Game of Thrones tried correcting some of their mistakes with Sansa from season 5 in "The Last of the Starks", but the episode instead highlighted the fact that the series still lacks a nuanced understanding of sexual assault and its aftermath. Sansa Stark shared a conversation with the Hound for the first time since season 2 in "The Last of the Starks" episode, in which he insists that she could've avoided her trauma at the hands of Littlefinger and Ramsay Bolton if she'd left King's Landing with him during the Battle of the Blackwater. Unfortunately, her response indicated to many people that Game of Thrones still doesn't understand what it's doing by using rape as a plot device.
After surviving the horrors of King's Landing after the execution of her father, Sansa spent a short amount of time in the Vale before Petyr Baelish ferried her up north to marry the sociopathic Ramsay Bolton. Book readers knew what was likely in store for Sansa on her wedding night as the show appeared to swapped her with Jeyne Poole, who was raped before Theon's eyes in A Dance with Dragons. But no one was prepared for how uniquely horrifying it would be to watch the young woman violently assaulted on her parents' bed as her foster brother looked on. Audiences and critics alike served a fierce backlash to Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss for what many considered a gross misapplication of rape as a plot device on a show that had never been particularly adept at understanding female sexuality, rape, or the lasting trauma that comes from sexual assault. While Benioff and Weiss defended their decision at the time, this week's exchange between the Hound and Sansa proved to many they still don't know how to tell these kinds of stories with appropriate nuance.
When Sandor Clegane insists that, if Sansa had left with him during the Battle of the Blackwater, she would've avoided her trauma, Sansa responds placidly saying that if she had, she would've "stayed a little bird forever." The entire exchange reads like a clear response to critics of Sansa's season 5 arc and, as such, attempts to justify the artistic choices within it by presenting the woman Sansa is today as evidence those choices were somehow necessary to her development. But in doing so, the writers once again rob Sansa of her agency by crediting her abuse, manipulation, and trauma with making her the woman she eventually becomes.
Granted, a possible interpretation of Sansa's response was that she was exhibiting a common coping mechanism and choosing to see what, if any, good had come from her situation. Or maybe she sensed the Hound's guilt and wanted to make him feel better. But that's not how the scene read to the majority of people who watched it, and the show's history of insensitivity to these subjects makes both of those interpretations very difficult to trust - as did the Hound's crass dialogue at the opening of the conversation.
The other element of the Sandor/Sansa reunion that made it difficult to stomach was the Hound's almost flippant introduction of Sansa's past assault. He snarls, "Heard you got broken in. Heard you got broken in rough." At best, he's drunk and highly disorderly, and at worst, he's teasing a young woman about her serial rape. The Hound has always been morally ambiguous, but the redemption arc he's been on for the past six years negates any the idea he would have this response to a safe and healthy Sansa Stark sitting down across from him. These are lines we would've expected to hear from Polliver, Rast, or Ramsay - not one of the few people who showed Sansa kindness and protection in King's Landing. This dialogue not only undermined Sansa's development, but the Hound's as well.
Sophie Turner's Dark Phoenix co-star Jessica Chastain summed up objections nicely yesterday when she said, "Rape is not a tool to make a character stronger. A woman doesn’t need to be victimized in order to become a butterfly. The #littlebird was always a Phoenix. Her prevailing strength is solely because of her. And her alone." Even before Ned Stark's death and the reign of terror that it brought down upon her shoulders, Sansa was strong. It wasn't her victimization that made her strong, it was her strength that helped her survive the victimization. That might seem a small distinction to some, but in fact it's utterly crucial.
Game of Thrones season 8 continues on Sunday, May 12 on HBO.