Shane Ryan and Josh Jackson review Game of Thrones each week in a series of letters.
What the hell??? This show has had some horrible moments, but why end an episode with Sansa essentially getting raped by her new husband—the show’s biggest sadist—while the man she thinks murdered her two brothers is forced to watch? Raise your hand if this is the kind of thing you want to see. Great, all of you with your hands raised are either headed to prison or to intern for George R.R. Martin. I’m a big defender of how Martin’s philosophy of killing off point-of-view characters raises the stakes for the reader and makes for a gripping tale. But all this sexual power fantasy stuff is a bridge too far. It’s bad enough when the victim is a wicked ruler like Cersei, but making us watch poor Sansa Stark with Ramsay? It ruined for me what was otherwise shaping up to be a fine episode.
Tyrion and Jorah were finally coming to life as a duo before the captor became the captive. Jorah even had enough wit to follow Tyrion’s lead when it came to getting them closer to Meereen. I’d forgotten that Tyrion had met Jorah’s father during his time at the Wall, and he seemed genuinely empathetic when he realized he’d delivered the news about Commander Mormont’s death.
And we finally got back to Arya—or no one—at Braavos. The writers decided to beat down both the Stark girls this week, although Arya was tough enough to handle getting a little bloody, especially since it ended with the next phase of her training. She’s not ready to be no one, but she is ready to become someone else, hopefully without the aid of the creepy skin-mask mausoleum, but I guess we’ll find out. That room reminded me a bit of The Governor’s fish tanks, but it was an awesome, if disturbing, sight.
And Cersei is enjoying her moment, getting the upper hand on not only her chief rival Margaery, but also of the sharp-tongued Olenna. She has maneuvered sole control over the boy king, but stripped her son of much of his power in the process. Worst mother-in-law ever.
Meanwhile her brother’s rescue mission in Dorne failed miserably, first getting derailed by the Sand Snakes and then getting arrested by Prince Doran’s guardsmen. The crippled prince is a step ahead of Ellaria’s young assassins, as well, ensuring that Marcella and Prince Trystane are allowed their courtship in peace. Since we’ve already left the books behind in Dorne, I have no idea where this is leading.
But all of that was overshadowed in the end. Am I overreacting? What did you think?
You’re not wrong—that was hugely disturbing, and I’ve long been one of those people who thinks that every f’ing scene involving Ramsay Bolton, going back to his introduction, is essentially some version of snuff porn that HBO needlessly milks to death. I got the picture about Ramsay’s unique brand of evil immediately, and I’m so sick of him as a character that even the catharsis of his eventual, inevitable death won’t be worth it. At this point, I’m imagining Joffrey’s smug face appearing in Sansa’s dream, saying, “bet you never thought you’d miss me!”
The one thing I will say, and this gets back to an old theme in American society, is that if we say this scene crossed a line, we’re essentially putting sex very high on the values podium above violence and murder in a way that’s arbitrary. Which, let’s face it, has been true in our national entertainment for years and years—we can watch any number of people die in various gratuitous ways, but when you add sex to the menu, that’s what really sends us up in arms. It’s why Midnight Cowboy, which won the Academy Award for best picture, was rated X upon its release—it depicted homosexuality, and in 1969, that was enough. Meanwhile, murder had long been a staple of film, and no body count was too high to merit anything worse than R from the MPAA.
I guess my point here is that in Game of Thrones, we’ve seen a good man beheaded in front of his daughter, a boy pushed out a high window and crippled because he saw a brother and sister having sex, a pregnant woman stabbed in her stomach and killed, and a guy’s penis cut off as he was being seduced. All of those produced emotional reactions, but not once did I say, “they’ve gone too far.” So my stance is that I was okay with all of those scenes, and I’m also okay with a depiction of rape. It’s their art, and I’m not going to draw a line in the sand for sexual crimes when I haven’t for the taking of human lives.
I’m not arguing against you here, by the way—I know you’re not saying it shouldn’t have been aired, only that you didn’t like it, a point with which I adamantly agree—but I am arguing against the inevitable Internet outrage machine, which I’m sure has already begun churning itself into a froth. We saw it happen to some degree with Jaime and Cersei in the sept, and if there was a note of ambiguity there, that note was completely absent in this case. Sansa didn’t consent, she just stayed quiet because she knew she was dealing with a psychopath who was capable of murdering women who bored him. That, to me, was almost worse—that Miranda pretty much groomed her to be raped with the bathtub speech. The whole episode was miserable, and I definitely didn’t expect it to happen when Sansa was pledged to Ramsay. For some reason, I thought it was a bridge too far even for a particularly brutal show. (As a reminder, she and Ramsay don’t cross paths in the book, so the marriage and all that follows is pure TV invention.)
