Game of Thrones: Season 5, Episode 6 – Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken

“I’m Sansa Stark of Winterfell. This is my home. And you can’t frighten me.”

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(SPOILER WARNING!)

After last week’s focus mainly on just two of its multifarious plotlines, this week Game of Thrones was back to business as usual with a lively ep taking in snippets of plenty of them. While there was little in the way of epic action, it was no less dramatic for that as all the patient political scheming of earlier episodes began to pay off in spades. And perhaps more than any ep I’ve seen yet, it was dominated by the show’s women, who were both the drivers and the victims in practically every snapshot this week.

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Which is all the more ironic given that (to take things out of order) this episode has garnered renewed criticism over its apparent misogyny, particularly when it comes to the depiction of rape. The final scene’s gruesome depiction of Sansa Stark’s unholy wedding night has understandably shocked many viewers, to the extent that some (even including the landlady of my local pub) have said that they won’t be watching any more.

I do think the show has some criticisms to answer in terms of how it treats women, especially in the often gratuitous nudity of female extras who are treated as little more than set dressing. Yes, there’s plenty of male nudity too, but it’s usually for more obvious plot reasons, and involves main characters. But when it comes to the show’s depiction of rape, I think it’s almost always (last season’s Jaime/Cersei fudge aside) been justifiable in plot terms, non-exploitive, and has never shied away from showing the true horror of it.

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It’s also worth remembering that while Westeros may be a fantasy world, it draws most of its social and political source material directly from the real history of medieval Europe, an era not known for its kind treatment of women. In that time, what happened to Sansa would likely not even have been considered as rape; indeed, the concept of spousal rape only became formally illegal in most Western countries in the latter part of the 20th century.

None of which makes what happened to Sansa any less horrific. But the show acknowledged that, and Jeremy Podeswa’s directorial decision to focus on the horror on Theon/Reek’s face arguably made it more powerful than directly depicting the act. His expression, and the sounds of pain we heard, conjured up a scene in the viewer’s imagination whose horror could probably never be matched by an actual depiction. To say, as some critics have, that the visual makes the scene about Theon’s pain rather than Sansa’s, is utterly missing the point – it’s about both, and works more effectively in conveying that precisely because of what we do, and don’t, see.

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It was also, plotwise, the only logical outcome of having Sansa marry Ramsay Bolton as a political chess manoeuvre by Petyr Baelish. We know that Ramsay is a deranged sadist of the most horrific order – from everything that’s happened to Theon, most notably. It’s been pointed out that the lack of complaint regarding his arguably more horrific ordeal is justified in that rape is still a very real experience for many, while finger-flaying and castration are rather less common. Leaving aside the physical mutilation though, the probably worse psychological torture Theon’s been through is still all too common. Rape is indeed an emotive subject, but I think that what we saw here was neither exploitive nor gratuitous – it was a plot-justified, properly horrific act the consequences of which will presumably pay off in Sansa’s later actions.

Having got all that off my chest, what about the rest of the episode? Well, Sansa may have been having a horrible time but elsewhere the some of the show’s women were doing rather well for themselves – often at the expense of other women. The majestic Diana Rigg made a welcome return as no-nonsense schemer Olenna Tyrell, set on prising the embarrassingly homosexual but politically useful family heir Loras from the grip of the puritan fanatics now in charge of the Westerosi Church. Unfortunately for her, this time Cersei managed to thoroughly outmanoeuvre her, bringing surprise witness Olyvar into Loras’ hearing so as to incriminate not only him but also Olenna’s acolyte in scheming, Queen Margaery.

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Cersei’s schemes often go awry, but she played this one beautifully. The no holds barred insult fest of her one on one scene with Olenna was right out of the likes of Yes Minister, and beautifully played by Rigg and Lena Headey. We also got a little more insight into the workings of the Westerosi Church and its status, the High Sparrow/Septon stating that not even royalty is above religious law. Evidently the Church’s power does trump the State’s, it’s just that recent Septons haven’t chosen to exercise that power. However useful that may be to Cersei’s schemes right now, I still can’t help thinking it’s going to come back and bite her.

As might her alliance with the utterly untrustworthy Petyr Baelish. Aiden Gillen’s undefinable accent was back this week, as Littlefinger made a return visit to continue his chess game. Having also allied himself with Roose Bolton (who, I suspect, will not be so easily fooled), he popped back to King’s Landing to pour more poison into Cersei’s ear regarding the fate of the North. His counsel that the Lannisters should wait for Stannis and Roose to fight it out then sweep up the exhausted victor with the help of his knights of the Vale made sense – if you take his loyalty at face value.

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But as he pointed out previously, the combined power of the Vale and the North was enough previously to topple the longstanding Targaryen dynasty. Give Baelish Winterfell and the title of Warden of the North, as Cersei seemed content to do, would be to put all that combined power in his hands only. At which point, presumably, he’ll march south and take on the now very weakened House Lannister. It’s a good scheme, a proper chess player’s scheme; the only sticking point is likely to be Sansa, whose head Cersei wants to see on a spike. Littlefinger needs her to cement his influence in the North. She’s also his biggest weakness, as he seems to have real feelings for her. For all his clever plotting, I think Sansa will end up being his undoing, one way or another.

