As a clarification, I’ve only read the first two books in A Song of Ice and Fire, so I can’t discuss this episode in relation to the books. However, since the showrunners have made it clear that they aren’t strictly following the books anymore, I don’t think it’s overly relevant.
I think the key to understanding this episode is the title, “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken.” While of course that’s the motto of House Martell, I think the producers are also telling us something. (And often the GoT episode titles seem to have more than one meaning.)
As I said to my husband immediately afterwards, “For an episode called Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken, there sure were a lot of bowed, bent, and broken people.” However, on further consideration, I’m not sure that’s true.
Tyrion and Ser Jorah are captured by slavers. However, Tyrion works his magic with a little help from Ser Jorah in the right places, and the two of them are now headed where they wanted to go anyway. Jaime and Bronn end up captured, but Bronn takes it in stride with usual Bronn-ness: “You fight pretty good for a little girl.” And I hope that Jaime learned his lesson from the last time he was a prisoner and won’t lose another hand.
A quick aside on the sand snakes: I haven’t got far enough in the books to read about the sand snakes, but I had heard about them, and as a former martial artists and a fan of women warriors, I was very much looking forward to seeing them. So far, though, I have to say I’m disappointed. Although it’s clear they can fight, they’ve been pretty ineffective so far, and there’s not even enough character development for me to tell them apart.
I think that Ser Loras and Queen Margaery fared the worst in this episode. You might say Sansa fared worst, but more on that in a minute. Lady Olenna will use her considerable personal and House resources do what she can (although it is somewhat worrisome that Cercei sent Mace off right before implementing this plot) and while Tommen may be the Most Ineffective King Ever, he’s pretty besotted with Margaery, so maybe this will wake him up. However, I fear for Loras. As the show’s token gay character, he’s been treated pretty poorly by the showrunners. I fear that Loras won’t survive this, but even if he does, will the showrunners let him become, as the article I linked above says, “a knight and a son of House Tyrell, who happens to be gay” or will he continue to just be “the gay character”?
Finally, I want to talk about the most talked about scene of the episode: Ramsey Bolton’s wedding night rape of Sansa. The scene was vile and repulsive, and like everyone else, I was hoping that Stannis would arrive in time to stop the travesty. Viscerally and emotionally I hate it. But on thinking about it, I don’t believe that Sansa was as much a victim as she appeared to be. As awful as it was, Sansa made the choice to go through with this wedding. While Littlefinger may be using her for his own ends, his talk with her about using the situation to regain her birthright seems to have resonated with her.
Remember that this isn’t Sansa’s first experience with a sadist. This is not the young Sansa with dreams of a fairy tale wedding. This is an older, wiser, more experienced Sansa who has survived Joffrey and Cercei and knows the worst that humans are capable of. This Sansa is a survivor. And thanks to Myranda’s attempts at manipulation, she has some idea of what she’s getting into. She has options – she knows she could have lit a candle at the top of the broken tower. But she chooses to go through with it for the sake of her birthright, her people, and hopefully for a chance to avenge her family. And Sansa knows as well as anyone that an unconsummated marriage can be annulled, so she endures the rape – with a witness even – to cement her place at Winterfell. When Sansa tells Myranda, “I’m Sansa Stark of Winterfell and you don’t frighten me,” I have to think that in her mind she was saying that to Ramsey as well. I hope that somewhere not to far down the road, Sansa will stick a dagger in Ramsey. I also think that alternating Sansa’s scenes with Arya’s was intentional. Even though their roads are very different, they are both in the process of becoming someone else.
Was the scene gratuitous and unnecessary? Maybe, I’m not sure. It does seem like GoT has a disturbing pattern of violence against women, but then GoT has plenty of disturbing violence overall, and yet I still watch it. I’m not sure if this scene was any worse than what the rest of Sansa’s family has been subjected to, not to mention many other characters. You want to talk about horrifying? One of the most horrifying things to me was Theon’s killing and burning the miller’s sons as stand-ins for Bran and Rickon. Theon in turn was the victim of horrifying violence by Ramsey. It broke Theon, but I don’t think that Ramsey will break Sansa in the same way.
Personally, I hate the prison that most women in Westeros are forced into. For most, with some notable exceptions, marriage is their only option, most likely a marriage not of their own choosing. As much as we hate Cersei, Queen of Manipulators, we also have to remember that as a young woman she was forced into marriage with Robert Baratheon. But although I hate it, it’s also a reflection of the life that many, if not most, women throughout history have been forced to lead. Violence against women is a reality; should we pretend that it doesn’t exist?
When we talk about strong female characters in books and movies, we’re usually talking about women warriors or leaders of some type. But I think it takes a particular strength to endure rape, forced marriage, or other violences perpetrated against women and to survive, to live, and to move forward. In our outrage and our disgust, in characterizing Sansa merely as a victim, I fear that we are missing the point that Sansa Stark is one of the strongest characters on the show.