Can we have a quick chat about THAT scene in Game of Thrones?

May 23, 2015 § Leave a comment

A great deal has been written about the final scene in this week’s episode of Game of Thrones. For those of you oddly occupying the centre of a venn diagram of “haven’t seen it” and “want to read about it” then a short summary would go thusly: Winterfell, home to the mostly murdered Stark family, has been unceremoniously taken over by the Boltons, a family so evil they might as well have a sigil comprised of a man being tortured (Oh wait). However, the local people, as well as the north more broadly, unsurprisingly takes issue with such a well regarded house being replaced with a family who comes from a place as evil a sounding as the “Dreadfort.” In an attempt to lend the Bolton’s at least a fraction of legitimacy, Sansa Stark (the last known true heir of Winterfell) is trafficked to marry Ramsey Bolton. After a wedding that involves little of the ceremony that the series is known for (read: death), Sansa is taken back to Ramsey’s room and is raped in order to consummate the marriage.

The scene is uncomfortable, it is unpleasant, and it unambiguous in its utter revulsion at what is happening. There is no suggestion that Sansa might in any way be complicit in what is happening (as was the case in Series 4 with Cersei), and nothing about the scene sexualises what is going on. It is, to my mind, a scene which is shot in a tonally appropriate way.

So where is the controversy?

The most flimsy reason is that the scene diverges significantly from what occurs in the books, where Ramsey Bolton marries a Stark imposter in an attempt to bolster his legitimacy. Here the rape still occurs, but the reader isn’t as present as the viewer is to the scene in the show. It’s something that happens ‘off the radar’ so to speak, and thus this line of argument reasons it’s somehow more ok than what the television adaptation depicts.

I don’t buy this logic for a couple of reasons, chief amongst them is the fact that the events of the book have no bearing about what is and is not acceptable in its TV adaptation. Both exist as separate artistic works, and the aim in making each of them should be to make the best piece of art for the medium it exists in. The TV show and the books are fundamentally different, they exist separately from each other, and using one to either legitimate or undermine the events of the other is a fallacy. The same is true of any adaptation; Fight Club is an amazing movie despite its wild divergence from the book, and the Watchmen movie is by all accounts pretty atrocious despite a near-obsessive attitude towards the source material. We evaluate the show on its own merits – end of story.

The opinion I have the most amount of time for is that Sansa’s rape is out of step with her current character development, and is a flimsy excuse to shock the audience at the expense of a character’s story arc. Throughout the last few episodes we have seen Sansa growing in capability. She’s a far cry from the spoilt lady-in-training of the first series, or the damsel in distress of the second. Now she’s capable of standing on her own two feet, of deceiving people when she needs to, and intimidating them when they stand in her way. In the very same episode we see her resolutely stand her ground against a jealous chamber maid of Ramsey’s, even as she’s at her most vulnerable sitting naked in a bath-tub. “This is my home,” she says, “and I will not be made to feel afraid.”

This argument makes a lot of sense to me, but to my mind there was no way a marriage to Ramsey Bolton wasn’t going to end up with something horrible happening on the night. We have had a perfect storm of shittiness brewing throughout the series. Sansa might be back on her home turf, but aside from a frail elderly chambermaid who earlier reminds her that “the North remembers” she’s up shit creek without a paddle. Opposite her we have Ramsey Snow, a man who hunts men and women alike with dogs for sport. There was no way this evening was going to end well, aside perhaps from another fortuitous entrance from Stannis ‘just in the nick of time’ Baratheon.

Given that something unpleasant was going to happen the way the scene played out fell into none of the traps that Game of Thrones has done previously. There was no indication at all that Sansa ‘gave in’ at any point, or in any sense consented to what was occurring. There was no nudity, no ambiguously titillating camera shots, instead we were subjected to nothing more than the pained reactions of someone present. This fact has been grounds for criticism by some – the reorientation of female suffering in a male’s reaction – but the alternative of having the camera focussing on Sansa leaves far more room for tonal mistakes to be made.

But as much as a controversial scene like this can be shot in a sensitive way, the real test is how the show will deal with its subsequent fallout. At this point we have little idea of how this is going to play out, although the fallout from similar scenes in the past is less than reassuring. Daenerys proceeded to fall wildly in love with her abuser in series 1, and Cersei…seemingly never mentioning the event ever again.

The reaction this scene has generated is exactly the sort of reaction you’d expect from an audience which has been constantly let down by the way in which a mainstream show has ham-fistedly tried to deal with these topics before, but importantly there’s nothing about how the scene has been portrayed thus far that indicates it’s going to fall into the same traps. Game of Thrones has deservedly had its knuckles rapped by its audience on a number of occasions now, and for it not to have taken this criticism on board would be astonishing.

It might well be the case that Sansa’s rape will form nothing more than the latest in a long line of tone-deaf attempts to shock, but equally it might be a turning point for the show when it finally grows up and learns how to deal with this most sensitive of topics. The only thing we know at this point is that the scene itself took great pains to treat the event with the sensitivity it deserved. As for everything else?

We’re just going to have to wait and see.

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