Game of Thrones: Season 5, "Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken"
By Sarah MesleMay 19, 2015
- "Fantasizing Consent," from Sarah Mesle
Previous episode: season 5, episode 5, “Kill the Boy.”
Following episode: season 5, episode 7, “The Gift.”
LARB’s Collected “Game of Thrones” Coverage
By Sarah Mesle
May 19, 2015
“WE BOTH PEDDLE FANTASIES,” Petyr Baelish says to Brother Lancel. “Mine just happen to be entertaining.” Petyr’s joke was a rare respite in this week’s brutal episode of Game of Thrones. But this quip is also a provocative insight, a kind of metacomment on the show itself. Game of Thrones, like Petyr and Lancel, peddles fantasies. But are its fantasies entertaining? Are they satisfying? For whom?
Like the johns in Littlefinger’s brothel, viewers of Game of Thrones have thrown down money and time for the chance to indulge in an elaborate fantasy. Often, even when it’s been grim, it’s been satisfying too. But something is different this week. “Unbent, Unbroken, Unbowed” offered a fantasy that viewers seem unwilling to buy. Why not? Why was it this episode, rather than some of the even more graphic episodes, that ended up a sort of fantasy shark jumping?
The quick answer is Sansa’s rape: it was awful, and what’s more, it was disappointing: disappointing that the show would, yet again, see rape as it’s most effective plot device. (My brother put it to me this way: "Game of Thrones’s attitude seems to be, why jump the shark when you can rape it instead?") For several reasons — because of the victim, the perpetrator, the witness, but also because of its overall plot — this time the show was not able to align fantasy and brutality. This wasn’t what we wanted; it wasn’t even what we wanted to reassure ourselves we didn’t want.
It’s hard to understand why Sansa’s experience registered the way it did without thinking about the entirety of the episode. How does Ramsay’s abuse of Sansa compare to the High Sparrow’s imprisonment of Loras, or to Jaqen H’ghar’s beating of Arya? How do all of these combine to render this show’s dark fantasy whole? How does situating a rape at the end of a story about identity, truth, lying, and desire seem like such a profound violation, not only of Sansa, but also of us?
To answer that question, I think it’s worth pausing a moment over the idea of fantasy itself. The word “fantasy,” when applied to Game of Thrones, refers both to a particular narrative genre — a story set in any kind of fundamentally pre-modern world — and to a kind of imaginative desire. These two meanings aren’t the same, but they’re often weirdly conflated, partly because many familiar qualities of the fantasy genre — Dragons, noble warriors, beautifully embroidered dresses — fulfill emotional fantasies as well. And, too, the “premodern” part of the fantasy genre has its particular appeal to many people’s desires: if modernity abstracts us, puts a careful ordering of society between us and our bodies, the premodern, we like to think, will return us to a life that feels a little more raw, a little more embodied, a little more real.
But things go a little sideways when the historical qualities of emotional fantasy are mistakenly justified by a sense of historical realism. There is a human past about which we can be truthful, be “realistic,” but we can never be realistic about Westeros because Westeros does not exist. Westeros plays by a set of established rules — fantasy novels are still novels, and all novels satisfy by contracting rules with their readers — but those rules are not “realism,” whatever realism is. If Westeros is similar to our world, it is because Westeros’s creators have made it that way.
Let me be clear: stories of all kinds can teach us, really, about the world. But they do it not through mirroring the world but through metaphor. They are aesthetic representations, and that is not a weakness. Their difference from the real is precisely the force they wield.
And yet the claim of realism has a powerful tug on the conversation about Game of Thrones. When people complain about rape in the show, or homophobia, or brutality, they are often met with the response that “that’s how it really was.” But of course, it can’t be how Westeros “really was,” because Westeros never was at all.
The dangerous trick here goes like this: someone fantasizes about a world in which rape frequently occurs and consistently goes unpunished; to explore this emotional fantasy, they set it in a premodern narrative fantasy world where they can displace their own desire onto “history.” The dark impulse or desire isn’t theirs, then; it’s the world’s. It’s history’s. And once a dark personal fantasy becomes “realism,” gazing upon this dark thought or idea isn’t a kind of humiliating or dangerous self-reflection, it’s laudable: it’s an honest engagement with truth.
Here is why so many of us have been buying what Game of Thrones sells: Game of Thrones often excels at making titillation of various kinds feel like a kind of betterment, or seriousness. It excels at giving fantasy the weight of the real, at making some people’s fantasies seem historical and universal, at making any objection to the graphic display of those fantasies seem small-minded and fearful.
Which is not to say that our job here is to sniff out and expose to the hygienic light of day the queasy “wrongness” of Game of Thrones’s fantasies. I do not think that having dark, dangerous fantasies makes you, necessarily, a dark dangerous person. Fantasies — desires — are a product, maybe, of our deepest selves, but they are not our whole selves.
