Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Benioff And Weiss Are All That Is Wrong With This World

There is simply no point trying to put together a post on this week's Game of Thrones without dealing first with that scene. It would be nice to think that doing so would allow me to excise it from the text, like a tumour from an otherwise healthy body. I know that's not going to work, of course. If it is a tumour, it's a malignant one, one that will grow back, shooting out tendrils of corruption that ultimately will forever suffuse this episode, and this season, and this show. Treatment is now impossible; the show has an irreversible chronic condition and the best we can say is that it might not kill it. If, indeed, it's still reasonable to hope the show survives at all.

So this post isn't intended to draw a line under what just happened. It's simply necessary for me to write it so my thoughts on any other aspect of "Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken" can feel like there is any need for them to exist.

Huge TV spoilers below, obviously. And a trigger warning for sexual assault and sexual violence. Much of what follows has been influenced by my conversation with @la_jellybean and @GeekPlanetDave, though if any of what's written here bothers you, I am entirely to blame.

There are two distinct questions regarding the rape of Sansa Stark that I think we need to separate immediately. The first is what justification exists for the act to take place at all within the show's story.  The second is what justification exists for the scene to have been shot the way it was. I think this is a sensible separation in any case, but I particularly think it useful because a very common word being used to describe the scene is "gratuitous", and I want to distinguish between a gratuitous plot and a gratuitous shot.

The second consideration is the most easily dispatched. The three most frequent objections to the scene's construction that I've read is that a) the viewers could have been assumed to know what Sansa's wedding night would have to entail without experiencing any part of it, b) the focus on Theon's face made the scene about his trauma rather than Sansa's, and c) Sansa's cries of discomfort and distress (a phrase I can't write without feeling nauseous) were totally unnecessary. The charge of "gratuitousness" corresponds to the first and third objection, but let me get the second out of the way first. I fully understand and sympathise with those arguing that by focussing on Alfie Allen's face the scene became about his discomfort and not Sansa's. That's a perfectly valid reading. That said, I think there's a more plausible reading, which is that Theon is standing in for the audience here, an actual witness to what we, thank the Seven, never had to see.  His horror mirrors our own. In a show that has - fairly - been accused of not realising how horrific its use of sexual assault has been in the past, this is a clear sign that this time, the show knows exactly how terrible this situation is. We are all Theon, helpless to watch as someone we have known for years - perhaps even come to love - goes through unimaginable torment.

Those horrible cries that Sansa makes (and holy hell, does Sophie Turner do well here) are further proof of this.  It's a strange argument that says this scene becomes about Theon because we see him whilst we "only" hear her. Or perhaps it isn't strange, because we've been trained to think that what the camera actually shows is the most important part of a scene. But that isn't a universal truth, and I don't believe it applies here. We hear Sansa precisely because it would be too overwhelmingly horrible to see her. We focus on Theon because we need some context for what we are hearing. TO be clear, I'm not arguing here with anyone whose problem is that the scene gives equal importance to the victim and the viewer (though again, when the role of viewer includes us the maths changes somewhat, I think), but arguing Theon is given more weight than Sansa strikes me as not right.  Especially since as many have pointed out Theon is not intended to be a particularly sympathetic character. Those people then go on to argue this shows focusing on Theon's discomfort is a particularly bad idea, rather than wondering whether that suggests we look at Theon for some reason other than being expected to sympathise with him.

(Of course, this is all subject to change as later episodes are broadcast. Some are concerned this represents a fulcrum point for Theon, when he goes from brutalised former villain to unlikely hero and rescuer. I am in absolute agreement that if this plot becomes about how Theon rescues Sansa rather than her rescuing herself, it's a fucking awful way to go. I will burn the internet down in rage myself.)

