something like it) had somehow aired on a show other than Game of Thrones. The problem is that it did air on Game of Thrones — and more specifically, it aired on Game of Thrones during the show’s final season.

Game of Thrones is starting to reveal what it wants to say about its characters, its world, and its themes

Game of Thrones
The Hound heads off to King’s Landing to find his brother.
Helen Sloan/HBO

Let’s start with the obvious: To be charitable to this particular scene, you have to give Game of Thrones the benefit of the doubt when it comes to storytelling around sexual assault. That’s something a huge portion of the show’s audience simply isn’t able or willing to do and hasn’t been able or willing to do since the aforementioned Jaime/Cersei scene that played like a rape but wasn’t meant to be a rape.

But at the same time, Game of Thrones has made a noticeable effort since its fourth and fifth seasons — by far its worst in terms of total depictions of sexual assault — to include scenes in which the victims of that sexual assault rose above it to survive whatever the patriarchy tried to throw at them. They didn’t all feed their rapists to dogs, but many of them did attain a kind of karmic justice in the end.

And yet those scenes of sexual assault still exist, and they’re still a huge mark against the show for many viewers. For those who believe that Game of Thrones’ treatment of sexual assault was too cavalier in the past, it will be justifiably unappetizing — perhaps even offensive — to be asked to consider those storylines as having any remotely positive outcomes.

With that said, the show has since presented a fuller picture of what it’s trying to do: Convey the message that, in order to succeed in the world of Game of Thrones, you must suffer on some level. Even Jon Snow (who’s probably suffered the least of the show’s major characters) had to die and come back to life.

The question that remains ambiguous is whether we’re meant to think that any of the show’s characters — and especially Sansa — have endured and succeeded in spite of their suffering, or because of their suffering. The answer will be different not only for every character (the grueling training Arya went through, for instance, was clearly a major reason for her eventual evolution into an amazing assassin who could slay the Night King), but for every viewer.

Hence the blowback against the scene between Sansa and the Hound, which many viewers read as suggesting that Sansa believes she wouldn’t be who she is without her suffering — and which at least some of those viewers read as Sansa saying, “Thank goodness I was raped, or I wouldn’t have become the amazing person I am.”

To be clear, you could argue that Sansa, as a character, does believe she is the product of her suffering. By extension, you could also argue that Game of Thrones is not necessarily endorsing her view, but instead showing how her response to trauma has differed from that of the Hound, who is still haunted by his hated brother burning and mutilating him as a child.

Game of Thrones has presented several reasons why Sansa might believe that about her struggles, even. So on some level, this argument is really about whether the show, not Sansa, believes that people succeed because of suffering. And that’s much harder to pin down.

Existential worry about what it is that Game of Thrones is saying at its core has driven many of the complaints that have dogged this final season. Maybe the show has stopped being so ruthless since it killed off so few major characters in the Battle of Winterfell. Maybe it’s started believing that most people are (gulp) honorable because “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” was so full of warm moments. Maybe it thinks that all women are defined solely by their sexual prowess, because “The Last of the Starks” sure seemed to reduce many of the show’s women characters to their sex drives.

I don’t actually think Game of Thrones “believes” any of the above, because Game of Thrones is a tabula rasa that is uniquely well suited to its viewers projecting their own thoughts onto it. But now that the show has reached the point in its run where we have to start assuming that many of its scenes will be the last ever between certain characters, those scenes become the button that its writers hope to put on each particular relationship.

Thus, what very well might be the final scene between Sansa and the Hound is centered on the idea of trauma as something to rise above. It suggests that Sansa did rise above it, and that the Hound has been mired in it ever since he was young.

She meets with a representative of her lowest moments, when she was still betrothed to Joffrey, to illustrate how far she’s come; meanwhile, he remains defined by his trauma, saying that only one thing will bring him joy. And the audience knows that “one thing” is killing the brother whose actions have haunted him since childhood.

It’s not a bad idea for a scene (even if it maybe could have used a draft or two more at the script stage), but I keep coming back to how much it feels like Game of Thrones’ writers trying to defend their earlier actions to the audience — “See?” they seem to say. “Sansa’s badassery wouldn’t feel so awesome now if she hadn’t been brought so low before!”

And maybe that’s true. Narratives work when characters overcome overwhelming obstacles, and you certainly can’t say Sansa didn’t face overwhelming obstacles. But by directly illustrating that concept through Sansa, it feels less like Game of Thrones is trying to sum up one of its best character’s relationships to a former tormentor, and more like the show is trying to retroactively justify some of its most controversial moments.

The button that Game of Thrones puts on the relationship between Sansa and the Hound isn’t about the connection between those two characters. It’s not even about those two characters at all. Instead, it’s about Game of Thrones taking an unearned victory lap.

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