Let's Discuss: 'Game of Thrones' And Courting Controversy

Game of Thrones Sansa Stark Sophie Turner HBO
The cultural zeitgeist that surrounds HBO’s premier series is unlike most of the water cooler shows currently airing. What revs people up over one storyline’s direction, can be equally bold in another capacity and go entirely ignored. Amid its fifth season, “Game of Thrones” found itself facing the brunt of significant controversy when in the wake of its sixth episode, titled “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken,” an online frenzy broke out, sending the series into controversial overdrive.

The aftermath continues to linger, serving as a major talking point around “Game of Thrones.” The fury stems from an off-book change that saw Sansa Stark, beleaguered heroine, orphan, and pawn to the powerful; endure a rape at the hands of her sadistic new husband.

The outrage among “Game of Thrones” fans is understandable. “How much more must this poor girl suffer?” and “are there no limits the series’ brutality?” were among some of the battle cries, heard echoing across the web-i-sphere.

By the same token, it is a plot, vigilant fans should have seen coming from a mile away, which should have cushioned some of their initial shock. Sansa’s predicament was a tragic and inevitable reality the moment she had to acquiesce to Littlefinger’s proposition of an arranged marriage between herself and Ramsay Bolton.

Ramsay is the son of the man who murdered her brother, mother, and pregnant sister-in-law -- in cold blood. House Bolton is a notoriously vile clan. Tyrion had shown her chastity respect that most in their world would not have. Sansa acknowledged that fact throughout their short-lived marriage. Why fans were expecting the same nobility from Ramsay is strange, to say the least.

What befell Sansa was horrific, sad, and tragic. It was also true to the era “Game of Thrones” is portraying. The historical period is known as The War of the Roses. Nothing about the storyline came across as if it were jockeying for shock value or acting for the point of sensationalism.

It was in keeping with the brutality of the times and the behavior of someone as despicable as Ramsay Bolton. A despot who rivals the departed King Joffrey for the title of most evil “Game of Thrones” character. It would have been disingenuous for the storyline to have played out any other way.

A similar debate enveloped the latest season of The CW series “Reign” when Mary was raped during a siege. Like “Game of Thrones,” the storyline on “Reign” was in keeping with the time period the series takes place in. It would be revisionist to ignore this dark aspect of the historical period. It was incredibly violent. Sanitizing the past in dramatic productions just avoids reality.

Seeing a character suffer is never a pleasant task, and it never should be. Of the commentators concerned, Sansa’s rape was merely a plot device to bring about the redemption of Theon Greyjoy; subsequent episodes proved that fear, false.

If one believes the scene was meant to redeem him, then what exactly was his castration at the hands of Ramsay meant to do? Where, by the way, was the outcry over that grotesque torture sequence being utilized to have a character atone?

There was none, and that was far more overt in redemptive nature than the role Theon Greyjoy played in Sansa’s assault. A scene where it seemed apparent he was simply a tool to transmit the audience’s horror and to have someone to pan away to, rather than depict the act in its totality. It was a decision that seemed designed to spare viewers.

Both sad and interesting is there was no chorus of disapproval over the storylines mentioned above or the graphic torture that was heaped upon Theon Greyjoy. Although he had behaved atrociously beforehand, the mainstream audience not expressing a tad of revulsion over it, is telling.

If one thought “Game of Thrones” had reached its limits for chasing the disturbing, all fans had to do was fast forward through to the next few episodes to learn that would not be the case.

Stannis Baratheon (Ned Stark’s pick for the King of the realm) committed an egregious act straight out of “The Iliad.” Ruthless in his bid for power, he sacrificed the life of his own daughter, the most innocent character on the entire show.

Where was the online outrage, though? Where was the concern? If it existed, it was hard to hear over the indignant anger that was still consuming the Sansa melee. Glancing over some online commenters, it was hard to miss a few souls out there who were still sticking behind Stannis and later expressed sadness when the lout was swiftly killed in the season finale.

There seems to be a limit on what “Game of Thrones” viewers are willing to take, though. After five years of envelope-pushing that has seen some of the most disturbingly violent scenes committed on television, “Game of Thrones” ruffled more feathers than ever before.

It would not be accurate to say that it is in the throes of a full-blown backlash, although it certainly appears to be careening towards one. All of this is going in the world of “Game of Thrones” fandom while another series should be engulfed in similar controversy. The media has yet to report on any major backlash over the graphic rape of a major male character on Starz’s “Outlander.”

According to what has been personally gathered from coverage of the scenes (which earned rave reviews by TV critics), the “Outlander” scenes were extensively more graphic than anything “Game of Thrones” presented. It was also a prolonged ordeal that spanned an entire episode. It was not a single-cutaway scene. So why did “Outlander” get a free pass?

While it’s true that series was portraying an event that occurred in the books it’s based on, so was “Game of Thrones.” The latter simply changed who the violence was suffered by. So what is the difference? Why was one series vilified and the other venerated? On the surface, the only difference seems to be that one victim was male and the other female.

If the issue were that cable is going too far altogether, the outrage would be equivalent. Perhaps the argument is after five seasons, "Game of Thrones" has procured a reputation as a repeat offender. If the issue from fans and critics is that "Game of Thrones" just picks on women to exert its violence, that would be a miscalculation.

It should be stated that it is an equal opportunity gender offender that does not solely victimize female characters. You have to look no further than its three castrated male characters for proof of that. Female characters have not sat idly by without acting viciously either, and that is not just a reference to Cersei.

This past season, Daenerys had one of her dragons light a man on fire, and most egregiously, Lady Melisandre concocted and carried out the murder of Shireen. Case and point, both genders have acted violently and suffered violent fates.

If the issue is violence in general, which people should be outraged by, no matter which gender endures it, everyone has their own breaking point. Whether “Game of Thrones” has reached theirs, only time will tell.

[Featured Image by HBO]


  1. Great write about GoT :) #Congrats! An so true about the historical era and Sansa Stark.


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