A review of “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken,” the sixth episode of the fifth season of “Game of Thrones”
by Miodrag Zarković
(A small forward: Years ago, David Benioff and Dan Weiss were asked who’s their favorite character in the books. Many were surprised when they answered it’s Theon Greyjoy. Before you finish this review, perhaps you’ll agree with me that there’s a damn good reason they’re so in love with the only remaining son of Balon Greyjoy. And now, let’s go to the review.)
“But it also happened in the novels!” has to be the most hypocritical phrase ever uttered by those blindly in love with everything they see in “Game of Thrones.” The fact that the show’s supposed to be an adaptation of the “A Song of Ice and Fire” book series by George R. R. Martin, is something they remember and recall only when they think it suits them—while in the very next moment they can shamelessly claim it’s actually good that GOT deviated as much and that it owes no fealty whatsoever to its source material.
The closing scene of “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken,” the sixth episode of Season 5, is one of those instances. Ramsay and Sansa’s wedding night bears some strong similarities with the corresponding scene in the books, claim these show-loving folks.
For the sake of argument, let’s agree that there actually is a corresponding scene in “A Dance with Dragons,” in which Ramsay Bolton does have sex with his new bride (though not Sansa, but her best friend Jeyne Poole), and that poor creature once known as Theon Greyjoy is also present and playing a part in the horror Ramsay orchestrates. In fact, not only that the scenes do resemble each other in quite a few ways, but also, what happens in the novel is even more disturbing than what Ramsay did onscreen.
So, one might ask, why is the show scene getting this negative reaction the book scene was spared from? Without a doubt, book Ramsay’s wedding night was recognized as one of the most disgusting moments in a saga not lacking in them, but it never received such a deep contempt its show counterpart is met with. Why is that so?
Now, David Benioff and Dan Weiss, the two showrunners, quite possibly don’t have any real answer to that question. And that is the saddest aspect of the entire “Game of Thrones” endeavor!
All Benioff and Weiss could offer would probably amount to: “People are just upset that it isn’t as in the book.” That is what show apologists keep repeating ever since the episode aired, after all. And they even go further, accusing show complainers of some kind of inhuman favoritism: “You were cool with Jeyne going through what Sansa tasted in the show, so why are you bothered all of a sudden? Is it because you care just for Sansa and not for Jeyne?”
In other words, they wonder why is Ramsay brutalizing Sansa Stark more upsetting than the same Ramsay brutalizing Jeyne Poole.
The answer is, however, quite a simple one: storytelling is really not the same as legality. Under the law, book Jeyne would deserve at least as big a compensation as TV Sansa, for the crime committed against both of them by Ramsay Bolton. But in a narrative way, book Jeyne is something completely different to TV Sansa, because a reader’s sympathy is not earned by the letter of law, but by inspiring him/her to bond with the character, and that takes a skill, or time, or, most usually, both.
Her brief appearance in the first book of the series “A Game of Thrones” aside, Jeyne Poole became a character not before she was introduced to Theon/Reek in “A Dance with Dragons.” Even though it is soon revealed, through scarce but precious exposition, what a nightmare she lived in ever since Littlefinger took her under his wing, only when she’s presented to Theon as “Arya Stark” is Jeyne’s real arc launched. And, like with many characters in ASOIAF, for poor Jeyne things first become worse before (if at all?) they get better. Things become way worse for her, actually, because what Ramsay submits her to is truly devastating—but, in a way, it also serves to lift Ramsay’s arc, because, in all fairness, he’s also relatively a newcomer at that point, and any insight into his mind and mentality is valuable.
So, when Ramsay brutalizes Jeyne on their wedding night in ADWD, it is actually the first time we see both of them in their respective roles: Ramsay as this unprecedented sadist whose menace is so all-consuming not the least because of the almost casual, effortless way he inflicts irreparable damage on any human being that had the misfortune to stand in his proximity, and Jeyne as a deeply traumatized individual who is surprised there’s something even worse than what she’s endured previously. In those haunting lines, Ramsay and Jeyne are fully realized as new, but important characters, worthy of readers’ full attention and despise (Ramsay) and empathy (Jeyne).
