Another season of Game of Thrones, another Internet rage-fest over having to witness another major female character suffer a rape. For many fans who were appalled at the horrible scene of Jaime Lannister raping his sister/lover Cersei last season, it felt like the showrunners had only doubled down, putting Sansa Stark into the hands of sadist Ramsay Bolton and, to add insult to injury, making her former foster brother Theon Greyjoy watch. Just as last year, accusations that the show takes sexual violence lightly and declarations of breaking up with Game of Thrones forever populated social media.
But while I agreed with the critics of the Lannister rape scene last year, this time around, I believe that, while it was horrible to witness a beloved and innocent character like Sansa get raped, it didn’t feel gratitutous or unserious. Unlike with last year’s twincest rape, the director of this episode is quite clear that what we’re witnessing is, in fact, a rape. It wasn’t played off as rough sex, but as a deliberate act of dominance. For once, rape is being portrayed accurately, as an act of sadism instead of just an overabundance of passion. (It was also, as writer Bryan Cogman explains in an interview with Entertainment Weekly, much worse in the book. Just trust me on this.)
Once Sansa was engaged to Ramsay, it would have been a cop-out to play this storyline any other way. As my co-host Marc Faletti and I discuss in House Slate, our weekly take on the series, the point of Game of Thrones—and A Song of Ice and Fire, the book series this show is based on—is to subvert and complicate the standard tropes and narratives of fantasy fiction. In traditional fantasy, the Stark family would be the conquering heroes, their great honor and love for one another rewarded as they triumph over their corrupt enemies to save the realm. But in this story, the world is not so simple. The honorable family patriarch’s honor results in his death. His valiant son dies, unarmed, at the hands of people he believed to be his allies. We are meant to look at the grotesque realities of war lurking underneath the gleaming armor and fancy banners of medieval myth-making.
Sansa Stark’s rape was, like Ned’s execution and the Red Wedding, not treated lightly, but presented as an act of war against the Stark family. Yes, it was horrible. It was meant to be.