Game of Thrones TV Book Club: Poor, poor Sansa
Welcome back to the Game of Thrones TV Book Club, a discussion space for Thrones viewers who have also read the five books (so far) of George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series. This week, Hillary Busis and Darren Franich cover “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken,” an episode that’s actually relatively light on huge shifts from Martin’s novels… at least, until its horrifying final scene. Be sure to check out the recap of the episode by Thronesmeister James Hibberd, then join us as the venture into the narrative borderlands of A Feast for Crows, A Dance with Dragons, and beyond. (You know there’ll be spoilers for both the books and the show, right?)
DARREN: Another day, another dollar, another Game of Thrones wedding. Let’s start from the top, Hilltown. Sansa Stark and Ramsay Bolton are married. This is the biggest change of the season so far, at least in terms of High Family infrastructure. That wedding, and the various disturbing events surrounding it, seem guaranteed to ignite all kinds of questions about the show. Heck, GRRM himself took to his not-a-blog blog to offer some post-show thoughts—thoughts which feel tailormade for our TV-Book Club.
Personally, I’m bummed by the route Sansa’s storyline is taking this season—and bummed that the show’s Big Idea for changing up her storyline is to hand her off to a less charming Joffrey. What’d you think of the White Wedding?
HILLARY: You know, for once, I think I actually feel the opposite way—largely because we don’t yet know whether there’ll be any payoff for all this Sansa misery. I agree that it’s massively depressing to see another rape scene on Thrones, even one that actually has precedent in the books (for a change); I agree that it’s also depressing to see Thrones Sansa have so much less agency than her literary counterpart, who’s gradually learning how to ensure that she’ll never be a victim again.
That said: We’ve still got four episodes to go before the end of the season. If and only if Sansa gets a chance to inflict some serious damage on the Boltons while being rescued by Brienne in episode 9 or 10, I think I could be satisfied with this twisted storyline. Think about it: There are still two big, meaty Theon chapters to go, if season 5 follows the same trajectory as ADWD. The “ghost in Winterfell” who secretly murders Bolton and Frey sympathizers isn’t even a factor until the first of those two remaining chapters. So there’s still plenty of time for Sansa to take some sweet revenge on her horrible sadist of a husband, right? (And if nothing else, at least we didn’t have to endure the image of Theon forced to quote-unquote “ready” Ramsay’s bride for him, which may have broken me beyond repair.)
DARREN: I will definitely reserve all judgment until we reach the end of this Winterfell arc. And I like how this episode further complicated the ten-ring circus up North: Show-Littlefinger might actually be more devious than Book-Littlefinger, insofar as his brief jaunt to King’s Landing saw him juggle three different major powers (Cersei, Stannis, Roose) in such a way that he’ll wind up the winner no matter who loses. And I guess you could argue that Sansa DOES have “agency,” insofar as she’s purposefully chosen to marry a psychopath this time around.
Still, in a slow chesspiece-moving episode, I think that scene stuck out for a reason: Less disturbing than shocking, like they needed a big ending to a gradual episode.
HILLARY: Wait, can I interrupt you to ask: What the hell is Show Littlefinger’s game? Am I wrong to say that it’s become completely impossible to tell what his motivation is? Like… does he actually want to become Warden of the North, or is this all a clever plot to trick Cersei into authorizing him to bring an army to Winterfell, all so he can help Sansa? We know from the books that Littlefinger is truly invested in Catelyn’s daughter (“truly invested in” = “totally weirdly in love with”); on the show, though, he’s so capital-E evil that it’s much less clear whether he actually cares about keeping her alive and eventually putting her into a position of power.
DARREN: I think Show Littlefinger’s long game is pretty simple: He wants to rule Westeros. But he’s also good at improvising a short game. Look at what’s happening now. He’s allied himself with Roose—but he has also made it clear to Roose that he needs to pretend to be loyal to Cersei. Thus, he can head down to King’s Landing and talk to Cersei as a friend, freaking her out about the armies up North. I think Littlefinger’s strategy is exactly the tactic he outlines for Cersei: Let everyone else fight until they’re exhausted, then swoop in and claim the land as his own. Littlefinger’s kind of like the Platonic Ideal of a TV showrunner: He knows where everything is going, but not how it’s getting there. I actually don’t think he’s evil at all—just insanely smart and completely unsentimental. Do you have a different read?
HILLARY: Well, when you put it like THAT… yes, it all makes sense. Although I do still think that conversation with Cersei created some ambiguity about whether Sansa is Littlefinger’s one weakness, as she is in the books. TV Littlefinger is so Voldemortian that I think he’d let Sansa die if it served his ultimate end (power).