I was wrong, but frankly, what else could we expect from Ramsay? If a person like that existed in the real world, we’d expect him to behave exactly as he just did. So why did I think Sansa had secretly lit a candle in the tower, and Brienne would burst in and slice his head off? If anything, it’s another example of the extreme commitment to the dark realism that prevails in Westeros. Logic decrees that Ramsay was going to do something awful to Sansa on her wedding night, and that’s what happened—the writers spare us nothing. And really, in the world of Ramsay, this is actually more realistic than the torture porn we saw with Theon, which just seemed like an elaborate sadistic indulgence on the show’s part.
And I have to say, it had a much stronger emotional impact on me. I became numb to Theon’s plight, but not to Sansa’s—she deserved better, but “deserved” means nothing in this world. Also, her ordeal has reverberations. For one thing, what about Littlefinger? For the most part, I’ve admired his machinations up to this point (yup, even when he pushed Lysa out the moon roof, because THIS IS AMERICA AND I’M OKAY WITH MURDER!) , but now we have to face the fact that in his rampant ambition, he left Sansa to be raped by a monster. He didn’t know what Ramsay was, sure, but do any of us really think he would’ve given up the chance to become Warden of the North—by playing Cersei like a fiddle, by the way—even if he had? Doubtful. And it’s a good lesson—the “game” of thrones is not some abstract chess match, but something that comes with unintended human consequences, many of them grotesque and tragic.
With both Ramsay and Cersei, though, we see people whose impulses are going to undermine them eventually. Ramsay doesn’t seem to care that he may actually need Sansa’s support, or the support of people who would rather not see her violated by a lunatic. Just like Cersei fights for pyrrhic victories that will cost her the money and army and supplies coming from the Tyrells. She even reduced Olenna to a speechless state this week, because Olenna is a smart woman whose formidable intelligence can’t quite fathom someone who will operate against her own long-term self-interest just to satisfy a vengeful urge. She thinks Cersei will call off the witch hunt because that’s what she would do, because it’s the smart thing for the future and surely nobody could be that stupid. But Cersei is that stupid, and she’s ruining the power base her father spent a lifetime building with impressive speed.
The last thing I’ll say before kicking it back your way is that while you and I have spoken about the difference between fluid and rigid characters (and we even made a chart!), I think it’s time also to talk about the passive vs. aggressive spectrum. There was a STARK divide (pun absolutely intended) between those traits in the characters featured last night. Arya, stubborn as she can be, is attempting to take control of her own fate. Tyrion, even with a knife at his throat, is doing the same. So is Cersei (dumbly), so is Petyr Baelish, and so are the Boltons. Meanwhile, other characters seem to cast themselves to the wind, and leave it up to others to decide their fate—of which Sansa is the best example. You could even argue that the Tyrells fell victim to that mindset this week by recognizing the legitimacy of the sham trial. The lesson: Westeros is not a world where you want to trust your destiny to good luck, as that particular element seems to be in short supply.
Back to you, Josh… and we haven’t even talked about the fight in Dorne! (Probably because that whole plot is faintly to hugely ridiculous.)
While I’m completely with you when it comes to our nation’s oft-skewed mores and priorities, it’s the combination of sex and violence in a rape scene that makes me not want to watch. It puts the audience in the position of Reek, stuck in the corner mortified to have to see a horrible human being become so cruelly intimate with someone so vulnerable and helpless. Yes, there has been plenty of shocking violence on the show, much of it perpetuated on the weak—like Jaime pushing Bran out of the window. But sexual violence is harder to watch, particularly on a show which aims to entertain more than make some kind of relevant statement about how damningly common rape is in our current society. Much has been made about how Game of Thrones uses female nudity as window dressing just because it can, so the trust is pretty low when it comes to a scene like this. I agree that it’s a more realistic expectation of a character like Ramsay that he would humiliate his new bride like this than the confounding Theon-torture sequence, and yes, I agree that HBO can put on screen whatever it damn well pleases; I simply do not have the stomach for it. And I imagine the sizable portion of the audience who’s been sexually abused was not entertained.
