"Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken" are the unwavering words of House Martell, but unfortunately for fans of Game of Thrones, this week’s installment broke the string of smooth sailing episodes that have started this season. The episode was filled with several strong threads and an extremely disturbing finish, but the plot in Dorne strained credulity to the highest degree.
Returning to House Martell’s words, this episode focuses on three houses/kingdoms that have, until now, come out of the War of the Five Kings relatively unscathed. The Starks, Lannisters, Baratheons, and Tullys have all suffered serious losses in both men and leaders, and much of our narrative has been about how the remaining scions have tried to pick up the pieces. Now we see Houses Martell and Arryn get involved in the conflict, and after three seasons of avoiding the worst, House Tyrell finally gets some of its petals trimmed. But all this pales in comparison to the episode’s climax, which brutally depicts the breaking of Sansa Stark's innocence.
Let’s start in Dorne, which was just a terrible clusterf*ck in every way imaginable.
Aside from Bronn’s rendition of "The Dornishman’s Wife," everything that took place in the Water Gardens was both nonsensical and flat (though kudos to the show for actually incorporating a song that isn’t "The Rains of Castamere" or "The Bear and the Maiden Fair"). I’m almost at a loss at how to break this down, because it was all ineffective.
Bronn and Jaime’s entrance into the Water Gardens was too easy, and upon entering they begin their own Solid Snake-like tactical espionage mission to find Myrcella. Somehow, Ellaria Sand happens to know exactly when the two knights are breaking in, and orders the Sand Snakes to go after them. Initially I was bewildered by these characters repeating House Martell's words (none being Martells after all), but it seems appropriate in retrospect: bastards in Westeros always question their place in the world (see: Jon, Ramsay, Gendry), but as Oberyn informed us earlier, they are treated differently in Dorne. They are not shamed or treated as second class as in the other kingdoms. Too, as we see from Arya, Sansa, and Cersei later in this episode, the women of the Seven Kingdoms struggle to find their place and power in this world, so to see four of them channel those unflinching words carries dramatic weight.
In very heavy-handed fashion, Jaime finds his daughter-niece engaging in some tongue play with Trystane Martell, Prince Doran’s son and heir (and Myrcella’s betrothed). What followed was a largely incoherent action scene where you couldn’t make out who was who, and somehow these famed Sand Snakes couldn’t defeat Bronn and his crippled companion. Bronn did take a cut in the process, which, given Oberyn’s penchant for poisons, makes me a bit nervous as to his ultimate fate, but otherwise the entire set piece was wholly unremarkable.
The scene is mercifully cut short when Areo Hotah shows up with Dornish guards, and all participants (including Ellaria Sand) are taken captive by Prince Doran’s forces. As a whole this Dornish stuff has all fallen flat, which is a damn shame given two of the show’s most brilliant actors and characters are suffering for it.
All I can say is that whatever war that Ellaria wanted to start, and that Jaime did not, appears to have begun. But unlike all the other players in this series, no one in this scene appears to correctly be playing "the game." Everything here is on the personal level, with no long game or strategy really employed; because of this, all the characters involved in the skirmish are taken prisoner by Prince Doran, who at least had enough foresight to know when his own people had their own agenda.
On to King’s Landing, where Littlefinger returns to find a very different capital than the one he left. The sparrows have rid the streets of booze, brothels, and degenerates, all things that Lord Baelish depends on for his livelihood. Despite a brief confrontation with "Brother Lancel" (no longer bearing the name Lannister), Littlefinger is admitted to the capital to meet with Queen Cersei. After he becomes the next in a long line of characters to tell Cersei that resurrecting the Faith Militant is a terrible idea, he informs Cersei that Sansa Stark is in Winterfell, and betrothed to Ramsay Bolton.
