GAME OF THRONES 5×06

"Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken"

I don't know. This week, I just don't know.

I could write my usual post about "Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken," tracing the thematic throughline across all the various stories like I usually do. For the record, the connecting thread this week is lying. It is central to Arya's storyline: she is asked to discern truth from lies in the Waif's tale; she plays the Game of Faces (getting struck for each lie she tells); and she finally learns to lie in kindness to end the suffering of a child. It turns up in Tyrion and Jorah's storyline, as they desperately spin lies to convince some slavers to spare their lives. Lying, as always, permeates everything that happens in King's Landing, as Baelish's lies to Cersei bring him closer to power, Cersei's lies to Olenna bring the kingdom closer to war, and everyone's lies to the High Sparrow threaten to topple the crown itself. ("Bearing false witness before the gods is as great a sin as any," the High Sparrow says, as he has the Queen arrested.) And, of course, it ties into the final scene, as Ramsay Bolton expresses his desire for total honesty. ("You're not lying to me?" he asks Sansa. "Lying to your husband on your wedding night: that would be a bad way to start a marriage. We're man and wife now. We should be honest with each other, don't you think?")

So I could do that: this is actually one of the more consistent throughlines we've had this season, and that post would more or less write itself.

But I'm not in the mood, and you're probably not either. I'd be lying if I said I really cared about lying right now. (And we should be honest with each other, don't you think?) So, to be honest, all I'm thinking about this week is the rape of Sansa Stark. And I honestly don't know what to say about it.

When I wrote about "The Rains of Castamere," I said that there is an unwritten contract between authors and audience, and that this contract can be broken. Drama requires conflict, and heroes must suffer setbacks, and—for the story to have any real stakes—we must know that bad things can happen to characters we care about. But we are not under any obligation to tolerate creative cruelty for its own sake; we do not have to suffer sensationalism and sadism; we do not have to stick around past the point where we think the creators care more about shock-value and emotional manipulation than they do about their own characters. In fact, our agreement with a work of fiction is always open-ended and entirely at-will: we are free to break it, and leave the story, at any time, and for any reason, whenever we feel its pains begin to outweigh its pleasures.

"The Rains of Castamere" did not break my contract with Game of Thrones, any more than "Baelor" had done. I don't suppose "Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken" has broken that contract either, but it has come closer than those episodes—or any other—did. At the end of this episode I found myself briefly wondering, for the first time, why I need Game of Thrones in my life. I know the answer: I would not have watched this show for five seasons, let alone written so many words about it, if I didn't think the experience was worthwhile. But the final scene of "Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken" made me ask the question.

But why? That's what I'm interested in exploring this week, because I think the answer is both very complicated and very simple. Bear with me: this is going to take a while, and it's not going to be pleasant. (If you'd rather just skip it, and come back for our regularly scheduled analysis next week, you won't hurt my feelings.)

Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) in Game of Thrones 5x06

The question is complicated in a lot of different ways. First, there is the question of whether the scene is "fair." Fair within the context of the show, fair within the rules of the world as established, fair within what we have come to expect from Game of Thrones.

From this perspective, let's get the answer out of the way: yes, of course it is fair. The culture of Westeros is such that such things are not only common, but expected. "Everywhere in the world they hurt little girls," Cersei said last season, and nothing we have seen has ever caused us to doubt it. Marriages here are more often arranged than chosen; they are often arranged against the participants' wills, and the brides in particular have little or no say in the matter. (This—it should also be noted—is something Westeros shares in common with our world, for most of human history.) Most wedding nights in Westeros are probably indistinguishable from rape, from our modern perspective. Cersei's almost certainly was. Catelyn Stark's might well have been. Daenerys Targaryen's, which we did witness, was. 

And, outside of marriage, rape is not just common but accepted. Game of Thrones is largely about the uses and abuses of power, and rape is considered a right of the powerful on both sides of the Narrow Sea. Most everyone with power—Dothraki riders, Westerosi soldiers, Iron Born, wildlings, sellswords—all consider women to be the rightful spoils of war.

And so the threat of rape has circled nearly all of the female characters on this show at one time or another, right from the beginning. "I would let his whole tribe fuck you, all 40,000 men and their horses too," Viserys said to Dany, in the very first episode. "This lot, half of them would turn you over to the king quick as spit for a pardon," Yoren warned Arya, of the recruits for the Night's Watch. "And the other half would do the same, only they'd rape you first." Hiding out with the ladies of King's Landing during the Battle of Blackwater, Cersei cheerily informed Sansa that, should the city fall, "these fine women should be in for a bit of a rape." Jaime just as matter-of-factly informed Brienne, when they were captured by Lord Bolton's men: "When we make camp tonight, you'll be raped, more than once."

