“Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken”
There’s a larger problem with Benioff & Weiss’ take on Game of Thrones, one that goes beyond critiquing an episode like this one in its own right. I can honestly say that I found it engrossing for the most part, and that it seemed to fly by in about 15 minutes. The stuff in Dorne wasn’t the strongest (as usual), but the scenes in the House of Black and White, Essos and King’s Landing were excellent.
But all of that pales almost into non-existence next to the final stanzas of the episode, which take place in Winterfell. Unlike many of GoT’s watershed moments of horror, there was no surprise here – Benioff and Weiss have been telling us it was coming all season, it’s just that it was so unpleasant many refused to believe them. “They wouldn’t dare.” some said. Well – they dared. And after five seasons of this series, how could anyone have had doubts?
My biggest (though not only) problem with Game of Thrones as compared to A Song of Ice and Fire is pretty simple – GoT has shown itself over and over to be dependent on sexual degradation and humiliation (not only sexual) as a plot driver. And not only that, it’s usually ham-handed in its depiction. We don’t need to rehash the debacle of the Jaime-Cersei rape scene from last season, but it’s worth remembering that it was completely an invention of the TV series – Martin would never have written that scene with those characters. And it’s only the most prominent example of Benioff and Weiss shoehorning original scenes of rape and sexual violence into the narrative, almost always to its detriment.
The thing is, the world Martin created in ASoIaF is plenty horrible enough. Plenty of awful things happen to women in it, and men too. There’s a lot of sex, not all of it consensual – indeed, the scene we saw play out at the end of this episode happened in the books too, and if anything it was even more horrific…
Martin doesn’t rely on these kinds of moments to drive his story – they’re more effect than cause. For Weiss and Benioff, they seem to be something of a security blanket. Or perhaps, an addiction.
The other major issue with the TV series, as I see it, is a tendency to want to focus on action as opposed to subtext, and to rob arcs of their weight as a result. While the story of the Sand Snakes and Dorne generally isn’t one of Martin’s best to begin with, GoT has powered through it so quickly and with so little context that these scenes seem disconnected from the rest of the show. This is also apparent at the Wall (which was skipped this week) where the Byzantine politics of the Night’s Watch have largely been glossed over in favor of battles. The contrast with Tyrion’s arc, where subtext is everything, could hardly be more obvious. When he asks Jorah what makes him believe Danerys being Queen is actually a good idea, he may as well be speaking for the entire audience.
This dumb-down and short-cut approach is very apparent in the depiction of the Sparrows and the Faith Militant, too, and they were a major component of this episode. Again, we’ve been deprived of pretty much all the historical context and back-story here – and the High Sparrow’s cleverness and political acumen has been robbed from him and given to Cersei. As a result their lighting rise to power seems a bit far-fetched, frankly. Better is Cersei’s verbal sparring with Olenna Tyrell (which is also TV-original – Olenna is nowhere near King’s Landing at this stage of the books), with Diana Rigg as always providing limitless snark and condescension.
Also in King’s Landing is Littlefinger – though to be honest, it’s not absolutely clear why. In any event it’s apparently being spun that his game is to set Stannis and the Boltons against each other and take out the wounded survivor with the Knights of the Vale, thereby getting himself named Warden of the North. All of this strikes me as a bit arbitrary to be honest (what exactly is in this for Cersei?), but it does crystalize something for me. Much debate has been had over whether Baelish in fact knew of Ramsay’s reputation when he sold Sansa to the Boltons. What I think is clear now is that whether he knew or not doesn’t matter – he’s a scumbag of the highest order for leaving her in their hands either way. Ramsay Bolton may be the biggest monster in Westeros, but Littlefinger might just be the most evil character in this cast in that I’m not sure there’s anyone who directly and indirectly has caused more suffering and death than he has.
I don’t think I’m going to add anything else as regards Ramsay’s rape of Sansa – everyone will have formed their own opinions. I think Ramsay gives vent to all Benioff and Weiss’ worst impulses as storytellers, and this is only the latest example. But the situations of the two Stark daughters certainly bookend the episode, and we see them both being broken down and brought low – though in Arya’s case, there’s something almost elegiac about it (plus, Jaqen confirms she doesn’t hate The Hound!). Both these young women seek to stop being used by others and seize control of their own lives, though their circumstances could hardly be more different. Arya is being asked to surrender her identity, something it seems to me she’ll never do – but living a life of service to the most desperate and downtrodden can help her find a part of herself she never knew existed. I feel better about her chances than I do for Sansa’s, and I always have – though I suspect the strength that’s grown in Sansa over the many trials she’s encountered will get her through even Benioff & Weiss’ humiliating treatment of her.