This is the other way that fantasies interact with reality: not historical realities, but psychological ones. Fantasies connect to identity, but in precarious and volatile ways. We can fantasize about things we don’t actually want (like, to take the terrible topic at hand, rape). And that makes fantasies scary. Fantasies can make us feel like we don’t know who we are.
And it’s the question of identity’s truth that “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken” probes over and over again. Arya’s scenes in the House of Black and White get at the weird intersection of storymaking, fantasy, and identity. “Who are you?” she asks another girl. The story she is told — about a girl, “just like you,” who sought revenge — brings a dangerous smile to Arya’s face. But she quickly learns the story may have little purchase on the world itself. Instead, Arya quickly realizes, this made-up story is designed to tell Arya what she wants to hear. She has been, as Petyr will say, peddled a fantasy. And she bought it.
Fascinatingly, she learns the same thing when she herself tells a story to Jaqen H’ghar: the lashes fall from his whip, opening her up, every time she tries to keep the truth of herself concealed. “I don’t want to play the game!” she finally cries out, at the moment she painfully realizes she has been peddling a fantasy to herself. But, as Jaqen says, “We never stop playing.” Importantly, Jaqen, insisting so violently on truth, connects truth to play — and while he punishes Arya for lying in this scene, he will reward her a scene later for telling a lie, in the form of a story, a story with psychological rather than historical truth, to the girl she will kill. Arya, too, becomes a fantasy peddler. It’s by engaging in this blurry sense of identity that she finally gets permission to learn about the Hall of Many Faces. She has become herself enough that she can become, not no one, but someone else.
Tyrion and Jorah too are telling stories: to each other and to the slavers who find them. These are also stories about identity, violence, betrayal, and desire. “That true?” the slaver asks. Tyrion, who is obviously a master at the game of faces, knows exactly what the slavers want to hear, even as he’s not sure what to make of the stories he tells about himself and his violence towards his father (Tyrion does not tell Jorah, I noticed, that he also killed Shae). There are a couple of things we might make of this scene — the saavy way it links Jorah’s fighting to Tyrion’s storytelling as equally necessary tools for survival, and the appealing camaraderie between the two men — but we might notice particularly how much more satisfying it is than the following scene in which Jaime and the Sand Snakes engage in some completely useless shenanigans that are neither entertaining nor narratively meaningful.
But what really interested me about these scenes is a sort of anxiety they started to produce in me around the border between fantasy and realism. I liked Tyrion’s scenes; I didn’t like the Dorne scenes; but both these sequences kept returning me to the question: whose fantasy is this? Who is the implied watcher, the implied fantasizer?
Both sequences relied on strange fantasy clichés: the shriekingly incompetent princess, like the dark-skinned and easy-to-manipulate slavers, are straight out of fantasy central casting, and they are not fun for me to watch. But there seems little room to complain about them. If you point out that it’s annoying to watch Myrcella’s helpfulessness, and annoying to see the Sand Snakes completely fail to make a plan despite their legendary prowess, and annoying that people of color seem to show up only in such cliché ways, you’re often told that you are taking fantasy too seriously.
But I did not like these scenes. I felt excluded, and I felt the show was hedging its bets against my criticisms. I felt silenced.
And I felt the same thing, though for different reasons, in the subsequent sequence, when Loras is brought up for trial. All the King’s Landings scenes are about truth, and about identity, and about lying: about how powerful people negotiate what versions of truth they are going to throw their weight behind. And this underlying interest becomes particularly important because what is overtly at stake is the matter of Loras Tyrell’s “fornication” and “buggery”: this show, which is so often about our own complex desires, now hinges on a plotline in which a character’s desires are persecuted, persecuted for being fundamentally “perverse,” untrue to nature.
And, ok, people: I just cannot express enough how much this entire plotline pisses me off. Everything about it fills me with rage.
This show does not ask us to sympathize with homophobia, and it presents gay desire as a normal. But it does, I think, do something worse: it implies that homophobia, like homosexuality, is a fundamental part of being human, something that only the sophisticated resist. This is a very dramatic example of a particular emotional fantasy that some people have — a fantasy about punishing gay desire — being made to seem like an inevitable part of historical realism. The plot of Game of Thrones makes it seem reasonable for Cersei to think that militarizing a church would inevitably lead to the persecution of “perverts,” and thus of her enemy Loras.
But why is this inevitable? It is not. Forget that the word Cersei uses to describe Loras, “pervert,” did not come to refer to sexual identity until the very recent past (this plotline, like a lot of fantasy, relies on a Victorian interpretation of the middle ages rather than the middle ages themselves): even if premodern persecution of anal sex is very likely, even if it has often happened in human history, homophobia, as it being portrayed in this show, is simply not inevitable.
