Game of Thrones recap: Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken
Let's face it: We're all thinking about that last scene
The episode’s title is “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken.” Those are the words of House Martell. But I’m thinking the showrunners intend for us to think about those words while we process that final scene with Sansa Stark. I have a lot of thoughts about that scene, and it’s tough to write in my usual style about the rest of the episode knowing that pitch-black moment is coming at the end. But first we must start with–
Braavos: Arya’s Karate Kid training continues as she cleans another body. Sponge on, sponge off. She no longer seems quite so anxious and frustrated with this job, but she wants to know what’s behind that mysterious door where the bodies are taken. “I’m not scrubbing one more corpse until you tell me why I’m doing it!” she demands, rather reasonably.
Arya asks to play the “Game of Faces” with her moody nameless roommate. This is a game where you tell things about yourself to another person and if they can tell that you’re lying then they get to hit you with a stick. It sounds wretched, but it’s still more fun than Frisbee Golf. Later Jaqen H’ghar tests her. Arya tries to tell her story while inserting little lies, but Jaqen can always tell when she fibs. Most interestingly, her claim of hating The Hound was a lie. Also not true: Arya saying she wants to be No One. Of course she doesn’t. She’s Arya Stark. She wants super-assassin abilities, but the reason she wants these powers is for vengeance. If she fully gives up her identity as Arya, then what is the point?
Later, a man—a regular random man, not “A Man…”—brings his sick and suffering young daughter to the House of Black and White. Arya tells the girl their deadly water will heal her, so she drinks it. It’s a heartbreaking scene. Arya may not be able to fool Jaqen or her roommate, but her lies do convince this sick girl. She just played the Game of Faces with somebody and won. That is enough for Arya to advance to Level 2. She’s not yet ready to become No One—not just anyone can become No One, you know—but she’s ready to advance beyond floor-sweeping and corpse sponge-bath duties.
Jaqen takes her into the Hall of Faces. This is what happens to the corpses, their physical identities are somehow magically preserved for the use of the Faceless Men. There are thousands of them. You would think the Faceless Men would get to a point where they would have enough. How many spare identities do you really need? And how do you reach the ones that are really high up? (“You get a face lift!” a reader shot back on Twitter. Still, I assume the ones on the bottom rows get used the most often.
Essos: Tyrion and Ser Jorah are starting to bond a bit when Tyrion accidentally breaks the news about Jorah’s father, Jeor Mormont. It’s easy to forget in this dizzyingly complex show that Ser Jorah’s dad was the former Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch who was killed during the mutiny at Craster’s Keep in season 3.
They’re suddenly captured by slavers. The men decide to kill Tyrion for his member because “a dwarf’s cock has magic powers.” Tyrion convinces them to keep him alive so they can prove it really did belong to a dwarf. The slavers agree to wait to kill him until they find a “cock merchant.” This is apparently an entire Thrones business that we didn’t even know about until now. So presumably all little people have to worry about being killed for this, right? How much do the cocks go for relative to other things? What powers do they supposedly possess? So many questions. Also: We haven’t seen “talking his way out of certain death” Tyrion in a while, and it’s a welcome return.
Tyrion also convinces the slavers that Ser Jorah is a great warrior (he actually is pretty good, so that helps) and that they should sell him to the fighting pits. So at least they’ll at least be headed the right direction in their goal to meet up with Dany. I now think it’s safe to assume we’re going to get some fighting pit action this season.
King’s Landing: Littlefinger returns and spins Cersei perfectly. I was wondering how Baelish was going to handle going right back into the lion’s den after giving Sansa to the Boltons. He once again proves himself a master manipulator.
First he gives Cersei the news that Sansa will marry Ramsay himself (omitting his role in the matter, of course). Then he offers, as the de facto leader of the Vale, to send his knights to fight whoever wins at Winterfell—Stannis or the Boltons.
Cersei is smart enough to know Littlefinger would never offer to stick his neck out without a big potential reward for himself. And Littlefinger knows she knows this, so he tells her a motivation that she will believe. As it so happens, it’s also the truth: If Littlefinger wins, he wants to be named Warden of the North.
See what he did there? This entire time we thought Littlefinger was giving Sansa to Ramsay, even if only temporarily, until Stannis attacks. Now we see he’s setting himself to win the entire North—AND with Sansa as his bride. Littlefinger wants the whole world, Chico, and everything in it.
Cersei is still suspicious, but can’t find the downside in his plan: “I’ll know you’re loyal when I see Sansa Stark’s head on a spike,” she says. That condition doesn’t worry Littlefinger, of course. Especially given the weather forecast, her Southern armies aren’t going North anytime soon.
Later: The Queen of Thorns is back! Margaery wisely called in her grandmother Lady Olenna once she got in over her head in that rather misguided The Real Housewives of King’s Landing snipe-war with Cersei.
