Sansa Stark was raped for absolutely no reason during Sunday night’s episode of Game of Thrones.
The rightful heir to Winterfell wed Roose Bolton’s bastard son in a move meant to help win back her home and exact revenge for her murdered mother and brother. And indeed, Sansa is all self-assured sass and agency in the moments before the wedding. She puts Myranda, Ramsay’s conniving lover, in her place and declares, “I’m Sansa Stark of Winterfell. This is my home and you can’t frighten me.” Then she strides toward the godswood where she exchanges vows with a man she intends to see destroyed—making her, for the first time, a real player in the game of thrones.
But the newlyweds’ wedding night ends with a scene that goes the opposite way, rendering Sansa helpless and victimized—again. Ramsay rips Sansa’s wedding gown apart, bends her over, then forces his way into her as she cries out in pain. (This episode is preciously titled “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken.”) Theon Greyjoy is forced to watch as Sansa—who is still only around 15 years old!—loses her virginity to a sadist. The camera cuts away from the rape to linger on the ex-prince’s pain as he contorts his face in anguish. His tears stream down and Sansa screams in agony. Then the screen fades to black.
From a storytelling perspective, this scene is extraneous bullshit. It uselessly regurgitates everything we already know about these characters: Ramsay is a psychopath, Theon/Reek is tortured, and the resilient Sansa will endure whatever it takes to survive. Nothing new was established here. What was the point? The scene certainly wasn’t about motivating Sansa; she already wants every Bolton dead and has concocted a plan with Littlefinger to make that happen. Her plotline was not advanced at all by this scene.
Was it for Reek then? To spur him out of his mental state and help the poor damsel in distress? Reek has already lost his identity and suffered months of torture, humiliation, and lest we forget, had his cock chopped off thanks to Ramsay; his reasons for hating the bastard are set in stone. No story-bound justification for depicting the rape of an underage girl, then making it all about a male supporting character’s feelings, exists here. Yes, something even worse happened to a character named Jeyne Poole in a similar scene from George R.R. Martin’s book A Dance With Dragons. But in the context of this show, in which Jeyne does not exist and Sansa’s circumstances are wildly different, the rape was simply not necessary to the plot.
Then again, what did we expect? HBO’s high fantasy epic has always handled rape poorly. Dragon queen Danaerys Targaryen coped with her sexual assault in Season 1 by falling madly in love with her rapist, Khal Drogo. In last year’s episode “Breaker of Chains,” Jaime Lannister forced himself on his twin sister Cersei under the corpse of their dead son, Joffrey. (Neither character ever mentioned this scene again.) After a firestorm of criticism, the show’s makers claimed ignorance, saying the Jaime-Cersei scene hadn’t been intended as a rape—but one year later, here we are again. Hell, even the idea of Sansa being raped is retreading old ground: She was once attacked by a group of men in King’s Landing, and Joffrey had always threatened to rape her despite her marriage to Tyrion.
But this latest violation has touched a nerve among even the show’s higher-profile fans. Missouri Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill tweeted this morning that she is “done” with Game of Thrones. “Gratuitous rape scene disgusting and unacceptable,” she wrote. “It was a rocky ride that just ended.” Geek girl culture site The Mary Sue has resigned itself from all coverage of the show, with editor-in-chief Jill Pantozzi writing in part, “We’re constantly asking for better from those creating the media we love, for them to really think about what they’re putting out into the world. We simply can’t bring ourselves to be excited by a product which no longer meets our needs as fans.” And Deadspin’s headline reflects a growing sentiment among TV critics in the wake of this latest rape scene: “Game of Thrones Is Gross, Exploitative, and Totally Out of Ideas.”
The show’s actors and producers will always defend the show’s choices. “When I read that scene, I kinda loved it,” actress Sophie Turner told Entertainment Weekly. “I love the way Ramsay had Theon watching. It was all so messed up.” A producer and the writer of this week’s episode, Bryan Cogman, tried passing the scene off as a depiction of “a hardened woman making a choice, and she sees this as the way to get back her homeland.”
But as Sonia Saraya of Salon writes, Sansa’s “choice” in the scene is ultimately glossed over in favor of Reek’s anguish. Sansa initially responds to Ramsay ordering her to take off her clothes by “maintaining her own composure; she is owning her own dreadful choice, insofar as anything she can do in this terrible situation is a choice,” Saraya writes. “But then the scene stops depicting her. Her sobs become the score for someone else’s story.”
Rape is not a necessary plot device; it is not a prop or a parlor trick to include for an end-of-episode shocker. On the rare occasion that sexual violence is depicted with a justifiable purpose, it’s the consequences and emotional aftermath—not all the gory details of the act itself—that matter most.
Will Game of Thrones’s latest failure to grasp this affect its viewership totals in any perceivable way? Probably not. The show’s ratings go up every season. (The allure of this show’s momentum is hard to resist, though some would argue it has been losing steam this season.) People love this show—and I do too. We don’t want to quit watching; we’re pleading with the show’s makers to fix how they depict this awful, very real thing.
It’s your move, Game of Thrones. We’re watching.