The five main takeaways from this week’s disheartening episode of “Game of Thrones”…
1. If the episode’s final scene convinced you to never watch GoT again, I can’t entirely blame you
The use of sexual violence as plot device is not new to “Game of Thrones” and it’s not unique just to this show, either. But while on each occasion in the past it’s been plenty disturbing, tonight’s closing scene with Ramsay Bolton and Sansa was just flat-out disgusting. Even if you’ve never read the books (myself included and that shouldn’t limit anyone’s enjoyment of the show) it’s hard not to know that what happens to Sansa in this episode doesn’t happen to Sansa in the books. The show’s creators are free to take liberty with certain storylines and characters, but by putting Sansa into this situation, by taking a character that viewers are fully invested in, and subjecting her to the horrors of Ramsay Bolton, it’s hard to interpret this as anything but using her rape as an emotionally manipulative plot device.
Alyssa Rosenberg has a smart take on the scene, and the sensitivity of its filming, and how it leaves Sansa with a bit of dignity in how it is presented. Of course it was still vile and it just feels like we’ve been through this one too many times at this point. In an interview with Sophie Turner (who plays Sansa) at Entertainment Weekly, this caught my eye.
One thing about this scene, if there’s any remaining Sansa bashers out there, it’s like, if you don’t feel bad for Sansa now…
Right, then you really have something wrong with you. I swear, this show, after the first season when people were hating on Sansa. Showrunners [David Benioff and Dan Weiss] must have been like, “Okay, let’s do everything we can to make her the most abused, manipulated character!”
It’s hard not to feel exactly the way Turner interprets the scene. Simply piling on her misery for the sake of piling on. Yes, Daenerys suffered a similar fate on her wedding night back in the first season and it didn’t evoke this sort of reaction. But as scenes like this have continued to be a common occurrence through five seasons, it feels like some viewers may have reached a point of no return. And for those of us that will keep tuning in, it’s hard not to watch with an extra dose of cynicism.
It didn’t start off so terrible for Sansa. She was enjoying her favorite past time — sitting in her room literally doing absolutely nothing — when Myranda came to bathe her. Ramsay’s jealous plaything tries her hand at intimidating Sansa, telling her about all of Ramsay’s past lovers who he got bored of, including that one who ended up becoming dog dinner. Sansa is vulnerable in the bath, with this deranged woman handling her hair, but doesn’t allow herself to be intimidated. She quickly knocks Myranda down a peg — “What was your name again?” — before exposing her obvious jealousy and pulling a “do you know who I am??” (The exact words were: “I’m Sansa Stark of Winterfell. This is my home and you can’t frighten me.”) After sending Myranda off, she lets out a deep sigh. It may have been something of a front, but it was convincing.
So let’s choose to remember that moment of strength on Sansa’s wedding night. After she’s in her gown, Theon/Reek comes to escort her to the ceremony. Sansa wants nothing to do with him, of course, but he still walks her down the aisle to the weirwood tree. Notable is that Theon is able to refer to himself as Theon of House Greyjoy, the first official acknowledgment of his past, and perhaps a springboard into reclaiming his identity. It’s a brief ceremony — the longest moment was the dramatic pause before Sansa agreed to go through with it. Back in their quarters, you get the feeling things are going to bad — Ramsay is involved, so it almost goes without saying — but at first there’s hope that it will just be more of his uncomfortable line of questioning and will end there. It doesn’t, obviously. Because Ramsay is Ramsay, he orders Theon to remain in the room to bear witness to the vicious attack on his now-wife. Theon’s face as the episode ends is one of sadness, disgust, guilt and anger — about what we all felt while watching that transpire.
2. Cersei continues to consolidate power in King’s Landing, but is Littlefinger far behind?
Back in King’s Landing there’s no rape, just imprisoning people for the sin of homosexuality. Things are much more civilized in the big city. You have to give a slow clap to Cersei Lannister for her scheming, though. A few weeks ago she could feel it all slipping away, and now the Queen is being taken to a prison. How did we get there?
First, Cersei tends to business with the recently-summoned Littlefinger. Upon his return to King’s Landing he’s greeted by Brother Lancel, who reminds Lord Baelish that things have changed in King’s Landing and they don’t take kindly to smut merchants ’round here these days. “We both peddle fantasies. Mine just happen to be entertaining,” the quip-ready Littlefinger replies. Once he finds the Queen Mother, he questions her decision to have Loras, the heir of Highgarden, arrested. Cersei says she is the one who is insulted by these events, since he was promised to her and he chose the company of boys instead. She is great at doing that thing where she’s obviously lying and taking delight in lying straight to someone’s face and they know she’s lying right to their face but can’t do anything about it. Finally they get to the point: She wants to know if the Knights of the Vale will support the crown in battle and Littlefinger says he has always counseled loyalty to the throne, which isn’t quite a straight yes, is it?
Then he delivers his real news. While he couldn’t find Arya Stark, his “well-placed sources” tell him that Sansa is alive and well in Winterfell, and betrothed to Ramsay Bolton, which will give Roose Bolton added legitimacy in the North. This infuriates Cersei; she thought the Lannisters and Boltons had a “murdering only; no marrying” deal when it came to the Starks. Littlefinger preaches patience and suggests Cersei let Stannis and the Boltons fight each other, and when the winner of the battle is recovering and nursing their wounds, that is the time to pounce. Who knows Littlefinger’s real plan — we already know he’s not fully revealing the depth of his knowledge about Sansa — but his offer to help the Lannisters in a battle against the Stannis or Bolton army in return for being named Warden of the North is on the table. (Remember in last episode, Littlefinger promised Sansa that she would one day be Wardeness of the North.)
