GAME OF THRONES: “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken”

It’s always darkest before it GETS EVEN DARKER.

I’m not playing this stupid game anymore!

–Arya

We never stop playing.

–Jaqen

I suppose we need to begin at the end, since that’s all that people are talking about this morning. Let’s be honest: Game of Thrones doesn’t exactly have a sterling reputation when it comes to sexual violence. Last season was often accused of sadism in its depiction of horrible people doing horrible things — look no further than the misadventures at Craster’s Keep — but no incident took more fire than Cersei and Jamie’s encounter beside the body of their dead son. Prior to that, way back at the very beginning of the show, Daenerys Targeryen was roughly handled by her new barbarian husband, Khal Drogo.

These scenes were problematic not just for what happened in them, but for the lack of ramifications that resulted. Dany eventually fell in love anyway with Drogo, who would become a fan favorite character — thereby sweeping his actions on her wedding night under the Pentoshi rug. In the case of the Lannisters, Jamie had already practically become a “good guy,” and his rape (because that’s what it was, as depicted) of his twin sister did little to affect his ongoing narrative arc. (Making matters much worse was that both the actors and director seemed confused as to the intent of the scene.)

And now, Sansa makes three. Her forcible consummation with her new husband, Ramsey Bolton, is easily the most horrifying moment of Season 5 thus far, and serves as another example of Thrones‘ female characters having their agency physically taken away. Just minutes before, Sansa had shown real strength on two occasions: seeing through Myranda’s attempts to get in her head (“This is my home, and you can’t frighten me,”) and rejecting Theon’s arm when he is ordered to escort her to the gloomy weirwood ceremony. But now, because she’s been told by Littlefinger to just hold on until Stannis can show up, that’s gone… and she’s been violated in a way that even Joffrey never managed to.

It’s also unfortunate that Theon, while just being forced to stand and watch, gets his own series of devastating closeups, which would be even more troublesome — is his suffering on Sansa’s wedding night as great as hers, show? — if Thrones had not already (and in agonizing detail) depicted his own victimization in seasons prior. Now Sansa and Theon are bound together by this, like it or not, and the show still has a real opportunity to make something of it — and provide real, satisfying consequences for Ramsey’s ongoing villainy. Where it stumbled with Drogo and Jamie, here it can ultimately land on surer footing. That doesn’t really answer the question of “but why does Ramsey have to be so heinous,” but it would be a defter handling of material (that — let’s face it — the show doesn’t need to still be handling) than what Thrones has managed so far.

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“Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken” is a dark, grim episode, and not just in the story, but in the palette — multiple scenes, from the frigid godswood to the cavernous House of Black and White, are lit only by lanterns or candlelight, and with winter finally coming, it’s perpetually nighttime in the North.  It’s also an episode wrapped in lies and deceptions, culminating with Ramsey’s baldfaced “I want you to be happy” to his petrified new bride. Everything about their union is false, and they both know it. They also both know that it’s temporary; if Ramsey and his rictus smile survive the looming battle, it won’t be long before he disposes of Sansa the way he has so many others.

And neither of them know about Littlefinger’s deal with Cersei, to send his fresh Vale knights in to deal with whoever remains in Winterfell, but truthfully no one knows what kind of game Littlefinger is playing. He saunters through his scenes in King’s Landing barely masking his contempt for everyone he comes across (especially you, Lancel), and it doesn’t seem like he would work this hard only to set Sansa — the spitting image of Catelyn, remember — up for a spike. His scene with Cersei is likely more about her poor judgement than him betraying his niece; the paranoid Cersei can’t trust the Tyrells, the Boltons, or even her own family, but she still thinks she can take Littlefinger at his word? He who is attributing news of Sansa to “sources,” like he’s Chris Broussard reporting on free agency signings hours too late? Good luck with that. “I live to serve,” he tells her, but just who he doesn’t say.

Leave it to Olenna Tyrell, then, to swoop in to the capital like one of Mad Max’s shotgun-wielding grandmothers, putting everyone on blast and providing some sorely needed levity. She’s seen through Cersei’s machinations before she’s even walked through the door, effectively telling “the famous tart” that just sitting behind a desk pretending to scratch out letters doesn’t make Cersei her father. Olenna certainly didn’t like Tywin Lannister, but she respected him: “He was no fool,” she adds, leaving the rest unspoken. Cersei claims that everything will be fine, that surely Loras will be proven innocent of his charges, but there’s no honesty in that either — any more than in her quill, which she sets down the moment the Queen of Thorns leaves the room. Whew — writing is tedious work.

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At the interrogation with the High Sparrow, things could not go worse for the lords of Highgarden. Loras’s defense — and Margaery’s defense of his defense — gets obliterated the moment Olyvar is brought in, whose knowledge of Loras’s tell-tale Dorne-shaped birthmark proves to be the Knight of Flowers’s undoing. Not for the first or last time, there are just enough half-truths wrapped in a convincing package to make a mockery of the Westerosi criminal justice system.