Olenna and Cersei have a great sit-down scene. They’re like two verbal warships lined up side by side, ports open, firing their verbal cannons, each trying to sink the other. Cersei maintains her innocence in Loras being imprisoned, and claims that all he has to do is proclaim his innocence. Olenna sees right through her, and threatens to pull Tyrell support (“What veil?”). It’s like Olenna can’t believe that Cersei would be so self destructive.
An inquest is held. This isn’t a formal trial, but it feels like one. A desperate and haggard Loras vehemently denies to the High Sparrow that he had sexual relations with men. Also: Loras looks pretty good with a beard. He should consider keeping that. The situation seems like it’s on the verge of being cleared up. It was all just a big misunderstanding, everybody can now go happily about their business. Right?
Thrones never lets anybody off that easily. The High Sparrow pulls a Columbo, having one… more … question—but for Margaery. Does she have any first-hand knowledge about her brother’s sexuality?
Olenna starts to figure this out before Margaery, who naturally denies any knowledge. Then the High Sparrow brings out Loras’ plaything Olyvar as a witness for the prosecution. Olyvar testifies that he was Loras’ lover and that Margaery once walked in on them in bed, and then he cites Loras’ Dorne-shaped birthmark as proof.
Boom! Cersei just sunk Olenna’s battleship, taking down both Margaery and Loras in one shot. They’re both going to prison. Cersei puts on a nice show of protesting, but allows herself a little smirk.
And Thrones flexes its storytelling cleverness. Remember how last week we realized how Stannis’ reminiscence about Shrieen’s greyscale wasn’t only a sweetly touching character-building scene, but also set up the big reveal of Ser Jorah getting greyscale? Now we have a huge turn of events that reveals that a seeming throwaway scene from the season premiere—when Margaery walked in on Loras and Olyvar—was actually crucial set-up for this twist (you could even argue that Loras’ birthmark being shaped like Dorne served yet another purpose, since the show added Dorne as a location this year and many casual viewers didn’t know much about it). Likewise we had all that early season talk of the fighting pits, and now we’re seeing that thread pop up in Tyrion’s story line.
This season of Thrones is built like a narrative Jenga tower, where scenes you think were not that important are turning out to be critical later on. While some readers said the first few weeks of the season were sluggish, by the end of the season you may be surprised how many of those low-key moments were absolutely necessary.
Dorne: Myrcella Baratheon is smooching Prince Trystane Martell at the Water Gardens. For once, two people on this show who are being forced to marry each other are totally happy and not siblings. So naturally everybody wants to break them up.
A distractingly disguised Jaime and Bronn come in to “rescue” the princess who doesn’t actually want to be rescued. Just at that moment the Sand Snakes come in to take out Myrcella. Love Bronn’s “oh for f–k’s sake” reaction to seeing the trio of teen killers. There’s a frantic melee of daggers and swords and a whip and a spear. By Thrones’ usual expertly choreographed standards, the scene plays a bit confusingly. There’s one shot of a Sand Snake flipping over that looks like it was edited from two separate takes, Xena style (though perhaps it was a stutter in my video feed?).
There’s two ways to look at this: Girl-power badass-ness as Oberyn’s kids are unleashed in all their whip-stab-spear glory. Or that they’re pretty ineffective at doing any actual damage given that there are three of them. Guard captain Hota arrives to break up the fight. Those crazy teenagers, always trying to kill people. He has Jaime and Bronn arrested. Am I the only one who’s been surprised by how little presence the Sand Snakes have had so far?
Winterfell: Bath time for Sansa Stark. Ramsay sends his lip-biting lover Myranda to help. So the nutty kennel keeper’s daughter bathes naked vulnerable Sansa? Already we’re getting tense about this. Remember that for her last wedding, Sansa was attended by Shae, so it seems Sansa is doomed to always get her fiancé’s bitter lover helping her get ready to walk down the aisle.
The bath turns Sansa’s dyed hair back to its natural red. So is this the first time she’s bathed since leaving the Vale? Yikes.
Myranda starts telling tales of Ramsay’s abusiveness toward women, trying to terrify Sansa. I suspect the only reason Myranda has survived Ramsay’s company for so long is because (as we clearly saw last week) there’s nothing to flay off her. But it’s one thing to be threatened by somebody powerful like King Joffrey. Sansa isn’t going to take this from some trampy dog walker. “How long have you loved him?” Sansa asks. “I’m Sansa Stark of Winterfell. This is my home and you can’t frighten me.” She orders Myranda to GTFO.
We cheer for our newly crowned hero, Sansa the Strong.
And if the episode had ended right there, fans would turn off their TVs thinking: Wow, what a great episode for Sansa! She’s really evolved into a formidable character—still vulnerable, still scared, yet increasingly fighting through that to stand her ground.
