Game of Thrones Showrunners Cross the Line in Latest Episode

Controversial ending to latest Game of Thrones episode most recent example of showrunners’ carelessness with developing female characters | Image: HBO/Helen SloanControversial ending to latest Game of Thrones episode most recent example of showrunners’ carelessness with developing female characters | Image: HBO/Helen Sloan
by Tim Backes, Editor

by Tim Backes, Editor

On a talk show appearance, George R. R. Martin, author of the A Song of Ice and Fire novels (the inspiration for HBO’s Game of Thrones) was once asked where his ability to write interesting women into his novels comes from. Martin famously responded, “You know, I’ve always considered women to be people.”

It’s a funny, simple response to a question that shouldn’t even have to be asked in 2015. We’re still living in a world where interesting female characters with some actual depth in mainstream media are the exception rather than the rule.

Think I’m wrong? Consider the Bechdel Test. For a movie/book/show to pass the test, it must have:

  1. At least two women
  2. Who talk to each other
  3. About something other than a man.

There are many limitations with this test, of course. It isn’t really an indicator of the quality of a piece of entertainment, and there are still many opportunities for a movie/show to be sexist while still passing the test. But when examined for trends rather than individual results, there are an alarming number of movies that fail this simple test.

The point is Martin has long been known for developing interesting female characters without having to resort to cheap storytelling methods or stereotypes.

You can understand the concern of people familiar with Martin’s writing, then, when they analyze the controversial events that occurred at the end of the latest episode of Game of Thrones.

[If you don’t want spoilers, don’t read past this point.]

Season 5 of Game of Thrones is diverging from the novels to an extent not previously seen in the television series. There are no bigger examples of this than the storyline involving Sansa Stark and the Boltons at Winterfell.

Let’s give a bit of a recap of what’s happened in the show so far with Sansa this season.

She and Littlefinger traveled to Winterfell, where Littlefinger revealed his plan to have her wed the evil, torturous Ramsay Bolton. When Stannis inevitably invades Winterfell and takes out the Boltons, she will be rescued and declared Warden of the North.

However, while Ramsay initially plays nice, his true side eventually comes out. At the end of this most recent episode, he consummates his arranged marriage to Sansa by raping her, forcing Theon to stay and watch. The show closed with a closeup on Theon’s shellshocked face.

I’ll get to a closer analysis of this later, but first, let’s take a look at how these events (created by showrunners David Benioff and Daniel Weiss) differ from what’s written by Martin in the novels.

In the novels, Sansa is still in the Vale with Littlefinger, receiving some much-needed practical training on how to be a proactive, intelligent “chess master” figure like Littlefinger himself rather than a passive, vulnerable victim. She has not returned to Winterfell, and there isn’t an indication that such a return is coming in the near future.

Meanwhile, the Boltons rule in Winterfell, and to legitimize themselves as Wardens of the North, they “find” Arya Stark (a fake, actually Sansa’s childhood friend Jeyne Poole) and wed her to Ramsay. After Ramsay and “Arya” wed, Ramsay forces Theon to “prepare” his new bride by performing sexual acts on her first, against his will.

Neither of these situations is exactly pleasant (though anything being pleasant is something you’ll rarely find in A Song of Ice and Fire). But the way the showrunners chose to change the storyline and deal with this situation poses a number of problems.

Most concerning for a number of critics is the fact that this is the third (!) time the showrunners have decided to write in a rape of one of the main female characters that did not actually occur in the novels (Daenerys, Cersei and now Sansa). While the showrunners certainly have the right to take liberties with Martin’s bloated storylines, what could possibly be the reason for deciding to add in so much sexual violence when it is completely unnecessary for these characters?

In this latest case of Sansa Stark, there are only three potential reasons for doing so, none of which are excusable in my eyes.

First, the writers could be using the rape scene as a way to further demonstrate the cruelty and unbridled evil of Ramsay Bolton. However, one has to feel this is pretty well-worn territory at this point with everything he has done to Theon and his other female victims so far.

Second, the writers could using the rape scene to build to Reek/Theon’s eventual breaking point when he lashes out and kills/attempts to kill Ramsay (something that has not yet happened in the books).

The obvious problem with the first two possible reasons is that it makes the rape of Sansa about the men rather than the victim. If the showrunners are really using Sansa’s rape to build the storyline of either Theon or Ramsay, then it’s, at best, insensitive and ignorant on their part. It also delegitimizes the anguish experienced by people who have actually been raped, because the rape is used as a plot device rather than a key character point.

My concern is that they’ve chosen that second option, because of the way the show closed with a close-up on Theon. The acting in that scene by Alfie Allen was fantastic, but the scene never should have been made to be about Theon in the first place. This is a scene in which Sansa is being forced to consummate her marriage with the son of the man responsible for the death of her mother and older brother, and they choose to focus on Theon? Makes zero sense.

The third possible reason for writing in the scene is that the writers are using the rape scene as a way to build on Sansa’s character, creating sympathy for her before she ultimately gains strength and lays the smack down on the Boltons. The problem with this, however, is that it is a huge

This moment was supposed to be the rebirth of Sansa Stark as a true player of the Game of Thrones. But with the latest episode, she's back to where she started.