I didn’t mean to make a moral judgment by calling him “evil”—I meant more that as portrayed on the show, Littlefinger is an outsized mustache-twirling villain, to the extent that I’m constantly surprised when other characters choose to trust him. Book Littlefinger is subtle and meticulous and a shrewd strategist; TV Littlefinger is tactical, but so showy that his continued status is a little tough to believe.
DARREN: How dare you make a moral judgment on a man, just because he kills all his minions and sounds like a vampire leprechaun!
Let’s veer Southwards for a moment, Hillary. Going into this season, book readers were talking about the Sand Snakes. A few weeks ago, we finally met the Sand Snakes. Last night, we watched as the Sand Snakes prepared to strike. And then, after all that build-up…they swung their various bespoke weapons in JaBron’s direction, snagged maybe the fifteenth most important princess in Westeros, and got almost entirely captured. So, my question: How are we feeling about the Sand Snakes?
HILLARY: We are feeling decidedly “meh.” Like, enough that the only thing that might change my mind would be if someone made a video that sets their big fight scenes to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles theme song. They came, they saw, they used their helpfully differentiated weapons, they got locked up in Sunspear tower cells. At least that part has book precedence?
When it comes to Dorne, I’m much more interested in what’s going to happen to Jaime and Bronn. The sellsword could get killed without having much of an effect on upcoming book storylines; Jaime, though, certainly has more to do in GRRM’s novels (I assume), and I can’t imagine a universe in which his TV storyline diverges completely from what’s coming up for him in The Winds of Winter (whatever that may be). So: Is there a book character whose plot we may see Jaime inherit in the next few episodes, a la “Arya” becoming Sansa and Mance (presumably) becoming Brienne?
DARREN: OH MY GOD.
HILLARY: WAIT. Crazy theory alert!
DARREN: OH MY GOD
HILLARY: Could HE become Quentyn??
DARREN: JAIME IS QUENTYN. AHHHHHHHHHHHHH.
HILLARY: EXPLODING HEAD EMOJI
That’s just crazy enough to be possible, Hillary. Think about it. Book-Jaime’s mission in Books 4 and 5 is basically War of Five Kings clean-up crew: Taking an army around the ruin of Westeros and trying to bring order back to the land. On a grand scale, season 5 seems to be skipping over that portion of Westerosi history: We’re very close to a Stannis-Roose-Eyrie-Lannister showdown, with the vague possibility that Dany will make her way West and the eternal notion that the Greyjoys might do something. On the other hand, Jaime is about to meet Doran Martell, who has a son of marrying age, a potential match for Dany. Doran MUST have some big plot in mind, right? Surely he’s been thinking about something, sitting in that chair all season?
HILLARY: It’s either that, or he’s getting ready to unveil Cerebro’s nonunion Dornish equivalent.
DARREN: Dear Benioff & Weiss: If Jaime is Quentyn, all is forgiven! (Maybe he can also become a Viking on the way to Slaver’s Bay. Jaime = Quentyn = Victarion.)
This episode was a bit light on major changes, Hilltown, but I’d be intrigued to get your thoughts on how the show is progressing the Arya Stark arc. (Arya Starc?) What’d you think of the Hall of Faces?
HILLARY: Well, Berric Dondarren (a name I am shamelessly lifting from commenter The Red Building Group), I dug it more last night than I have in previous episodes. At this point, Cersei, Sansa/Theon, Tyrion/Jorah, and (to a lesser degree) Daenerys are the only major characters who have a decent amount of book material left. Everyone else’s plots have to tread water to some extent before coming to the end of what’s been written for them in ADWD and A Feast for Crows—which is absolutely insane, considering how many pages there are in those two books put together.
I think Arya may be the character to benefit most from that water-treading, though, since her appearances in books 4 and 5 are so comparatively skimpy. As one of the show’s richest, most complicated characters, I appreciate having more time with her onscreen—especially when she’s made to grapple with the special relationship she shared with The Hound, which was a lot deeper onscreen than it was on the page. There’s also lots of cool imagery and weird Faceless Man mythology for the show to play with; her slower, more introspective scenes are a nice contrast to the swordfighting and gay witch hunts and dwarf-napping occurring elsewhere in the Thrones universe. (Though of course I also appreciate all that insanity; Sunday’s episode is surely the first time the sentence “the dwarf lives until we find a cock merchant” has ever been spoken aloud.) And you?
DARREN: Swordfighting and Gay Witch Hunts and Dwarf-napping, oh my! I’m with you, Hillyrio. It helps that Maisie Williams is such a good performer—she can communicate a whole chapter of internal monologue with the right glance—so I’d be happy with a whole spinoff miniseries about her journey from apocalypse kid to ninja shapechanger.
