[SPOILERS ahead for those not caught up on Game of Thrones.]
Game of Thrones is easily HBO's crown jewel in terms of the show's critical acclaim and commercial success alike, but that's not to say the small screen adaptation of author George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire novels is a stranger to criticism and controversy. One of the recurring complaints about the series concerns its use of rape and sexualized violence, most recently with regard to Sansa Stark's (Sophie Turner) storyline and the disturbing turns it took as Sana found herself forced to marry the vile - and violent - Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon) in season 5.
Jeremy Podeswa directed the Thrones episode featuring the Sansa rape scene ('Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken'), and both Martin as well as Turner have weighed in with their feelings on the matter in the past. More recently though, Podeswa addressed how the general responses to that scene - and Game of Thrones' use of sexualized violence as a storytelling device - will impact showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss' approach to related subject matter in the future, starting on the upcoming sixth season of the show.
Podeswa, who is returning to direct the first two episodes for Game of Thrones season 6, spoke at a recent breakfast briefing at Fox Studios Australia in Sydney and confirmed that the show's producers have, in fact, take the criticisms aimed at the Sansa storyline (and again, the show's previous use of rape as a storytelling tool) into consideration while crafting the season 6 episodes (per Forbes):
“It is important that (the producers) not self-censor. The show depicts a brutal world where horrible things happen. They did not want to be too overly influenced by that (criticism) but they did absorb and take it in and it did influence them in a way.”
The director also spoke about how the show's producers and he knew the Sansa's storyline in season 5 would be a difficult one for the series' viewers to handle going in, but were nonetheless taken aback by just how widespread the response proved to be:
“ It was a difficult and brutal scene and we knew it was going to be challenging for the audience. But it was very important to us in the execution that it would not be exploited in any way. To be fair, the criticism was the notion of it, not the execution. It was handled as sensitively as it could possibly be; you hardly see anything.
“I welcomed the discussion about the depiction of violence on television and how it could be used as a narrative tool sometimes and the questionable nature of that. We were aware ahead of time that it was going to be disturbing but we did not expect there would be people in Congress talking about it.”
While Podeswa argues that "the criticism was the notion of it, not the execution" of Sansa's storyline in Game of Thrones, arguably more of the criticism aimed at the development concerned its aftermath - namely, how the remaining season 5 episodes highlighted the impact the event had on Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen) and used it to move Theon's story thread along, rather than explore the repercussions that it had on Sansa. Indeed, Jessica Jones showrunner Melissa Rosenberg's complaint that rape on TV has become "lazy storytelling and it’s always about the impact it has on the men around [the victims]" may just as well be aimed at Game of Thrones as any other TV series.
That being said, Sansa and Theon's now-shared story thread (seeings as the pair are currently on the run together) is one that should be picked up during the first two Game of Thrones season 6 episodes. Based on Podeswa's comments about those episodes (see below), there is a possibility that the effects of Sansa's abuse at the hands of the Boltons will be better examined at that time, too:
“Doing the first episode of a new season is always a bit tricky because they tend to lay down a lot of tracks for the season and check on where the characters are now. They’re not usually the most dynamic episodes. Happily for me this year the producers tried to work against that. The season gets off to an amazing start, stuff of consequence happens and the first two episodes are really strong.”
The setting of Game of Thrones is a harsh and dangerous world especially for women (as Podeswa noted), and there's little reason to suspect things will change that much with season 6. This is a series that coined the phrase "sexposition" and it has a character body count that rivals (and/or exceeds) that of any other series in TV history, after all. Indeed, who will live and/or will have to endure some terrible event next is a guessing game that Thrones fans have played for five seasons and will no doubt have to keep on playing on through to the over-arching narrative's conclusion.
Nonetheless, as both Thrones and Martin's own source novels move closer and closer to a "bittersweet" conclusion, there's no reason the show can't continue to evolve (and, in some ways, mature) in regard to its overall storytelling approach and methods. After all, the past may be already written (as a certain Three-Eyed Raven has noted), but the future is always in motion and so is how the show can approach sensitive topics like sexual violence and its effects.
Game of Thrones season 6 begins airing on HBO in April 2016.