This is not even the first time Sansa has faced the threat of rape. She was assaulted in an alley by a group of rioting peasants in Season Two, and only saved from a worse fate by the Hound. Joffrey threatened to force himself upon her on several occasions, including on her wedding night to Tyrion. (She also certainly expected that Tyrion would take her virginity that night as well, an act that might not have been violent, but which—he fortunately realized—would have been tantamount to rape.)

There are other, more prominent examples that I'll discuss below. But the point of this (sadly incomplete) catalog is not just that rape is common in Westeros, but also that the threat of rape has been well-established on Game of Thrones. So there is an unpleasant but logical argument to be made that there was a certain narrative inevitability to this. Threats are real on Game of Thrones, and the show has never shied away from horror: we have seen people stabbed, beheaded, burned alive, maimed, disemboweled, castrated, tortured physically and psychologically, and—yes—raped throughout the series.

And, as we've discussed many times before—Game of Thrones has deliberately thwarted all genre constraints and expectations of fairness time and time again. Part of the reason we love the show is that—unlike in fairy tales and most fantasy stories—people do not always get what they deserve. This story is realistic, according to its own logic and within its own brutal milieu. This adherence to realism over genre expectations is why our apparent hero, Ned Stark, could lose his head before the first season was over. It is why Robb and Catelyn could be killed. It is why Oberyn Martell could lose his fight.

And it explains, sadly, why we were fooling ourselves to think that Sansa Stark could somehow make it through two unwanted weddings, and past all her horrible predators and suitors, with her maidenhead magically intact.

Sansa Stark

So, from a narrative perspective, I understand the show's choice here. From a narrative perspective, I even approve of it. Sansa was always the character who most believed in the fairy tales: from the beginning she was the storybook princess who thought she would end up with a storybook prince. As such, she represented an optimistic faith in fairness and chivalry and narrative justice that Game of Thrones actively works against. Sansa's story, all along, has been a slow education on the wrongness of believing in fairy tales, and from that perspective this turn of events was probably inevitable. Sansa has had a horrible sequence of events happen to her, but she has also been lucky: lucky to have protectors like the Hound, lucky to have a kind and self-controlled first husband like Tyrion, lucky to have a creepy and capable patron like Baelish. But it was our fault if we mistook that luck for some sort of magical sphere of protection around her innocence. There are no such guarantees of safety in Game of Thrones—that is one of the key strengths of the show—and so it was as inevitable that Sansa's luck would run out as it was that Ned Stark would lose his head.

But questions of narrative logic are not the only relevant questions. There are also questions of execution, and this is where I think Game of Thrones gets slightly more problematic. In addition to the near misses I mentioned above, and the rape of background characters—Craster's Wives, the Lamb Tribe, etc.— we have seen a number of instances of sexual assaults to major characters on this show before, and they are a decidedly mixed bag in terms of whether I think they were successfully handled.

One of the first was also the one I thought was handled the best: the rape of Mirri Maz Durr in Season One. We did not see her assault happen on-screen—in fact, Dany naively thought she saved Mirri from this fate—and it happened before she became a major character. But her experience was not glossed over: in fact, it became the defining moment of her character, and the source of her motivation in her terrible revenge against Khal Drogo. "Three of those riders had already raped me before you 'saved' me, girl," she told Dany. "So tell me again, what exactly it was that you saved?" It was an instance of the show acknowledging the psychological and emotional weight of rape, and how this woman's life would never be the same.

I will defend, too, the controversial decision to present Dany's first coupling with Khal Drogo as something brutal and involuntary. This was controversial in part because it was a change from the book—where Dany had some sexual agency, and the scene was played more erotically—but in this case I think the book got it wrong. Leaving out the fact that Dany was 13 in the book, the wedding night as portrayed on the show is just much more realistic, and more reflective of where Dany really was at the beginning of her extraordinary arc.

Other scenes have been less successful, and less warranted, and more problematic. In Season Three, Theon Greyjoy was nearly raped by a man—in the same episode where Brienne was almost raped—and then later was raped by two women, an event that ended with his castration. This scene is, for my money, one of the least justifiable scenes Game of Thrones has aired—not because it's brutal, but because it (and the entire episode) has a snickering air of titillation that is almost unforgivable. I don't object to the overall Theon storyline—which has dealt, and is still dealing, with the psychological fallout of the ways in which Ramsay tortured and violated and emasculated Theon—but the way that scene conflates rape with eroticism was criminally misjudged.

