Season six of HBO’s hit series is looming, and that means it’s time to re-open old wounds and take a look at last season’s biggest controversy – the Sansa Stark/Ramsay Bolton rape scene. Writer of the episode, Bryan Cogman has addressed the controversy in the upcoming season 5 DVD.
[Trigger Warning: Sexual assault, violence against women]
The scene in question saw Sophie Turner’s character, Sansa Stark, raped by Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon) on their wedding night. In the books, Sansa Stark does not marry Ramsay Bolton and so this scene doesn’t exist: Sansa’s place is taken by a character called Jeyne Poole, while impersonating Arya Stark.
The scene was horrifying to watch. It filled me with a mixture of dread, anger, and a sense of loss. ‘Game of Thrones’ is known for its violence, for its rawness, but this, this felt like crossing a line, even for a TV show that prides itself for toeing just that. It sparked immediate outrage, with many viewers declaring the scene gratuitous, and even misogynistic. My eyes had widened in horror when I’d found out the ‘Thrones’ writers were replacing Jeyne Poole with Sansa, knowing from my knowledge of the books, what was coming. So why would they do it? And were they right?
Just this week, entertainment websites reported that Bryan Cogman, who penned the episode: Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken, has defended the scene on the upcoming season 5 DVD.
He said: “Basically, when we decided to combine Sansa’s storyline with another character in the books it was done with the idea that it would be hugely dramatically satisfying to have Sansa back in her occupied childhood home and navigate this Gothic horror story she’s found herself in and, of course, to be reunited with Theon – setting her on the path to reclaiming her family home and becoming a major player in the big overall story.
“That said, when we decided we were going to do that we were faced with the question: If she’s marrying Ramsay, what would happen on her wedding night? And we made the decision to not shy away from what would realistically would happen on that wedding night with these two characters, and the reality of the situation, and the reality of this particular world.”
In a sense, Cogman is right. The series couldn’t possibly shy away from what was going to happen on Sansa and Ramsay’s wedding night. To do so would have been disloyal to Ramsay’s character, the world they live in, and the show, and would have prompted outcries that the show is “unrealistic” and “scared to confront real issues”. By choosing to take the plot in this direction, showrunners had cornered themselves into a lose-lose situation. There was no way they could have averted that scene, short of Sansa defending herself, and killing Ramsay Bolton in a shocking twist.
And this would have been deeply satisfying for so many viewers: we’ve seen Sansa’s character develop, become more plotting and devious, and less “delicate” over the last few seasons. It would have been a great victory for her character to complete her development arc by defeating one of Thrones’ most hated villains. But Cogman claims this simply wouldn’t be in Sansa’s character:
“We can’t all be Arya (Maisie Williams) and, in fact, most people aren’t Arya. Most people in that situation, they have to play a longer game.“
So maybe it wouldn’t have been a very “Sansa” thing to do – and maybe it’s not a bad thing that Sansa is a delicate and vulnerable, yet intelligent and in the end, strong, character. Truly, she had little choice during the scene but to play a “longer game”. There was very little chance of her overpowering Ramsay. But this only made it all the more painful to watch. We had seen Sansa grow stronger each episode, only for this to culminate in her sexual assault, something which will undoubtedly affect her character for years to overcome. For some, it felt like her character had taken a step backwards, and that we should have seen more of the strength and inner fire that she was beginning to develop.
Many viewers (myself included) questioned whether the scene was truly necessary. Was it just created to shock people? In the season 5 DVD, Cogman responded:
“It’s an upsetting scene, it’s a horrifying scene, it’s meant to be … [But] the accusation that our motives were [that we] just threw in a rape for shock value, I personally don’t think the scene as shot, or as written, or as acted by our wonderful actors, supports that argument. Nor do I think the aftermath of the scene supports that argument. Not only in these episodes, but also in future episodes. This story is not over. This is a long ongoing story. Sansa has a journey ahead of her, and what happens to her in that room is a huge part of that journey, and one that we’ve thought through.”
Here, he makes an important point, one which I’m glad he made: “This story is not over.”
My worst fear is that the scene will never be fully addressed, that we won’t see the long-lasting effects and repurcussions of this scene in Sansa’s character. Anyone who is subjected to that kind of abuse will not emerge from the other side as the same person they once were. And for a popular TV show to put a character into that situation and then just to gloss over it as though it didn’t matter, and didn’t change the character forever, would be wrong, and more upsetting than the scene itself. It would prove that the scene is truly gratuitous, purely for “shock value”.
Even with Cogman’s sensible and understandable explanation of why they chose to show this scene, I can’t say I completely forgive the writers for this one. I wish it hadn’t happened: Sansa is a character I both like and admire. But sometimes writers (of both television and books) can be torturous to the characters we love (George R R Martin and Robin Hobb are some of the best examples of this in fantasy). And sometimes this is necessary for the plot, and sometimes for character development. When it isn’t necessary, that’s when it becomes gratuitous, and if this is the case in Thrones, I won’t be able to defend it even slightly. Sexual assault is not something to be glossed over; it’s something that needs to be addressed, and in the right way – not as a passing gratuitous scene created for the shock factor.
I don’t believe Sansa’s character needed this push so that she could “toughen up” and “become stronger” – she’d been through enough to kick-start that change (her father’s beheading might be a good start). But I can’t say that there was no point at all in the scene until we know more – the marriage is a huge game changer and with a character like Ramsay, I don’t believe the marriage could ever have happened without that scene.
Only time will tell if the showrunners have made the right choice in running this storyline. I only hope they handle it well.
Featured image: HBO
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