This moment was supposed to be the rebirth of Sansa Stark as a true player of the Game of Thrones. But with the latest episode, she’s back to where she started.

step backward in the story arc that has been building for Sansa. She’s already escaped from the violent, abusive Joffrey Baratheon. She went through a physical transformation in season 4 by dying her hair, which was symbolic of a new beginning for her character, a woman who was going to be better able to adapt to her surroundings and make power moves of her own, rather than a girl who was a pawn in the games of powerful men throughout Westeros.

It’s not a coincidence that in the very same episode where Sansa had the dye washed out of her hair, symbolizing a return of the Sansa Stark we knew, her character arc also regressed by about three seasons.

There really is no defending this decision by Benioff and Weiss. There have been enough words written across the internet about the pair’s resorting to rape as a plot device in multiple instances now. There’s a reason why Martin didn’t write these passages into his book — they’re cheap ways to garner sympathy for female characters without having to actually try to make them compelling of their own accord.

But beyond the cheap, shallow nature of the writing here, it shows a significant lack of respect for the female characters of the series in general. A Song of Ice and Fire is regularly praised for the depth of its women, including Margaery and Olenna Tyrell, the Stark women and Cersei Lannister, who I believe to be the best written character of the series.

Decisions like this by Benioff and Weiss almost seem to spit in the face of Martin and what he has accomplished with his writing. Now that the show and the books are diverging more than ever before, their limitations as writers are obvious, and the gaffes with female characters aren’t limited to Sansa. They’ve changed the story of Margaery Tyrell’s imprisonment to be more about her brother’s sexual promiscuity than her own (in the book it’s implied she has engaged in premarital sex with a number of suitors, which is not taken kindly to by the Faith Militant). Do the showrunners think we’ll have more sympathy for her when she’s imprisoned for standing up for her brother than because she dared to show some sexual agency?

Let’s not even get into what Benioff and Weiss have done with the Sand Snakes (now dubbed the “Bland Snakes” for their horribly clichéd television monologues).

The more Game of Thrones ventures into territory yet to be covered by the books, the more flaws like these are exposed. It’s a concerning trend to be sure.

Tim Backes is an editor and founder of NovaCritic.com

  • Lydia Flood

    Tim, thanks for summing up my feelings about GoT. You are right about how the more removed from the books the show is, the less it seems like the authentic storyline. Also, It’s too bad they let Sansa fall flat, it felt like anticlimactic. Maybe that is what they were going for. Unfortunate that tape was the vehicle they went with to create the anticlimactic effect! Poor form, GoT!

    • Taj Sandhu

      Thanks for your comment! I think this scene did a lot to undermine the character development Sansa went through in this season and in the previous season.

  • Lydia Flood

    *she was a vehicle. Sorry I’m posting from a tablet.

    • http://www.novacritic.com Tim Backes

      GET IT TOGETHER LYDIA

  • http://theurbanpolitico.com/ Shady Grady

    I didn’t like the Sansa scene for the obvious reasons but also because it made no sense for Sansa to willingly marry into the family which had betrayed and murdered her brother and usurped her family’s role in the North.

    That said the rape in the book was far worse. And if the show runners had stayed true to Sansa’s role in the published books, Sansa would like Bran, be offscreen this season. And I’m a little leery to criticize Benioff and Weiss too much if only because they know the story ending and main character arcs and we don’t. For all I know GRRM may have Littlefinger rape Sansa in the next book…

    • http://www.novacritic.com Tim Backes

      Yeah, the scene as it happened in the book was definitely worse in terms of the content, but I’d say what they chose to do in the show was more damaging because as you say, it really made no sense at all for Sansa’s character. I don’t really have an issue with the showrunners going into uncharted territory with Sansa this season, but I definitely take issue with the way they chose to do it. But yeah, fair enough, they know the end of the story and we don’t.

      Thanks for reading!

      • http://novacritic.com/ Steve Hanley

        I don’t really have anything against the show depicting rape. Horrific things happen in the show all the time. It was more the context that bothered me. It seemed like it was taking Sansa backwards as a character, and it was only done to stir up controversy.

        Also the fact that three main female characters have now been raped in scenes that didn’t exist in the book is a strange pattern, which makes it easy to wonder why the writers keep going back to this particular well.

  • Ryan Gibson

    I had mixed feelings about that scene, but only because I feel it could have been so much more. The thing is, the episode made it quite clear that Sansa knew what she was getting herself into, and knew it wouldn’t be pleasant. She already knew she did not want to have sex with Ramsay, but she tentatively agreed to the marriage anyway. So, whilst yes, this is rape, so is most sex in most marriages in the world this show is depicting. What I wanted to see from Sansa is a bit of resilience. The scene would have been improved if Sansa had gone full Dany as Khaleesi, and at least attempted to take control in the bedroom. Instead, we’re seeing Sansa basically where Dany was right at the beginning of season 1. Thats a shame.
    Also, a few points:
    1. By modern standards, Dany was most certainly raped by Drogo in the books. She was forced into that marriage by her brother and didn’t really have any choice in the matter. She was explicitly instructed to make him happy.
    2. Cersei and Jamies relationship is a strange one. In the show, it is characterised as Cersei resisting, but always giving in. She always so no, but has sex with him anyway. That’s weird. They have a fucked up relationship. The scene in question was messed up, but I don’t think it was supposed to be rape. Neither character remarks on the incident afterwards, and it isn’t the cause of the rift that develops between them. It was just a poorly written scene, which like this Sansa scene, could have had that much more poignancy if it had been handled with more care.

    So, tl;dr – careless, yes, crossed the line, no.

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