And I'm on the record as saying that Jaime's rape of Cersei in "Breaker of Chains" was a rare and disastrous misstep for the show, an event so wrong-footed that it is literally impossible to reconcile it with the narrative that contains it. We are not even able to discuss how the show dealt with Cersei's rape, because the show refused to acknowledge that any rape occurred: the disconnect between what the creators thought they were presenting and what appeared on-screen was so complete that we almost have no choice but to ignore the evidence of our eyes. That makes the scene not just a mistake, but a case of gross irresponsibility: an instance of the show's benefiting from shock-value sensationalism without having to contend with any of the consequences. Scenes like this do not incline us to give Game of Thrones the benefit of the doubt on its ability to handle the issue of rape responsibly.

Ramsay (Iwan Rheon) and Sansa (Sophie Turner)

For what it's worth, I do not think what happens in "Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken" is the same kind of creative misstep. For one thing, I think to dismiss it as such is to deny what is—and should be—its most important element: the character of Sansa Stark. For we can recognize that what happens to Sansa is horrible and traumatic without, I think, turning her entirely into a victim. Sansa has repeatedly had choices taken away from her, ever since she left Winterfell in Season One: she has been passed from man to man, from suitor to suitor, offered to Joffrey and Loras and Tyrion and Robin and now Ramsay. She has been used, manipulated, beaten, abused, tormented, and threatened every day of her life for years, and she has never had any real say, any real power, any real agency.

And yet to frame Sansa Stark entirely as a victim is to do her an injustice. Sansa is a survivor, and she is heroic in her survival. Within the terrible confines of her various situations, she has exercised agency and demonstrated her extraordinary capabilities. She is smart, and she is brave, and she is resilient, and she is far more sly than she appears. It is also important to note that she is not naive: not anymore. If Sansa had been raped earlier in the series—back when she thought Joffrey was her one true love, for example—it would be a very different story. But at this point Sansa has grown up: she has her eyes wide open.

"I won't force you to do anything," Littlefinger said, when he arranged this marriage. We can argue about whether he meant it—Baelish is not accustomed to letting other people thwart his schemes—but the fact of the matter is that Sansa made a choice to go along with his plan, and she makes that choice again here. There is a wonderful moment during the wedding when Roose, officiating, asks her: "Lady Sansa, do you take this man?" It plays out as a long, thoughtful pause of hesitation that Sophie Turner performs brilliantly. "I take this man," she finally says, and it is not—as her wedding to Tyrion was—because she has no choice. She has a choice, and she makes it, knowing full well what it means. She has few illusions left, even about Ramsay: she witnessed his twisted games last week, and she is warned this week about his brutality and sadism by Myranda.

Again, we can argue about what would have happened had she refused, but the fact is she doesn't refuse: she makes a choice, and it is a brave, conscious choice to do the impossibly hard thing for the greater good. That's what Starks do, and the washing of the dye out of her hair—revealing the natural red she inherited from her mother—just underlines the point. "I am Sansa Stark of Winterfell," she tells Myranda. "This is my home, and you can't frighten me." Sansa is not a stupid little girl with stupid dreams anymore: she is a woman, and she is strong and brave, and she is nobody's victim.

So, given all of this, how should that final scene have played out? I honestly can't decide. Should we have left Sansa at the bedroom door on her wedding night and faded to black? (This would have been more tasteful, but arguably more cowardly and disempowering.) Should the scene have shown Sansa as a more willing participant, consciously using the feminine wiles she has begun to harness? (But that would have been too empowered, and a denial of the tragedy of what is happening.) It is troubling, of course, that the actual rape plays out on Theon's face, not Sansa's: if this all turns out to be more about his character development than Sansa's, that will be a catastrophic betrayal on the part of the showrunners, one that shows they've learned nothing from controversies about earlier scenes like the one between Cersei and Jaime. But would we really want the camera to have stayed on Sansa's face? That, surely, would have been worse: more traumatic, more sensationalistic, and far more brutal on the young actress who has to play this part. Perhaps, if the show is going to traffic in rape scenes, it has an obligation to really show them, but the line between honest and exploitative is a very fine one.

I said when I began that I thought this issue was both very complicated and very simple. I've laid out some of the ways I think it's complicated, so let's briefly discuss what I think is the simple answer: just don't. There is no way to do a rape scene well, unless you are willing to tell a story that is about rape, recognizing its emotional weight and dealing with the long-term consequences for the survivor. (Even then, I can think of very few examples in popular entertainment that I thought did this with the sensitivity and complexity required.)