This leads me onto point c) above: I'm not inclined to think the fact that Sansa is audibly in distress is gratuitous; it's a necessary counterbalance to the lingering shot on Theon's face. Again, once the show-runners decided this scene needed to exist, this method of doing it strikes me as making sense. I've spoken to others though who take the position that Sansa's body language and whimpers combine to make her seem less strong and determined than she had earlier in the episode, to wind back her character clock, so to speak. This can be partially countered by pointing out it's been a long time since Sansa's interior and exterior states have matched up, but it isn't a strong counter, because as @la_jellybean pointed out to me; if your scene can only work if your character is thinking something you can't show, you shouldn't do the scene.  But in actual fact I think the show did everything it could to imply what Sansa's interior state was at that point. I'll come back to that later, but for now I'll just reiterate that I think once the decision is made to feature the rape, doing it soundlessly would have its own problems.

So I don't have a problem with either the shot on Theon's face or the failure of the audio track to cut out a little earlier (or not a moral problem, at least, on an emotional level I want the whole episode scrubbed from my mind). That still leaves us with the biggest question about the scene: why shoot it at all?

Here I am firmly in the "leave it implicit" camp.  If I can be permitted the smallest of spoilers about next week's episode, I have seen stills showing Sansa sporting a bruise and a cut on her face. That to me suggests "The Gift" will make it clear what happened at the end of this episode. So why actually show it in the first place? If everyone is going to understand what happened on the wedding night, what possible story service is performed by filming even part of it? I should note here that some people, such as Amanda Marcotte (a woman whose approach to feminism I'm genuinely fully on board with) are insistent that this was a sensible decision, a refusal to cut away from the facts of women's lives in the world of Westeros.

In broad strokes, I'd be inclined to agree here. It's important to show that the stuff we might find cool about the show - sword fights, scheming despots, outrageously awesome castles and costumes, ubiquitous fucking, more sword fights - come about directly or indirectly as a result of a society that is grotesquely weighted against women and the poor. The books are all about condemning that sort of society, and in order to condemn something, you have to show it. In this specific case though I can't sign up to Marcotte's argument because the viewers are sufficiently aware of how bad Westeros and Essos are as places for women to be.  That's been made abundantly clear from the very first episode, in which Danaerys Targaryan was raped by her new husband. You could perhaps make the case that as long as we continue to enjoy the cool bits we need to be periodically reminded the cost of those moments of awesome is still ongoing, but that's an approach you can take too far, and this would be a prime example. 

(Though even then, if you wanted to argue there is some benefit to reminding people that these horrific things can happen even to the people you love, then fair point.   One of the biggest problems society in general has is people's inability to extrapolate the way specific tragedies have hurt them or their loved ones to the more general case. One of the most interesting comments I've seen about this scene is that had the original book plot been followed and Jeyne Poole had married Reek instead of Sansa, and had their wedding night been shown in the way it was here, many of us - rightly or wrongly might be talking about how the show has markedly improved its depiction of and attitude to sexual violence since last season. I know for me at least a big part of why Sansa's rape feels so much worse than Dany's is that I was so much more invested in the character Sophie Turner was playing than I was that of Emilia Clarke's at the time. Knowing Dany and Drogo turn out OK in the end probably helps here too.  My point is not that extreme reactions to this week's final scene are unreasonable, I'm just saying that of the two scenes, it is probably Dany's that has the greatest arguments in favour of it never having been filmed.)

I should note however Marcotte's argument strikes me as being more plausible when applied to whether the wedding night needed to happen, though, rather than whether it needed to be shown.  Indeed, it's possible I'm misinterpreting her here, and she too is in the "tell don't show" camp, though the tweet below makes me doubt that.

Either way, let's move on from how the scene was shot and whether it should exist at all, and into what justification there is for the plot existing in the first place.

Let me start off by saying: fuck victim-blamers. A lot of Marcotte's shade over the reaction to the scene is motivated by the sheer number of idiots insisting that Sansa should've fought back.  You know the kind of bullshit I'm talking about. "I'd have stolen a knife at dinner and then STABBED Ramsay!"  "I'd have taken off my dress and then used it to THROTTLE Ramsay!".  Why didn't Sansa do either of these things? Because they are fucking stupid ideas. Sansa may be home, but the castle is stuffed with Bolton men, some of whom will specifically have the job of guarding Ramsay; any attempts on his life will mean having to overpower him, Theon, and who knows how many nearby soldiers. Even if she somehow kills Ramsay (and if she fails to do that, she knows she could well be flayed) somehow stops Theon raising the alarm (which will get her caught, and probably flayed) and gets out of a castle she once knew intimately but has now been rebuilt with who knows how many changes, she'll be alone in a harsh northern environment with winter coming on, being chased by the Warden of the North and a pack of hunting dogs so terrifying even Yara Greyjoy didn't want to tangle with them (and once they sniff her out, it might well be flaying time).  I'm not saying it definitely isn't worth the risk, but you can go straight to hell if you so much a imply it definitely was.