This is a clever move on his part; word of Sansa’s marriage would eventually reach King’s Landing, and Littlefinger has gotten out ahead of the news by feigning a certain ignorance to it. He tells Cersei of the oncoming battle between Stannis and Roose’s forces, and offers the Knights of the Vale as a force to march north and finish off whoever’s army remains standing. With Winterfell, and hopefully Sansa Stark, Littlefinger would be able to add the North to his kingdoms, of which he already has the Vale and Riverlands (for setting up the Joffrey-Margaery betrothal in Season 2, he was granted Harrenhal and declared Lord Paramount of the Riverlands).
Not fully understanding Littlefinger’s long game, Cersei agrees to Baelish’s offer, and now the most dangerous man in Westeros (according to Varys) may be on the brink of controlling three of the Seven Kingdoms.
The late Lysa Arryna had kept the armies of the Vale clear of the War of the Five Kings, and as such, they are at full strength while all other armies have amassed thousands of casualties. If Baelish is able to unite all the armies under his command, he should have the numbers to easily take King’s Landing and perch himself upon the Iron Throne, completing his climb to the top.
Last we come to House Tyrell, who suffers their first real setback of the entire series (excepting maybe the death of Renly, who would probably have been the best king of the lot). Loras’s "secret" was widely known, but it is Margaery’s knowledge of her brother’s proclivities that may be the ruin of the house from Highgarden.
But first, let’s welcome back Dame Diana Rigg as Olenna Tyrell, the Queen of Thorns. She arrives at the capital to confront Cersei, who warns the Queen Mother that House Lannister’s reign is very much contingent on the men and food that House Tyrell provides.
Cersei, both drunk and quite pleased with herself, claims it was the Faith that arrested Ser Loras, and that she remains amenable to the alliance between Tyrell and Lannister. Olenna also joins in the chorus that Cersei is in way over her head, but is somewhat appeased by Ser Loras facing a "holy inquest" instead of a public trial. But the inquest is a trap, and Cersei, along with the High Sparrow, make their move.
After Loras and Margaery deny the accusations against the Knight of the Flowers, the Faith brings in Olyvar, spy and keeper of Littlefinger’s brothel (and presumably, the reason Cersei called Lord Baelish back to the capital; to produce this pivotal witness against the Tyrells).
With the damning details of Loras’s activities and Margaery’s knowledge of them, the Faith arrests both Tyrell siblings, while a shocked Tommen ineffectually looks on. Cersei feigns her own ignorance here, halfheartedly defending the Tyrells, knowing that her protestation will result in nothing. Margaery is taken away, and the Olenna Tyrell shoots Cersei a thorny look; the cold war that was being waged between Tyrell and Lannister has now been lit aflame.
Cersei here seems to have lost all sense of scope or perspective in this ongoing struggle; her need to depose the Tyrells and reassert herself as THE Queen has left her short-sighted. She's so focused on Margaery that she is oblivious to the fact that weakening the Tyrells weakens her own station, and that she has released an extremist revival upon the capital city of King's Landing (in this way, her myopia echoes the overarching theme of the entire saga: that everyone focuses on their petty squabbles, fighting for whatever scraps of power they can latch on to, while completely oblivious to the damage they do and other, more meaningful threats that are waiting to descend).
The above threads are all very much functional from a plot perspective (though as I stated, with varying levels of success). They introduce the Martells, Tyrells, and Arryns more completely to the power struggle in Westeros, and three houses that had remained unperturbed no longer remain so.
With all the Kingdoms now in turmoil, the threats of the White Walkers loom even larger over the narrative; together, the kingdoms may have had a chance to withstand the oncoming doom; divided, they most certainly will fall.
These arcs all push the role of women in Westeros to the forefront. Be it Cersei, Margaery, or Ellaria, we see characters who are marginalized by societal norms try to achieve their goals of power and revenge. Westerosi is as patriarchal a society as there is, and to exhibit even the slightest bit of agency or self-determing can end in tragedy...