And then, there’s the third character, Theon, a.k.a. Reek, who’s forced by Ramsay to take part in the brutalization of Jeyne. Somewhere between the wedded couple, in the sense that he’s to be somewhat despised for his past crimes but also somewhat felt sorry for because of the constant psychological and physical humiliation he suffers from his “beloved” Ramsay, Theon is, actually, also debuting in his “new role.” A familiar face from the very beginning of the saga and a POV character in “A Clash of King,” Theon is revisited in ADWD and, at first, all we see are the horrific consequences on his mental and physical integrity left by Ramsay’s treatment. We witnessed some of that treatment in the first half of the book, but only when Ramsay orders him to prepare Jeyne for the marriage consummation the full extent of the torture Theon experienced in the Dreadfort is finally comprehended in full measure.
So, in the book scene, unsettling as it was, all three participants were fleshed out in unforgettable details and in the roles we’ve never quite seen them in before. From the pure narrative aspect, that scene is as effective as any other in ASOIAF, which does say a lot. With some other characters, something similar could look unearned, or cheap, or shallow, or manipulative, but with these three it was nothing but brilliant in its obvious depravity. When you’re trying to show the worst in humanity, that is how you want to do it, because otherwise you might as well be promoting it.
The corresponding scene in the show, however, is the polar opposite. In it, there was no character progression to speak of. As a matter of fact, for two of the participants it was just a repetition, just more of what these characters are already associated with and for a long time, while for the third one it was a clear regression, the return to past misery and then some more.
TV Ramsay was already there. In fact, he never left the place: between maiming Theon, killing random girls, having violent intercourses with his supposed girlfriend Myranda and flaying random lords, he barely had time for anything other than his sadism; even his conversations with Roose, that might’ve been useful for the creation of at least some perspective in this torture porn that poses as an arc, were kept to a minimum.
TV Theon was already there. In fact, he never left the place ever since Season 2. All he’s been doing these past years is witnessing or tasting Ramsay’s sadistic cruelty.
TV Sansa was not exactly there, but she was near enough. She’s been in a very similar place for more than two seasons, between Ned’s beheading and Joffrey’s death. And then she was taken from there and put on what looked like a different path. The new path was silly, of course, with several truly ridiculous elements like Littlefinger’s helplessness in the investigation into Lysa’s death or Sansa’s new dress code, but it did look like a path on its own. Alas, this season the path started meandering and, eventually, it transformed itself into . . . the arc of another character from another storyline! And to make matters worse, it reached a place that very much looks like the one TV Sansa was in already: in the hands of a merciless psychopath who takes pleasure in hurting her.
All of which means that, because of two decisions by Benioff and Weiss (to start showing the cruelty of their Ramsay and the torturing of their Theon as early as in third season, and to have their Sansa take the arc of book Jeyne), TV Winterfell is aimlessly repetitive. Since it’s simultaneously garnered with a lot of violence and sadism, it’s also cheap and exploitative. When you’re trying to depict the worst in humanity, this is the most offensive way to do it, because it can’t help but look like those primitive mechanisms for shocking the viewers by exposing them to some repulsive banality they’ll tend to talk about tomorrow at work.
But, truth be told, TV Winterfell wouldn’t be better off even if Ramsay didn’t brutalize Sansa on their wedding night. There’s a saying: When you’re on the wrong road, each stop is wrong too. The moment Benioff and Weiss decided to take their Sansa to Winterfell to marry Ramsay, her road became wrong. They put themselves in a hole out from which they could never crawl. Let’s speculate for a moment how the episode would look like if it ended with Ramsay restraining himself from consummating the marriage. It wouldn’t be offensively exploitative, but it’d definitely be ridiculously unconvincing and offensive for the viewers’ intelligence. Ramsay making love to Sansa instead of violating her? The same thing: that wouldn’t be Ramsay! And so on. There is no scenario in which Sansa’s marriage to Ramsay can work.
And that is because no one with Sansa’s experience from King’s Landing would ever willingly expose themselves to a marriage into the family that murdered their mother and brother.
Why did Benioff and Weiss make that decision then?
One can only guess, and not a single possibility is pleasing. But what is possibly even worse, is seeing some of the media that just a few weeks ago praised Sansa/Ramsay as a bold and welcomed departure from the novels, start to attack GOT all of a sudden. Similar to last year’s Jaime/Cersei fiasco, politically correct entertainment journalists again seem to care only for those issues that fit their shallow agenda, and rape is one of them.
