Disclaimer: There are NO book spoilers in this article.
Last night’s Game of Thrones featured a rape that didn’t happen in the books. Time to talk about it.
Stirring up controversy with rape is no unfamiliar deed for the most pirated show in television history. First it was with Daenerys and Khal Drogo, right in the pilot.
Then the show made a mess it didn’t know how to dig itself out of. Jaime raped his sister with all context removed. A character on the redemption path committed an atrocity that was never in his character to begin with, marking not a natural fluctuant regression, but a top-down narrative move for edginess. What happened next made about as much sense as me taking a shotgun to your kneecaps during our work shift, only for both to show up for work the next day acting like nothing happened and then for you to recommend me for a promotion, instead of pressing charges.
The newest victim is Sansa Stark, now subjected to the infamous cruelty of Ramsay Bolton. I’d wager that were it not for the Mad Men finale stealing the thunder, Twitter would be ablaze with renewed discussion about this. So let’s recap.
The first half of the episode takes place in Essos, where individual wit rules the day. Arya’s self-subjection to abuse starts to pay off while Tyrion and Jorah turn potential manhood removal into an opportunity to get to Meereen faster.
The second half takes place in Westeros. Jaime and Bronn arrive in Sunspear. Their efforts to rescue Myrcella clash with the Sand Snakes’ efforts to kill her. They thwart each other’s plans, allowing Doran and his guards to swoop in and subdue both parties. Meanwhile, back in Kings’ Landing, Cersei acts like she has all the cards in negotiating with Olenna, unaware that some of her strength has been put to ground in Dorne. At Loras’ arraignment, Olyvar testifies credibly enough to indict him, with Margaery arrested and dragged away by the Faith for perjury. Yet again Tommen and his crown are undermined by the Faith, with Cersei fighting every urge to crack a smile after having also, with impunity, undermined the power of the Tyrells in the process. Meanwhile, Littlefinger maneuvers.
If you’re sensing a theme here, Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken has effectively spelled out the theme of this entire season: asserting power by undermining the power of others in peacetime.
Books 4 and 5 are weak as far as pacing and action go, but they are heavy on these post-war ideas, which are emblematic of the overall series. After all, this whole story began with the Westeros version of The Iliad already having happened, and with nearly two decades of peace interrupted only once by a brief rebellion. The Game of Thrones is the politics of peacetime; it’s about what happens to a kingdom after the war over the throne is already won.
The fifth season began after three major victories for the established parties. The Lannisters’ hold over the throne and capitol remains strong, despite the setbacks in Season 4. The Night’s Watch stopped the wildling attack on the Wall and Stannis cleaned up. Daenerys has conquered Meereen and abolished slavery.
Since the end of last season, Daenerys has struggled between asserting her dragon strength and yielding in favor of her gentler side. Her efforts have borne witness to increasing unrest throughout the city from violence in the streets between the Unsullied and the Harpy. Slowly but surely the power of Daenerys’ grip on a city she ostensibly conquered and liberated is fading.
At the Wall, Jon Snow’s first act as Lord Commander was a showing of strength in ignoring Janos Slynt’s piss-soaked plea for mercy, and cutting his head off. Now he is making an unprecedented move for wildling amnesty that has even his most loyal brothers enraged, with the likelihood of it coming back to bite him the same way it bit the Old Bear.
Now we have this episode, where Lannisters, Tyrells, and Sand Snakes all see their power undermined by one another in some way, all in a time of “peace.”
So where does Sansa Stark fit into this picture?
She is at home on paper but surrounded by enemies. What few friends she has, she knows not where they are. We know that Brienne is close by, but she doesn’t. She has endured Joffrey’s torture, Cersei’s torment, Lysa’s Moon Door, and Baelish’s sexual advances, with Tyrion being the only person willing to give her a break. It’s not easy to frighten her anymore.
So when Miranda tries, Sansa throws it in her face while sitting naked in a bathtub. Similarly, she asserts her power over Theon by refusing to take his arm, knowing that he will be punished for it. Up till the wedding, she is in control.
The wedding is a simple and short ceremony, but it’s long enough in Sansa’s eyes to take some of the power away from her. Then she is brought to the bedroom where Ramsay forces Theon to watch as he brutally rapes her. Theon, too afraid to even blink, shivers and sobs (astounding performance by Alfie Allen), with us left to fill in the blanks for ourselves. Having seen many a time what Ramsay likes to do to his women, this isn’t difficult, but it is haunting.
Indeed, the episode titled Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken ends with Sansa bent over, with all the power we saw her assert before stripped away, and defining what married life with Ramsay will be like.
This is especially revealing when you consider what we saw between them in the previous episode. Ramsay paraded Reek around the dinner table like a trophy, for Reek indeed is the ultimate embodiment of Ramsay’s power. Soon afterwards, Roose bats Ramsay back down to second place. War with Stannis is imminent, and the Bolton hold over Winterfell may soon be over. Ramsay has something to prove, eager to hold power over more than just Theon and Miranda. So he asserts his by undermining Sansa’s, which is what the Game of Thrones at its bare bones really is.
In the world of Ice and Fire, peace is a worse fate for the established power players than war is. The Game of Thrones is a vicious cycle of a bad disease leading to a worse cure leading to a worse disease leading to a worse cure and so on. The rape of Sansa is not just a reminder of how unwelcome a place the world is for women, but also demonstrative of the fact that all power is fleeting.
Unlike the scene with Jaime, this episode demonstrated no confusion or misdirection over what it was doing. There was nothing sexual about the rape; the camera keeping with Theon was the show’s way of actively resisting the urge to lend itself any credit for shock value, especially given that none of this should be shocking. Sansa is now hostage again to a new captor, who may very well be even crueler than Joffrey. The difference is that she has now had a taste of real power, only to have it torn from her along with her wedding dress. Here’s to hoping she’s able to figure a way out of this one.
Then again, I already sort of know if she is or isn’t. Still, consider me impressed, and remember this is coming from the guy who hated Season 4 with a passion.