This is perhaps part of what Marcotte is getting at, actually. You can't blame Sansa for not making a bid for freedom without attacking women throughout the ages who have made the conscious decision to not fight men they don't want to have sex with. Trying to come up with scenarios by which she might have been able to escape is to refuse to deal with the reality of why some rape survivors chose to not fight their attackers. "I wouldn't let it happen to me" is just one more way of minimising a problem which is as deep-rooted and commonplace as it is horrifying.

Besides, there was a much more obvious alternate escape route for Sansa, and it's this that most strongly makes me feel that this plot was about as well executed as it could be, however poorly it was conceived. Sansa has explicitly been offered help by the loyalist northerners. And yet she turned that help down, as far as I can tell.  There was no visit to the Broken Tower to light a candle. Sansa could have aborted whatever plans she had and fled, but she didn't.  That's a remarkable act of courage on her part, courage demonstrated even more clearly when she told Myranda she didn't have the slightest interest in anything she was saying. Sansa has come a long way from the lovesick young teenager she was when she met Joffrey, to the point where she is willing to allow herself to be subjected to being brutalised in order to get what's important to her.  This is what I mean when I say Sansa's interior state is heavily implied when she enters the bedchamber. She's absolutely, clearly terrified, but she walks in there anyway.  She doesn't have to; we know she could have escaped by now.  But instead she chooses to undergo a horrific and traumatic experience, because that is what it's going to take.

So, no.  This wasn't a gratuitous plot point. I think it is a character moment, not because I'm falling for the bullshit idea (which @la_jellybean reminded is seemingly ubiquitous) that rape is somehow character development, but because knowing something is coming and that it will be fucking horrendous but deciding to do it anyway shows strength and steel unimaginable to almost anybody. To see the weapons of the enemy and to decide to suffer their blows because it will weaken them more than you will allow it to weaken you is everything Sansa's long, uncomfortable character arc has been about. To see what lies in wait for a young pretty noble woman in this seven kingdoms of shit and semen and then choose to embrace it is to... is to...

And here of course it all comes crashing down. Where the best possible defence for this scene is smashed against the rocks.  Not the rocks of Westeros. The rocks we have here. There is no way to commit fully to the idea that this scene demonstrates Sansa's strength without having to argue that she is complicit in her own rape. And you can't do that. Not with the world the way it is. Not with rape culture infecting everyone and everything. Not in a world where far too many people who watch this show and who made this show want to argue it isn't rape if she eventually stops struggling. There may be a stage of cultural evolution at which we could consider what it means for a woman to voluntarily place herself in a situation her right to consent cannot possibly be respected.  We are not at that place. Not by a long way. And if we were, we wouldn't want Benioff and Weiss within a thousand miles of being the people to write about the after-effects.

It's for this reason that I am as against what the show did this week as I am. Not because it is was gratuitous. Because it revolves around a question that shouldn't be asked, and which is going to be tackled by those who have repeatedly demonstrated are not capable of giving the answer. There were any number of alternate ways the episode could demonstrate Sansa's willingness to suffer through horrific experiences which would have been less appalling (Phil Sandifer's idea of forcing Sansa to help him flay someone is a really good one), but this is the one they chose.  I'm sure they told themselves it was the most powerful.  But it wasn't. It was the most obvious.  And so the show based on books that made a name for themselves precisely because narrative cliche was subverted at every turn finally decides that it wasn't the surprise that was important, it was the brutality.

Season five: absolutely gods-fucking awful in exactly the way you'd expect. A rather disappointing tag-line for the year, I'm sure Benioff and Weiss would agree.  But if they want to complain about how this year's season hasn't had the results they were hoping for, they're going to have to join the queue at the end of a very, very long line.


darkman said...

