Whenever there’s a wedding on Game of Thrones you know something terrible is going to happen, and the wedding of Sansa and Ramsay was certainly no exception. While I agreed with some of the criticism of last season’s scene featuring the rape of Cersei by Jaime, my criticism stemmed from the fact that it was a mostly unmotivated event that had no repercussions for the characters involved or their relationship. I completely agree with the sentiment that rape and sexual violence as a mere plot device is irresponsible, but I wholeheartedly disagree with the notion that any depiction of rape is inappropriate for the screen. To me, this line of thinking is akin to the argument that high school students shouldn’t read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn because Mark Twain uses the word “nigger” in the text. Senator McCaskill is free to stop watching Game of Thrones, as is anyone else, but Game of Thrones is under no obligation to avoid depictions of certain behaviors and actions because they might possibly offend the sensibilities of certain audience members.
There seems to be a strain of this line of thinking that suggests that Game of Thrones (or any series) ought not feature depictions of rape because it’s a horrific event. This argument is baffling at best, paternalistic and puritanical at worst. In general I find it completely repugnant to suggest that any aspect of human behavior or event be off limits for artistic and/or intellectual exploration. Additionally, I find it rather laughable to suggest that this specific action is at all out of step with the nature of this series in general and the character of Ramsay and the progression of his storyline in particular.
Ramsay Snow/Bolton is a consistently, excessively sadistic and cruel individual who routinely desecrates the bodies of others. Indeed, the act of skinning human beings in their entirety is a point of pride for his family and a tradition so vital to them that a flayed man is the official insignia of their house. Furthermore, Game of Thrones is essentially a series about atrocity. The series, to its great credit, is utterly unsparing in its willingness to bravely explore and confront the depths of human cruelty and depravity. To do otherwise in this scenario would be intellectually dishonest. Any suggestion that this event was an unexpected event or that this is out of step for the series or this character defy credibility. I find it difficult to believe that anyone who has actually been watching the same show as I have would think that Ramsay would be anything but cruel to Sansa once she was officially in his “possession,” so to speak, legally and physically. It seems to be forgotten by some that Sansa has been a hostage in no uncertain terms since the arrest of her father and the narrative is very consistent on what marriage entails in this narrative universe.
An even more repugnant attitude I’ve come across is one that essentially asserts that the rape was inappropriate because it was felt or believed by some that Sansa was on the road to “empowerment,” or was even going to “win” which is now somehow undermined by this event. To begin with, the notion that any of these characters were ever going to “ride into the sunset,” as it were, is foolish. Such a thing happening on Game of Thrones would be beyond inconsistent. Secondly, the suggestion that Sansa being victimized somehow undermines her empowerment is outrageous beyond description. Taking a work to task for its narrative choices is one thing, but calling out a show for “ruining” a character one has personally invested in, as some have done is shameful and strikes me as a part of the pervasive and reflexive victim-shaming/blaming that is a product of the rape culture that many of these same sources claim to wish to eradicate. It is not the responsibility of the writers and producers of Game of Thrones to protect Sansa’s “virtue” because some people on the internet wish to use a fictional character as a tool to inflate their own egos. I myself feel tremendous anger about what’s happened to Sansa, but that anger isn’t directed at Benioff, Weiss, Bryan Cogman, or anyone else, it’s directed at the character who’s committed this act and the men (mostly Littlefinger) in the narrative who put her in this position in the first place. Sansa was victimized by Ramsay, not by the series.
There is a reading of this sequence that I’ll lend a bit more credence to (though I don’t necessarily agree with it) that asserts that by focusing on Theon during the rape in the final moments of the episode, the showmakers were diverting attention from Sansa as a victim and turning around to instead make it a moment about Theon and his pain. As I mentioned, this is a credible argument and a legitimate reading of the content in question, but my own reading is slightly different.
The suggestion of the unseen has long been an especially powerful filmmaking tool, allowing the viewer to fill in the blank space with their imagination (the box at the end of Seven, the brief case in Pulp Fiction, and reactions to Dirk Diggler’s penis (until the final scene, of course) in Boogie Nights, are all good examples). I would argue that Theon is a stand-in for the viewer in the moment in question, his face exhibiting the horror we can only imagine that he can’t escape from as witness. It’s an effective tool in a moment where frankly, Game of Thrones or any American television series lacks the cultural authority to actually depict/simulate this most heinous of physical violations.
Additionally, Alfie Allen’s exceptional performance here should not go unmentioned as he continues to deliver such fine and challenging work. I especially loved his moment in the Godswood where he’s forced to announce and identify himself and his relationship to Sansa. It’s such a painful moment that reminds the audience in the most tragic possible way how long and devastating these character’s arcs are. Indeed, there were so many layers of loss and suffering in this sequence that it really is a wonder to consider. What makes Ice and Fire such a great narrative is how such a complex and intricate plot line is underwritten and supported by such a raw emotional through-line.
