[Trigger warning for extended discussion of rape and sexual violence.]
So, I’m in the unusual position of reviewing season five of Game of Thrones before my review of season four is finished. I had a lot to say about season four, but because I was ill and still trying to finish my PhD, it’s sat half-done for months. I will get back to it, but I feel like you’d be more interested in reading what I think about the season that’s just finished at this moment.
And, boy, are there things to talk about, most of it having caused outrage on the Internet.
In terms of plotting and scripting, this was the weakest season so far. Some of it is due to the books. A Feast for Crows, and especially A Dance with Dragons, is a sprawling mess. These two books were originally one, which grew so out of control that George R R Martin decided to split his cast of characters in half and have one book dealing with one set, and the other with the others. After which A Dance with Dragons is still the second largest book I own, beaten only by my complete works of Shakespeare. I think we have to acknowledge the challenge this presented to the television show’s producers.
As you’ll know if you’ve read my Read Along with Rhube on A Dance with Dragons, much of it consists of Daenerys sitting in a holding pattern in Meereen whilst half a dozen different people who have suddenly realised she’s important journey from one continent to the far end of another to reach her. This presents a problem in a TV show where Daenerys is not only one of the most popular characters, but also portrayed by probably the most powerful actor in the show. Emilia Clarke has reportedly negotiated a no-more-nude-scenes contract; in a show now notorious for gratuitous female nudity, this is quite a feat. Whilst many characters and plotlines simply haven’t even been mentioned this season, this just wasn’t something that was going to happen with Daenerys. Given that Daenerys isn’t even in a Feast for Crows, and spends most of A Dance with Dragons treading water in filler chapters, it’s not entirely surprising that great swathes of other plot needed to be dropped in order to keep her plot relevant and pacey.
Nevertheless, given these constraints, it’s puzzling what David Benioff and D. B. Weiss decided to add to the season, as well as what they decided to cut from Daenerys’s plot.
Let’s tackle the most controversial change first.
What Happens to Sansa
In the books, Sansa Stark’s childhood friend, Jeyne Poole, poses as Arya Stark at Littlefinger’s behest as part of a ruse to hide the fact that the Lannisters lost Arya. Littlefinger sends Jeyne off to marry Ramsay Snow, Roose Bolton’s bastard, who has captured Winterfell, the Stark’s home. The Boltons do not know that Jeyne is not Arya Stark, but Theon immediately recognises her as Jeyne. In the show, Jeyne Poole plausibly existed as an unnamed girl hanging around with Sansa in season one, but we haven’t seen her since. Introducing her as Sansa’s friend now would have been weird. They might have had A. N. Girl posing as Arya, but it makes sense for Sansa to take this role. Sansa, and the actor who plays her (Sophie Turner), are too popular in and central to the show to simply banish her for a season, and in the books we haven’t seen hide nor hair of Sansa Stark for quite a while. Jeyne Poole was a ward of Littlefinger, and Sansa is currently posing as a ward of Littlefinger; it makes sense to condense the roles.
What’s problematic is that what happens to Jeyne Poole is awful. Because Ramsay Snow is awful. I’m not sure they’ve been able to fully convey how awful in the show, just because being inside Theon’s head remembering his torture is not something you can really convey on screen. But in both show and book he is unequivocally the most evil sonofabitch in two continents’ worth of truly awful people. What happens to Jeyne Poole is, in some sense, just part and parcel of that. She is raped on her wedding night. That in itself is not a surprise. It would have been out of character for Ramsay to be a caring and tender lover. But in addition to the rape, he makes Theon watch. More, he makes Theon go down on Jeyne/Fake-Arya first, as a way of humiliating them both. So, the moment book-readers realised they had condensed these roles became the moment at which we realised that without some drastic deviatition, poor Sansa, who had already been subjected to Joffrey’s horrors, would be enduring one of the most horrific rape scenes in the series.
It is not quite as bad as it is in the books. Theon does not go down on Sansa. But he does watch, and Sansa is raped. And we are told that she is raped repeatedly afterwards. And Theon does watch as she is raped. Unlike some rape scenes in the show, the camera does thankfully pan away from watching in gratuitous detail, but many have criticised the fact that it pans away to Theon’s face. Sansa’s rape and humiliation is presented as a part of Theon’s character growth – what brings him to recovering a sense of self and finding the strength to eventually rescue both himself and Sansa.
