Plenty of viewers have declared themselves done with “Game of Thrones” after the May 17 episode in which Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) was raped on her wedding night by her new husband, Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon). They join the ranks of defectors who quit the show in seasons past even as new audiences rose up to take their places, and this time, they are joined by prominent dissenters. The science fiction and fantasy site the Mary Sue declared “We Will No Longer Be Promoting HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ ” in a piece that seemed to fatally misunderstand the difference between doing journalism about and criticism of a show and acting as a publicity subcontractor for HBO. And finally, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) took advantage of what appeared to be a cresting of sentiment to declare that she was finished, too, because “Gratuitous rape scene disgusting and unacceptable.”
As a critic, I have to watch a lot of things that I don’t particularly like. I don’t begrudge anyone who watches movies and television or who reads for pleasure the decision to stop when something’s not fun anymore. But as a critic, I think it’s important to preserve the distinction between saying that something simply isn’t for me and drawing a more definitive conclusion that something is a poor artistic choice. You can assert the former, but you have to argue the latter, using the text and the language of the artistic form at hand.
For me, the scene of Sansa’s rape was tremendously unpleasant, but the care taken in the staging, acting and shooting of the scene made it impossible for me to regard it as lazy or slapdash. And I didn’t find it gratuitous in the way I might have felt if I saw “Game of Thrones” as simply a sprawling, quasi-medieval adventure or an ensemble Golden Age drama, sort of a mash-up of anti-heroes culled from “The Sopranos” and awesome women inspired by “Mad Men,” with dragons for an extra fiery kick. Instead, this scene felt of a piece with the way I’ve always understood “Game of Thrones” and George R.R. Martin’s “Song of Ice and Fire”: as a story about the consequences of rape and denial of sexual autonomy.
Lest you accuse me of coming to this position lately, or adopting it merely so I can continue to feel justified in watching and covering “Game of Thrones,” let me point you to the essay on the subject I contributed to the 2012 collection “Beyond the Wall.” I believed then, and believe now, that the omnipresence of sexual violence in the world Martin created is the point, not “illicitness … tossed in as a little something for the ladies,” as New York Times critic Ginia Bellafante wrote in her bizarre review of the show when it premiered in 2011.
The marital rape of Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) by her husband, Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy), undoes the fairy tale narrative of Robert’s reign, the idea that he freed Westeros from the depredations of the Targaryen dynasty gone mad, not least because of the family’s historical practice of incest. Daenerys Targaryen’s (Emilia Clarke) rape on the night of her wedding to a man her brother sold her to in exchange for an army suggests that the Targaryen closeness was no more humane for its participants than the Baratheon-Lannister marriage.
Tyrion Lannister’s (Peter Dinklage) murder of his lover, Shae (Sibel Kekilli), after he learns of her betrayal is a stark reminder that even male characters we’ve come to love are capable of sexualized violence. Jaime Lannister’s (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) sexual coercion of his sister Cersei, an event that takes place in the crypt where their son’s body lies in state, illustrates the ways in which furtive relationships can make women vulnerable to the men who claim to love them. (The gap between what the showrunners said they intended and what they actually put on screen is the exception rather than the rule for “Game of Thrones.”)
And the Stark family has been subject to both sexual and non-sexual violence with the same end: eliminating the family line. There was nothing particularly sexual about Ned Stark’s (Sean Bean) beheading, though he was executed in part because he had discovered Cersei and Jaime’s relationship. Later, when Talisa Maegyr (Oona Chaplin) is murdered at the Red Wedding, she isn’t just stabbed; her killer cuts at her pregnant belly to make sure that he has annihilated Robb Stark’s (Richard Madden) heir. As Amanda Marcotte noted in Slate, Sansa’s rape was “was, like Ned’s execution and the Red Wedding, not treated lightly, but presented as an act of war against the Stark family.”
Women aren’t the only people who are subject to sexual control in Westeros and Essos, and “Game of Thrones” has actually fleshed out a number of these stories to make them more poignant and painful.
Tyrion is a compelling character for his wit, his one-liners and his clarity of vision. But more than many other men in Westeros, particularly those from noble houses, Tyrion’s sexuality has become a site of degradation and violence. His father, Tywin (Charles Dance), forced him to participate in the gang rape of his first wife and essentially orders him to rape Sansa after their marriage. When Tyrion refuses, Tywin begins a relationship with Tyron’s lover, Shae, that is meant as a form of sexual humiliation.
In Martin’s novels, Renly Baratheon (Gethin Anthony) is glimpsed briefly, his sexuality the subject of rumors rather than facts; in the show, his knowledge of what it means to be outside convention is part of what made him kind to Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie). Ser Loras Tyrell (Finn Jones) has stepped off the page and into the show, his prowess as a warrior giving him the confidence and arrogance to pursue an affair with a man (Will Tudor) even though he’s engaged to Cersei, a rather dangerous person to slight. It’s no mistake that when Cersei re-arms the Faith Militant, she does so in the hope, if not knowledge, that their crusade against what they deem deviant sexuality will rid her of an unwanted fiance. Readers of Martin’s novels, however, know what Cersei doesn’t: that it’s exceptionally unusual for a crackdown on sexual freedom to end with one act, or one class of person.
And in Essos, “Game of Thrones” has gone beyond Martin’s brief mention that the Unsullied, the elite soldiers who are castrated as part of their training, sometimes visit prostitutes for comfort and companionship. Two weeks ago, Grey Worm (Jacob Anderson), an Unsullied leader, confessed his love to Missandei (Nathalie Emmanuel), a freed slave, and the two shared a tender kiss. Let’s hope “Game of Thrones” manages to find time for their romance amidst all the fire and blood the show has to get through in the four episodes remaining.
If reading this litany has been exhausting, it’s testament to just how well “Game of Thrones” has done at leavening this grimness with humor, tenderness and moments of real human connection. But it also ought to suggest how odd it is to accuse the showrunners of adding a sexual assault to somehow up the stakes when, dragons aside, intimate violence is already at the core of so many of the series’ storylines.
There’s no requirement that anyone like any of these storylines or that anyone who feels exhausted from spending his or her days in a world marked by sexual violence retreat to a worse one for pleasure. But that’s not the same thing as proof that “Game of Thrones” is generally careless in its depiction of sexual assault or that rape doesn’t serve a purpose on the show. Sansa Stark isn’t ruined, as a character or as a person, because she was raped. She lives, and her story continues, even if you’re not tuning in to watch it.