Game of Thrones Recap: “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken”

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Even those who don’t watch HBO’s Game of Thrones with any regularity have undoubtedly heard about the backlash created by Sunday’s episode, “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken.” The groundbreaking show, which has always been unafraid and unapologetic about showing unwarranted violence and sexual assault, may have finally crossed one too many lines. Is “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken” the straw that broke the camel’s back?

Trigger warning: this post discusses a gratuitous rape scene. If this is a trigger for you, please read no further than the summary. 

Spoilers ahead.

The episode was full of dramatic twists and turns—Arya continues her odd training with the Faceless Men (and we finally find out what they do with all those corpses); Jorah and Tyrion are captured by slavers (“cock merchant”…that’s all I’m saying); Jaime and Bronn break into the Water Gardens to rescue Myrcella and end up fighting with the Sand Snakes; Littlefinger returns to King’s Landing and asks Cersei to make him Warden of the North; Lady Olenna throws some shade; the High Sparrow interrogates Ser Loras regarding the accusations of homosexual behavior, and ends up arresting both him and Queen Margaery for lying before the gods; and lastly, Sansa and Ramsay are wed in the Godswood before he forcefully consummates their marriage and makes Reek watch.

There isn’t much I can say that others haven’t already. That scene has been torn apart and analyzed by dozens upon dozens of blogs and websites. However, I do want to put in my two cents. My main issues are threefold.

What purpose did that scene serve?

Many have pointed out that dramatic moments like this help further the plot. While that is true, I believe there is a deeper issue. Sure, Sansa now has extra fuel to bring hell down on the Boltons (as though she didn’t have enough already…), but I would bet a kidney that Game of Thrones will ignore any pyschological, emotional, or pysiological repercussions. If you’re going to use rape as a plot device, then show me the full story. Don’t simply make it a sex scene, and then call it a day. Doing so is a slap in the face to anyone who has been a victim of sexual assault. TV shows so rarely portray what happens to victims in the aftermath. This article from The Mary Sue gives several examples of how television typically handles rape (aka how they ignore the long-term effects of rape). At the end of the day, Sansa’s rape scene is nothing more than an interchangable plot device, as bad as the time the writers changed the status of Cersei’s consent in that other scene. The writers could have chosen various other avenues to give Sansa more reason to hate Ramsay. They have said repeatedly that they want “Sansa to play a major part this season,” and they have deviated quite a lot from the source material. In the books, Sansa remains in The Vale, while Ramsay marries Jeyne Poole (who is masquerading as Arya). It is true that Jeyne goes through several traumatic incidents, including rape. However, the writers have raised Sansa to the same level as Tyrion, Littlefinger, Cersei, and others—characters who are truly part of “the game.” These are characters who are tenacious, strong-willed, and manipulative in order to get their way (and more importantly, to stay alive). We have proof that Sansa can live among them and hold her own, despite the hurt that she has been through. Katie Majka put it best in her review of the episode when she asked, “Why did they hype up Sansa’s status as a player in the game if they were just going to victimize her again?”

If it is so important to Sansa’s story, why is the focus on the men in the room? 

Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that the rape scene is absolutely necessary. (It isn’t.) If that’s the case, then why was the focus on Reek? I’m not saying that I wanted to watch the rape in detail; however, by centering the camera on the extra man in the room, the heart of the matter changes. We as an audience are being told, through cinematography, that it is difficult for Reek to watch Sansa be raped. We are shown his tear-streaked face, we see how horrified he is at Ramsay’s command. We remember that he once thought of Sansa as his own sister, and now she is being defiled in front of him while he is helpless to stop it. The scene becomes less about Sansa, and more about Reek and his path to redemption. We are being told that Reek is not heartless. We are being told that Reek may join Sansa in her quest to bring revenge upon House Bolton. We are being told that it is the stories of the men that matter most, even in a show that features formidable females.

How many times must we be shown such ruthlessness?

We know that the story world of Game of Thrones is brutal. We’ve known that from the show’s inception. In both the books and on screen, Westeros and the neighboring lands are harsh, mirror images of the cruelties of our own history. But I have to wonder: just how many reminders of this do we need? I know, as does every other viewer, that each Game of Thrones episode comes with a hearty helping of blood and boobs—to some degree, rape is expected because it is a part the world created by George R.R. Martin. However, there is something to be said for the way in which the writers excuse the actions of the characters. They often cite historical accuracy to justify the gratuitous scenes. Kathleen E. Kennedy points out that the idea of understanding “realistic medieval sex” is somewhat ridiculous as it doesn’t do justice to the complexities of the Middle Ages.

Back then, as now, people might marry for a variety of reasons, but then, as now, consummation was supposed to be consensual. Consent mattered in medieval culture just as it does in modern culture. Yet modern rape statistics demand that we recognize that it still happens with alarming frequency. The debate on whether Sansa Stark’s rape was worth showing hides both how modern medieval culture was and how medieval our own culture still is. As Sarah Mesle in the Los Angeles Review of Books wrote, “This episode of Game of Thrones does to viewers what the world so often does to women: It mistakes presence for consent.” The sexual reality of Game of Thrones is, in fact, our own.

All in all, I feel somewhat let down by the artistic choices the writers have made thus far in their deviations this season. I won’t stop watching the show, but I am curious how many more episodes will employ horrific scenes that distract the viewers from the rest of the plot.

In the words of others…

The night is dark and full of terrors,

The Collected Mutineer

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