Sexual Exploitation Is Coming
“Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken” is a brutal reminder of the cruel realism that Game of Thrones has largely staked its reputation and cultural impact on. Now-infamous twists like Ned Stark’s beheading or the savage betrayal of the Red Wedding were effective because they shocked viewers out of their comfort zones and expectations. No character is safe — especially the ones you would most expect to be. This type of narrative framework has been very effective at raising the overall stakes of the show, but there have been times when things have veered too far into the realm of sadism at the cost of good storytelling (Theon’s extended torture at the hands of Ramsay Bolton in season 3 springs to mind). While there are parts of “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken” that represent Game of Thrones at its finest, the episode is ultimately undone by a gratuitous ending that simply feels like lazy storytelling designed simply for shock value.
Things start out promising enough with a welcome return to Arya’s story after a two episode hiatus. Her interactions with “The Waif” (Faye Marsay) continue to offer great character-building moments for Arya, as she has not run into many women who can get the better of her. The Waif’s ambiguous story about her past signifies the importance that lies have had and will continue to have in Arya’s survival (the power of lying is also a significant running theme for the episode). Fittingly, it’s a well-told lie to a young sick girl brought to the House of Black and White that earns Arya access to her next round of training. The room full of thousands of faces is visually compelling and Jaqen H’ghar’s declaration that Arya is ready to become “someone else” is intriguing, but the sluggish pace of Arya’s story is getting frustrating. It’s all still interesting and Arya remains one of the show’s best characters, but the pacing needs to be stepped up considerably leading into the final episodes of the season.
The strongest scene of the episode belongs to Tyrion and Jorah, as the latter finally opens up a bit more to his talkative captive. Tyrion’s revelations about Jorah’s late father’s fate are a welcome callback to earlier seasons, but also simply help strengthen the relationship between the two characters (which is a nice change of pace, as Jorah’s grumpiness was getting a bit grating). Unfortunately, these quiet character moments are cut short by the pair capture at the hands of a group of slavers led by Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (Lost‘s Mr. Eko — good to see he’s still getting work). Tyrion, always adept at surviving, manages to convince the slavers to spare their lives, claiming that Jorah is a feared warrior. It’s fair to surmise that they will end up in Meereen by way of the now-open fighting pits, but having to endure an extended stay on a slave ship is not the most compelling way to further this storyline.
In Dorne, we finally get to see some payoff of some of the setup of prior episodes, but it ends up disappointing. Bronn and Jaime make it to the Dornish capital and find Myrcella just before the Sand Snakes arrive (how convenient), triggering a skirmish sequence that feels cheap and fails to thrill. Dornish guards, led by the Prince’s bodyguard Areo Hotah, break up the fight, but not before Hotah makes a comment that suggests there would have been a good fight if Jaime still had his sword hand. This is the show’s time-efficient way of labeling Hotah as a supremely-skilled warrior, but it’s a classic example of not following the “show, don’t tell” rule. This character’s had maybe 5 lines of dialogue so far, but we’re just supposed to accept that he should be feared. There could be payoff coming for the events in Dorne, but this episode’s contribution is largely forgettable.
Thankfully, the episode as a whole is elevated by the return of Diana Rigg as Margaery’s grandmother Olenna Tyrell, who gets a suitably cutting one-on-one scene with Cersei. These are the type of scenes Game of Thrones excels at and the back-and-forth thinly-veiled threats between the two powerhouses doesn’t disappoint. However, there is little doubt that Cersei gets the upper hand over the Tyrells this week, as the religious zealots of the Sparrows haul Margaery away for lying about her knowledge of her brother’s homosexuality. By taking the Queen prisoner, the cult is displaying its level of power, but also almost hilariously proving Cersei’s incredible shortsightedness. If the Queen can be taken away in chains, what chance does the Queen Mother think she has when the Sparrows inevitably convict her for her sins?
Up until the last scene, “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken” is largely a very good episode of Game of Thrones. That being said, it cannot be overstated how poorly conceived the episode’s ending is. Having Ramsay rape Sansa on her wedding night is not only an affront to the character and female fans of the show, it shows the low depths the shows writers will go in the name of “gritty” storytelling. Yes, women have been raped on Game of Thrones before. The show’s world is meant to be depressingly bleak and violent, and there is nothing wrong with that; in fact, it’s part of the show’s appeal. The problem is that Sansa’s rape adds nothing valuable to the character or the story. Sansa is already a victim, having suffered at the hands of rotten people ever since she left her home of Winterfell at the beginning of Season 1. Making Sansa a rape victim not only doesn’t add value to her characterization (again, she’s already been victimized repeatedly), it contradicts the arc the show had already put her on! Season 5 has been setting Sansa up as a stronger woman who’s tired of being victimized; there’s even a scene earlier in this very episode where she tells another woman not to mess with her because she’s “Sansa Stark of Winterfell.” Having Ramsay rape Sansa completely torpedoes this upward trajectory, all in the service of reaffirming what a terrible place Westeros is.
The other main problem with this scene is that the show gives itself an out in the form of Theon, but for some baffling reason fails to use it. Theon is forced to watch the rape, and the way the camera lingers on his face suggests that he will intervene in some way. This would have not only redeemed him in the process, it would have prevented the rape from even happening — seemingly a win-win scenario. Theon does not intervene though; perhaps the show is setting up an eventual vengeance plot for Sansa and Theon, but it will come too late for Sansa, who now must add “rape victim” to her growing list of grievances. All that can really be said is that the rest of season 5 better capitalize on the mistakes of “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken” in some way because right now, Game of Thrones has a big narrative hole to crawl out of.
Other Events This Week
-Barring the fact that it’s rendered meaningless by the episode’s final scene, the bath scene between Sansa and Ramsay’s goon/mistress Myranda is pretty fantastic. Hooray for Sansa’s 5 minutes of agency!
-Littlefinger’s schemes seem to change every episode. While it’s unclear whether he knew about Ramsay’s true awfulness, he is still guilty of abandoning Sansa and placing her in her present misery. Also, does he have a teleportation device we don’t know of? That’s the only reasonable explanation for his near-instantaneous arrival in King’s Landing.
-Bronn’s singing is always welcome
-Can the Starks get some vengeance already? At this point, it probably won’t even mean anything when (if?) it does come.