June 15, 2015

Patriarchy and Vengeance: Sansa, Arya and Cersei in “Game of Thrones” season 5

Posted in Pop Culture at 11:00 pm by chavalah

Sansa Stark in the crypts of Winterfell

Sansa Stark in the crypts of Winterfell

Sansa Stark is no superhero. Leave that to the one-dimensional Sand Snakes, who presumably fulfilled their dark mission to avenge Oberyn by assisting in the murder of an innocent girl. From the end of season four, when Sansa walked down to meet Littlefinger in that ridiculous, feathered dress, fans entertained notions about how dark she might go to meet her own ends. But Sansa’s personality didn’t do a 180 as quickly as did her wardrobe and hair color. She remained more complicated.

The eldest living Stark child had always gravitated towards the life of a Westerosi lady. As a highborn woman in Westeros, the only real way to get ahead is through marriage. Littlefinger offers Sansa the chance to do what all Stark enthusiasts hunger for—the chance to put the family back on the map. Vengeance comes in many forms, however. One can make a list of people to kill, then proceed in taking them out, or, like Sansa decides to do, one can bide one’s time. If Stannis is to win his battle with the Boltons, he might name her Wardeness of the North, particularly on the strength of her father’s name in that region. If the Boltons are to win, Sansa could secure her legacy to the north by her marriage to Ramsay Bolton, a man she does not truly know until it is too late.

The concept of “home” has always been integral to Sansa’s narrative both in the books and on the show. “Please, let me go home,” she begs Joffrey after her father is killed. At that time they are still betrothed, but once he dumps her for Margaery, Sansa is naïve enough to hope again. “You mean he won’t let me go home?” she asks Littlefinger at the end of season two. When Baelish finally squirrels her away in season four, she builds a replica of Winterfell in the snow. Finally, this season, back in her family’s stronghold, she’s able to draw some strength. She lights the candles for her ancestors, and makes it plain to the Boltons that they are the outsiders here. “I’m Sansa Stark of Winterfell; this is my home and you can’t frighten me,” she tells Myranda, after correctly reading the other girl’s jealousy and territorial attitude over Ramsay.

So many stories deal with the truth that in the aftermath of huge life changes, the protagonists can’t really “go home” again; they are too changed by their experiences. “Game of Thrones” ups the ante in a brutal way. Sansa’s trauma is not a thing of the past; it only gets worse, where she is repeatedly raped in her childhood home. This was a place where she had been beloved. “I grew up in the shadow of her father’s castle,” Ros tells Shae, back in season three. “The day she was born, they rang the bells from sunrise to sunset.” Quite a harrowing fall from grace.

Sansa’s rape—at least the first one, to which we are privy—is arguably the most controversial scene in the show to date. (And sheesh, I kinda thought I wouldn’t be writing that again after Cersei’s rape last season.) Part of the quandary with that scene is that Ramsay’s role isn’t easily defined—is he a psychopath, even according to the mores of Westeros, or is he just a man demanding his due in a society that doesn’t recognize marital rape? If the former, the audience is already aware of that fact; listening to Sansa moan in pain as he assaults her is superfluous. The latter carries more narrative merit within the entire context of the show. Some people like to argue over how true Westeros is to medieval history, but I see it as more of a commentary on violent patriarchy, and the bigotry, chiefly misogyny, that it breeds.

I accept that the rape scene was inevitable within the narrative of the show, but I think the execution was botched. We didn’t need to see the whole thing (at least then we could have avoided the argument about whether the scene should have ended on Theon’s or Sansa’s face if we cut to black after Ramsay rips her dress…and I also wish the scene didn’t end the episode, as if placed there for shock value.) Patriarchy breeds violence towards women in Westeros, and we got a far less muddled portrayal of that in Cersei’s walk of shame from the final episode of the season. Cousin Lancel, who is complicit in the same crime, gets off the hook while the Queen Mother has to stumble, naked through King’s Landing, with the people yelling gendered insults and pelting her with filth. I imagine Lena Headey’s shuddering performance of this woman—this oft-villainous woman—being stripped of basic human decency will win her a few acting nominations. She was incredible.

Many people want justice for Sansa—for Ramsay to die, and for the history of his sexual assaults to play a major part. The other controversial issue this season, that of Shireen’s burning by her father, ended on such a note. Instead of ensuring total victory, Stannis’s forces desert him, the rest of his nearest and dearest abandon him in various ways, and he loses his battle against the Boltons. When Brienne comes to seek justice for Renly’s assassination in season two, it’s like coming full circle. Stannis used blood magic to murder his own family members, and it’s only led to his ruin. Surely we want something that harrowing for Ramsay. Though, unlike Stannis, since he’d devoid of any empathy towards others, perhaps we’ll just see him die a painful death.