There are complex things to say about this. For a lot of people it was the last straw. Famously, The Mary Sue declared that they would no longer be promoting the show after this. I think the fact that people are reacting strongly and publicly and drawing attention to how appallingly prevalent rape and the abuse of women’s bodies is in entertainment is important. I have not decided to stop watching Game of Thrones as a result, but I understand why some people have.
For me, if I was going to quit, it would have been at the rape of Cersei in season four. In that scene, the producers took a scene of (extremely kinky) consensual sex and turned it into rape. They did it purely for sensationalism, and it was super gross. In the books, Jaime Lannister comes home and meets Cersei in the sept where their son is laid out, dead, and they have sex on the altar. Cersei initially protests that she is on her period, but Jaime says he doesn’t care, afterwhich Cersei urges him on. In the show, the producers remove the icky-to-men fact that Cersei is doing the perfectly natural thing of menstruating, and have Jaime forcing himself on her as she protests, tries to push him off, and is visibly distressed. This is after Jaime, having been home for weeks (months?), has been shown frequently complaining that Cersei won’t let him have sex with him. It goes from a passionate homecoming that illustrates how twisted their relationship is to one of a frustrated man taking from a woman what she has expressly and repeatedly indicated she does not want. For me, what happens to Sansa is awful, but turning a scene of consensual sex into rape and then treating it as if it was nothing (Jaime goes on like nothing has happened, and Cersei does little more than get a bit more drunk than usual) is worse.
I’m also bothered by the fact that for a lot of people it’s the fact that it’s Sansa getting raped that’s the problem. This was what was said again and again in discussion following that episode – it was the fact that it was Sansa that made it so much worse than the other rapes in the show*. Yes, the character has been through a lot, but so has Cersei. I do feel like there’s an element of people being more willing to forgive a rape if it happens to a woman who is more morally questionable herself. And whilst I don’t think anyone who is more outraged about Sansa’s rape than about Cersei’s literally thinks that Cersei deserved it, I’m disquieted that it seems to reflect a societal tendency to look for narratives around rape when we explain it to ourselves that focus on the victim’s life, and not on those who choose to rape. In this case, that includes the decisions writers make when they choose to portray rape, as well as real life rapists.
That said, I do think including this rape was unnecessary, that how it was portrayed was problematic, that it’s inclusion reflects deeper problems in the show, and that to an extent the outrage for this particular incident reflects a cumulative disquiet which has come to a head.
Firstly, no rape is necessary. Writers choose what they include and what they don’t. Secondly, in a season where so much deviated from the books, deciding to include this specific rape is an active decision, and not a passive attempt to accurately reflect the books. Moreover, Benioff stated explicitly in an interview with EW that they loved this subplot, and it was something they were looking to find a way to keep in the show from as early as season two. He is reported to have said:
If we were going to stay absolutely faithful to the book, it was going to be very hard to do that. There was as subplot we loved from the books, but it used a character that’s not in the show.
– David Benioff in Entertainment Weekly
They loved the idea of Ramsay raping a girl. They were actively looking for ways to keep this in. This is a problem. When writers are so disassociated from thought of what rape is actually like, that it’s become this plot device for heightening drama such that this is the lens you see it through, it’s a problem. It’s a problem that goes hand in hand with the ‘fridging‘ phenomenon, in which women characters are routinely killed in horrible ways to further a man’s character development. Sansa Stark isn’t dead, but they wanted this plot because it was horrible for Theon and it illustrated how horrible Ramsay is. As others have pointed out: we already got that Ramsay was horrible.
Which brings us to the issue of presentation. Yes, in the books, we experience this rape through Theon’s eyes and as part of Theon’s character development. This is partly a consequence of GRRM’s writing style. Each chapter has a specific point of view (given by having the point of view character’s name as a chapter title), and only certain, significant characters get a point of view. Ramsay does not get a point of view. Theon does. Moreover, Theon as named for this chapter as ‘The Prince of Winterfell’, which is a way Ramsay mocked Theon for his attitude when he was briefly in charge of the castle. Theon’s presence on the wedding night is specifically framed as that of a ‘lord’ taking his ‘rights’ with a new bride through which Ramsay mocks Theon, because he is no longer lord of the castle, and he no loner has a member with which to ‘take’ the bride. All of this is extremely gross, but it’s also all completely lost in the TV show. They’ve entirely dropped the thing where Ramsay mocks Theon as being his lord, Theon (thank God) does not actively participate in the rape by going down on Sansa. Sansa has a greater claim to ruling Winterfell than either of them (in a way that Jeyne Poole did not) – something that the show makes much of, to the extent that it’s legitimate to question Ramsay risking antagonising her like this when he has other people to torture. And, crucially, the show is not tied to presenting any one specific point of view, and if it were, Sansa is still a more significant character than Theon. Whilst I was grateful that we didn’t have to watch a blow-by-blow of Sansa’s rape, panning away to make the scene all about how the rape made Theon feel was super gross.
