HERE we go… the most divisive episode of Game of Thrones ever. The only one to get less than 90% on Rotten Tomatoes, and the one which apparently convinced many viewers to never watch again. The massive deviations from the book have been controversial enough this season, especially with George R.R. Martin having much less say this season while he trudges on with the long-awaited Winds of Winter.
The writers might have known that this would be a particularly divisive episode, but they’ve shown themselves to be a tad naïve about the offensiveness of certain content before. I’m not going to talk about the ending scene at great length, because it’s dominated every other review out there and I want to see how it affects the future before making any judgments about its necessity. Instead, I’ll address every other storyline first and reach the infamous Black Wedding at the end.
Let’s start with the other long-suffering Stark daughter, Arya. Though apparently it’s only a matter of time until we stop calling her Arya Stark, she seems a long way off from becoming no-one. The Game of Faces with The Waif (played by Fresh Meat’s Faye Marsay) actually fooled even me. I’m so used to characters spouting out lengthy monologues about their backstory on this show that it’s refreshing to be reminded that they could be total bollocks.
Arya wants to graduate from scrubbing corpses to becoming a true Faceless Man, but she can’t convince the human lie detector “not Jaqen H’ghar” of even her mildest lies. Takeaways from Arya’s disastrous attempt at playing the Game of Faces with not-Jaqen; she doesn’t seem to know about the Boltons’ involvement with the death of her family, and definitely doesn’t hate The Hound anymore.
Arya’s big chance to prove her skill as a liar, a killer and a servant of the Many-Faced God came in a later scene, when a father brought his desperately ill daughter to the House of Black and White to die. Arya convinced the poor child that the water in the pool would heal her rather than kill her, with yet another monologue of totally made-up backstory. After successfully committing euthanasia, Arya is cryptically told she’s not ready to become no-one, but she’s ready to become someone else…
We catch up with Jorah, freshly greyscaled, and a very hungry Tyrion making their way on foot to Meereen. Two of my favourite things about Game of Thrones are the multitude of character combinations which can be made (Dinklage plus anybody is usually a winning recipe), and the way that new information reaches each character at different rates.
Commander Mormont’s death was two seasons ago, but Jorah has only just learned of it. This also reminds us that if Team Daenerys have never received information about the goings on at and beyond The Wall, then they’re also clueless about the White Walkers waiting for them in Westeros. Ian Glen has one of the harder acting jobs in playing Jorah, as he has to contain so much emotion and keep up so much baggage.
Even in the scene where Jorah mourns for his father, of whom Tyrion rightly has very kind words, he is stoic and betrays little feeling but there’s clearly so much there. But it’s always hard for anyone to not be overshadowed by Dinklage, who is rather more like classic Tyrion in this episode, probing Jorah about Daenerys’ actual potential, speaking with eloquent praise about the late Jeor Mormont, and thinking on his feet to save himself and Jorah from the slavers and the cock merchant.
And yes, the words “cock merchant” are hilarious both as a term and as a concept. Tyrion never misses a chance to remind the world that he’s disproportionally hung, ever since his very first scene on the show, but somehow it never gets old. Charismatic Lost actor and upcoming Killer Croc Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje was a pleasant surprise for a guest actor; while it’s unlikely he’ll stick around long, I enjoyed the debut of his cocky slaver, Malko.
Back in Kings Landing, Cersei and Littlefinger exchange a few barbs about their dodgy choices of sexual partner, while hatching a plot to swoop in on the winner of the upcoming Baratheon-Bolton battle using the Knights of the Vale. Littlefinger manages to leave out the fact that he didn’t so much find Sansa as put her there himself.
Littlefinger’s blatant duplicity wore off on me back in Season Three-ish, so I really struggle to care what he’s up to. His plans are unlikely to pan out as described, so the long scenes where he lays them out are rarely of interest to me. Cersei’s later scene with Lady Olenna (who, unlike Littlefinger, is played by someone who can act) was far more engaging.
It’s a long-overdue treat to see Dame Diana Rigg back in the uncomfortably warm-looking adornments of the “tart-tongued” Queen of Thorns. From her first scene poking her head out of her wheel-house to declare, “You can smell the shit from five miles away,” to her fearsome reaction to seeing her grandchildren arrested, Dame Diana just soars in the role.
Loras’ questioning was another in a string of brilliant trial scenes on the show. There’s dramatic irony stretching from the Wall to Dorne every time we see somebody give testimony in Thrones, as the audience usually knows exactly what actually happened. Olyvar recounts his first dalliance with Loras inaccurately to save his own skin; it was Olyvar who seduced Loras on the orders of Littlefinger, not vice versa, and Olyvar loved every minute of it.
