This Game Of Thrones review is written for those who have read George R.R. Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire. It will not explicitly spoil events from those books that have not yet been adapted into the series, but it will occasionally refer to future events more broadly in the interest of exploring the process of adapting them into a series. More explicit spoilers for (potential) future events will come in a separate section at the end of the review. All discussion in the comments is valid, up to and including the events of the fifth book, but we ask that you clearly mark spoilers from the fourth and fifth books.
For those who have not read the books, you can read if you would like, but proceed with caution following the spoiler warning, and check out our reviews for newbies.
Every Game Of Thrones episode has more than one narrative climax. With each episode divided into multiple different storylines, each of those storylines reaches its own end point, which subsequently sets up the next storyline featuring those characters. The first climax in “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken” comes early on, as Arya walks into the vault of faces in the House of Black and White.” The last is the gruesome culmination of Sansa and Ramsay’s wedding night, as he forcefully takes her virginity while Theon and/or Reek watches on in horror.
These are two different types of narrative climaxes to two very similar storylines. Ramsay brings up the idea of honesty in his pre-rape patter, suggesting that it is an extremely important virtue. It’s also Sansa’s test while living with the enemy, a skill she is supposed to have learned from Littlefinger during their time at the Eyrie. Similarly, Arya’s storyline at the House of Black and White sees her tested on her capacity to lie: she is punished when she fails to do so effectively, and is rewarded with access to the Mission Impossible propmaster’s closet when she succeeds. But whereas Arya’s story ends with an event that gives viewers a clear and exciting glimpse of where she is heading in the future, Sansa’s story ends with an event that makes me deeply concerned about that same future.
The way Game Of Thrones has dealt with rape in the past has been uneven and problematic, and here we see an example of a storyline that works out of context but struggles within it. As a story in and of itself, it makes sense: Westeros is a world where women are often forced to have sex on their wedding nights without giving consent, which is what Sansa had been expecting when she was wed to Tyrion. Even if Ramsay wasn’t a psychopath, chances are that there would be an expectation that Sansa would no longer be a virgin by the end of her wedding night, meaning that this particular rape is not without logic within the storyworld out of context.
But in context, it’s a tough scene to take, and not necessarily in the way the show intends (as, to be fair, we’re meant to be disturbed by the scene). The issue with the show returning to rape as a trope is not simply because there have been thinkpieces speaking out against it, and is not solely driven by the rational concerns lying at the heart of those thinkpieces. It’s also that the show has lost my faith as a viewer that the writers know how to articulate the aftermath of this rape effectively within the limited time offered to each storyline in a given episode and given season. Three of the show’s main female characters have now been raped, and yet the show has struggled to make this a part of their character history—their rapes may function as narrative climaxes, but the rising action has never been particularly well-drawn, and the denouement has been non-existent.
The nature of episodic television reviews means that we don’t know if it will be the same this time. I want to believe that this rape is not simply being used as an escalation of Ramsay’s evil, given that it would be highly unnecessary. I want to believe that Sansa’s redemption arc will not simply view her rape as a generic narrative turning point. I want to believe that this rape will be treated like a rape, and justly punished (perhaps by someone who was nearly raped herself earlier in the series). I want to believe all of this because I want to think the show has learned a lesson from the previous instances, and chosen to echo Dany’s marriage to Kahl Drogo by giving Sansa more agency and allowing this rape to remain a rape even after Sansa fights back against Ramsay. I want to believe that if the show is in uncharted territory in terms of source material and chooses to use rape as a narrative tool, they have a good reason, and didn’t just fall back on this as a problem-solving tool.
But it’s hard when episodes like this exist out of context, part of the rising action to a season where the climax is less certain than ever before. While we could frame the shifted events of Dany and Khal Drogo’s wedding night in light of where we knew Dany’s story was going, here we have no idea what this does to Sansa’s storyline, which creates its own specific frustration that damages the episode and creates more doubt about the season’s direction than at any other point this year.
Although Arya and Sansa’s storylines form the bookends of the episode, there are other narrative climaxes to consider. Most prominently, things escalate in Dorne and King’s Landing alike as the Lannisters wage a two-front war without any troops. The former provides the episode much of its action, as Jaime and Bronn’s arrival to the Water Gardens coincides with the Sand Snakes’ attack against them. It’s a nice little fight sequence, action-packed and lightened by Bronn’s humor, but it resolves by pushing further toward the storyline as it plays out in the books: Ellaria makes a play with the Sand Snakes to kidnap Myrcella as Ariane did in A Feast For Crows, and is eventually arrested alongside them for conspiring to disrupt Dornish affairs. The episode leaves us with crucial questions about Jaime and Bronn’s respective fates, and creates a clearer picture of what Dorne scenes will look like in the immediate future (which is helped by finally allowing Trystane and Myrcella to speak).
In King’s Landing, meanwhile, we see a similar angling back toward the books after departing previously. Whereas Loras’ arrest suggested the show was replacing Margaery’s alleged dalliances with his homosexuality, here the show gradually builds to Margaery’s arrest for lying on her brother’s behalf. We never actually get Cersei’s perspective on the events in the episode, though, which is interesting given that she is the only perspective on these events in the books. We see Littlefinger meet with her to discuss his allegiances (more on that in the Strays), and we see Olenna—newly returned to the Capitol—take her meeting regarding Loras’ arrest, but we never seen Cersei scheming on her own. Instead, she’s thinly veiling her schemes whilst Olenna doesn’t bother veiling her threats, with Cersei smiling as Loras is outed by his lover.
