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Sansa Stark and Game of Thrones: At What Point Does Storytelling Simply Become Shock Factor?

sansa stark game of thrones

Spoilers through the most recent episode of Game of Thrones – “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken”

I love Game of Thrones. Sift through my post history and you’ll see that it is laden with A Song of Ice and Fire discussion. However, last night’s episode left me upset to my core and I’m tired of the recent character assassinations. In case you missed it, Sansa Stark was raped by her new husband, the barbarian from the Dreadfort, Ramsay Bolton. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen rape in Game of Thrones, nor is it the first time we’ve seen horrible things happen to a fan favorite character. Unlike some of the other deplorable acts throughout the series, this particular scene was unnecessary, doing nothing to further the story, and could have been completely avoided in favor of better storytelling.

Sometimes the hero doesn’t win, I know that. Ned Stark proved that. However, there hits a point where something good has to happen in order to make the story worth telling. In the real world, horrendous things occur all over the place; good people die for no reason and you don’t get handed a happy ending. However, in storytelling, you write with a purpose or you’re not doing your job well. If someone wrote a novel depicting their day-to-day routine, it would be boring, monotonous, and probably involve way too much fried food. No one wants to read that story. In the same vein, no one wants to read about the perfect hero, the guy who never fails, makes no mistakes, and flosses twice a day. We hate that guy. A good story is like a roller coaster, up and down with loops like whoa and twists like yea.

Game of Thrones prides itself on being a story told by characters who aren’t black and white, and that’s why so many people love it. Characters like Jaime Lannister can rise from being an incestuous prick who pushed a kid out a window to someone noble, akin to a hero (at least as close as one can get in ASoIaF). Fans of the series cheer for Jaime Lannister because his redemption has been one of the most fascinating arcs in literature. That being said, HBO’s Jaime Lannister has made no such journey. Instead, we have watched him rape his sister. I don’t care what the showrunners proclaim, telling someone she’s a “hateful woman” and then forcing himself on her while she pleas “no” is rape.

We’ve watched mutinous members of the Night’s Watch rape Craster’s daughters, as if to drive home the point that they are very bad men who drink wine from skulls and assault women. Ros, a whore in Littlefinger’s brothel who was growing into an intriguing character in her own right, was turned into a plaything for Joffrey’s sadism, shown naked and filled with crossbow bolts. In both of these situations, we already know the ex-Crows and Joffrey are degenerate examples of human beings. Do we need to see this abuse to drive the nail home, time after time after time? Hint: the answer is no.

The death of Ned Stark was shocking for everyone. He was the hero, the one who would save the realm from the Lannisters and winter, and bring about peace. His death gutted most people, but it was also the catalyst for all of the current events of the series. Similarly, Khal Drogo’s death and the loss of her child was the impetus for Danaerys to walk into the fire and birth three baby dragons. Robb, Talisa, and Catelyn’s deaths were difficult to watch, graphic and depressing, but again, there was a build-up to the moment and repercussions for the demise of the King in the North. From a plot standpoint, we can see why the Red Wedding occurred, and how it will allow for other characters to stand up and become heroes.

What then, did the story gain from the rape of Sansa Stark? 

I’ll tell you: nothing.

Of course, I don’t know how the series will play out. I don’t know what will occur over the next four episodes or through the final two seasons. However, the way I see it, there are two possible outcomes for Sansa’s character from here:

  1. She becomes the player she has been steadily growing into and takes down the Boltons.
  2. She submits like Theon/Reek and waits for someone else to save her.

In both examples, Sansa’s rape lifts right out of the story and becomes superfluous, a scene used to drive home points we were already aware of: Ramsay is a monster and Sansa has suffered. And from a storytelling standpoint, that’s just bad writing. It sends the message that Sansa could have only grown into a true player because she was raped; her rape becomes the impetus, the symbol for her change. And now, Sansa Stark, the character who deserves something good more than anyone else, is reduced to fantasy trope.

Related to what I mentioned above, when it comes to storytelling, no one wants to see solely the negative aspect of the world. There must be some sliver of hope to cling to, to cheer for our hero, to drive us to retain interest in the story. Who wants to read a story that constantly makes them feel like garbage? When it comes to Sansa Stark and Game of Thrones, there hasn’t been much to cheer about.

But Sansa and Ramsay were betrothed, what did you expect to happen? This is Westeros.