King’s Landing has another quick-witted visitor — Lady Olenna of House Tyrell. She is not happy to be back in the capital for both the surroundings (“you can smell the s— from five miles away”) and the circumstances (her grandson’s ridiculous detainment). After a quick check-in with Queen Margaery, Olenna confronts Cersei. Their initial back and forth does not disappoint. “The famously tart-tongued Queen of Thorns,” Cersei greets her. “And famous tart, Queen Cersei,” Olenna replies. And they’re off. Cersei feigns shock at Loras’s arrest; it wasn’t her, it was the Faith. Olenna threatens stop the flow of gold and food into King’s Landing. She then gives Cersei a version of “I knew Tywin Lannister and you’re no Tywin Lannister.” See, he wasn’t likable or trustworthy, but he understood how the world worked. She respected that. Sometimes you have to work with your rivals. At Loras’s upcoming trial, Cersei suggests this his acquittal will be a mere formality, but her smirk as Olenna departs hints otherwise.
At Loras’s trial, he is cross-examined by the High Sparrow. Loras denies all of the charges against him — fornication, blasphemy, even buggery — and does so with conviction. Case closed? Not quite. The High Sparrow calls Queen Margaery as a witness, saying that nobody is exempt from testimony. She is as forceful in denying the charges as her brother. Case closed? Still not quite. The High Sparrow calls another surprise witness — Olyvar, Littlefinger’s brothel manager/one of Loras’s recent lovers. He tells the High Sparrow that he and Loras engaged in “intimate relations” and that Queen Margaery actually walked in on them once, making her an accessory to this crime. This is enough evidence for what passes as a grand jury and the High Sparrow says the case will go to trial — and that Margaery will also be tried, in her case for lies told under testimony. As she’s carried off to her holding cell she cries out for her husband, King Tommen, but the soft boy king is paralyzed by fear, inexperience and just generally being about 15-years-old to do anything about it.
3. Tyrion has a new captor
After making it through Doom-infested Valyria, Jorah and Tyrion are scrounging for food. Jorah is also inspecting his greyscale-infected arm, but the less said about that the better. (I think that is legitimately his strategy right now.) They get some good backstory in — Tyrion explains to Jorah he’s on the run because he killed his father and speaking of fathers, yours was a good man. “Was,” as in, is no longer with us. This is news to Jorah; Tyrion lets him know that it was a mutiny of Night’s Watch soldiers beyond The Wall that did him in.
Jorah can offer his own backstory, thank you very much. He decided to pledge loyalty to Daenerys after he saw her walk into a fire with three stone eggs and emerge alive with three baby dragons. “Have you ever heard a baby dragon singing?” Jorah asks Tyrion. I am pretty sure some dude asked me that exact question at a party back in college. Tyrion isn’t exactly convinced that simply having dragons will make her a good ruler of Westeros, especially since she’s never actually set foot in Westeros and the Targaryens have a history of insanity. But they’ll have to continue this conversation another time.
That’s because they’ve got a new problem — slavers. Ironic, since Jorah’s falling out with his father and eventual exile was due to his own selling of slaves. I’m sure the leader of this group of slavers has a character name, but why even bother with anything besides Mr. Eko, because that’s just who he is. He sizes up Jorah, who’d make a good galley slave. And sizes up Tyrion, who is worthless, except for Tyrion’s favorite part of his own body. (From a dwarf, that’s a collector’s item, apparently.) Some quick bargaining by Tyrion saves his throat (and his appendage). And for all the troubles with this episode, at least we did get to hear Mr. Eko say this sentence: “The dwarf lives until we find a c— merchant.” Tyrion also tells their new captors that despite his advanced age, Jorah is an all-time legendary fighter. Sure, some of his victories have come at jousts — “a fancy game for fancy lads,” Eko says — but Jorah impresses them enough with tales of his feats that he earns himself a trip to Slaver’s Bay to prove his worth with a sword.
4. Battle in the water gardens of Dorne
In Dorne, Myrcella and Trystane Martell are necking and enjoying a stroll in the water garden. They’ll be married soon, or so they think. Prince Doran is overlooking the obliviously happy couple, along with his captain, Areo Hotah. The prince knows they will have to protect the couple and hopes Areo remembers how to fight. I wonder if that means he’ll have to engage in some combat later…
Bronn and Jaime are approaching, with Bronn providing the travel soundtrack with his singing; he really loves music. Clothed in typical Dornish clothes, they are able to sneak into the water gardens. It just so happens that Elia Sand has sent the Sand Snakes into the same area at the same time. Everyone converges on Myrcella and Trystane at the same time, so it’s a rumble. The local force is able to take charge, Myrcella is safe for the time being, and Jaime, Bronn, the Sand Snakes and Elia Sand are all taken prisoner.
5. Arya finds what’s in the basement of the House of Black and White
Things get slightly more interesting for Arya in the House of Black and White, although that would be the case by default after the last few visits there. She’s getting very good at cleaning dead bodies, but still doesn’t quite get the hang of abandoning her identity, which is a prerequisite for becoming a Faceless Man. Jaqen H’ghar interrogates her, which involves some serious slapping, which unfortunately is not even close to the worst abuse to befall a Stark girl this hour.
But the tough love tactics seem to work. As Arya comforts a dying girl brought into the House, she does so by telling her a complete lie, fabricating a new life story for herself, saying that she, too, was once sick and dying. This impresses Jaqen enough for him to allow Arya to follow him down into the secret basement lair where Arya finds … heads. Thousands upon thousands of heads, stacked to the extra-high ceiling. It’s like a cross between that room in the FBI building where they keep all the files in “The X-Files,” except filled with “Futurama” disembodied heads. Jaqen does not think Arya is ready to become No One, but she is ready to become someone else.