Once again, it’s about decentring women in the violence perpetrated against us; and because men’s feelings about rape are thought to matter more, the feelings of those who actually experience sexual violence have lesser impact, perpetuating the culture that leads to rape being seen as ‘no big deal’. And the consequence of this is that men who think they would never rape will regard certain rape-acts as not rape. See the fact that Benioff and Weiss didn’t think they were writing a rape scene when they changed consensual sex into rape last season, and Nicolaj Coster-Waldau didn’t think he was performing the role of a rapist as he played the role of Jaime forcing himself on a weeping woman who says ‘no’ and struggles against him. This stuff is a huge deal.
Yet More Added Sexual Violence
And whilst we’re here, I’d like to talk about how poor Gilly becomes the victim of attempted rape as a part of Sam’s character development. A sex act he is incapable of defending her from, and which did not need to be added, and which the writers then had to get them out of through Deus ex Ghost (i.e. Jon’s wolf showing up out of the blue). The scene was completely unnecessary and is quickly followed with Gilly rewarding Sam with sex after she’s nearly been raped. It’s just… it’s just so inappropriate.
But I guess Sam has been such a nice guy, so he deserved sex. Uuuuuggggggh. Do I even have to go into how the Nice Guys Deserve Sex trope contributes to rape culture?** And then this becomes the motive for Sam to move out of Castle Black and go to the Citedal – because men just can’t control themselves and Sam can’t protect Gilly, instead of the fact that the whole world badly needs for people at the Wall to know more about how to fight White Walkers!
The Plotlines We’ve Lost
S S Abandoned Plotlines (found on the Reddit of Ice and Fire)
At the same time that these deeply disturbing and unnecessary plots have been added, we’ve also seen a distinct absence of the women who could be legitimately kicking arse.
We last saw Yara, Theon’s kickass sister, pointlessly retreating from a fight that wasn’t in the books, in season four. This season (instead of fighting for her right to rule the Iron Islands, capturing northern castles, and then being captured by Stannis in time to see just what has become of her brother) she is utterly absent.
Catelyn Stark’s avenging zombie persona, Lady Stoneheart, has been completely lost, along with all the wonderful characters from the Brotherhood without Banners.
Val, Mance Rayder’s sister-in-law, is a sore loss to the male-heavy world of the Wall, and whilst we’re talking about Mance, him being Dead-Dave-Really-Dead and not pretend-dead as he was in the books is just a waste of a character. His absence as the leader of the disguised wildlings sent to save Jon’s sister contributes to the general sense of unbalance in the Winterfell plotline, where Ramsay Bolton becomes something of an unstoppable force, against which his brutality is a little hard to bear.
Not to mention the host of bitter northerners who could have relieved the relentless depression of Sansa’s wedding night with their seething hatred and cannibal pie. Whilst I don’t defend the rape of Jeyne Poole, it comes after a tremendous build up of dramatic tension in which the hapless girl is actually surrounded by people who might have rescued her, had their attention been appropriately directed at the time. Given Game of Thrones‘ love of dramatic weddings, this felt like something of a waste. And a really bleak, depressing waste at that. Benioff and Weiss were in ‘love’ with the rape plotline, but they passed up the opportunity for Lord Wyman and his Frey Pies – I don’t know, man, if you say you like shocking and horrible things, but the shocking and horrible things you return to again and again are violently sexual acts against women, when cannibalism is quite literally on the table, I call misogyny.
And then we have one kickass lady introduced to the beyond-the-Wall plot – Karsi, the wildling leader who votes for the wildlings to join Jon at the Wall – only to be killed because zombie children were her fatal weakness… She doesn’t even try to fight them, because they are children and she is a mother. I guess none of the male wildlings had kids? As Chrys from Chrys Watches Game of Thrones wrote:
And to anyone saying it wasn’t a sexist trope we’re so used to seeing that we sort of accept it, try replacing her with the Thenn dude and if the scene still makes sense to you peace be with you.