...which brings us to the tragic events at Winterfell, where Sansa Stark experiences another horrific wedding night.
Sansa has suffered a horrific set of circumstances this far in the story, but has somehow retained her innocence throughout. She escaped her betrothal to Joffrey, was saved from rape in the King’s Landing riots by the Hound, and has somehow avoided more aggressive advances by Littlefinger (the fact that Tyrion, considered one of the most gruesome, perverted men in the Kingdoms, is the only one who treated her with kindness is something that shines through every time she mentions him, as she does in this episode). That all comes crashing down in a horrific, gripping end to this episode.
Backtracking a bit, Sansa’s wedding preparation begins with Myranda, Ramsay’s mistress, washing out her hair dye and bathing her for her birthday. Myranda tries to scare Sansa with (true) stories of what Ramsay has done to others in the past, which probably would have scared the Sansa Stark of earlier seasons. This politic-hardened version, however, is more than able to see the game being played.
In a great display of power, Sansa turns the tables on Myranda, calling her out on her love for Ramsay Bolton, and also reminding her that she is Sansa Stark of Winterfell, and that Myranda’s head would roll if anything were to happen to her. This display is a powerful tease, as for a moment, we feel that maybe Sansa will be more than just Ramsay’s pawn, and that she may be able to rebuff the psychotic heir to House Bolton. But, in true Game of Thrones fashion, this moment only sets up the horror that would soon follow.
What transpires is a beautifully-shot wedding scene in the godswood of Winterfell; however, the setting is the only thing beautiful here. Sansa is given away by Theon, whom she still holds responsible for her brother’s death (and also neatly parallels her wedding to Tyrion when she was given away by Joffrey, the man responsible for her father’s death), and given to Ramsay Bolton, heir to the North.
The scene is fraught with tension, and the (probably exorbitant) time spent with Ramsay in the previous seasons pays off here, as at any moment you expect something sickening to happen…
…Which comes during the bedding ceremony, in arguably the most haunting scene of the entire series (which sure says a lot; who would have thought the Grey Wedding would be more stomach churning than the Red or Purple editions?).
After a series of threats of what he would do to her if she didn’t obey, Ramsay commands Sansa to undress and takes her right there. Reek makes his motion to leave, but Ramsay stops him in his tracks; not only must he remain present, but he must watch as Ramsay defiles what purity is left in Sansa, a woman who knows Theon as well as anyone, and was more a sister to him than his real sister Yara ever was. The camera concentrates on, Alfie Allen’s horrified face as we hear Sansa’s screams of pain. Sansa is defiled, Reek is broken, and the audience is left horrified as the episode cuts to credits.
This ending has already caused quite the reaction on the internet, and without a doubt it is one of the most tragic, terrifying scenes ever on television.
The debate has been especially fueled by Game of Thrones past mishandlings of rape and sexual violence, but personally (and I can understand if others don’t see it this way), I thought the scene was both in bounds story-wise, and not a cheap trick or set dressing like rape has been (inappropriately) used in the past.
This scene was meant to be awful, a true act of villainy and achieved the visceral reaction it desired. This is neither the time nor place for a full referendum on rape in television and specifically Game of Thrones, but in quick bullet fashion, I do want to address some criticisms I have seen:
Objection 1: The showrunners add rape that is not in the text
While this has been true in the past, this does not apply here. While Ramsay’s bride is not Sansa Stark in the original text, the bride does get sexually assaulted, and in a far more disturbing way than what we saw on the show. In the books, Reek actually participates in the wedding consummation.
Objection 2: The showrunners use rape as a cheap shortcut to tell us who is a "bad guy"
The show has also done this in the past, most notably at Craster’s Keep, but not for one moment did I feel that Ramsay raping Sansa had anything to do with characterizing Ramsay. This moment had everything to do with both Sansa and Theon and what sort of turning point this means for the characters.