" Knowing Dany and Drogo turn out OK in the end probably helps here too."

The fuck? Developing a Stockholm syndrome is not the definition of "turning out ok". In fact, Daenarys asking how she can please her rapist sexually is one of the biggest issues I have with the first season.

On the plus side Simon Adebisi apparently had a Valyrian forefather.

SpaceSquid said...

I'm entirely with you on the Doreah thing (though it makes sense both from Dany's perspective and for her overall arc), but I absolutely don't see where Dany and Drogo end up as being rooted in Stockholm Syndrome. I can't possibly speak on the subject with any authority, I acknowledge, but Dany's first season plot is so completely about starting a victim and learning how to grasp her own power that ascribing her love for Drogo as an attempt to manufacture power where none exists simply doesn't fit.

I'm also uncomfortable with the implication that arranged marriages can only turn out involving mutual love because of a single psychological condition, because it takes all the complexity of human interaction and collapses it into a one-size-fits-all approach that ignores the actual people involved. I mean sure, arranged marriage = bad, clearly. But if a story is going to explore a society where such marriages are the norm, I'm not sure how "all husbands are rapists" is a useful stance, for all that I agree that it is true.

Unless there is something very particular about the Dany/Drogo dynamic that you're referring to and I've missed, of course. The only difference I see between them and, say, Ned and Cat is that we actually have to see the ugly results of what this society requires here.

darkman said...

" I'm not sure how "all husbands are rapists" is a useful stance, for all that I agree that it is true."

In the case of Drogo it absolutely fits though. He rapes Daenarys and he rapes the women he comes across in the villages he raids.

Having a rape victim fall in love her rapists is shitty writing.

Dan said...

I'm not sure something can be described as "shitty writing" just because the author decides to depict a scenario / characters / world / society (take your pick) you disagree with.

In respect of the Drogo / Daenarys thing, I had a similar thought in that I think their interaction is a much worse depiction than that of Ramsey / Sansa - although possibly for different reasons. My main thing is that Ramsey is basically an unlikeable / evil / classic villain type character. We are introduced to him in the show as such and he continues throughout as being a right evil bastard (literally). As such the sense when seeing Sansa's "wedding night" is that much worse as it is clearly a highly horrific event - but the positive side (such that it is) is that there is no chance of the audience relating to, liking, or wanting to be like the perpetrator.

With Drogo however - he is basically "cool". He is the ultimate Dothraki badass - commands an army of thousands, is the ultimate warrior, gets to do whatever he wants, respected by all - And he is established as having a well defined code of honour, and ultimately I think most of the audience get to like him as a character. So the fact that he does exactly the same thing as Ramsey, is surely much worse, as in his case he is not an unlikeable sod, but someone a large chunk of the audience can get behind and support - It's even worse if you know what's coming as your notion that " Knowing Dany and Drogo turn out OK in the end probably helps here too." - is surely even more dangerous - basically it's drifting into the realm of, well actually what he did was't that bad - because you know it all turned out in the end, and he was cool.

Surely anything that ultimately suggests that sort of behaviour is all fine and dandy - by way of it being performed by a likeable character, is way worse than at least having it done by an utterly despicable one.

darkman said...

"I'm not sure something can be described as "shitty writing" just because the author decides to depict a scenario / characters / world / society (take your pick) you disagree with."
Okay, let me rephrase it: The way Daenarys is portrayed as going from being raped to actively trying to seduce her rapist is shittily written. The writers doesn't give Daenarys any motivation for why she should do this or at least any convincing reasons. To be fair it's even worse in the book. I'm not against writers depicting scenarios I disagree with but I'm against them doing it poorly.

"With Drogo however - he is basically "cool". He is the ultimate Dothraki badass - commands an army of thousands, is the ultimate warrior, gets to do whatever he wants, respected by all - And he is established as having a well defined code of honour, and ultimately I think most of the audience get to like him as a character. So the fact that he does exactly the same thing as Ramsey, is surely much worse[...]"
So basically we agree, Drogo was piece of shit and got what he deserved.