The nexus of power and identity that is the very lifeblood of A Song of Ice and Fire was on full display in this episode, never more so than in the final sequence at Winterfell that began with the wonderfully tense and beautifully photographed scene with Myranda and Sansa. Sansa’s brave and heroic assertion of her true identity serves as her last moment of power over her enemies in this episode before being brought down to the level prescribed for women in this universe by that most bizarre and sometimes barbaric of customs, the wedding.
Without wading into misanthropy here, it must be acknowledged that in the universe of this series and in the history of civilization, marriage can function and has functioned as a tool of sexual oppression and a means by which to preserve and propagate misogyny and feudal classism. To be absolutely clear, when I refer to marriage here, I’m not talking about the agreed, consensual union of loving, co-equal partners; I’m talking about the arranged (forced) political agreement and exchange of property (young women) that is marriage in A Song of Ice and Fire.
Martin, Weiss, and Benioff are all keenly aware of the importance of this custom and institution to the functioning of the feudal societies set up in this narrative, as well as the reality that it is a custom in which daughters, or wards in Sansa’s case, are bartered for, bought and sold as property of men; fathers and husbands, and their respective houses. This is part of why I would contend that a lot of the reaction to Sansa’s rape lacks credibility; it’s naive to think that Sansa has any way out of this arrangement with the Boltons, to which she was not a consenting party. Given that reality, whatever sexual action taken by Ramsay on the wedding night, regardless of the degree of brutality, would have essentially been rape. Despite what some of Sansa’s more deluded boosters seem to think, there is no amount of pluck, cunning, or intellect that she can herself wield to undue an entire system of misogyny and sexual enslavement.
The only major character to marry for love in the series is Robb Stark, and he paid for it with his life and the lives of his wife and unborn child in the television version. Slightly more common than marrying for love in Ice and Fire is a loving bond created within an arranged betrothal, as was the case with Robb’s parents and seems to be taking shape in Dorne between the adolescent Trystane Martell and Myrcella Baratheon. This apparent affection was on full display in what was perhaps ( and perhaps tellingly) the weakest sequence of the entire series. It could be because we know who these characters are but don’t “know” them as characters yet, or simply because the material was corny, but the Dorne stuff didn’t come together for me in this episode and it appears that I’m not alone in that sentiment. This is definitely a salvageable storyline, but it’s far off the mark at this point.
I did, however, feel the non-Dornish sections of this episode were quite strong. The King’s Landing material in this episode was top notch, especially the tete e tete between Cersei and Ollena, Dame Diana being a welcome sight as always. The inquest sequence was quite strong as well. Jorah’s reaction to the news of his father’s death was a great bit of acting from the never disappointing Iain Glen. The cinematography in that sequence was also excellent, as it always is, but compositions such as those featured in that scene provoke special notice.
Similarly, I thought the Braavos section was exceptional. The tone this series has been able to create so consistently with Arya’s arc this season has so much to do with the magnificent production design for the House of Black and White and the way the sequences there are shot. Game of Thrones as a whole has so many great compositions in very low light, which is incredibly rare for television. It’s one of the truly special things about the series and the Braavos material this season, along with a lot of the Castle Black interiors are indicative of this quality. The House of Black and White is just eerie enough that the location feels strange and foreign without seeming overly bizarre or fake; it feels lived-in in a way that makes you feel the temperature of the rooms and the quality of the air.
It’s worth mentioning how effective it was that the opening and closing sequences of this episode were bookended and linked by the action of hair washing involving the Stark sisters. Whereas Arya was washing the hair of a dead woman in the beginning of the episode as part of her undertaking duties, Sansa was having her own hair washed by Myranda. While the action of Sansa getting her hair washed and the insert of Myranda’s hands wringing the water out and into a bowl matches the insert of Arya’s hands doing the same to the dead woman’s in the House of Black and White, suggesting/foreshadowing (perhaps) death (in one way or another, arguably) for Sansa, attention is also given to Sansa’s dye being washed out, suggesting a cleansing or rebirth of some kind.
Both death and rebirth are symbolically important and valid here since this bathing sequence represents a transition to a new reality for Sansa, as she prepares for the wedding and the events resultant. Indeed, there’s a motif of water as connected to death that runs through this episode, beginning with the hair washing by Arya, continuing with Tyrion and Jorah being on the shore when Jorah learns of his father’s death, Arya giving the dying girl the poison water from the fountain in The House of Black and White, and culminating with the bathing of Sansa and her wedding in the Godswood, which has a stream in proximity to the Heart Tree.
As a final note, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that amidst all the grim events of this episode and the reactions they’ve provoked, Game of Thrones continues to achieve tremendous tonal versatility and balance with it’s use of humor. “The dwarf lives until we find a cock merchant” is not only one of the best lines of this series, but one of the funniest lines I’ve ever heard on television. I have never laughed harder while watching this series.