Hoo boy, OK, here we go: Sunday night’s Game of Thrones — “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken” — has caused quite the kerfuffle. (If you haven’t watched the episode then we’d suggest staying away from this post if you have a fear of spoilers.)
People are very upset by how the episode ended: with Sansa Stark being raped by her brand new husband Ramsay Bolton while Theon Greyjoy/Reek looked on. It was painful, hard to watch, and yet another instance of physical violence against a character on the TV show where in the book there was none.
Naturally, this gets people very upset — and for very valid reasons. In the books, the happenings of the evening were reserved for a Winterfell resident named Jeyne Poole, who — when dressed up and billed as Arya Stark to give the Boltons more legitimacy in their claim of Wardens of the North — was later saved by Theon. In this way, a small change has become quite significant in terms of character and story development.
As Martin explained on his blog, “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. … all of us are still intending that at the end we will arrive at the same place.”
But for several reasons, this rape happened. It is now part of her story, and in the context of the show it makes a lot of sense: if Ramsay hadn’t done this, and implicated Theon in it in order to continue to wield his manipulative, disgusting control, it would have been more shocking and out-of-character. Ramsay is pure evil incarnate and he’s abused everyone to such extreme levels of depravity. But until we see how the show handles the fallout of this event, it feels too reactionary and gun-jumping to dismiss it as the myriad of things the Internet has thus far. For better or for worse, this is a universe where people use sex in a wide array of manipulative manners.
Would we have loved it if Sansa stabbed him in the guts? If Theon’s limit had been reached and he’d finally had enough? Of course — we always love to see the bad guy get his due at the hands of some boss-ass ladies. (See also: Mad Max Fury Road.) But perhaps the story they’re telling is not as simple as all that. Or maybe, logistically, it made sense to hold off on such an occurrence until there were higher emotional stakes for the other players involved.
Or maybe this will flip what happens in the books — Theon rescuing Jeyne from Ramsay and Winterfull — on its head. We’ve already seen how Theon/Reek is unable to rescue himself; what if it is Sansa who rescues him in the end? Or what if this rape is the impetus that ultimately turns Sansa into a stand-in for Lady Stoneheart? Or maybe something else entirely happens — maybe Sansa and Myranda team up and kill the boys, taking Winterfell as their own.
Though the plays that showrunners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff are making at this point are far more deviant, they’re streamlining the ethos of the story and keeping with the characters we care about rather than making an already big, confusing show in an even bigger and more confusing situation. If the thematic payoffs are still the same and considering how we’ve already seen Sansa Stark build up to a much stronger, more interesting character in the show than in the books, it feels unfair to simply assume she will react as a victim to what has happened. It feels almost egomaniacal to assume we all know better than the creators of this show in regards to the endgame at hand.
The discussion around these sort of acts and what they mean on TV? Keep it coming, for sure: the only way we really hash out the realities of sexual violence and its implications both in reality and popular culture is through discussion of our own point of view on the argument. The only way people truly understand the reality of rape is to try and understand it — particularly in moments when people make mistakes around it and/or cause a controversy. For better or for worse, the conversation is necessary.
Until we see where the rest of this season takes us though, we’re going to reserve judgments on the merits of this particular rape. But boy oh boy, won’t it be fun when we all live in a world where women are more than just a vessel of sexuality?
Alicia Lutes is the Associate Editor of The Nerdist. You can find her on the tweeter @alicialutes.