– Chrys, Chris Watches Game of Thrones
I’ve ranted more about this over on my Tumblr, if you’re interested.
I’ll be honest and say that I’m more than happy to have lost the Victarion plotline – in which Theon and Yara’s uncle, Victarion, is one of the many suitors trying and failing to claim Daenerys’s hand. It felt tacked-on to A Dance with Dragons and included Victarion having a mute woman-of-colour sex slave. Which might just be the most racist and misogynist addition to all of Geroge R R Matin’s books. Truly, I can live without that.
By contrast, Quentyn Martell and Aegon Targaryen are rather more interesting suitors who were also cut. If the excuse for cutting so much from the Westerosi plots is that not a lot happens in Meereen, one cannot help but feel that there is still a fair amount that might have been included. Given that Aegon was widely speculated to have been a possible rider for one of Daenerys’s drgons (his Targaryen blood also making him a significant challenge to her claim to the throne), ditching him entirely seems significant. I wonder if they will find a way of working him back in for the next season.
Similarly, I can’t say I am pleased to have lost the plague plotline. I’ve always felt that the complete disaster at Astapor and the plague that follows, along with the vast armies of Yunkai closing on Meereen, were an important part of deconstructing Daenerys’s image as a white saviour. Yes, she frees the slaves, but because she doesn’t understand the culture she overturns and because she fails to put any kind of stable governmental structure in its place, she leaves chaos and disease in her wake – disease that, with a sense of poetic justice, eventually infects her, as well. This season Daenerys struck rather too successful a figure by contrast. Her humiliating the leaders of Meereen and threatening them with dragons that, in the books, she has all but lost control over, is an uncomfortably imperialistic turn.
Meanwhile, instead of adventuring in the Riverlands, Brienne spends the whole season waiting for Sansa to tell her it’s OK to come to her rescue, only to be looking the wrong way when she finally sends the signal. Whilst it was satisfying for Brienne to finally fulfil her promise to avenge Renly, I would have been more satisfied if she had been rescuing Sansa. After all, this is not something Theon is able to do by himself in the books. Given that we have lost Abel/Mance and his spearwives, along with all the entertaining northerners with their burning hatred of the Boltons, it would have been perfectly reasonably to have Brienne step up and kick some arse on Sansa’a behalf!
It is starting to very much feel as though many of the best plotlines were cut.
Of Stannis and Shireen
Meanwhile, as additions go, Stannis burning Shireen in service to the God of Light might have been intended as shocking, but registered as implausible and distasteful. Whilst the possibility of Melisandre killing Shireen has always been there – the blood of kings is clearly magical and something that the books made as much a thing of as the TV show – Stannis sacrificing his daughter is another matter. After all, in the books, the queen and Shireen are left at Castle Black to keep them out of harm’s way!
It also simply doesn’t fit with the characterisation of Stannis’s love for his daughter in the show, and the indication that (as Chrys of CWGoT has put it) he would go ‘full rambo’ on anyone who harmed a hair on her head. (Incidentally, I am personally headcanoning the events in accordance with Chrys’s retcon of what happened in that episode.)
Basically, I don’t think it’s out of keeping with the show to kill off an adorable child, but it didn’t make sense in this context.
Also I loved Shireen and I just didn’t want her dead and I am OK with simply feeling that it’s wrong on that basis.
There is so much else one could talk about, but honestly, the general disappointment of this season has left me exhausted. So, I’ll be brief:
Cersei’s Walk of Shame: yes, it was gross, but it was also completely textually accurate. I struggle to get worked up about it in the face of all the other misogyny this season. Overall I actually thought it was relatively tastefully done and reflected the horror of the scene without being simply another excuse for female nudity. I didn’t feel like it lingered lovingly on her boobs or anything. It made me sigh with exasperation when I read it in the books, and it made sigh with exasperation again, but it wasn’t as bad as I had feared it might be.
The Sand Snakes: a disappointing snooze-fest. The Dornish came off as stereotypes of passionate Latino-ish people. I’ve resisted the equation of Dorne with American stereotypes of Latin-Americans, as the fantasy-Britain setting makes the Dornish more equivalent to Mediterranean, but it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the makers of Game of Thrones don’t know the difference. Bronn literally stereotypes them as sexy and crazy, and the Sand Snakes are presented as, well, wild and sexual and violent. It was disappointing.
