At this point, it’s disingenuous for anyone to complain about Game of Thrones being too violent or disturbing—the series’ five seasons have had a fair share of rape scenes and tremendous acts of violence—but the final frames of last night’s episode, “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken,” were emblematic of everything that has become so off-putting about this season’s writing on the show.
The episode closed with one of the show’s most reviled characters, the grotesquely sadistic Ramsay Bolton, raping one of the show’s most sympathetic characters, Sansa Stark, while a sobbing Theon Greyjoy is forced to look on. (Reminder: Theon is, for all intents and purposes, Sansa’s older brother.) I’m not exactly sure what mark the show’s creators were intending to hit with this scene, other than to drive home the fact that pure evil runs through Ramsay’s veins. But was it really necessary?
SPOILERS AHEAD, but who cares! The worst thing about this scene is that there is absolutely no logical reason for it to exist. The show runners weren’t in any way bound to put Sansa’s rape on TV because it never happened in the books. In the written series, Sansa is still just hanging out in the Eyrie, and her best friend—Jeyne Poole, who has come back to Winterfell impersonating Arya—is the one who ends up marrying and ultimately being subject to Ramsay’s abuse. This means that entire plot lines and character arcs were rewritten in order to get Sansa into Ramsay Bolton’s sadistic hands.
Which, fine! The people in charge of the show are free to do what they please with the characters, and viewers should always be prepared for the worst, but the problem here is that the rape scene added no value to the overall narrative. The audience was already well aware of the fact that Ramsay is a fucked-up creep and that Sansa is in big trouble as long as she is stuck in a castle with him. A well-done, actually worthwhile scene from last week’s episode, in which Sansa is forced to sit through a creepy and unsettling family dinner with the Boltons, deftly conveyed the dire nature of her situation. When Ramsay forced Theon to apologize for “killing” Sansa’s “brothers” (they were really two random farm boys), his intent to make both of their lives hell was made perfectly clear.
And then there’s the composition of the scene, as a camera slowly closes in on Theon’s sobbing while Sansa’s painful cries are heard in the background. Not only was this habitually and emotionally tortured female character thrown into an unnecessary rape scene, she was put there to reflect the Emotional Journey of one of the most useless side characters. The whole point of that shot seemed meant to convey that Theon Was Sad and Everything Is Awful. We didn’t need an arbitrary rape scene to remind us of that.
For some time now, Game of Thrones episodes have followed a familiar pattern: Large swaths of episode are eaten up by the infinitesimal advancement of various plot lines, many of which are deeply boring, and those scenes are then offset by the inclusion of some Cool Shit. Usually, this Cool Shit takes the form of a sword fight, or a dragon cameo, or a Sam shivving a White Walker. Last night’s episode seemed to be following that pattern—Arya walked through a door! Cersei had some conversations! Tyrion got sidetracked!—but instead of a dragon, we got a rape. This was an episode that said, “Sorry for making you sit through 55 minutes of nothing really happening, but here, enjoy this rape!”
Even the supposedly fun stuff has been unsatisfying this season. The Jaime-in-Dorne story arc hasn’t done much but produce some clunky sword fights that would have looked right at home in an episode of Xena: Warrior Princess, and Daenerys’s dragons are still stuck in a goddamn crypt. I’m sure the payoffs are still coming, but I’m beginning to wonder if sitting through episodes like last night’s in order to get to them is even worth it anymore.
It’s clear that the show runners have written themselves into some corners, and the show is in bad shape if their idea of writing themselves out of those corners is to have Sansa Stark raped for no reason. The problem isn’t that this episode included a rape, but that it did so in the service of bad storytelling. It told the audience nothing that wasn’t already known, and it didn’t advance any plot lines beyond where they already were. It was just there, as inert as it was unpleasant. Unfortunately, that’s starting to become the best way to describe the show in general.