With Sansa, this scene is where she loses her virtue after many a scare in previous seasons. As described above, only a few short scenes earlier she displayed her dominance over Myranda, only to have that completely stripped away in this scene. What this means for her character remains to be seen, but she knowingly (even if not completely of her free will) accepted this fate (if not to the degree of how terrible it was) through her choices made on the road to Winterfell and again in the wedding ceremony. Sansa has been able to wear her "lady’s armor" and avoid the worst in the past, but now her shield is finally broken (which acts as an interesting counter to the fact that she now has more agency than ever before).
For Reek/Theon, this symbolizes a tipping point in his relation to Ramsay. He has endured a fate worse than what many might consider imaginable, having the humanity stripped of him in every conceivable way. But watching his surrogate sister (of sorts) have her innocence taken from her appears to awaken emotions in Reek that he didn’t even believe he still had. It will be interesting to see if this act finally awakes the kraken deep within him.
Objection 3: By showing Theon, they put the emphasis on the man and not the woman being raped
I think there is some validity to this, but a couple things worth pointing out: this is how the audience experiences this in the text (which in and of itself is not a good reason, but I feel it should be noted). No excuses, but it's a purposeful plot device leaning on the methods of the source text - horror is always viewed through one person's eyes in the books, and often not the person who is being attacked (e.g. Ned's beheading is seen through Arya's eyes in the source material). Additionally, it was likely a technique to not have to show a 18-19 year old actress being raped.
Anyone having to watch Ramsay rape a young girl (who, for narrative purposes, is 14-15 years old) is horrific enough; but Reek is not everyone else. He has been tortured, flayed, and neutered; he's seen dogs rip a woman in half. When he sees Ramsay hanging flayed corpses this season, he is unnerved, but so habituated to this horror that he barely shows emotion.
To have such a broken man, who has grown immune to the evil in this world, react so fiercely to this specific horror magnifies just truly how disturbing this scene is.
Ultimately though, what I think absolves this to the extent is that Sansa Stark has her own arc, her own thread, and though we witness the worst through Theon’s eyes, this is very much her path to walk. In the text, we have a very flat character in this role, so our horror is mostly empathetic (which does have its own narrative dynamic, I do not want to discredit that). But this is no longer the text.
With Sansa, a fully-realized character and one of our dearest protagonists, it is something altogether more powerful. As always, we must remain to see how the story plays out from here, but I don’t think it’s as outrageous as some are claiming.
Objection 4: Sansa Stark is not raped in the books
This I understand (though we can’t say certainly she WON’T be in future books). Ultimately, it matters if you think Sansa’s purity is important to her overall arc. The show has chosen to go a different route, and should be judged independently of that.
By putting Sansa in the role of a much more insignificant character, the audience is able to more meaningfully capture and understand all the elemental aspects flowing in and out of this scene, and more broadly Westerosi (and our own) cultures. Marital rape is a problem that doesn’t get the awareness it deserves, and the show captures how truly violent someone can be to their partner. We've seen it both intentionally (Daenerys and Drogo) and unintentionally (Jaime and Cersei), but this scene echoes the former more so than the latter.
Writing about rape, both in terms of art and the real world, is extremely difficult. And even while there is no ambiguity here, the reactions to this scene have been diverse and divisive. The show doesn't get the benefit of the doubt; past scenes with Jaime/Cersei, the mutineers at Craster's, and Joffrey have taken that away from them. But in this case, I personally did not feel the show took a serious misstep. I think the scene was meant to be as awful as it was, and the show displayed some discretion with the depiction thereof. But none of this is meant to be easy, and art often cultivates strong reactions from its audience, and it's not always positive.
All I mean to share is how I experienced this part of the story, and how I feel some criticisms of it don't ring as true to me. (Again, I would like to reiterate that I don’t believe this to be the only correct reading of what transpired; people can come to entirely different conclusions with no less legitimacy.)
