Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Sansa Mothafuckin' Stark

What?  I can post about other stuff.

This is your technical spoiler alert, although if you give any type of shit about Game of Thrones, you've probably seen or heard about this already.

Right, good?  Moving along.

So.  Littlefinger left Sansa in the clutches of the Boltons, and Ramsay raped her on their wedding night while Theon watched.  The reactions I've seen have ranged from "this is unfortunate but logical for where they've taken the story" to more froth than you'd find in a barrel of hot cocoa.  I'm sure there's also the "fuck it she needed to learn her place" contingent, but I don't go to those parts of the internet because I would end up spinning my investigative skills into full gear and eventually be convicted of a hate crime.

This is the third major rape scene the show has thrown at us in five seasons.  In a basic storytelling way, I sympathize with the writers; rape is the Big Hammer of storytelling tools and must be used with the utmost caution, even if it's only being referenced and not shown, but they're working with material set in a world where rape is more common than people brushing their teeth.  It can't be ignored completely, but showing poor judgment with it can fracture or completely break a story that's otherwise been perfectly told.

Since part of accepting the use of rape in a story is trust in the producers of said story, let's run through the first two instances.

1) Khal Drogo rapes Daenerys on their wedding night.  This is how it's oftened explained by people who don't like the fact it happened, but they could go farther: the show indicates it continues for quite a bit longer than one night.  Eventually Daenerys turns to her maids for help in retaking some of that power from Drogo, which is where she begins winning his respect and their love story takes off.

The main complaint with the scene is that the book showed the scene as scary and looming for Daenerys, but eventually it became something more sweet and romantic.  By the end of the night, she says yes.  On a basic level, it's understandable to object to a consensual scene being changed into a rape scene (see example #2 below); I would say that is the default mindset of most reasonable people.  This, however, fails to take into account how utterly goddamned creepy the scene from the book is.

As most people who have partaken of both the books and the show are aware, the time frame of the show was pushed forward three years to age the characters.  This was mostly to make some of the things involving the younger characters substantially less weird and troubling.  Therefore, here is the baseline plot for Daenerys leading up to her marriage to Drogo:

-Sold by her brother to Drogo in return for the promise of an army
-Treated like dogshit by said brother; not prepared for her role as Drogo's wife in any real way
-Married to Drogo and sent off alone with him to consummate the marriage
-Oh, yeah, she's thirteen

In the book, young, small, fairly beat-down Daenerys is initially rather reluctant begin relations with Drogo.  She's crying at the start of it.  The scene is written as, Drogo's going to get what he wants, but he's not sadistic or unfeeling; he's set up as being quite different from Viserys.  In that respect, maybe it can be logically set up for Daenerys to submit for the moment and in time they win each other over.  But then she says "yes"- openly consents- on the first night of a marriage she was sold into and unprepared to deal with as a thirteen-year-old.  Even taking into account the fact kids were expected to handle a lot more than they are in the modern world, that's a turn of events with questionable believability.

The way the show handles it is much more plausible.  Daenerys is sent into what should be a bad situation, and it starts out just as bad as it looked from the outside.  Given how the khalasar treats women generally, there's nothing particularly surprising about how Drogo acts towards her, or how she reacts towards him and everything else.  And asserting herself seems like the most logical way for her to win Drogo over, to the point where she's as much his equal as she could possibly be in that society.

I can understand the feeling that it was unnecessary, and it could have been handled in a gentler way.  But the first night consent was always weird and unrealistic, and any scene removing that consent would be a rape scene one way or another.

2) Jaime rapes Cersei in the sept next to Joffrey's body.  Let's begin with the brief replay of a conversation between a coworker and I the day after this episode aired.

Him: "That was kinda rapey."
Me: "There was no 'kinda' involved."

This was a drastic fuck up by the show runners.  The book scene was only strange in that it happened next to their son's body.  It was very obviously consensual, with Jaime's return to King's Landing sparking them in a way that even the time and place couldn't prevent.  The TV scene was so bad, and enough of a detour from the attitudes of the characters in the books, that the question "do the people running this shit even know what a rape scene is" became valid.

Follow-up comments from the show's producers suggest they were aware of what they were doing, which makes it even weirder.  The rationale for changing things was that Jaime had been in the capital for some time on the show, so the impact of him showing up at the sept would have necessarily been different than in the books, where he'd just returned.  Fair enough; it would be different.  But these two have been fucking for over half their lives.  You guys really couldn't come up with a different method to spark them?  Or- since it would be absolutely reasonable for Cersei to say no- have Jaime let her walk away?

This is a solid example of how doing this type of scene wrong can fuck with everything you're trying to accomplish as a writer.  Jaime's character arc in the books once he loses his hand is largely redemptive, and the show followed that perfectly.  This destroyed that redemption story for a lot of people.  In fact, in order to buy into the redemption angle again, it becomes necessary to think of that scene as a show mistake and not actually part of Jaime's character, because he can't be the good guy with such an egregious act on his record.

Plus, Cersei seems generally unaffected, or at least not any different than she would be had the scene been consensual.  That's not necessarily unrealistic, since she bottles up a lot of stuff to play the game, but overall everyone moves forward as though there was nothing wrong with what happened.  But the viewers saw everything that was wrong, and that becomes a point of dissonance.

Now we have Sansa and Ramsay, and the most fucked up situation of the three.