What did I expect to happen? I expected good character development that wouldn’t rely on worn out tropes, twists that wouldn’t involve the rape of an already battered woman. This may be Westeros, but this is still a story being told for the sake of entertainment. Instead of giving us the horrible wedding and rape we have sadly come to expect from Game of Thrones (and still stupidly hope won’t happen), why not build on the already established growth of the character?

Sansa has been built up as a growing player in the Game of Thrones, someone who is widely considered to one day become Queen in the North. Upon first greeting Roose Bolton in Winterfell, Sansa made nice with the Warden of the North, knowing full well that her anger wouldn’t avenge Robb and her mother, so she made nice, biding her time. When Fat Walda announced her pregnancy, Sansa quickly picked up on what this meant for Ramsay and used it to strike a nerve, knowing that Ramsay couldn’t retaliate. We’ve seen her wit with handling Joffrey, how she plays up the innocence in King’s Landing, how she manipulates Robin Arryn, and even in the case of Baelish, uses her sex to her advantage. She has learned from the likes of Cersei, Margaery, and Littlefinger. Not one of those three “players” would have allowed the events of her wedding night occur.

But Sansa isn’t a player yet, she’s still growing into one and this was a stepping stone to her final form.

Bullshit. This scene was meant solely to shock viewers. No other reason. Instead they could have shown Sansa growing into that player, that woman who has learned to manipulate those around her, including Ramsay Bolton. Slowly, she could have infiltrated Ramsay’s mind, first through Myranda (she’s already stood up to her), then through Theon, and then herself.

How much more interesting would it have been to watch Ramsay squirm, not wanting to admit he’s uncomfortable around Sansa? She could still falter, much the same way she did at last week’s dinner with the Boltons. Push back the marriage to give Sansa some measure of safety; the people in Winterfell are loyal to her, so as long as she always does her thing in the open, in view of others, Ramsay wouldn’t be stupid enough to retaliate. And if they aren’t married, Roose isn’t stupid enough to allow his son to rape the only GOOD tie he has left to control the north, to buy their loyalty. But now? Roose, along with most others, isn’t going to stop Ramsay from raping Sansa. They’re married. Besides, Roose is the monster who raped a woman underneath the hanging corpse of her husband. Any thing resembling kindness from him is solely for political reasons. And Sansa would know that and use it to her advantage.

But FINE. Leave the wedding as it is, and then have someone else intervene. Brienne makes an appearance, or after saying his name aloud, Theon Greyjoy decides to protect someone from becoming another plaything. Or maybe there’s news of Stannis at the gates and they lock Sansa away for safekeeping. Something. Anything. There were so many ways around this very horrible and very predictable outcome and D&D decided to use what would shock viewers the most.

Maybe I’m naive and hope too much for the good things, but I’m also a fan of good writing and creative characters who grow. Sansa’s “wedding” involved neither. And if I have to hear one more time, “But it’s worse in the books!” I’m going to start eating puppies. EVEN THE CORGIS.

1 Comment

  1. it isn’t worse in the books (at least for sansa). Ramsay weds Jeyne Poole, a childhood friend of Sansa that is impersonating her. In the books, in the wedding night, Ramsay (for some reason) is bored and isn’t really in the mood for her unwilling bride. So, he asks theon to pleasure her with her thonge before he himself can consumate the act. Later on, it is hinted that he got Jeyne raped by his own dogs, but nothing too explicit. In the books, Sansa is kinda in limbo in the Vale taking care of the little lord Arryn (that is growing quite fond of her).

    Granted, in the series she is given a more active role, but I agree that raping her is totally out of proportion. Merely going for shock value for the sake of shock value. What the writers dont understand is if you constantly give people the “unexpected”, the unexpected becomes the expected. Aka, truly surprising (and even more shocking) would’ve been Ramsay actually treating Sansa nicely. Or somehow Sansa being able to control (to a degree) Ramsay’s actions.

    The rape was totally predictable and failed to fullfill its purpose to “wow” the viewers like the red wedding. The writers for the tv series are actually ruining the show (mance rayder dying, barristan dying, sansa getting raped, loras being jailed and being portrayed as the gay character only – on a side note, Loras in the books could actually cut up all those untrained sparrows with a single stroke – Jaime Lannister in the books undergoes the most beautiful and meaningful transformations of redemption, now he is nothing more than a one sided character that still loves his sister (in the books, he actually starts rejecting Cersei and starts seeing the bigger picture, inspired by Brienne, Catelyn Stark and the north honor system).

    Anyway, rant over. Rip game of thrones. Read the books if you actually want a great story. The series are just going for shock value.

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