[Opinion] Did Game of Thrones have to go there?

By Frankey & Mai

Game of Thrones Season 5; Episode 6 – Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken

Spoiler alerts ahead for both the books and the HBO TV series.

In the latest episode of Game of Thrones, Sansa Stark is raped by Ramsay Bolton on her wedding night, while Theon Greyjoy is forced to watch.

Mai says: The rape scene was abhorrent. Game of Thrones utilised an essentially clichéd plot device as a prelude to a defining, transformative moment for a woman. It is disappointing but thematically, its context made sense.  Read more.

Frankey says: This is Game of Thrones, after all. But that makes it no less confronting or questionable. Read more.

Mai says:

I sat on the edge of my chair watching this scene, cringing and breathlessly waiting. As the scene played out, I thought she might pull out a dagger out of her bodice and end Ramsey once and for all. It would be the perfect end to an episode where we saw Sansa at the peak of her power, stripped back down to her red-headed Tully roots and telling Ramsay’s concubine that, she, a Stark would not cower and that in no uncertain terms, Winterfell was her home. But she didn’t. This would have been an opportunity to surprise your audience. Rape is not surprising. It is unconscionable. It is abhorrent.

It is a sad social commentary of the world when rape serves as an impetus for character transformation and becomes a clichéd plot device. But in a series that centres on its ability to unhinge and subvert the standard ‘hero triumphs over all’ narrative, Sansa’s violation made creative sense. At no point did I feel that it was done gratuitously. There was no room for doubt that what we were witnessing was rape. A deliberate act of dominance and victimisation of an individual.

Was there another way in which the writers could have catalysed its characters rather than this medium? Yes, however this is the path their creative license has taken. There are parties that may believe that an allusion to Sansa’s ordeal would have better sufficed. However, merely because it appears off screen does not mean that the repercussions of utilising rape as a trigger are not there. Graphically, as uncomfortable as we are with bearing witness to fiction, maybe the reinforcement of the brutality and the inherent sadism in the violation of an innocent woman will make us as a society more aware.

“Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken” leaves season five in hot waters. Every plot strand is coming forth and if the themes and the weight of this episode are not addressed in the subsequent final four episodes it will render the show as once again, purely utilising shock tactics rather fulfilling its potential as confronting, gripping and complex television.

Frankey says:

Rape is a horrible thing – I don’t think anyone is saying that it’s not.

Last night’s episode was nothing short of confronting on so many levels. I don’t agree with the use of rape as a device for female character development. I think there are other ways to portray the brutality of Ramsay Bolton against his new wife. When Cersei was raped by her brother Jaime in front of their son’s corpse, we saw a similar outcry, and I don’t really know what that served. So after last night, I’m still left wondering why?

Game of Thrones has shown time and time again that like much of what happens in life, not everything goes the way we like it.

So should we compare the shock and awe of Sansa’s experience with the beheading of Ned Stark or the Red Wedding, or even the crushing of Oberyn’s skull? Sansa holds a very special place in the hearts of viewers (including yours truly), and a scene as unconscionable as this can really serve to portray the dark reality of this world.

But too often is the rape trope used without a sufficiently thought-out recovery. And it’s here that I’m hoping Game of Thrones will prove me wrong. With the sheer number of characters arcs flowing simultaneously, I’m not sure there will be enough time to explore the aftermath – at least with the necessary commentary it deserves. Too many will see this as a stunt of shock and awe to stir controversy. Indeed some are ‘quitting‘ the show.

The show has to this point rather commendably portrayed Ramsay Bolton as one of the most filthy and detestable characters on TV. Joffrey is but a boy compared to this bastard and last night’s rape scene said more about Ramsay and his psychotic ways than it did Sansa. So perhaps simply getting people talking is the end game. Indeed, I don’t think the show portrays the act in anything but its abhorrent light. For that, it is perhaps comforting that there has been such a denouncement of the deed, with the examination of rape brought to the forefront, and our collective hatred for Ramsay Bolton heightened.

This is Game of Thrones, after all.

What did the actors think?

Actress Sophie Turner (Sansa Stark) kinda loved it:

When I read that scene, I kinda loved it. I love the way Ramsay had Theon watching. It was all so messed up. It’s also so daunting for me to do it…But I secretly loved it… After Joffrey, she’s escaped him and you think she’s going to lose her virginity to a guy who’s really sweet and takes care of her and she’s thrown in with a guy who’s a whole lot worse. But I kind of like the fact she doesn’t really know what a psycho he is until that night. She has a sense, but she’s more scared of his father. And then that night everything gets so f–ked up.

Actor Iwan Rheon (Roose Bolton) said:

The interesting thing is, when you put Sansa into it, she carries a lot of status with her just because of her name. She’s a lady. So to him, it’s more about furthering the dynasty, furthering the status of the Boltons. As far as he’s concerned, as long as she becomes pregnant, then the job’s done, you know? He sees it like, “She’s my wife. I’m allowed to do whatever I want,” which is one of the horrible realities of that era, or the era that’s being represented in this made-up world. It’s a horrible, dark thing. But that’s her purpose, to have children, so they can carry on the family name.

[BOOK SPOILER] So what happened in the books?

George R R Martin said on his blog:

The show is the show, the books are the books; two different tellings of the same story.

By the end of A Feast for Crows, Sansa is still in the Eyrie. Ramsay instead marries Jeyne Pool (a minor character who appears only briefly in Season 1), also as a result of Littlefinger’s procurement. Sansa is eventually betrothed to Harrold Hardyng, Lord Robert Arryn’s heir.

Image credit: HBO

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