Because the reality is, there is no way to make rape entertaining. That seems like a self-evident statement, but—as fans of this show—we may as well admit that other horrible things can be entertaining. Dany burned a whole city full of people alive, and that was entertaining as shit. Oberyn's death at the hands of the Mountain was indescribably awful, but it was also thrilling and surprising and—let's face it—kind of awesome. Even "The Rains of Castamere," as I argued at the time, was a brilliant, exquisite hour of television that was strangely edifying and strangely beautiful, reminding us of the value of human life and the emotional power of storytelling.

With the best of intentions, with the most solid of narrative justifications, with the greatest respect for the characters and actors involved, there is simply no way to execute a rape scene well. Yes, rape is something that happens in real life, all too often. Yes, rape in this particular fictional universe is not only common but accepted. Yes, one could even argue that the rape of Sansa Stark is necessary for the development of this essential character who has become, and remains, one of our heroes. Yes, it is realistic, in a show that actively eschews narrative convenience, a show that deliberately denies us the comfort of fairy tales.

But Game of Thrones has a responsibility to recognize that rape is its own category of horror. It shouldn't be used as nothing more than a plot device, and this crowded genre show is ill-equipped to deal with it sensitively and respectfully as a means of character development. For all the artistic merits I have spent five years espousing, Game of Thrones is primarily entertainment: we watch because we enjoy watching, even when what we are enjoying is the dramatic horror of emotional trauma.

But we will never enjoy watching a character we love be raped. It will never be thrilling, it will never be beautiful, it will never not threaten to break our sympathetic contract with the show. It will always just be awful, in a way that—apart from everything else—takes us out of the show, and forces us to emotionally disengage.

Is it realistic that Sansa Stark would be raped? Sure. And, in this instance, I'd have been okay living with the lie.

Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits

  • That final scene was going to be a deal breaker no matter what else happened this week, but it doesn't help matters that I thought "Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken" was a terribly weak episode overall, one that made me genuinely concerned, for the first time, that showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are in danger of losing control of this material as they venture further from George R. R. Martin's text. Arya's storyline was fine, if a bit overpadded with unnecessary solemnity. The sudden ascension of the Faith Militant in King's Landing, however, has happened too quickly, easily, and dramatically to be entirely believable. And the scenes in Dorne were kind of ridiculous: all that build up about Jaime's "sensitive diplomatic mission" to rescue Myrcella, and the Sand Snakes' vengeful secret scheme to kill her, and this was the plan each of them come up with? Walk up to her in broad daylight in the middle of the gardens while she's canoodling with her fiancé? (The screenplay tries to acknowledge the poor planning by having Jaime say "I like to improvise," but that doesn't make it any less absurd.) It was pathetically slapdash on both parties' parts—diminishing the characters, particularly the Sand Snakes, in the process—and it was narratively obscene that these two things happened at the exact same moment for no discernible reason. (The sudden, seemingly random abduction of Jorah and Tyrion by evil slavers felt similarly convenient.) Writer Byran Cogman is an old hand, and has written many of my favorite episodes, so I'm inclined to blame this one on Benioff and Weiss floundering a bit in their new-found storytelling freedom.
  • Even the always-awesome Diana Rigg couldn't save this one. The Queen of Thorns had a few good lines, but she seemed strangely ineffectual and off her game in her conversation with Cersei. All of this contributes to the uncomfortable feeling that the plot is driving the characters for the first time, when it's always been the other way around.
  • I did like Arya's "game" with Jaqen, and I particularly liked the way he struck her for lying when she said she hated the Hound. (As I argued at the time, her feelings for the Hound—and her denial of mercy to him—were a lot more complicated than simple hatred.) And it's a nice echo forward to her granting of mercy to the dying child, a reflection of the suffering little girl she herself used to be.
  • All of the inevitable controversy around Sansa's story—and I'm sure I'm not the only one writing about it—should not overshadow the fact that Sophie Turner gives a fantastic performance. For the first few seasons Sansa had very few complexities to play, but, as the character has grown up, Turner has done an excellent job of layering strength and intelligence beneath Sansa's polite passivity, as well as the fear that still lingers even further below.

NEXT: Episode 3×07 – "The Gift"

The Unaffiliated Critic

Michael G. McDunnah is a freelance writer, a recovering lit major, a pop-culture junkie, and an unaffiliated critic. He lives in Chicago.

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