In the end, "Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken" will be remembered for Sansa Stark's wedding night, and the discourse surrounding it. The episode otherwise was a bit disjointed, with a few highlights (detailed below), but also some of the weaker stuff we've seen on this show in a while (Dorne).
A Couple Extra Ravens
- As a whole, this was the weakest episode we have gotten all season, and for most plot threads simply moved us to the next part of the narrative roadmap. This is the first episode without any scenes at The Wall as well, and the episode does suffer a bit for it; it has been consistently the best part of the story this season.
- The strongest scene this week was the first with Tyrion and Ser Jorah; it had very little function plotwise, but was a wonderful tour de force of two of the best actors in the entire cast. Here, Tyrion informs Jorah that he had met his father, Lord Commander Jeor Mormont (The Old Bear), at the Wall a couple years prior. Tyrion lauds Jorah’s father for the brave leader that he was, before revealing that he had been killed by his own men, which was unbeknownst to Jorah. The acting by Iain Glen is staggering here, revealing the complex series of emotions he must work through with minimal dialogue; Jorah is already processing his own mortality because of the greyscale he contracted, and news of his father’s death can only worsen his headspace right n
The episode later finds these two captured by slavers heading for Volantis; since Queen Daenerys had smashed the slave trade in Meereen, there is nothing for them in Slaver’s Bay. They mean to sell Jorah and kill Tyrion, but Tyrion’s wits convince them to send Jorah to the fighting pits, which may present an opportunity for the Imp and the Bear to reveal themselves to the dragon queen.
- Our other stop in Essos was a delight; we finally got some answers regarding the House of Black & White and how the Faceless Men operate. First Jaqen questions Arya about the journey that led her to Braavos; each lie earns her a smack from Jaqen’s switch. The most harrowing part is Arya repeatedly insisting that she hates the Hound, and Jaqen’s refusal to accept that as truth. Arya may have left Sandor Clegane to die in the Riverlands, but much like everything else in Game of Thrones, their relationship was more intricate and profound than their interactions indicated. The Hound was a mentor and protector of Arya Stark, and deep inside her somewhere, she knows this.
This is all relevant as Jaqen now takes on the role of her mentor; Arya is now world-wary and understands the ruthlessness of the men around her, but does not yet possess all the faculties to be "no one." This begins to change, as Jaqen watches Arya give a sickly young girl the gift of mercy, feeding her from the well and effectively euthanizing her. After she cleans the girl’s corpse, Jaqen leads her down into the Hall of Faces, an impressive collection from all the dead bodies the House of Black and White has attended to. This pulls back the curtain on the magic of the Faceless Men, as their shapeshifting appears to be at least somewhat a matter of disguise and subterfuge. While Jaqen is not convinced that Arya is ready to be no one, she is ready to be somebody else, and what is to follow is Arya’s first mission for the Faceless Men.
- The reveal of the Hall of Faces was accompanied by one of the strongest musical pieces the show has put together, which again speaks volumes. Each season the score has gotten better and better, and Season 5 is currently blowing all previous seasons away. Ramin Djawadi deserves all the credit he garners.
- And again, the scenery and special effects are once again beautiful, from the Grey Wedding in the godswood, to the Hall of Faces, to the beautiful Water Gardens of Dorne (which is again disappointing because of the massive failure of the scenes set there). This episode, however, had the first real lapse in fight choreography that we’ve seen in some time. The battle between the Sand Snakes and Jaime/Bronn was hard to decipher, and the net result of it was that they are all in custody (and Bronn possibly poisoned).
- Finally, a brief programming note: I will be out of the country next week and will not be reviewing Episode 7. Game of Thrones has bucked its trend from the last two years and WILL be airing an episode on Memorial Day Sunday; in the past two seasons, the showrunners have not wanted to air major climactic episodes during the Holiday (the Red Wedding and the Mountain vs The Viper). Danny, as edited by Erik, will fill in for me.
The North Remembers.