If you somehow haven’t heard about it yet (spoiler alerts and all that), last week’s Game of Thrones episode continued the general divergence from the books’ storyline by having Sansa Stark marry Ramsay Bolton (née Snow)—possibly in order to exact vengeance on Ramsay’s father, Roose Bolton, who murdered Sansa’s brother Robb and was directly involved in the murder of her mother, Catelyn. Sansa was apparently unaware of just what a bastard (pun intended) Ramsay is, as was Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish, who brokered the arrangement with Roose Bolton.
The overall storyline of having Sansa marry Ramsay is definitely a huge difference from the books, but it makes sense in the context of a TV show. In the books, Sansa is currently still at the Eyrie with her cousin, Robert Arryn (Robin Arryn on the show), and Ramsay is married to Jeyne Poole, a friend of Sansa’s from Winterfell who is being passed off as Arya Stark. Littlefinger has plans to one day send Sansa back to Winterfell and reveal “Arya Stark” as an impostor, giving Sansa the opportunity to reclaim Winterfell for the Starks. What’s happening on the show fits that same overall scheme, and it does it with fewer characters and less plotting-while-sitting-around.
But that’s not what I really want to talk about, and I think you know that.
Last week’s episode included Sansa and Ramsay’s weeding, and therefore Sansa and Ramsay’s wedding night. We all know that Ramsay is one of the only irredeemably evil characters in a story that excels at showing us the complexity of even the most seemingly diabolical figures. Jaime Lannister has gone from a pretty-boy attempted child murderer to a sympathetic near-protagonist, which follows the progression of his character in the books. While we never like Cersei, by this point in the books we get chapters told from her point of view, and we see all the pressures and fears that have made her the way she is. Aside from Ramsay, the only character I can think of with no redemption whatsoever is Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane.
So yes, we find Sansa in a room with Ramsay Bolton and the sniveling wretch Theon Greyjoy has become. And Ramsay, after making a show of being polite, gentlemanly, and noble towards Sansa in front of Littlefinger, goes right back to being Ramsay, and he rapes her in front of Theon.
Readers of the books know that what happened to Jeyne Poole on her wedding night was much worse, but this scene really stood out for a great many people, myself included. My reaction was visceral and angry, and in those moments I think I forgot what sort of story this is. Every single reason I could think of for why this scene was unnecessary, or how they could have handled it differently, requires pulling back from the sort of narrative that George R.R. Martin created in the books, and that David Benioff, et al have created on the show.
What I realize, after some reflection, is that no, they didn’t have to put this scene in there, nor did they have to show it the way they did, but that nevertheless, this is the sort of story this show is telling.
My initial revulsion was in part a cumulative effect of multiple rape scenes that seemed unnecessary and that diverged from the books. In season 1, the wedding night scene between Daenerys and Drogo is clearly not the tender, ultimately consensual encounter depicted in A Game of Thrones. In season 4, Jaime rapes Cersei in the Sept in King’s Landing next to the dead body of their son Joffrey. We only see this encounter told from Jaime’s point of view in A Storm of Swords, so there could be an issue with an unreliable narrator, but it seems more consensual than that. The Sansa/Ramsay scene, when added to that list, could easily seem like a bridge too far.
That has been the reaction of a great many people, and with good reason, because the scene was problematic as f***. The writers at The Mary Sue effectively washed their hands of the show after recounting the episode. Numerous people noted that the focus of the scene ended up being on Theon/Reek, and how this was affecting him, making the rape of a female character once again the possible impetus for a male character’s development.
Was it, though? I mean, were we, the audience, really meant to see this event through Theon’s eyes, and look to him to ultimately save the day? I’m not sure that’s the case (but I could be wrong). A few points to make here:
- First off, the events of this season, and really going back to the end of last season, have left me feeling a bit vindicated about Sansa Stark, as she is portrayed on the show. I have long maintained that Sansa is both the most tragic of all the characters and the closest to an audience stand-in that the show has. Her main flaw throughout the first few seasons was that she was “weak” or “whiny” or whatever, resulting in fans generally not liking her. Those flaws just mean that she was a child who made the mistake of believing all of the lies she had been told her entire life. She really believed that knights were noble and that kings were just, up until a king ordered her father beheaded and then had his knights beat her. (One could even argue that Sansa symbolizes the many, many Millennials who bought into all the “you can do anything!” b.s. spun by their parents’ generation, and who now find that same generation mocking them for believing what they were told. That could be its own separate blog post, really.) Sansa has developed into a much more confident, capable character who realizes not only that she is in almost-constant danger, but also that she needs the help of others to survive. Contrast that to Arya, who seems intent on biting the hand that is feeding her in Braavos.