So the question is, what purpose does it serve the story? We all knew what Sansa was stepping into when she took Ramsay as a husband. We had to see how creative her humiliation would be? We had to hate Ramsay even more? When I say it went too far, I just mean that it left the realm of entertaining without any apparent upside. When the scene cut to black with no music, all I could think about was how manipulative that felt—it’s a tactic shows typically use when they’ve reached a level of emotional depth. It rang hollow to me. It’s easy to be cruel to your characters, and it can be the right artistic choice to either remind us how wrecked the human condition can be or to make their triumphs more satisfying. Or it can simply be to shock and say, “Look what we can do.” There seemed to be a measure of the latter here, and the cut to black made it seem like they were pretty pleased with themselves.
But I’ve talked enough about the final scene. And as you mention passive and aggressive characters, let us hope this simply marked the beginning of Sansa’s journey from one to the other. When she agreed to come to Winterfell, it was because of Littlefinger’s speech encouraging her to take a more active role in her family’s vengeance. She showed her mettle when Ramsay’s concubine was trying to frighten her. She’s been the most passive player in the game so far, but Ramsay may have just woken the wolf.
And that’s why we love Arya. She fights back. With every disadvantage, from her size to her age to her gender, in a world where men wield most of the power to her position as a fugitive, she’s been single-minded in her desire to right the wrongs that have been done to everyone she cares about. She’s endured plenty, but it’s only hardened her determination to erase the names on her list. And still, she has the compassion to tell a sweet lie to a dying girl and the strength to give her a cup of poison to end her suffering.
As for the fight in Dorne, there was never the slightest hope it would succeed. Bronn went with Jaime well aware that it was a fool’s mission, a desperate attempt to be a father to the daughter he could never acknowledge. We knew it was doomed to fail—at least they didn’t have to kill the young women they were fighting. The only person to die in this episode was the poor girl at the well. And now we get to see more of Prince Doran (Doran of Dorne? That’s just cruel), one of the few good and potentially wise leaders in Westeros. What does he do with rebelling heroes to the people and his king’s uncle when he’d like peace for his people?
But that’s a question for next week. Here’s a question for you: You earlier worried that the show would begin spinning its wheels with so many slowly developing threads. We’ve now passed the halfway point. How is this season shaping up as a whole for you?
As a last word on SansaGate, let me just reiterate that we’re in agreement about the purpose of the scene. As an artistic choice, it felt as flat and overcooked for me as every other Ramsay scene, and you’re right that the blackout showed HBO sort of patting themselves on the back. One thing I don’t agree with that I’m seeing on Twitter quite a bit is that this is going to destroy Sansa, or that it takes away her agency or reverses her trajectory. As you mentioned, I’m hoping it makes her even stronger and more determined. Also, Ramsay just needs to die already—the point everyone is making that I completely agree with is that if the point of the scene was to turn us against Ramsay, um… already done, guys. A thousand times over. We didn’t need more convincing.
So, Arya—she’s ready to kill! The one thing I kept wondering about when I read the books and again in the show was whether she could strike a balance between becoming a trained assassin but still maintaining her identity. It seems like the ideal for the faceless men is to lose all association with their past lives and become blank slates, but clearly if that happened to Arya, she’d be losing the purpose behind the revenge mission. We needed her to inherit all the killing and disguise skills from her new teachers, but to sort of leave the philosophy behind. At the end of last night’s episode, in front of all those dead faces, it seems like Jaqen H’ghar is giving her that exact chance, and I think Arya, who has been either training or fleeing since the very start, is finally about to go on the offensive.
All I can say about Dorne is that I don’t really get it. I realize it’s a change of convenience from the book, but whereas everything else seems so well-plotted, it still doesn’t make sense to me that people as smart as Jaime and Bronn would ever embark on that kind of suicide mission, period. Jaime may want to prove himself as a father, but he’s operating at Cersei-like levels of intelligence right now, and that’s never been his style. Also, it introduced another annoying thing that we often see in lesser TV shows—unrealistic timing. The fact that the Sand Snakes and Jaime/Bronn converged on the water gardens on the very same morning annoyed me; this show is better than that.
As for the season at large, I thought the first four episodes were fantastic, and I thought the last two, by GoT standards, were mediocre. However, I think a lot of forward progress has been made, and I’m not quite as worried about spinning wheels. My hope is that Tyrion and Jorah get to Meereen sooner rather than later, but as for the other story lines, I think we’re in for a high-octane conclusion.
And even though we’re speeding ahead of the books, I still believe it: Please don’t die, George R.R. Martin,
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