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Sansa’s sister too figured fairly large in the ep, her apprenticeship to the spooky Faceless Men continuing apace. Her scenes with the disconcertingly serene Jaqen H’ghar were superb, Maisie Williams more than holding her own against Tom Wlaschiha. The truth/lies scene was terrific, showing that Jaqen isn’t infallible when he considered Arya’s story of killing the stable boy to be a lie. It was perhaps a little obvious, but nicely revealing that he also considered Arya’s assertion that she hated the Hound to be a lie. I wonder if we’ll see him again? The show, like the books, has never been definitive about his death.

The Temple of the Faceless Men is one of the show’s terrific visuals already, its daylight-starved candlelit halls suitably spooky for what’s basically a death cult. It only improved this week as Jaqen took Arya to what I guess must be called the Hall of Faces – a giant chamber beneath the Temple stacked with all the faces of those who’d died there. So that’s what happens to all those bodies, and presumably also how the Faceless Men “become nobody”. It’s gruesome, and makes you wonder whether what we’ve seen before is truly magic or the literal act of wearing another face.

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It was women too who were driving the plot in Dorne, despite the classically heroic actions of buddy comedy double act Jaime and Bronn. Indira Varma was as fiery as ever as Ellaria Sand, still seeking vengeance for the death of her beloved Oberyn last year; for her, the best way to strike back at the Lannisters was to kill their daughter, who handily happened to be living right there. Her minions, Oberyn’s daughters the Sand Snakes, got a terrifically choreographed fight scene in the ep’s only bit of old-fashioned action, taking on first Jaime and Bronn then the forces of Doran Martell’s Guards. They were so cool I actually found myself rooting for them; though I’d have equally hated to lose Jaime and Bronn, who were as much fun as ever. Myrcella I’m less bothered about, though she does at last seem to be developing an actual character, more so in fact than in the books. It also means we get to see more of her betrothed, Toby Sebastian as the gorgeous Trystane Martell – I can’t say I’m unhappy about that.

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About the only plotline not being driven by women this week was the ongoing trek towards Meereen of Tyrion and Jorah, which was slight but fun. Jorah’s earnest faith in Daenerys Targaryen was nicely counterpointed by the cynical Tyrion’s concern that the Targaryens have long been terrible, often insane rulers. There was a bit of pathos in Tyrion’s genuine sympathy for the loss of Jorah’s father, a man he properly respected; similarly Jorah was impressed at Tyrion’s quick thinking in getting the pirates who captured them to take them exactly where they wanted to go. Against my expectations, they’re actually shaping up rather well as another of the show’s good double acts.

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Sex and Violence

Despite that truly nasty marital rape, there was surprisingly little of either in an ep that focused more on political chess games than action. For the valid reasons I mentioned earlier, we didn’t actually see Sansa’s rape, but the tears streaming down Theon/Reek’s face made its horror all too evident – Alfie Allen continues to be superb in portraying the horror of what’s happened to him:

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No real violence either. There was that cracking fight scene with the Sand Snakes, but that didn’t involve any actual blood or even injury; it was more in line with the sort of fight you’d see in an Errol Flynn movie from the Golden Age of Hollywood:

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Choice dialogue this week

Lots and lots, in a surprisingly comic script for such grim events. Olenna was a marvel of barbed wit; her first line, wrinkling her nose in the carriage as she approached King’s Landing, summed her up perfectly: “ugh. You can smell the shit from five miles away.”

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She also got a nicely sniffy line about the hypocrisy of Loras’ arrest: “If they arrested all the pillow biters in King’s Landing, there’d be no room in the dungeons for anyone else.”

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Petyr Baelish, brothel keeper, confronted by puritan fanatic Lancel: “We both sell fantasies, Brother Lancel. Mine just happen to be entertaining.”

And of course the top exchange this week has to be Tyrion and the pirates, as he argued the need to keep him alive if they were to sell his cock:

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Pirate: “It’ll be a dwarf sized cock.”
Tyrion: “Guess again.”

Culminating in what I suspect is the funniest line ever in this show, when the pirates finally concluded: “The dwarf lives until we find a cock merchant!”

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As a fan of the show’s political machinations every bit as much as the action, sex, or fantasy elements, I really enjoyed this ep; it was great to see all that patient manoeuvring early on starting to pay off. It was also, as I said, one of the best eps of late for showcasing the abilities of the show’s female characters, who drove virtually every plot we saw. Yes, the Sansa rape scene was horrific, but justifiably and appropriately so; and I’ve a feeling that Sansa is going to play a far larger part in this plot than in the books, where her character is hiding out in the Eyrie and Ramsay has married a servant girl in disguise. For all the hysteria about that scene, this was a more plot and character driven ep than usual for this stage of the season, but the drama was intricately plotted and highly satisfying.