- Sansa went into this marriage with her eyes open. That is not in any way an effort to shift blame onto her for anything Ramsay did or has yet to do. If anything, at this point the show has established Ramsay as some sort of force of nature, and the people around him who do not stop him share some of the blame for his actions (e.g. Roose Bolton, Myranda, etc.) By way of comparison, the shark was not the villain of the first act of Jaws—it was the mayor and the other bureaucrats who refused to close the beach. A scene earlier this season seemed to support this idea, when Roose had to explain to Ramsay that he couldn’t keep flaying people who surrendered to him if he expected to ever win the North’s loyalty (which paralleled a season 2 scene between Cersei and Joffrey). Roose and others may have to pay the price for Ramsay’s inhumanity. This doesn’t let Ramsay off the hook in any way—Jaws couldn’t end until the shark was dead, after all— but it does place responsibility on Roose and others for letting Ramsay loose in the first place.
- We see that Sansa knows what she is getting into in her scene with Myranda. Try to imagine season 1 Sansa talking back to anyone like that. The only person Sansa talked back to in those days was her tutor, Septa Mordane—still perhaps the most badass character in the show, who walked directly into bloody Lannister swords to cover Sansa’s escape. Sansa didn’t understand how to tell friends from enemies back then, but she sure seems to now.
- We have also seen that it is a fool’s errand to expect Theon/Reek to do anything to help Sansa. It seems clear that Sansa doesn’t want Theon’s help regardless, considering how she still thinks he murdered her brothers Bran and Rickon—remember, Sansa thinks she is the only surviving Stark child besides Jon Snow, even though Robb is the only one who is actually dead. If this were a standard fantasy show, that encounter between Sansa and Theon in the kennels might have led to some sort of meaningful action aimed at helping Sansa and hurting the Boltons, but instead, Theon goes directly to Ramsay and tells him. Under the circumstances of Theon’s recent existence, that is a perfectly prudent thing to do. It seems Ramsay already knew, anyway, and that this was a test. Theon is broken, as any of us would be after everything Ramsay has done to him. Even in the books, Theon only acts when he has little to no choice. There is bravery involved, yes, but it is the sort of bravery that comes from basic necessity.
- By saying that the Sansa/Ramsay scene shifted the focus onto Theon, then, we might simply be buying into one of the many fantasy tropes that George R.R. Martin has worked so hard to tear down. Theon is not a knight come to save Sansa from this beast, nor does he have the strength within him to turn on his captor in that moment. He couldn’t even allow himself to be rescued by his formidable sister Yara when she invaded the Dreadfort and made it all the way to his cell. This scene was not about Theon finding strength again. It was about Sansa enduring in order to (a) survive, and (b) have her revenge.
Was the scene absolutely necessary? No, not really.
Was it difficult to watch? Yes, and that was the point. In a show that led to the coining of the term “sexposition,” this scene showed rape for the horrific crime that it is.
Was it a departure from the tone and content of the show up to this point? Nope, not unless you put Sansa in some special category, which I admit, I did.
My friend Jen put it quite well:
Are you all not watching the same show I am? Every single person in this entire story is a monster.
We all KNEW What he was going to do. Don’t pretend you didn’t. Don’t pretend that you are somehow “shocked” at how it was going to play out.
Martin is showing us the dark underbelly of humanity. This includes rape. But through Sansa, I feel that we will probably see the strength that is womankind.
Here are some other pieces discussing the scene and the circumstances around it:
- All (hopefully) of the bad arguments about rape on Game of Thrones debunked
- ‘Game of Thrones’ has always been a show about rape
- For Once, Game of Thrones Treats Rape With the Gravity It Deserves
- Rape in Westeros: What “Game of Thrones” could learn from “Mad Max: Fury Road”
- “Game of Thrones” writer, Sansa and Ramsay speak out about horrifying rape scene: “I kinda loved it”
Note that the last article there asks actress Sophie Turner what she thought about the scene. Over more than four seasons, I have come to trust her more with the character than I trust the prodcuers, the writers, or even Martin. I trust her on this, too.
As a final note, I found a partial draft of a blog post from last year on a piece by Jessica Valenti on how The Walking Dead deals with sexual assault, as compared to Game of Thrones:
In a post-apocalyptic setting like the one on The Walking Dead, surely rape would be a reality as well – but you don’t need to depict extreme sexual violence for millions of people on a television screen in order to maintain the authenticity of a compelling television series.
That rape is a regular part of The Walking Dead’s world is hinted at several times throughout the series: we hear about rapes that have taken place, but we’re not forced to endure watching them. For me, this makes all the difference.
A “featured comment” noted the following:
If anything, there has never been a more feminist depiction of rape than this show on a TV show so mainstream – Game of Thrones depicts what is the reality of rape for many women, does not pull any punches regarding its violence or consequences and reflects a worldview where any man is a potential rapist. It should be commended not berated for this aspect of its story.