Even worse, Margaery too gets arrested by the Faith, for bearing “false witness” in support of her brother. As she is led away shouting “I am the Queen,” Cersei smirks in satisfaction, while Tommen — THE KING — is too shell-shocked to even speak. But Cersei still can’t comprehend how dangerous the High Sparrow really is — a man that she has just given ultimate power to, and answers only to the gods. She’s the biggest sinner of them all, and the guy who can testify to that happens to now have the Militant’s insignia tattooed on his forehead.

There’s more lying happening across the Narrow Sea, but this time it’s much more effective. As Tyrion and Jorah keep trudging towards Meereen — Valyria continues to be a cinematographer’s gift; it always looks like Magic Hour over there — they also begin to bond. Jorah, lunkhead that he is, had never considered just why Tyrion was in Essos to begin with, and Tyrion fills him in. He also, somewhat accidentally, breaks the news to Jorah that his father is dead as well, having fallen victim to mutineers. Mormont takes it hard; everything he has done since we first met him to was make up for disappointing the Old Bear and tarnishing his family’s legacy. Now he’s slowly dying of greyscale, and getting ready to beg his way back into Dany’s graces, and for what? “What happens next?” Tyrion wants to know. Targaryens are usually insane, and Dany’s just supposed to climb up to the throne and make everything better?

Before we get an answer to that unanswerable question, the pair get waylaid by a band of slavers, led by Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (hello again, Mr. Eko from Lost!) They figure Jorah might be useful, but Tyrion’s only as valuable as his private parts (you know, for luck) — they’re about to slit his throat before a desperate Tyrion bargains his way out, fast-talking like Jimmy McGill, hoping to turn them towards Meereen instead. The fighting pits have been re-opened? Hey, guess who’s a great fighter — this guy over here! Okay, he’s a little old, but he also once won a jousting tourny killed a Dothraki bloodrider, so take him seriously! The gambit works, and if Jorah picks up on the irony of being taken by slavers after what brought him to Essos in the first place, he doesn’t acknowledge it.

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Elsewhere, we are briefly interrupted by an episode of The CW’s Dorne High, in which a pair of star-crossed teenagers skip school to frolic in a stunningly gorgeous garden. Thus we finally meet Trystane Martell, the heir to Dorne, and get our first look at the Princess Myrcella since Tyrion shipped her off back in Season 2. “They make a lovely couple,” says Doran, watching from his balcony. Too bad this is actually Game of Thrones, where any happiness, if detected, is quickly targeted and destroyed. Conveniently, the Sand Snakes are preparing to take Myrcella away at the same time Jamie and Bronn — singing a song that is finally not “The Rains of Castamere” or “The Bear and the Maiden Fair” — arrive to do the same.

It’s Myrcella’s uncle-father that gets there first, letting out a heavy sigh when realizing the girl has gone and complicated things by falling in love. But when Trystane spots blood spatter on Jamie and Bronn’s stolen clothes, he gets himself knocked out, and it’s at that moment the Sand Snakes arrive. A choppily-cut melee ensues (it doesn’t seem like the three actresses are entirely up to the fight choreography), and while I guess it’s cool, it highlights just how gimmicky the Snakes actually are as characters. Their previous scene two weeks ago was pure exposition, and since they’re pretty one-dimensional here, they feel more like distractions than potential fan favorites. (It’s one of the rare times something critical got lost — not just changed, but lost — in translation from page to screen.) ANYWAY, once Areo Hotah and his axe show up, the fight abruptly ends, as all five fighters are arrested. But Bronn, sweet sweet Bronn, got himself nicked by Obara’s spear, which… knowing her father, is very bad news.

Finally, amidst all of the falsehoods and deceptions this week, it’s Arya who seems set to make a legitimate career out of it. For weeks now, she’s been hoping to catch a glimpse of that back room, where the bodies go after she washes them, and has been getting browbeaten by Jaqen and the Waif for her trouble. What are they waiting for? For her to show that she can be someone other than Arya Stark, daughter of a highborn lord. They drill her on the art of selling a convincing personal story; every time Jaqen detects a bad lie, he smacks her (including, tellingly, when she claims to have “hated” the Hound), until she’s bruised and pissed off. But when a man brings his dying daughter to the House and Arya is the only one around to administer the Many-Faced God’s gift, she manages to transform herself, selling the girl a yarn about how Arya was just like her, and this water she’s about to drink will totally heal her.

Impressed, Jaqen finally graduates her to the next level of her training. No more “paint the fence” and “sand the floor” — how about a massive room full of faces? So that’s what happens to those bodies: they get, uh, re-purposed. Arya’s not ready yet to give up her entire identity, everything she is, was, or ever wanted, and she may never be. (And we, as the audience, don’t want that for her. If she loses what makes her Arya, she ceases to be fun as a character.) But, according to Jaqen, she’s ready to take being “someone else” for a spin. Being able to swap out identities like she’s in Mission: Impossible is a neat trick, but the best part is the freedom that comes with it. As the second half of Season 5 continues, no one has more agency, or control over their own lives, than “no one.”

Next week: Stannis gets snowed in, and Margaery’s hair gets mussed.

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