It’s not known when Olyvar was found by the Faith, as he was last seen fleeing from them when the brothel was ransacked in Episode Four, but apparently he’s just another disloyal whore. We’ve seen about as many disloyal whores on this show as we have Kings.
Right, so those are the scenes people liked covered… let’s get to Dorne. Jaime and Bronn’s attempt to kidnap Myrcella in broad daylight by dressing as Dornish soldiers could have been better thought-out, but Jaime didn’t expect Myrcella to want to stay. This coincides with the Sand Snakes ALSO attempting to snatch Myrcella from the heavily-guarded Water Gardens in broad daylight under the orders of Ellaria. This sequence was just a little too neat for a Thrones storyline; it was too orderly, too clean and too contrived.
The fight choreography wasn’t bad at all, but it looked too choreographed. Jeremy Podeswa is a skilled and experienced director, but he seems to have dropped the ball on how to direct a proper Thrones fight scene. It all looked a bit too Xena. It doesn’t help that we have almost no attachment to the Sand Snakes just yet, compared to the super-popular Jaime and Bronn (Bronn’s beleaguered “for fuck’s sake!” helped redeem the weak fighting scene before it even started).
At the end of the Dorne section, Jaime and Ellaria are both captured, Bronn has blended in with the other soldiers (with a cut on his arm that HAD BETTER NOT BE POISONED!) and Prince Doran has a whole lot to deal with. Hopefully the dialogue scenes to follow in this “sensitive diplomatic mission” will make up for the weak action in this one episode.
And now… to Winterfell. Controversial as it may be, I loved the Winterfell scenes in this episode. I understand why people were upset, but as far as I can see they were upset for all the right reasons. The rape of Sansa was SUPPOSED to be upsetting. I’ve seen accusations of the writers including rape scenes to titillate, but the fact remains this scene was NOT remotely arousing.
It was horrifying, of course, but horrifying in a brutally realistic, Thrones way. We’ve seen several rape scenes against both women and, rarely, men. Some viewers seem to think that we shouldn’t ever depict rape at all. Anyone who has ever tried writing understands that you don’t always write what you want to happen, or what you want to see, or what you want to inflict on people. You write what makes sense, and Ramsay raping Sansa on their wedding night was, sadly, inevitable.
The scene wasn’t gratuitous or unnecessary, because by the law of the land Ramsay has to consummate his marriage with Sansa for it to count and therefore it is vital to the plot. We know that Sansa is a virgin, but Ramsay doesn’t believe it ; he’s also a brutal sociopath who would opt for a rough style. Sansa understands that she has to marry Ramsay to become Wardeness of the North, and even if this is the only time she ever shares his bed she has to do it just this once.
Another controversial aspect is the focus on Theon’s face, which I thought was artistically ingenious and probably foreshadows a major change to come. Some have argued that by focusing on another (male) character, Sansa’s role in the abuse is diminished, but I disagree. I prefer Thrones telling a story from multiple simultaneous viewpoints; in a choice between seeing how Theon feels about Sansa being raped (brilliantly acted by Alfie Allen) and having to watch more of her anguish head-on, I agree with their choice.
We’re used to Thrones surprising us, but just this once the surprise was that nobody intervened and nothing saved Sansa. After all her lucky near-misses, being saved by The Hound and spared by Tyrion, this is how Sansa Stark loses her virginity: bent over the bed of a man even crueller than Joffrey, and yet another shred of the status quo from the early seasons has fallen away. It was infuriating, cruel and chilling: It was marvellous story-telling.
Here’s the thing about rape in Game of Thrones. Rape is about power and domination, and Game of Thrones is about power and domination. Therefore, rape will continue to be a major weapon, as much as the sword or the axe. The show is set in a Medieval-type world where rape wasn’t perceived as it is now. As utterly wrong as it is by modern ethics, Sansa’s rape wasn’t considered rape by the standards of the age, because she was his property and couldn’t legally refuse.
It sickens me to even write those words, but we can’t hide from history. Marital rape isn’t something that occurred at convenient times from a safe distance, but something that all ladies had the potential to be forced into. The writers want you to appreciate that, BUT they don’t want you to like it and they definitely don’t want you to replicate it. Some viewers are so rightly offended by rape that they don’t want it to be on the show anymore, but it would be disingenuous to pretend it isn’t there.
People saying that Sansa had no agency in the scene, I beg to differ: she defied Ramsay as much as she could. As Brienne once said of Catelyn, Sansa has a different kind of courage from the men of this world: a woman’s courage. I found the scene empowering for her, and I believe the choice of title ‘Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken’ refers to both Stark sisters’ storylines in this episode.