Jaime: is off rescuing his daughter from the Dornish. For some reason. Because I guess no one needs to fight a war in the Riverlands anymore. Not only are neither Brienne nor Jaime where they are meant to be in order to eventually meet up again, but in not storming off, spurning Cersei in favour of Brienne, Jaime’s failing to come to Cersei’s aid after her passionate plea to him (which we are also denied) doesn’t make a lot of sense. Are we to believe that no one in Dorne passed on the message, or even told him his sister had been arrested? Once again, it doesn’t make sense and sacrifices an emotionally powerful plot point.
Daenerys and Tyrion meeting: I actually liked this. The two of them are on my Iron Throne Dream Team, so I wriggled with joy to see them together, and Tyrion did a passably convincing job of giving her good advice.
Daenerys and Daario: I’ve never been a fan of this relationship, but having Daario take such a prominent role in advising her didn’t sit at all well. Daario is a dangerous distraction for book-Daenerys, and that she should listen to him so seriously is worrying and strange. But more weird and uncomfortable is the way Daario takes charge once Daenerys is gone. What he says is actually very good advice, but I’m not sure what orifice he pulled it from. Deus ex Daario.
The White Walkers: the zombie movie finally arrived, and it was AWESOME. Except that the only woman in it was killed. And almost all the women have been removed from Castle Black, so we’ve not much hope of that changing in the future. D&D seem set on following the tradition that zombie films are a boys club, and I’m Just. So. BORED. of being mad at this happening again and again and again. Women LIKE ZOMBIE MOVIES. I know, because I was involved in the, The Girls’ Guide to Surving the Apocalypse, where we talked about zombies all the time. Women LIKE APOCALYPSE MOVIES. You might have noticed from the success of Mad Max: Fury Road this summer. I’m bored and sad and bored. Get your shit together and get the women out there, Game of Thrones. THERE WILL BE WOMEN IN THE APOCALYPSE.
Jon Snow: is almost certainly not dead. Despite the fact that it’s been confirmed in the Independent today that Jon Snow really is dead, I find it hard to believe. The very fact that Melisandre magically appeared at the Wall (where she always had been in the books) strongly supports the popular fan theory that his death at the end of A Dance with Dragons was about as permanent as any of Beric Dondarrion’s deaths. We know fire priests can resurrect people. We know Melisandre questioned Thoros on the matter. And in the books a lot of prophecies seem very much to indicate that Jon Snow still has a role to play. Not to mention the fact that his mysterious parentage has yet to be revealed. If he really is dead in the show, then I don’t believe he is in the books, and killing him off would signal that the show is more lost than ever.
Overall, this was always going to be a challenging season, but I didn’t expect it to go so spectacularly wrong. Instead of leaving us breathlessly waiting for more, the end of each episode tended to leave myself and my friends in awkward silence, and in need of watching something else immediately afterwards to cleanse our palates.
This season was needlessly misogynist, full of plotholes and implausible character decisions, and overall disappointing. I will be watching next season, but it will mainly be in the hope of it getting better. I find it hard to blame those who have decided to quit.
*I can feel people preparing to tell me that that’s not what they were saying so I’m just gonna say this: there were a lot of people talking about this. If you don’t think you were saying this, then it’s entirely possible that I am not talking specifically about you. It’s not specifically about any one person, and the fact that you might not have said this doesn’t undermine the fact that a lot of people were saying it. I’m exhausted from having this discussion and don’t want to go over it again in the comments, so comments are off. But I wanted to address the way that different rapes often spark different responses depending on who it is being raped – I think it’s important to think about what sparks our outrage and question whether what we choose to be outraged (or less outraged) about does not sometimes reflect problematic aspects of ourselves. But I also know that that’s an incredibly difficult thing to talk about sensitively and I don’t have the mental energy to chair a debate about it. So, it’s turn the comments off or not discuss this at all, and I think it’s an important question to raise.
**If you’re expecting this, it’s not going to happen, but why not check out some of the many, many articles on this. The Geek Feminism wiki has a good primer on Nice Guy culture; you might also check out ‘The Friend Zone Cultivates Rape Culture‘, by Jerica Lowman; or Laurie Penny’s ‘It’s nice to think that only evil men are rapists – that it’s only pantomime villains with knives in alleyways. But the reality is different‘.