I do find it intriguing, in the season of Concision, that we’re spending so much time with the Faceless Men. Season 5 feels like an attempt by Benioff & Weiss to jettison all non-essential narrative. In the books, the followers of the Many-Faced God are still weirdly undefined even after five books: We know that they’re up to something in Oldtown, which is either hugely important (insofar as it’s the start and end of Book 4) or hugely unimportant (insofar as the whole Pate subplot is spread out over two chapters in two megaton books.) Like, we’ve had two scenes with the Sand Snakes, who I’d argue are more TV-friendly—team of lady badasses! Should we extrapolate that the Faceless Men are a key part of the Thrones final act?
We’ve often talked about how Arya’s story arc feels a bit like a superhero origin story—the first act of Batman Begins, spread over several season. I sort of wonder if the Faceless Men are her League of Shadows—another shadowy organization with a culty zealot code based on removing members’ individuality. Am I judging the Faceless Men too harshly?
HILLARY: A woman thinks a man might be too quick to judge. But that’s mostly because, as a man said, we’ve yet to really learn what exactly the Faceless Men are up to—and I’m thinking that the show will be quicker to show us their cards than the books have been. (See, for example, how Book Jon merely surmises that Craster gives his sons to the White Walkers, while the show actually illustrates it happening… complete with a Zombie Touch granting the kid the Glowing Eyes of Otherworldliness.) If we don’t get some answers, though, I’ll be a lot less forgiving–especially because shadowy cult conspiracies have a way of ruining perfectly good serial dramas. (See also: Orphan Black; Revenge.) Either way, I’m thinking next week may be a big hour for Arya and the Faceless Men. It’s called “the gift,” which must be a reference to the gift of death, right? Think it might be time for our Lil’ Assassin to have a run-in with hit-list-member Meryn Trant, who’s on his way to Braavos?
Meryn doesn’t leave Westeros in the books, which reminds me: We haven’t really touched on the happenings in King’s Landing yet. I’m very much on board with them—especially the added focus on Loras, who’s always been more of a character on the show than he is in the books. Attacking both him and his sister makes Cersei’s play against Margaery feel even more like the trial of Anne Boleyn… which is doubly cool because Natalie Dormer already played Henry VIII’s second wife on another splashy period drama, The Tudors. Are you getting excited for another kangaroo court, and Cersei’s eventual downfall?
DARREN: I get unnaturally stressed out by two things in TV shows and movies: wrongful imprisonment and religious zealots. The Loras subplot is currently a double-word score.
Is there any family that has benefited more from the TV-to-screen adaptation than the Tyrells? Margaery is a fan-favorite; Loras is quickly becoming one of the most important supporting characters; and Lady Olenna is either going to be the last one left standing, or she’s going to provide us with one hell of a death scene.
Your question about Cersei leads me into a comment from last week’s boards I want to respond to:
johnb33: This last episode had the oddest effect on me…I actually felt sorry for and understand Cersei more. I see Cersei in Sansa. I see power plays by marrying off the daughters of Westeros and the cruelty that follows the loveless unions as a developing subplot. With her line “there is nowhere in the world that they don’t hurt little girls” and her line to her father “not again! You’re not packing me up again(to marry Loras),” Cersei becomes a sympathetic character that adopted her evil ways to cope and survive. She can’t swing a sword but can do battle just as ruthlessly as the Mountain.
DARREN: Cersei in A Feast for Crows is the worst kind of dictator. There’s not really anyone left to stop her, and things quickly go decadent-era Rome. I like how, on the show, they’ve positioned her as someone who thinks she needs to strike—specifically against the Tyrells, more generally against any potential threats to her reign. One of the biggest Cersei moments ever is coming up—and I’m intrigued to know how that changes her. I keep wondering if the show is going to turn TV-Cersei into a variation of TV-Jaime: Someone you think is a complete villain, before you see them brought low and understand that they’re as much a victim as anyone else.
HILLARY: I imagine that’ll come across much more strongly on the show than it did in AFFC, which humanized Cersei to an extent… by peeking into her insane, paranoid, all too humanly-flawed psyche. Thrones has already done a better job of presenting Cersei as both a Lady Macbeth figure and a victim of circumstance; time and time again, it’s been clear that she’s the true inheritor of Tywin’s mantle, and that the realm may not have found itself in this mess in the first place if she’d been born a man.
Speaking of woulda-shoulda-couldas, here’s my favorite comment from last week:
malgus38: Insight: this is not so much book club anymore as it is rampant speculation on future show episodes and potential future unwritten book plots.
HILLARY: Well… yeah, that is a perfectly valid criticism! But some of that is on GRRM for not finishing the damn books yet, right?
HBO's epic fantasy drama based on George R.R. Martin's novel series A Song of Ice and Fire.