Yes, of course, Benioff and Weiss don’t know how to deal with rape in a meaningful manner. But they don’t know how to deal with anything in a meaningful manner either. Have you seen the way they deal with death, murder, revenge, punishment, war, love, sex, religion, faith, honor, duty, emotions, slavery, responsibility, parenthood, poverty? Not a bit better than with rape. They are still to meet a sensitive issue they understand, let alone address in a competent way.
Just recall the similar fashion in which they changed Dany and Drogo’s wedding night in the pilot episode. Back then, the show was in its infancy and many a fan was willing to turn a blind eye to a misstep or two, so that scene created no uproar similar to the one inspired by Jaime and Cersei’s sept scene, but by all accounts it was worse. With Jaime and Cersei, they most probably didn’t intend to film it as a rape (if anyone’s interested, I can explain in the comments how, years in advance, I predicted the trouble they were going to have with the sept scene, because of Cersei’s changed characterization in the show, and all I saw in that scene makes me think they actually tried to remedy the mess of their own creation by making Jaime somewhat more forceful at the beginning), but with Dany and Drogo, they are on record admitting they really wanted the first sexual encounter to be as brutal as it was. Naturally, it never occurred to them that there was an important reason behind Martin’s decision to put Dany’s consent in the book: it completely eliminates the Stockholm Syndrome nonsense the show embraced. From the very start, Martin showed he’s not in the business of writing about characters that find their happiness by loving their abusers.
The critics were, however, okay with the nonsense from the pilot. Just like, until the very last episode, they saw no problem in Sansa marrying Ramsay. I’ll repeat once more: some of them were even congratulating Benioff and Weiss on a job well done!
I’d really like to know how would those critics solve the wedding night. Would they choose to make it ridiculous by having Ramsay act normal and omitting the rape? Ramsay? Normal? Do they really think that would cure the mess created the moment TV Littlefinger sent a raven with the marriage proposal to the Boltons?
It wouldn’t! That mess had no place in what’s supposed to be an adaptation of ASOIAF in the first place. You want Ramsay to rape someone on his wedding night? There’s Jeyne Poole for you. She’s not a living person, you know, just like Sansa isn’t. Jeyne can’t be hurt, not really. She can make sense or not, she can carry some meaning or not, but you won’t really harm her if you put her in Ramsay’s hands. So, if you want Ramsay to brutalize his wife, use Jeyne Poole. It will make sense. It did in the book, to great effect. But don’t put Sansa, or Brienne for that matter, or Cersei, or whoever, in Jeyne’s shoes, because it will make no sense whatsoever, and something will definitely be hurt: the intelligence of the audience.
By putting Sansa in Jeyne’s role, Benioff and Weiss practically ruined what little they managed to do with Sansa in the four previous seasons. It can never be overstated how lacking her TV arc was in comparison to its book origin, but once they sent her to Winterfell it lost any resemblance to any arc that could possibly have some meaning.
When show apologists say that the difference between Ramsay’s wedding nights in the book and in the show is no big deal, they miss the point because they ignore the narrative logic. Ramsay’s wedding night in the show could be tantamount to this hypothetical situation: Theon and Jeyne escaped Winterfell and Stannis’ forces captured them, but then, for some reason, Jeyne agrees to marry Clayton Suggs and, to her horror, he brutalizes her on their wedding night. That would mean that Jeyne’s escape from Ramsay was actually ineffective in a narrative sense and that, after the author manipulated the readers for a while into thinking she’s on her way to some sort of salvation, she just ends up in the same place as in Winterfell.
That would be repetitive and cheap and exploitative. Luckily, Martin will not do that, just like he never did anything similar. His world is no cartoon city, people do suffer terrible fates in his books, but never without a narrative reason, and never in a repetitive manner.
When you’re repetitive in a short form of fiction, it’s clumsy and silly. When you’re repetitive in a huge saga, it can be tiring and draining. But when you’re repetitive in an adaptation of the source material that is anything but repetitive, it’s outright pathetic. And when the repetition includes sensitive matters like violence, it’s also insulting and tasteless.
But the Winterfell sequence was not the only repetitive thing in the episode. There was one more thing, spotted in the already infamous fight scene around Myrcella Baratheon in the Water Gardens.
