The latest Game of Thrones episode is getting a lot of buzz for its revelation about the White Walker’s origins and that Hodor twist. And because those were Big Shocking Revelations, there’s a quieter scene that isn’t getting discussed nearly as much. But it’s just as important — if not more, in terms of how Game of Thrones will be remembered in the wider culture as it approaches its end. We’re talking, of course, about how Sansa ripped Petyr Baelish a new one for marrying her to a rapist.
“Did you know about Ramsay?” she asks him. “If you didn’t know, you’re an idiot; if you did, you’re my enemy. Would you like to hear about our wedding night?”
This was significant for Sansa’s character arc; cementing her progress from a prissy princess to a brave and noble politician. But outside of the narrative, this scene stands out as a rare meta-moment in which the show acknowledges the audience and corrects course on past mistakes.
To be a reasonable person who is a fan of Game of Thrones is not unlike being in a bad relationship. You grit your teeth and tolerate its lesser qualities — its tone-deaf handling of sex and gender; its tendency to create rape where none exists in the books; its tendency to showcase female nudity over male to such an extent that male actors have commented — because the show has enough going for it in other areas. No piece of entertainment can cater to your every desire, right? So it’s bad with sexual politics, we can’t have everything.
But when you’re at a party and the topic of GoT comes up, there is always That Guy who will inevitably say, “But it’s just a bunch of rape and exploitation — how can you like that show?” And you’ll defend it, even though privately you agree that That Guy isn’t entirely wrong; that there is more rape than there needs to be. Even as we speak, there are at least 2000 thinkpieces about the show containing the word “problematic” bouncing around the internet. And while the overuse of “problematic” is problematic, those pieces are also not entirely wrong.
But in “The Door,” when Sansa tells Petyr Baelish about her wedding night, she says,
The other things he did — ladies aren’t supposed to talk about those things….I can still feel what he did in my body standing here. I don’t believe you anymore, I don’t need you anymore. You can’t protect me.
The real issue with Sansa’s wedding night in Season 5 wasn’t her rape, it was the way the scene took away Sansa’s agency by making Theon’s emotions the focus of the scene. But this follow-up in “The Door” feels like the show has finally woken up. Sansa asks Petyr Baelish, “What do you think he did to me?” and when he tries to squirm away from answering the questions, she demands that he listen. Sansa is functioning as the voice of the viewer here.
Over the past six seasons, there have been countless times when audiences have responded negatively to the way GoT has handled sexual assault. Each time, the writers squirm away from our complaints, just as Baelish tries to squirm away from Sansa.
Consider the Season 4 episode in which Jaime rapes Cersei — that scene was an accident. The actors were not playing it as rape and the director insisted “it became consensual by the end,” even though exactly zero audience members interpreted it that way. For a show that dominates the conversation in Peak TV, to unintentionally show a rape scene is embarrassing. It’s the equivalent of a presidential candidate standing onstage during a debate and being unable to name every branch of the government.
For those of us in that bad relationship with Game of Thrones, where we stick with it for its stellar characters and epic battles, things like this are the ultimate face-palm. It doesn’t help when showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss remain silent about it, particularly when they’ve offered other apologies when necessary.
With Sansa’s scene in “The Door” then, they’re finally allowing us to wholeheartedly say, “Game of Thrones is a smart show!” without feeling the opposite way.
At last, the writers are not being like Littlefinger and evading our questions and outrage; they’re offering a better path forward. Game of Thrones will no doubt leave a killer legacy regardless, as it’s the biggest show in television history. But that legacy will certainly be colored by the conversations around the show. If it continues on like this, its past transgressions won’t go away — but neither will they tarnish it irrevocably.