It’s imperative for a show to focus on well-defined characters, which is the reason why I ultimately support moving Sansa’s story to Winterfell. Although still safely ensconced in the Eyrie in the books, the show brings her into direct contact with her goals—and with those standing in the way of them. I admit, the scene where Ramsay shows her the flayed body of her “northern friend” is wearily similar to season one when Joffrey shows her the heads of Ned and her septa. But I think it’s unfair to claim she hasn’t grown as a character overall, and that she’s just repeating the same victimized steps. Unlike Jeyne, Sansa’s counterpart in the novels, Lady Stark isn’t just present to be a stepping stone in a man’s story. She’s the damsel in the tower, but this time she gets herself out by her own cunning and intuition. Theon doesn’t save her—it’s more the other way around. Then they both get to be active participants in redeeming themselves from Ramsay’s sexual abuse. “I know what Ramsay is,” Sansa is ultimately able to tell Myranda. “I know what he’ll do to me. If I’m going to die, let it be while there’s still some of me left.” (Sidenote about Westerosi patriarchy that Myranda mentions—a woman can be reduced to the body parts needed to produce sons.) The camera pans to Theon, the man the Bolton heir has forced into the creature, Reek. But it turns out there’s still enough Theon left to reclaim his humanity.

But “Reek” doesn’t—and can’t—reclaim his identity on his own. This only happens through Sansa finally siezing what she came to Winterfell to do—to avenge her family. She demands accountability for Theon’s actions against the Starks in this, my favorite scene of the season. In doing so, she receives an unexpected gift—she learns that two of her brothers are still alive. This refocuses Sansa’s perspective, and is one of several goal posts that this usually bleak series puts in place to tell us that her fate extends beyond the sadistic whims of such characters as Joffrey and Ramsay. The other major hints come with Brienne, who doggedly tracks Lady Stark and devotes herself to the girl’s care. I got rather teary at this scene, between Brienne and the northern man outside of Winterfell. Catelyn Stark has been dead for years, but when Brienne says “I serve her still,” it’s more of a testament to the late woman’s legacy than Lady Stoneheart could ever be.

The traditional form of violent vengeance that Lady Stonheart from the books espouses is probably best realized on the show by Arya. Like last year, the Stark girls parallel each other, this time by being placed in sexual positions with people who’ve wronged them, but they diverge from there. This might be my favorite Maisie Williams performance to date, as she embraces Arya’s harrowing sense of mind. I have no sympathy for Meryn Trant, whose defining attribute is getting off on hurting little girls, but as Arya slowly tortures him, I have to wonder at her own psychological well-being. The Faceless Men are almost like an allegory for what’s become of the youngest female Stark, especially in the books where she keeps adding names to her list. Her life is now defined by killing people, to satiate the never-satisfied god of vengeance.

Of course, the Faceless Men are more than just an allegory; they’re a physical—and philosophical—institution to which Arya has pledged her service. And their definition of being “no one” is far different than hers. “No one” is basically a lower-than-dirt punishment that Arya Stark inflicts upon Meryn Trant, but to the Faceless Men, “no one” is a heightened state of being. I’m very fond of the idea that “Jaqen” is not “Jaqen” at all; that Arya met different people in seasons two and five, and yet they are the same because neither have a true identity, or a true face. The ultimate goal of the Faceless Men is to give up all personal desires, relationships and agency—to be mere scepters in service of a higher purpose. Out of all the religious orders in this series, the Faceless Men are perhaps the most terrifying to me—in line with the enslaved Unsullied forces, conditioned to be killing machines who feel no pain; or even the zombie-like wights, servants of the White Walkers. I’ve rambled on for quite awhile now, but I expect to touch upon religion in “Game of Thrones”/ASOIAF quite soon.

A final note on the rape—perhaps I’m being too optimistic, but I hope there’s some more aftermath. Just like Tyrion is haunted by his killing of Shae, to the point that he can’t even psyche himself up for sex after her demise, Sansa’s trauma should have an impact on her future as well. To wit, I hope it leads to a confrontation with Littlefinger, considering their own complicated and sexualized history. She’s asserted her power against him before; maybe that can continue into the coming seasons. Littlefinger has desires for her…but Sansa is only growing stronger in defining her own path. A girl can only hope.



  1. […] affairs as a woman. Both go against the tenants of the Faith, and both are threatening to Westerosi patriarchy, where heteronormative male behavior and dominance is held sacrosanct. Homophobia and sexism tend to […]

  2. […] When last we left these three ladies, they were in precarious positions. Cersei was confined to the Red Keep after enduring a venomous walk of shame. Sansa jumped from the Winterfell ramparts into uncertain safety in order to escape her abusive husband. Arya ended up blind after using a face while she was still “someone.” […]

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