The trial sequence is different from the one we saw last season. It’s not really a trial so much as a pre-jury hearing, first of all, but more importantly Loras is guilty. The problem here isn’t that the laws are unjustly trying Loras—it’s that the laws are being determined by fanatics, and stirred up by Cersei in an effort to consolidate her power. We might believe the laws to be unjust, but he has undoubtedly broken them, and Margaery did lie for him, and those are simple truths that weren’t present in Tyrion’s trial for a crime we knew he didn’t commit.
Tyrion and Jorah get the other story thread in the episode, which is another case of the show veering back into book territory. The idea of reconnecting with the familiar is designed for book readers, I feel—it’s there so that even as the journey is changing, we’ve given a clear sense of the destination ahead of us. It’s the episode’s sharpest story in some ways, working in genres the show revels in: you have Tyrion and Jorah walking and talking their way through the landscape (bringing back memories of Brienne and Jaime, or Arya and the Hound), you have Tyrion and Jorah working out their daddy issues, and then you have a scene where both Tyrion and Jorah consciously refuse to identify themselves to the slaver abducting them. That last claim to identity is powerful: while it’s true that Tyrion might be unwilling to identify himself for practical reasons, what with Cersei having a bounty on his head, we see him forced to find a new way of demonstrating his value. That he lands on the high standards of dried cock merchants is maybe not a huge character moment, but it serves the episode’s larger theme of stories we tell ourselves and the lies that support them.
But here’s the thing: Rape can’t just be used as part of a theme, nor is it a theme unto itself. It is a vicious act that the show has unfortunately treated as almost unspeakable to this point in the story, which has subsequently robbed it of its potential value to the narrative and left behind a problematic set of politics. When the Sansa storyline started, and many of you in the comments insisted that this is where the story was heading, I was skeptical because I didn’t think the show would choose that route again. The scene is not without some value, to be clear. I would agree that this particular instance of rape is less tied to Ramsay’s particularly cruelty and more the generally poor treatment of women in Westeros more broadly, and the scene itself was well-constructed, with the music and the performances selling the terror we are meant to feel in that moment.
The question becomes to what level that terror lives on. “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken” ends on its most volatile climax, but it could have ended differently. The episode could have ended on Arya in the vault of faces, or the battle between Bronn and Jaime and the Sandsnakes in a 3-on-2 handicap match, or Tyrion and Jorah being captured, or Margaery being arrested alongside her brother. And the fact that they chose this scene is unsurprising but also disappointing, further heightening the sense that the rape was just for shock value. As much as I want to know what happens next and follow this story forward, it’s hard not to leave the episode feeling a bit uneasy about the path ahead given the way things end here.
- We’ve also spent a lot of time in the comments talking about the logic of Littlefinger’s plan. Here, we get our clearest glimpse yet through Littlefinger’s speech to Cersei, but it’s still about as clear as mud. The plan he explains to Cersei, which presumes he is not involved with Sansa’s betrothal—which he tells Cersei about, for reasons that are completely unclear—in any way, has him leading the Vale to Winterfell after Stannis and the Boltons beat each other up, reaking Winterfell for Tommen and becoming Warden of the North. However, that doesn’t make sense unless he’s cutting Sansa off and leaving her to die, which seems unlikely. Is he on Sansa’s side? Is he on his own side? How does he intend to defeat Stannis’ substantial army? I just have no idea what is happening in that space right now, and not in a good way.
- I loved the bit of exposition offered by Loras’ Dorne-shaped birthmark in a previous episode, but I was particularly delighted to see it come back here as key evidence.
- Just after Tyrion foregoes the family name when working alongside the slavers, Lancel explains to Littlefinger that members of the Faith Militant lose their last names, which I thought was a nice bit of scene-to-scene continuity.
- Missing In Action: Brienne and Pod don’t make an appearance, and The Wall and Meereen are both absent more broadly but mentioned in Tyrion and Jorah’s journey—said journey ends with them on the road to Meereen and the fighting pits, which is another promise of convergence.
- I don’t remember the irony of Jorah being enslaved landing as hard in the book, but it landed effectively here.
- “Oh, you can smell the shit from five miles away”—I missed you, Queen of Thorns. All hail Diana Rigg.
- I’ll say more about Theon as we get deeper into the Winterfell storyline, but I found the show’s articulation of Ramsay’s psychological torture compelling—he forces Theon to be Theon for the wedding, but goes to Reek directly after, as though he’s testing his capacity to tell a lie in line with the episode’s thematic throughline. It works well, and…I’ll finish this thought below.
- Just thinking aloud, could dragon fire cure Greyscale?
- While I appreciated Sansa’s badass dismissal of Myranda, there’s meaning in Myranda trying to scare Sansa away with truth in an episode filled with lies—the thematic work was a strong point in the script this week, credited to Bryan Cogman.
- Jerome Flynn is a treasure, and has a lovely singing voice. That is all.
- Given I’ve been writing about Lost for the past year or so, it’s strange I’d forgotten that Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje was part of the show this season. We’ll see what we make of his slaver as the season wears on, but right now there’s not much to see.
The Night Is Dark And Full Of Spoilers (explicit book spoilers):
- So who becomes the Faith’s witness for Cersei’s crimes? The show implied in the premiere that Lancel would likely serve that role, but in that case why hasn’t the High Sparrow done something sooner? Knowing we’re heading to Cersei’s downfall, there are still a few pieces of the puzzle missing even with Margaery imprisoned.
- The Meereen storyline is definitely coming together with Tyrion and Jorah safely aboard a ship to Slaver’s Bay, although again there’s some further points along the way that need to be worked out, and I’m still curious to see who leaves the fighting pits alive.
- …and per Theon above, I’m interested to see how his reclamation of the name—which was crucial to his rehabilitation in his point-of-view chapters—plays out in light of the name’s more conscious use in the torture itself.
- Lady Stoneheart Truther Watch: Nothing to report.
- Mance Rayder Truther Watch: Nothing to report.