Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken: Why That Scene made no sense
Seriously. Fuck this shit.
In an attempt to avoid this becoming a swear-filled rant, let’s talk about all the ways that Sansa’s current plotline doesn’t work, narratively speaking.
Because even though technically this storyline appears in the books, it doesn’t happen to Sansa, and — surprise, surprise — female characters are not all interchangeable, even in stories of victimization and violence.
We’re rehashing Sansa’s plotline from the past four seasons. Only this time, it’s more graphic, with added rape. An engagement arranged for her, based on the promise of a grand title and something she really wants (first, the epic romance, and now, revenge and her home)? Awkward family dinners with the people who killed her parents? Abuse at the hands of her betrothed/husband? Sansa trapped in the middle of it all, unable to do pretty much anything of her own will? Check, check, check.
We’ve been here. We’ve seen this. It isn’t interesting storytelling to put Sansa into the same-old situation, complete with familiar scenes, except this time the actress is 18 and so this time, people won’t just attempt to rape her 14-year-old character.
Sansa isn’t showing any character growth
At then end of last season, we were promised that Sansa was going to become a “major player” in the game of thrones. Mostly, this seemed to involve dyeing her hair and wearing a lot of black, but also learning to lie and manipulate people, as she did in the Vale. Yet Sansa has been nothing but a pawn all season, and this week’s episode was no different. Sansa was not a “player” in these scenes. She didn’t attempt to delay the wedding or gain allies or find out information about Ramsay or sweet-talk him or anything. She was a lost child, scared and uncertain how to act, doing what other people told her to do because she trusted they knew best.
And there’s nothing wrong with that, from a character perspective. Sansa is still a child. She’s about fourteen in the show, younger in the books. Why should she act like Margaery Tyrell when faced with the family that murdered her mother and brother? But the show set Sansa on this plotline with the promise that it was going to be empowering for her, that she was going to fight her own corner, and yet here she is, still a victim, facing more violent abuse than ever.
The end of this episode felt like Sansa’s punishment for trying to play the game. Not that she has been playing the game, particularly, but the show planted the idea in our minds. It clearly wants us to think that Sansa could be a manipulator like Margaery… and her attempts to do so end in her being raped by Ramsay Bolton. How else are we supposed to read it, except as the consequence of getting involved in things she doesn’t understand? This feels especially clear as the rape scene follows a scene where Sansa has the dark dye washed out of her hair. She can’t pretend to be anyone else. She’s back to being herself — and that self is apparently always a victim, whatever else she might pretend.
The rest of the episode was inconsistent with Sansa’s character. Last week, I thought that Sansa was expressing horror at what had happened to Theon, but this episode suggested I was wrong. She feels no sympathy for him. She doesn’t care what Ramsay does to him. The more generous and sympathetic side of her has vanished. And far from her becoming more shrewd, any insight and understanding she had before has vanished too. She saw how Ramsay acted at the dinner table last week, but when Myranda warned her about him, she acted as though the warning was a lie to scare her. As though Myranda was just jealous and trying to get rid of a rival. And Myranda is jealous, but that doesn’t make her words any less true. Wouldn’t Sansa, after her experience with Joffrey, take heed? Wouldn’t she at least be searching for a hint of truth? A badass moment of “you can’t frighten me” doesn’t outweigh the fact that Sansa should be frightened.
It doesn’t make sense for Ramsay’s character either
I admit, I was a little relieved when I finally saw the scene, because it wasn’t anywhere near as graphic as I expected. But Ramsay had been trying, in his own twisted way, to play the role of the kindly lord around Sansa since he met her. He showed off his power last week at the dinner table, but since Sansa apparently wasn’t feeling sympathy for Theon there, even that didn’t completely ruin the facade. So why, in this moment, did he decide to abandon the game and rape her? Was it because she said Tyrion was kind for not sleeping with her? Was it because he thought she was lying to him? Was it simply because he didn’t see the point in pretending any more — in which case, why did he go through the whole charade of asking Sansa if she liked the candles and saying he wanted to please her? The episode didn’t make it clear, beyond “Ramsay is sadistic,” but it needed to. To be a compelling villain, Ramsay’s actions have to have some kind of internal logic.
And considering what we know of Ramsay, if he had decided to be cruel to Sansa, then why wasn’t the scene more graphic? This is a man who hunts girls and lets his dogs tear them apart. This is a man who psychologically and physically tortured Theon in endlessly inventive ways. I’m so glad it wasn’t more graphic, and I really hope the show ends it there, but if Ramsay’s cruelty to Sansa is so important to the plot, why wasn’t it more developed? Why was it almost perfunctory, like the writers were saying, “well, it’s Ramsay, we need to have a rape scene now”?
It was un-graphic enough for people to claim that it “wasn’t that bad.”
We are unambiguously supposed to feel Sansa’s pain here. But I’ve already seen the arguments appearing online. It was Sansa’s wedding night, what could she expect? Yes, he wasn’t the nicest about it, but, I mean, she’d known she would have to sleep with him. It was bad, but it wasn’t rape, because medieval times, husband’s rights, it’s just what’s expected!
I have no doubt that the writers wanted us to feel sympathy for Sansa by making her a victim — but if that was their goal, they’ve failed. The show has featured so much rape and violence and misogyny that it’s harder to make it have an impact now, and people are definitely responding from that perspective. And if the scene doesn’t even have an effect on the show’s apparent target audience, what was the point of including it?
It focussed on Theon over Sansa
Which is, of course, the real reason why the writers wanted to retain Jeyne Poole’s plotline — it’s part of Theon’s story. Even though Sansa got most of the screen-time here, it felt like the story of his emotional struggle. Even after hearing Myranda’s tales of Ramsay, we didn’t get much of a glimpse of Sansa struggling with herself, deciding whether to go through with the wedding, agonizing over what to say, but the five-second shot of Theon’s face as he struggled to say his own name was enough to remind of us all the complicated things that Theon is going through. And when the episode ended, there was a lot of focus on Theon not being allowed to leave, not being allowed to close his eyes. It ended with a close-up of Theon’s tear-stained, agonized face as he watched, while Sansa’s face was shown only briefly before disappearing from shot.
Of course, a part of me is very glad that we didn’t get a close-up on Sansa’s face instead of Theon’s at the end of the episode. But if you are going to torture your young female character, at least give her emotions screen-time and weight. If you’re going to treat her like this, respect her enough to let it be her story. Have the stomach to show her, and not the agonized witness.
So why, then, did they give this storyline to Sansa? Why have Littlefinger come up with such a nonsensical scheme, why have other characters go along with it, why change Sansa’s story so drastically and add more victimization to the storyline of a character who’s been almost defined by victimization before?
Well, we know the answer, don’t we? They really, really wanted a reason to rape Sansa Stark. Sansa is “the beautiful one,” the “innocent one.” The feminine one. The tragically beautiful victim. Of course they wanted the chance to subject her to rape while claiming that it was part of the books, that it was character development, that it puts her on the road to strength. She’s precisely the sort of character that writers always want to torture, who’s seen as needing to suffer more and more before she can “rise above it” and have vengeful, murderous strength of her own. The delicate flower, the thing that must be crushed for a male character to have a story arc of redemption, or for shock value, or, at best, so she can “evolve” into something “stronger.”
And all this in an episode called Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken. All this in a plotline that they’ve said, again and again, is about Sansa leaving weakness behind and becoming the person she was always meant to be.