HBO's Game Of Thrones has forged a reputation as one of the most shocking shows to ever be aired on TV. With its free approach to gory violence, liberal attitude towards sex and nudity, and it's "no character is safe from the pointy end of the sword" policy, it is no surprise the show creates a lot of controversy among both fans and critics.
Despite an array of despicable events portrayed within the past five seasons, the one that has arguably garnered the most controversy was the season 5 rape of Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) by her psychotic new husband Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon). Season 5 is soon to be released on Blu-ray, and the episode's writer, Brian Cogman, has taken an opportunity to explain this distressing plot line via the featured commentary.
Until now, the show's writers have done little to weigh in on the backlash that occurred following 'Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken,' allowing the episode's director (Jeremy Podeswa) and Turner herself to defend the sexual violence towards one of the series' most long suffering and innocent characters. (As reported by EW) Cogman took this chance to justify his silence and discuss the plot decision:
"I think it’s important to talk about because of the response this storyline got... It’s sort of ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t.’ If you don’t talk about it, people think you’re ashamed of it; if you do talk about it, everything you say is taken out of context. 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 happen on that wedding night with these two characters, and the reality of the situation, and the reality of this particular world."
As Cogman goes on to explain, he did not view the decision to put Sansa in that situation lightly, and goes on to discuss what about the backlash had the greatest impact on him as a writer:
"It was a very difficult scene for me to write... I’ve known Sophie since she was a kid… I think it was the attack on our motives behind it that upset me. Because I love these characters. I’ve spent the better part of the last decade with these characters, and I love these actors – I’m getting emotional talking about it – I love Sophie, I love Alfie, I love Maisie [Williams - who also features on the commentary] and it’s … very personal to me and it’s not an easy thing to put a character that I love through a scene like this."
He also references Williams' character Arya when discussing why Sansa does not fight back against her abuser:
"Yes, it would have been hugely satisfying [for Sansa] to have a shiv up her sleeve and gut Ramsay, but that’s not Sansa. We can’t all be Arya (Williams) and, in fact, most people aren’t Arya. Most people in that situation, they have to play a longer game. She goes [into the marriage] without the right information about Ramsay, she gets the sense that he’s dangerous, and when he turns out to be even worse than she thought, she’s not broken by the attack, she immediately sets to getting the hell out of there and planning her next move."
Another controversial element of the scene Cogman was keen to set the record straight about was the focus on Theon Greyjoy's (Alfie Allen) role and the reason behind this editing choice:
"Another argument – and I get why this criticism was leveled at us – is idea that we took Sansa’s story away from her and made it all about Theon [by cutting to his face at the end]. I personally don’t believe that’s the case … Certainly Theon’s redemption journey is an element of the subplot. But if you really watch this scene it’s played from Sansa’s viewpoint, for the most part. The main reason we cut away at the end, frankly, is that this was Sophie’s first scene of this nature, and we didn’t want to show the attack. And so we cut to Theon to hear the attack. I understand why many people reacted to that, [thinking] we were making this scene about Theon and not Sansa. I’m sorry it was viewed that way. All I can say is it’s certainly not my intention when I wrote it or when we were producing it … We could have stayed on her face of the entirety of the attack, that would have been a perfectly valid choice. To me it was about being respectful to Sophie."
Turner has recently teased a greater narrative purpose to her most difficult scene, promising exciting future character development -- and Cogman seems to also confirm this:
"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."
These comments are a clear indicator that Game Of Thrones' writers are as fond of their characters as the show's truly epic fan base. In trying to deal with their subject matter as sensitively as the series tone would allow, the creators somehow made the scene feel more uncomfortably exploitative than the almost identical scenario in which Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) was raped (far more gratuitously) on the night of her politically arranged marriage in season 1.
As the show continues, fans' relationship with the few surviving original characters make it harder to endure the dark experiences that befall them. This adds pressure to the creators to achieve the right balance between maintaining the shock factor Game Of Thrones is known for without alienating their fan base. With all signs suggesting Sansa will rise from her despicable experience into a satisfying new storyline, we can hopefully look forward to some less bleak events in season 6 (although with this show, such hope is usually futile).
Game Of Thrones season 5 Blu-ray and DVD will be released on the March 15, 2016. Season 6 will air on HBO on April 24, 2016.