All through Sansa Stark’s (Sophie Turner) wedding to Ramsay Snow (Iwan Rheon), I prayed that she — and we — might be spared. In the novels, Ramsay is marrying a girl who’s presented to him as Arya Stark (Maisie Williams). And though she’s a far more minor character in George R. R. Martin’s books, the smaller empathy we feel for her does nothing to lesson the horrors of her marriage bed, where Ramsay uses Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen) as a kind of sexual surrogate before raping his new wife himself.
When it became clear that “Game of Thrones” was going to marry the real Sansa to Ramsay, I wrote that I wasn’t sure I could bear to watch this scene play out with a character we’d come to know so well; the heightened emotional pain might have simply been too much. As I watched tonight, I hoped Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane) would arrive first and launch his attack on Winterfell. Maybe we’d be spared the sight of a young woman’s suffering by the sight of grown men turning each other into meat. This is the terrible calculation that “Game of Thrones” has trained us to make. And, as has been the case so many other times, the math turned out against my small and flickering hopes.
But if this scene had to exist, the show’s version of it, written by Bryan Cogman, and shot sensitively and with intelligence by Jeremy Podeswa, managed to maintain a fine balance, employing a dignity and care for the experiences of victims that “Game of Thrones” has not always demonstrated. Sansa is raped on her wedding night, but “Game of Thrones” spares her the experience of being forced to have sexual contact with two men, instead of one. Other than a shot of Ramsay ripping Sansa’s dress open, we don’t see her body during the rape: just her face, and then Theon’s contracting in agony and fear and horrible sympathy. What Ramsay is doing to Sansa doesn’t matter in the slightest. What she and Theon–and yes, there are two victims, though of very different crimes, in this scene–feel about what’s happening is what’s important. The camera refuses to join in her victimization, forcing us to focus instead on the impact of Ramsay’s latest despicable predations.
And Sansa’s rape is a powerful, dreadful scene because it comes at an episode that is full of small kindnesses and emotional cruelties that cut deeper than knives or whips. It’s no mistake that this episode begins with Arya Stark tenderly washing a body in the House of Black and White, and doesn’t quite end with the scene of Myranda (Charlotte Hope) washing Sansa’s hair with the same care, but with an added dose of malice. Arya is learning compassion towards the dead and dying at a moment when Sansa is learning to keep a part of herself protected and hidden. It’s the only way she won’t end up another body on another, far colder slab than the one her sister tends in Braavos.
The episode begins with unexpected revelations of goodness. “I wanted him to suffer. I hated him,” Arya tells Jaqen (Tom Wlaschiha) about the Hound (Rory McCann) as she finds herself on the losing end, once again, in the Game of Faces. “A girl lies to me,” Jaqen says, slapping her less for the falsehood than for her inability to conceal her affection for the dead man, which is obvious to him, if not to Arya herself. “To the many-faced god. To herself. Does she truly want to be no one?”
But if the capacity for affection that Arya has not been able to shed means that “A girl is not ready to become no one. But she’s ready to become someone else,” it does mean that she is capable of ministering to the people who come to the House of Black and White for release. “I used to be like you. I was sick. I was dying. But my father never gave up on me,” she tells a terminally ill girl, building the foundation for the lie out of the embers of her closeness with her long-dead father (Sean Bean)., gone these many seasons. “He loved me. More than anything in the world. Just like your father loves you. So he brought me here. My father prayed to the many-faced God. I drank the water from his fountain. It healed me.”
On the road to Meereen, Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) finds a way to be kind to his captor, the surly Jorah Mormont (Iain Glen). He senses in Mormont a desire to hear more of his father, and gives Jorah a good report from his long-ago visit to the wall. “At least your father was a good man,” Tyrion tells Jorah. “He actually cared about the people under his command. How do they put it in the Watch? ‘We shall never see his like again.'” When Tyrion realizes he’s inadvertently become the first person to let Jorah know his father is dead, he could be cruel. Instead, he tells Jorah what he wants to know, stripping out the details that might cause Jorah even more pain. “I only know what I heard,” Tyrion explains. “He was leading an expedition beyond the wall. There was a mutiny. He was murdered by his own men.” Once again, the camera lingers on Jorah’s face as he hears the news. The living have to keep moving forward with the knowledge of what the dead have experienced.
In Dorne, there are moments of humor and levity even in the simultaneous and deadly arrival of the Sand Snakes and of Bronn (Jerome Flynn) and Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) in the Water Gardens. “Trystane is my intended,” Myrcella (Nell Tiger Free) introduces the young prince (Toby Sebastian) to the man she thinks is her uncle, polite amidst her consternation. “Excellent,” Jaime says, shaking the other man’s hand with his remaining hand, manners kicking in despite the circumstances. “Good to meet you.” Moments later, after Bronn and Jaime’s faceoff with the Sand Snakes is interrupted by the captain of the guards, Areo Hotah (Deobia Oparei), and his men, Bronn manages to find a moment to tell one of his opponents, “You fight pretty good for a little girl.” She may not recognize the compliment to take it, but it’s fun to watch Bronn deliver it.
And there’s quiet dignity even in the middle of the farce that is Sansa’s wedding. “Theon, of house Greyjoy,” Theon announces himself when he’s asked who gives Sansa in marriage. “Who was…who was her father’s ward.” That quiet admission of who he is, and by extension, what he did in conquering Winterfell, is a far more meaningful apology than the one Ramsay wrested from him last episode, using the words as a weapon against Sansa even as he dressed the scene up as a gross parody of reconciliation.
The greatest cruelties in “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken” are just as small and personal, though sometimes they gain additional power when the people who are motivated by anger and pain, like Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey), lean on the levers of bureaucracy. When Cersei receives Petyr Baelish (Aidan Gillen), she thinks she’s in command, but he plays her by revealing that Sansa Stark is alive. Cersei is a highly emotional thinker who believes herself to be a cold strategist. It’s a dangerous combination, one that leads Cersei, in a fit of revenge, to give Petyr permission to go out and conquer Winterfell himself.
In Martin’s novels, Petyr was bottled up in the Eyrie, waiting for the Lords of the Vale to attack; “Game of Thrones” has set him free, making for a much more dynamic plot and a much deadlier potential clash in the North. If only he could have arrived at Winterfell sooner; whether Petyr shows regret or not, if and when he and Sansa are reunited, it’ll be hard to take him seriously, knowing that he was willing for her to suffer this fate in service of his great game.
Cersei, for her part, pretends to be powerless even as she springs her trap on the Tyrells, with the Faith and the High Sparrow (Jonathan Pryce) bringing accusations of sodomy against Loras Tyrell (Finn Jones) that make a mockery of her engagement to him. Her smugness watching her daughter-in-law Queen Margaery’s (Natalie Dormer) growing horror is nauseating; Cersei is drunk on her sense of her own smartness, even though she has no idea of the consequences.
The only moment when she seems threatened is a similarly intimate one. “Put the pen down, dear, we both know you’re not writing anything,” Olenna Tyrell (Diana Rigg), who has come back to King’s Landing to save her grandson, tells Cersei, puncturing the latter’s facade. “Ah, yes, the famously tart Queen of Thorns,” Cersei tells her. “And the famous tart, Queen Cersei,” Olenna replies.
The battle brewing up at Winterfell may be more violent, and depending on the outcome of Jon Snow’s mission north of the Wall, may end up changing Westeros’ society forever. But the intimate, nasty game being played in King’s Landing seems likely to get uglier for the living, and to shake the foundations of the great houses far more deeply. In the North, they flay men. In the South, they know how to cut the living at a level far deeper than the skin.