But the episode does not end there.
NEXT: “Romance Dies”
Theon, all cleaned up, is sent to escort Sansa to the Godswood. She is dressed like a Narnia snow queen. She won’t let Theon touch her, understandably. There’s a ceremony in the Godswood. I’m frankly so tense about the scene that I know is coming next that I have a tough time paying attention to the wedding itself.
In the bedroom, there is Ramsay and Sansa and Theon. One of these three definitely should not be there. Ramsay asks Sansa if she’s still a virgin and then notes (ironically as it turns out) that lying to your husband would be “a bad way to start a marriage.” Ramsay then tells Sansa to take off her clothes, and orders Theon to stay in the room. This is when we realize this is going to get pretty bad.
“You’ve known Sansa since she was a girl,” Ramsay says. “Now watch her become a woman.”
Throughout this sequence composer Ramin Djawadi’s score, all tense deep strings, is hugely effective at making us feel unnerved.
We don’t see what happens next. We see Theon tearfully watching. We hear Sansa crying. And that’s enough (if not more than enough).
Critics often note when Thrones makes violent scenes even darker than George R.R. Martin’s books (like in season 3’s The Red Wedding). This is a scene where what happened in the book was actually worse (in A Dance with Dragons, Ramsay forces Theon to first “warm up” his new bride, who is a different character than Sansa).
The scene is especially upsetting because we’ve watched Sansa Stark grow up on screen. Actress Sophie Turner was about 13 years old when she was cast on the show. When Ramsay said, “You’ve known Sansa since she was a girl,” he might as well have been talking to the audience. And from the very first episode, Sansa’s focus was an innocent and relatable one: Who will she marry? Sansa was then passed—with increasing sadness and anger and resentment—from Joffrey, then Tyrion, then to Littlefinger, all the while keeping her virginity (and some inkling of hope) intact.
Now she’s married to the biggest monster in Westeros. And the girl who dreamed of an idyllic wedding all her life instead gets … it’s like I can’t even type it: Sansa Stark gets raped. In the Game of Thrones production breakdown for season 5, which lists all the scenes shot over the course of the season, this scene was described by two words: “Romance Dies.”
All of this brings to surface the strange relationship we have with the people who create our entertainment. As Joss Whedon once pointed out, we go to movies to see characters we care about “suffer.” Without suffering there is no drama. And in terms of making a dramatic choice, Sansa getting raped on her wedding night while being held prisoner in her own home is about as dramatic as it gets. Rick Rubin recently said “the best art divides the audience.” This scene definitely accomplished at least that much. So from a calculating perspective, this choice can be considered narratively effective. And the reason it’s effective is because we care about Sansa and because what happens is so horrible.
But watching a deadly serialized drama like Thrones—or The Walking Dead or The Sopranos—is like being in a co-dependent abusive relationship with a TV series. We love the show, but the show hurts us to entertain us. And we want the show to hurt us—that’s part of the reason we watch. If nothing really bad ever happens to characters we love on Thrones, we would grow frustrated and bored. In fact, earlier this season you started to see some of this, with viewers complaining that not enough was happening. But do we want Thrones to really push our boundaries? Or do we want the show to stay within certain lines? To wound, but not too deeply?
Now Thrones has deeply hurt Sansa, and by extension, has deeply hurt us. We’re reeling from being struck, shocked, our hand against our reddening cheek. We didn’t expect Thrones to hit us this hard. Now we don’t know what to think. Or maybe we do. Oh, Thrones. What was our safe word again?
EW has full coverage of this episode: We have an interview with Sansa Stark actress Sophie Turner talking about this scene. We also have an interview with producer Bryan Cogman, who wrote this episode (yes, “How could you do this to Sansa?” was our first question, too). Turner’s interview is here and go here for Cogman’s interview.
UPDATE: There is a lot of debate on the boards below and elsewhere about whether that last scene was rape or not. I understand the points made by the doubters. They note that Sansa consented to the wedding and to sex, in theory, and did not actively resist in the scene. She is there by choice as part of a larger strategy. My opinion, and the reason I used the term above, is that Ramsay did his very best to take an act that was supposed to be consensual and make Sansa feel like she being raped and humiliated. Ask yourself: In that final scene, did Sansa want to have sex with Ramsay? It seems pretty clear she did not. And what was the reason she did not turn him down? I think Sansa would have said “No” if she thought she had a true choice. But especially after hearing Myranda’s scary bathtub tales about Ramsay, and seeing his don’t-make-me-ask-you-a-second time bullying, she relented because she was afraid of what he might do if she refused. As always, Thrones enjoys dancing in the grey areas, leaving us to sit on the sidelines and debate its shifting steps. For me, the feeling you get watching this scene tells you clearly what it is.