Warning: Book spoilers ahead! (That paragraph will be marked with bold text at the start). Also, do not read if you are not caught up through Game of Thrones‘ latest episode, “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken.”
At the conclusion of “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken,” Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) was brutally raped by her now-husband, Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon) while Theon/Reek (Alfie Allen) was forced to watch. Game of Thrones has never shied away from controversy or difficult moments, but for many fans, that scene went beyond the pale.
It was similar to a choice showrunners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff made last season in the episode “Breaker of Chains,” where Jamie (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) had some kind of nonconsensual sex with his sister Cersei (Lena Heady). That scene fundamentally changed the conception of Jamie as a character, something that angered book fans and confused fans of the TV show. Things didn’t need to happen this way, and the scene didn’t reveal anything worthwhile about either character, so why the change?
When it comes to Sansa, though, there are more complications than just a change from the book (which I’ll get to in a moment). Game of Thrones is a great show. It’s exciting and entertaining, and it’s also brutal and dark. But it also has a poor history with its portrayal of female characters, and it’s never been the kind of series that has the margins to deal with what has happened, and continues to happen, to Sansa.
Sansa somehow managed to survive the many attempts to kill off her entirely family (some of whom, like Isaac Hempstead Wright‘s Bran and Maisie Williams‘ Arya, have managed to stay in hiding and are presumed dead), and also survived Joffrey’s (Jack Gleeson) brutality, and Cersei’s scorn. She was forced to marry Tyrion (Peter Dinklage), but he kept his distance. After being sheltered by Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen), Sansa seemed reborn at the end of Season 4 as “Dark Sansa.” Would she be more powerful? Would she finally have more agency?
In the books so far, Sansa remains squirreled away in the Eyrie in disguise, promised to marry young Lord Robert as part of a plan to ultimately reclaim Winterfell. Ramsay, instead, marries an Arya impostor, all of which was set up by his father Roose. The “fake Arya” is actually Jeyne Poole, a childhood friend of the Starks, and someone who Theon/Reek also knew growing up. On their wedding night, Ramsay tells Reek to “warm up” his new bride for him by performing oral sex on her, which both horrifies and humiliates Reek and Jeyne. /end spoiler
That portrayal certainly would have been just as disturbing, if not more so, than what the show chose to do in “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken.” But now that the character is Sansa, it takes on a different meaning. In her response to the scene, Sophie Turner said in part to EW,
I swear, this show, after the first season when people were hating on Sansa. Showrunners [David Benioff and Dan Weiss] must have been like, “Okay, let’s do everything we can to make her the most abused, manipulated character!
So in Game of Thrones, does a female character have to be abused and manipulated to become likable? That’s a troubling thought. Sansa has had a horrifying journey on the show, and Game of Thrones has never been about redemption (something Matt will be talking about more in a piece on the subject later today). But for many fans, the scene failed both narratively and in its dramatization. Enough with Sansa being brutalized. We get it. Move on.
Turner also said,
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. I’ve been making [producer Bryan Cogman] feel so bad for writing that scene: “I can’t believe you’re doing this to me!” But I secretly loved it.
Regarding fans coming to her defense over the scene, though, she said:
I completely agree with them! 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.
The response is a little glib given the gravity of the portrayal, but it shows that she didn’t have an issue with it from a character standpoint. Does that give hope that Sansa is able to have her own revenge plot start to play out over the course of this season, or will the Starks continue to suffer?
Author George R. R. Martin also posted a long, vaguely supportive, and mostly non-answer to his feelings on the scene on his Livejournal. It reads in part:
I have a lot of fans asking me for comment.
Let me reiterate what I have said before.
How many children did Scarlett O’Hara have? Three, in the novel. One, in the movie. None, in real life: she was a fictional character, she never existed. The show is the show, the books are the books; two different tellings of the same story.
There have been differences between the novels and the television show since the first episode of season one. And for just as long, I have been talking about the butterfly effect. Small changes lead to larger changes lead to huge changes. HBO is more than forty hours into the impossible and demanding task of adapting my lengthy (extremely) and complex (exceedingly) novels, with their layers of plots and subplots, their twists and contradictions and unreliable narrators, viewpoint shifts and ambiguities, and a cast of characters in the hundreds.
There has seldom been any TV series as faithful to its source material, by and large (if you doubt that, talk to the Harry Dresden fans, or readers of the Sookie Stackhouse novels, or the fans of the original WALKING DEAD comic books)… but the longer the show goes on, the bigger the butterflies become. And now we have reached the point where the beat of butterfly wings is stirring up storms, like the one presently engulfing my email.
Prose and television have different strengths, different weaknesses, different requirements.
David and Dan and Bryan and HBO are trying to make the best television series that they can.
And over here I am trying to write the best novels that I can.
And yes, more and more, they differ. Two roads diverging in the dark of the woods, I suppose… but all of us are still intending that at the end we will arrive at the same place.
In the meantime, we hope that the readers and viewers both enjoy the journey. Or journeys, as the case may be. Sometimes butterflies grow into dragons.
Share your thoughts on the scene and these comments below, and please clearly mark any discussion of the books so those who don’t want to know can avoid spoilers.