First, the entire fight scene and everything that lead to it was ludicrously amateurish. From writing to acting, to choreography and direction, everything was simply embarrassing. Thankfully, it is discussed all over the internet and, from what was possible to observe, never in a forgiving way, so it’s not necessary to go through all of that here. There’s a suggestion, however. A Mexican standoff is, per Wikipedia, a confrontation between two or more parties in which neither party can proceed nor retreat without being exposed to danger. After “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken,” a new expression should be coined, A Dornish standoff: a confrontation of an ever-increasing number of parties in which not a single party follows any reason whatsoever in its actions and yet suffers no real consequence either. (I will not take this back even if it turns out Bronn was indeed poisoned with that dagger that wounded him, because the very idea of a seasoned warrior that brought poisoned daggers in a mission to kidnap a princess is fascinating in its absurdity.)
Second, let’s remember how Dan Weiss praised Kit Harrington’s fighting skills a year ago, in the “Inside the Episode” video for “The Watchers on the Wall,” the penultimate hour of last season. Weiss said that, when he and Benioff were checking the raw footage in the editing room, at one point they thought someone sped up a part of the scene with Kit, because Kit’s moves looked too fast and therefore unnatural. So, Weiss says, the two of them called the special effects guy and asked him to remove whatever effect was applied on the footage, because they didn’t want the final product to look like that. To their surprise, it turned out that no effect was applied and nobody sped the footage up, Kit was simply fast and handy with his sword.
Let’s also remember something that, years ago, secured my reputation as an obsessively pedant GOT hater: the essay I wrote about the second season of the show, in which the editing was especially critiqued. In particular, I wrote about the two instances from episodes 5 and 15, in which the raw footage was sped up in order for fight scenes to look “more effective,” which, naturally, resulted in the most essential problem motion pictures can ever suffer from: discontinuity of the experience of consuming a visual content.
Well, the geniuses did it again, in this episode, in the Dornish standoff. When Bronn kicks Tyene and she falls on her back, she quickly jumps back on her feet. Ahem, not quick enough, it appears, because her jump was sped up in the editing room, which is why Bronn, who’s in the same frame all the time, makes some rapid and unnatural moves. If you look at Bronn while Tyene’s jumping, you’ll clearly see what I’m talking about and why no filmmaker in their right mind would ever do anything similar. That is how low this show actually is. They’re doing the one thing Weiss himself described as a no-no not a year ago. This episode was one big festival of repeated idiocy, hence the title of this review.
But who are we kidding? This show was never taken seriously by anyone other than Martin and fans (several actors included). By everyone else, it was always treated as a joke. Well-paid and fame-earning, but a joke nonetheless. After all, there are cock merchants in GOT now! And, please, did anyone catch why the hell Cersei summoned Littlefinger at all? When she told Qyburn to send a message, she insisted for Littlefinger to come immediately. But what was so important? She just wanted to hear him say that the knights of the Vale are loyal to the Iron Throne? Is that the reason Littlefinger had to leave Sansa in Winterfell?
Benioff and Weiss are charlatans, first and foremost. It is, I believe, wrong to ascribe sexism or misogyny to them. Like countless talentless writers, they are even less competent when they write characters of the opposite gender, and generally, characters whose experience they didn’t share personally. And, all in all, they’re no fundamentally better when dealing with male characters and their arcs. Just recall the ridiculous Jon arc in season 2, when his brilliant mission with Qhorin in the books was completely ruined just so he can flirt with and be dumb in comparison to Ygritte. Just look at TV Stannis and everything that happened to him whenever his scenes strayed away from the source material.
Benioff and Weiss endless incompetence suggests privileged backgrounds, which are typically associated with political correctness. Their rare but insightful political comments seem to point in the direction of progressivism as their real-life mindset. All of which could mean that they are not consciously mistreating women or homosexuals (or almost any other group, really) in their writing, but it is the product of their drastic lack of skill and craft.
Perhaps they are not Tywins of the House HBO, in that there is not some dark mission behind their missteps and failings. Perhaps they’re also not Ramsays, because they’re not even enjoying all the damage they’ve inflicted. Perhaps they really are like Theon Greyjoy when he, per some wild chance, took Winterfell under his command: murdering little children, just so they can appear competent and to hide their shortcomings.