[SPOILERS ahead for those not caught up on Game of Thrones.]
Game of Thrones is no stranger to stirring up controversy or attracting criticisms that it's crossed over the line from dark fantasy drama to exploitation (again) - this is the same series that coined the term "Sexposition," after all. The most recent episode of the show's fifth season (at the time of writing this), 'Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken', landed the program in hot water once again - prompting an outcry among fans, in response to the latest disturbing development in Sansa Stark's (Sophie Turner) plot thread.
The scene in question - as was discussed in our Game of Thrones book to screen breakdown this week - is an altered version of a similar scene in George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire novels, in which a minor character named Jeyne Poole is raped by Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon, on the show) on their wedding night - and Theon/Reek (Alfie Allen) is forced to join them. In Game of Thrones, Sansa is the one who ends up becoming Ramsay's bride, while Theon is ordered by Ramsay to stand by and watch as he assaults his new wife, shortly after they've been married.
This turn in Sansa's story has already prompted a pronounced backlash, with popular sites like The Mary Sue having declared it will no longer be covering Game of Thrones news - while a number of people online having declared they are done with the series, at this point. EW interviewed Turner about the sequence in question before she had filmed it, and she said that would no doubt "completely agree" with the fans sure to be upset by this plot point.
Here's what Turner had to say, about when she first became aware of what was in store for Sansa this season:
Last season [Thrones director] Alex Graves decided to give me hints. He was saying, “You get a love interest next season.” And I was all, “I actually get a love interest!” So I get the scripts and I was so excited and I was flicking through and then I was like, “Aw, are you kidding me!?” I thought the love interest was going to be like Jaime Lannister or somebody who would take care of me. But then I found out it was Ramsay and I’m back at Winterfell. I love the fact she’s back home reclaiming what’s hers. But at the same time she’s being held prisoner in her own home. When I got the scripts, it was bit like, dude, I felt so bad for her. But I also felt excited because it was so sick, and being reunited with Theon too, and seeing how their relationship plays out. Theon’s a member of the Stark clan but she thinks he totally betrayed and killed her brothers. It’s a messed-up relationship between them.
Reactions to Sansa's wedding night recall those many fans had back in Game of Thrones season 4, in response to the scene in which Jaime Lannister rapes his sister Cersei next to their dead son, Joffrey - an altered version of a sequence in Martin's source material. That was far from the first time both Thrones and Song of Ice and Fire fans have taken issue with how the series depicts sexual assault and violence against women, so Sansa being brutalized by Ramsay was (understandably) the last straw for many. However, based on similar reasoning, others have argued that what happened to Sansa is simply a continuation of one of Game of Thrones' central thematic motifs.
Consider, for example, what The Washington Post's Alyssa Rosenberg had to offer on the subject:
For me, the scene of Sansa’s rape was tremendously unpleasant, but the care taken in the staging, acting and shooting of the scene made it impossible for me to regard it as lazy or slapdash. And I didn’t find it gratuitous in the way I might have felt if I saw “Game of Thrones” as simply a sprawling, quasi-medieval adventure or an ensemble Golden Age drama, sort of a mash-up of anti-heroes culled from “The Sopranos” and awesome women inspired by “Mad Men,” with dragons for an extra fiery kick. Instead, this scene felt of a piece with the way I’ve always understood “Game of Thrones” and George R.R. Martin’s “Song of Ice and Fire”: as a story about the consequences of rape and denial of sexual autonomy.
Alternatively, writers such as Indiewire's Casey Cipriani has taken Game of Thrones to task for its use of sexual violence "as a plot device or its repeated appearance for shock value alone." Cipriani likewise argued against that those who continue to defend the show's use of rape/sexual assault as being on the same level with how it utilizes more generalized violence:
Here's the difference: While "Game of Thrones" is a fantasy series set in a fantastical location, the violence is no more or less "historically accurate" than the rape. None of this comes from history, but from the mind of a singular writer of novels. He can — by all means — be inspired by periods in history, but he's ultimately creating his own world. In modern shows that contain more realistic violence, like "Sons of Anarchy" or "Hannibal," it would be easier to say that violence and sexual assault stand on equally disturbing footing. But they don't on "Game of Thrones."
There have been differences between the novels and the television show since the first episode of season one. And for just as long, I have been talking about the butterfly effect. Small changes lead to larger changes lead to huge changes... There has seldom been any TV series as faithful to its source material, by and large (if you doubt that, talk to the Harry Dresden fans, or readers of the Sookie Stackhouse novels, or the fans of the original WALKING DEAD comic books)... but the longer the show goes on, the bigger the butterflies become. And now we have reached the point where the beat of butterfly wings is stirring up storms, like the one presently engulfing my email.
Prose and television have different strengths, different weaknesses, different requirements. David and Dan and Bryan and HBO are trying to make the best television series that they can. And over here I am trying to write the best novels that I can.
It's understandable that many Game of Thrones fans would need to vent and/or take an indefinite break from the show after what happened to Sansa - regardless of whether or not you feel that it was a natural progression of ideas and issues the show has wrestled with in the past. Or, alternatively, if you feel the show has always justified its more exploitive elements in the name of creative expression, and that's the real problem driving this latest controversy.
There's certainly a lot of valid criticism being leveled toward the series for its use of sexual violence (and, well, just violence in general), but there are fair points being raised in the show's defense, at the same time. Feel free to continue the discussion in the comments - just keep it civil, please.
Game of Thrones season five continues next Sunday with 'The Gift' on HBO.