The Sparrow’s zealousness about sexuality is a choice made by the creators of this world, just like those creators are choosing White Walkers but not vampires as the monsters Westeros will face. And to act as though that is not so is more than just a profound and boring failure of imagination. It is a failure to see those with queer desires as fully human. It is to reassert that, when we are not protected by social rules, what humans really do is go after the gays.
It slowly became clear to me that what would happen in this trial was that Olyver, Loras’s sexual partner from episode two, would be trotted out to testify. I was convinced that he would in fact be less trotted than pulled; that we would see that he had been brutalized (like the gay men in Littlefinger’s brothel) or tortured. I was relieved when his body was intact, and then I was furious that the show had created a situation in which the failure to torture a gay body would be seen as a kind of televisual generosity. And I was angered further when the sheer fact of a squire having seen his knight naked, and knowing about a birthmark (a birthmark the color of wine and the shape of Dorne: if you would like to close read this bullshit, I would recommend the Salem witch trials as inter texts) as conclusive proof of gayness.
What we are seeing, in the show, is a kind of operating logic that leads toward silencing dissenting voices. Power is working to make its own desires seem true, natural, real, and everything else a kind of blasphemy. What I was feeling, watching the show, was also a kind of silencing: a silencing of my own critique.
And this is where I was when the show took us to Winterfell, to Sansa. To Sansa’s rape. Like much of the episode, this sequence begins with language about violence, identity, and disguise: Sansa is washed like the corpses at the episode’s beginning, her hair stripped clean of its dye. Myranda, like Arya at the episode’s beginning, tells a story that uses truth to spin a fantasy: a dark, threatening one this time. And importantly, Sansa understands both these meanings, just as she understands what it means that Theon must use his own name to give her away: just as she knows what it means when she consents to take Ramsay. “I take this man,” she says, in her beautiful white dress, standing in the candlelight, in the new fallen snow.
To what, Dear Television, does Sansa consent? What is “real,” believable, about what happens next, when Ramsay rips open her dress, pushes her face into the furs, and fucks her? Why was this scene so violating to viewers?
It’s more than the fact that Sansa has been here before, though that is part of it. And it’s more than the fact that we know and care about Sansa, although that is also true.
And it’s more than the fact that the camera focused on Theon’s reaction to the rape, although this is key. Many have noted that the camera seemed to put the emphasis on a man’s response to rape rather than the rape itself: that’s true, but that’s not the only thing that was happening. Think about what Ramsey says to Theon: “You knew her when she was a girl. Now watch as she becomes a woman.” Who else has watched Sansa in this way? We have. We are Theon, here.
We have watched as Sansa has changed, and we have been hopeful that she has, indeed, learned how to, in Petyr’s words, “maneuver.” Sansa’s body is being violated, and that is happening so dramatically that there’s no room to complain about what’s happening to her character. And now, like Theon, we’re forced — forced? — to watch as Ramsay tries to demonstrate that womanhood and rape are synonymous. And because the plotline grants her no psychological progress or development, it feels like the story’s creators are joining with Ramsay in saying: the plot of rape is not one a woman can expect to escape.
This scene is primarily a violation of Sansa, but it is a violation of us too. It hurts us, I think, because it hems us in at all sides. Like Sansa, we willingly consented to participate in this show. Like Reek, we are told to watch, but are not being forcibly held. We stay because we made a contract. We made a deal, even if we didn’t understand the terms to which we agreed. And so not only are we being made to watch something painful, but we are also being told, implicitly, that it is our fantasy to do so.
This episode of Game of Thrones does to viewers what the world so often does to women: it mistakes presence for consent. Whether it does so in a way that is ultimately useful and revealing, or a way that is fundamentally unredeemable is not something about which there’s only one right way to feel, just like there’s no one right way to feel about rape itself.
“I want you to be happy,” Ramsay says to Sansa. I imagine the show saying the same thing to all of us. You wanted it, didn’t you?
Previous episode: season 5, episode 5, “Kill the Boy.”
Following episode: season 5, episode 7, “The Gift.”
LARB’s Collected “Game of Thrones” Coverage
Sarah Mesle (PhD, Northwestern) is faculty at USC and Senior Humanities Editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books. Prior to arriving at USC, she held postdoctoral fellowships in English at the University of Michigan and the University of California, Los Angeles. She is a 19th-century Americanist by training and is interested, generally speaking, in the long history of the American popular novel and in the many ways pop culture can excite, estrange, and surprise.
With Sarah Blackwood, she is co-editor of Avidly.org. You can follow her on Twitter.
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