Approaching Game of Thrones’ upcoming sixth season, fans and critics have feelings of great anticipation mixed with a little bit of fear. Watching the extreme highs and lows of the past couple seasons, the HBO series has become a hotbed of conflicting feelings we’ve probably argued as much as we do politics. Is it truly fantasy or escape when we can’t help but hash out the troubling similarities to ongoing real-world issues? It’s a little too easy (and I’m guilty, myself) to presume the writers or showrunners don’t give a shit about the anguish certain scenes might be causing their audience, after all, controversy and water cooler discussion must naturally correlate to good ratings, right? Maybe. But, as evidenced by a writer’s commentary, creating a controversial rape scene and caring how the audience responds to that isn’t necessarily mutually exclusive.
In a preview of the Game of Thrones Season 5 DVD extras, EW has transcribed excerpts of writer/producer Bryan Cogman’s (“Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken”) commentary ***Spoilers for Season 5**** ahead about the excruciating Theon/Reek-witnessed wedding night rape of Sansa, by reviled bastard Ramsay Bolton. The subject of many angry tweets, recaps, and think pieces, that scene put off as many viewers as it spawned snarky “That’s how things are/were; if you don’t like it, don’t watch” declarations, as if valid criticism of an excellent series weren’t allowed. For those of us who continue to love the show despite its flaws, that a writer is contemplative and willing to openly reflect on how something he created was received does mean something.
“I think it’s important to talk about because of the response this storyline got. It’s sort of ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t.’ If you don’t talk about it, people think you’re ashamed of it; if you do talk about it, everything you say is taken out of context. Basically, when we decided to combine Sansa’s storyline with another character in the books it was done with the idea that it would be hugely dramatically satisfying to have Sansa back in her occupied childhood home and navigate this Gothic horror story she’s found herself in and, of course, to be reunited with Theon - setting her on the path to reclaiming her family home and becoming a major player in the big overall story. That said, when we decided we were going to do that we were faced with the question: If she’s marrying Ramsay, what would happen on her wedding night? And we made the decision to not shy away from what would realistically would happen on that wedding night with these two characters, and the reality of the situation, and the reality of this particular world.
It was a very difficult scene for me to write. I’ve known Sophie since she was a kid… I think it was the attack on our motives behind it that upset me. Because I love these characters. I’ve spent the better part of the last decade with these characters, and I love these actors - I’m getting emotional talking about it - I love Sophie, I love Alfie, I love [Maisie] and it’s … very personal to me and it’s not an easy thing to put a character that I love through a scene like this.
Another argument - and I get why this criticism was leveled at us - is idea that we took Sansa’s story away from her and made it all about Theon [by cutting to his face at the end]. I personally don’t believe that’s the case … Certainly Theon’s redemption journey is an element of the subplot. But if you really watch this scene it’s played from Sansa’s viewpoint, for the most part. The main reason we cut away at the end, frankly, is that this was Sophie’s first scene of this nature, and we didn’t want to show the attack. And so we cut to Theon to hear the attack. I understand why many people reacted to that, [thinking] we were making this scene about Theon and not Sansa. I’m sorry it was viewed that way. All I can say is it’s certainly not my intention when I wrote it or when we were producing it … We could have stayed on her face of the entirety of the attack, that would have been a perfectly valid choice. To me it was about being respectful to Sophie.
It’s an upsetting scene, it’s a horrifying scene, it’s meant to be … [But] the accusation that our motives were [that we] just threw in a rape for shock value, I personally don’t think the scene as shot, or as written, or as acted by our wonderful actors, supports that argument. Nor do I think the aftermath of the scene supports that argument. Not only in these episodes, but also in future episodes. This story is not over. This is a long ongoing story. Sansa has a journey ahead of her, and what happens to her in that room is a huge part of that journey, and one that we’ve thought through.”
Cogman also addressed comments from those who thought Sansa would have tried to kill Ramsay when he raped her.
“Yes, it would have been hugely satisfying [for Sansa] to have a shiv up her sleeve and gut Ramsay, but that’s not Sansa. We can’t all be Arya and, in fact, most people aren’t Arya. Most people in that situation, they have to play a longer game. She goes [into the marriage] without the right information about Ramsay, she gets the sense that he’s dangerous, and when he turns out to be even worse than she thought, she’s not broken by the attack, she immediately sets to getting the hell out of there and planning her next move.”
Speaking of Arya and Maisie Williams, the actress commended Cogman for sharing his thoughts about the scene.
“Good for you. It’s important to have your say openly and honestly, and not just through headlines and Twitter and things like that… there is so much more to the whole sequence than people are allowing.”
Cogman’s commentary obviously can’t change what already happened or how that episode was viewed, but it could mean there might be pause before further unnecessary depictions are foisted on us. Six seasons in, this audience knows enough not to need explicit or gratuitous attacks; we’re grown enough to infer. More importantly, the writer’s tease about Sansa’s importance and her overall arc give us hope we’ll see more of that gloriously transformed elder Stark sister we first met in “The Mountain and the Viper.”
Now, if Daenerys can just get through that surrounded-by-Dothraki scene unscathed, we’ll be able to sleep through the night.
Game of Thrones’ Season 5 on Blu-Ray and DVD is out March 15th, Season 6 returns April 24th.