A lot of people are furious that Sansa was raped.  A lot of those people aren't making much in the way of an argument why they're upset about it, just that they are.  And that's understandable.  In our society, we have at tendency to tell stories where one person manages to duck and dodge all the terribleness out there and somehow make it through their story unscathed.  Sansa was the last female character dealing with the clear threat of rape who had managed to avoid it.  Any reading of her story shows that it was basically luck which saw her through in that regard: not having to marry Joffrey, being protected against that particular crime because she could continue to be of use to the Lannisters, being married to maybe the one man in King's Landing who would rather sleep on the couch than fuck her against her will.  She had no real agency through any of that.

When Littlefinger revealed his plan to marry her to Ramsay Bolton, my initial reaction (and, presumably, the reaction of many, many others) was wondering how the story would keep her away from the worst of Ramsay's behavior.  Would Roose somehow rein him in just a little because a happier Sansa would be of more use in winning the North?  Had Sansa learned enough in her time with Littlefinger to start working her magic on Ramsay immediately?  Would there be enough of a time gap between their meeting and the wedding for that magic to kick in?  Or, perhaps, she would avoid anything particularly bad by submitting right away, which could be interesting if we were able to see her making plans behind the scenes.

Because the show couldn't leave her to the worst of their behavior.  Not after all she'd been through.  Right?

I had forgotten about the Jeyne Poole storyline until the last couple of days.  If I had remembered, I would have hoped that much harder they veered away from it, because I like seeing that one character skate through the cracks as much as anyone.  It didn't happen.  But was this necessary?

There are two ways to view the question- how the fact of the rape plays into the broader story, and how the rape itself was handled.

For the former question, it's difficult to say yet.  The show runners said putting Sansa in the Jeyne Poole role made sense, since she was right there, and in the books Sansa just sits at the Eyrie for a while.  The Jeyne storyline is important to the books, so wanting to use it makes sense, but we don't know what to expect because the full effect hasn't been seen yet.  Because Sansa is a more critical character, we should also expect a substantial deviation in this story- in the books, Jeyne's place is mostly to give Theon a shot at redemption, whereas here Sansa will be much more important.  The circumstances surrounding the rape are obviously designed to shift Sansa from being aggressively anti-Theon to willing to ally with him, which should push much of whatever else goes on there, so in the broader context we still need to see how it goes down to determine if this was really needed to make the story work.

As for how the scene itself was handled... demanding Theon stay and watch to fuck with them both was a nod to the book (which is even more fucked up), but more importantly it's a 100% Ramsay thing to do.  Nothing his character did seemed in any way forced to make things worse.  Sansa and Theon were both appropriately disgusted and freaked out.  Once they were in that room, the scene that played out fit the characters.

More of a question is whether the lead up to that scene was done correctly.  Sansa has been left there by Littlefinger to try and manipulate her way into a position of power.  When she tells Myranda where to stick her threats, that might be the strongest she's appeared in the whole series.  Now, clearly Ramsay and Roose are scarier than Myranda, but if she's buying into her role as Ramsay's wife in order to start her own schemes, why is she so incredibly scared at the wedding?  There's not even a sense of being nervous, then shaking it off.  She's just tripping out.  The same goes for the first few moments in the bedchamber.  I'm not expecting her to jump Ramsay, but some willingness to go along with her new wifely duties would have also indicated that she's going to do what it takes to make this work until she can do something with the power she should have going forward.

From a storytelling perspective, this is where the mistake is made.  By having Sansa appear nervous and unwilling all the way through, no matter how the scene plays out, she's being raped.  It may be more or less violent, more or less troubling, but in the end that's what it would be.  From the viewer's perspective, that means the writers decided Sansa was getting raped one way or another.  If she had shown that active willingness to take on this role as Ramsay's wife, no matter how distasteful she might think it is, then recoiled once Ramsay demanded Theon stay, it would have changed the entire tenor of the scene.  In that case, a would-be act of consensual sex (as consensual as this type of thing could be, at least) gets turned into an unquestionable rape by Ramsay, which directs the anger at him.

This might seem strange.  After all, it would be the same writers creating the scene, and the same characters involved, so how is it the writers' fault in one case and Ramsay's in the other?  The reason is that in the first case, Ramsay is being given less space to make a different decision, which makes him more a tool of the writers and thus points us towards the writers as being at fault.  In the latter instance, Ramsay can choose to be with Sansa on the level with which she's comfortable (or, you know, "comfortable"), or force a torturous situation on her just because he can.  The fact we know which choice he'll make because he's a sadistic, evil bastard doesn't change the impact of him making that choice when there is a substantial alternative at hand.

A lot of people would still be angry with the writers for making that decision.  But if it's important for the story going forward that Sansa be married to Ramsay (which, again, we don't know just yet if that's the case), then the wedding night was going to happen, which means this scene was going to happen.  It would have gone a long way towards showing thoughtfulness on the part of the writers to acknowledge the existence of a path where Sansa is not assaulted, then have Ramsay close off that path, rather than make an assault inevitable.

There's also the effect this change would have on Sansa's character.  If she shows some backbone, a willingness to try and not be scared by these incredibly scary people, that's strength we haven't seen out of her yet.  Ramsay's insanity would undercut that sense of power, and initially it could seem like a situation where a woman finds her strength and just gets beaten down for it.  But finding your footing in the world is always a case of standing up, falling down, and standing up again; if the writers couldn't spin that into Sansa finally overcoming the people who want to hurt her, that would be kind of pathetic.

All that said: this scene, in and of itself, does not relegate Sansa back to the role of victim that she played in seasons past.  This is where she can act on her own behalf, in a place where she has the power to do so.  The show runners better give us some payoff now.

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