Recap Digest: Game of Thrones 5.6, "Unbent, Unbowed, Unbroken"

May 18, 2015 by Alex Castle

Last night’s was a particularly eventful episode of Game of Thrones, particularly compared with last week’s outing. So much happened that it was hard to keep it all straight:

The Slave Formerly Known As Theon was forced to watch as Sansa, a girl he was raised with as ward to her father, is brutally raped by her new husband, Ramsay Bolton. We can only hope that the trauma of this event will wake Theon from his Reek reverie and move him to help Sansa take down the Boltons, maybe by undermining them from within when Stannis arrives.

As the Sparrows continue their inquisition into Loras' sexual proclivities, Queen Margaery is asked to testify about whether she’s ever known her brother to lie with another man. Her denial is quickly contradicted by one of Loras' lovers, who offers the location of a telltale birthmark. Before you know it, Margaery is being taken into prison, Tommen’s eyes are helplessly widening, and Cersei is into her fourth glass of wine of the afternoon.

While trying to take a Martell-smitten Myrcella back to King’s Landing, Bronn and Jaime are attacked by the Sand Snakes, a group of female commandos looking to punish the crown for Oberyn’s death, and then the whole lot of them are captured by the Dornish army.

Jorah and Tyrion are captured by a group of slavers, who first intend to kill them. Tyrion’s fast talking earns them a trip back to Meereen, so that Jorah can prove his mettle in the recently re-opened fighting pits, and so the slavers can find someone to buy Tyrion’s magic manhood. Meereen: Come for the bloodsport, stay for the severed genitalia!

Arya’s training continues as she works toward the rather nebulous goal of “becoming no one” – she learns to lie and poisons (really euthanizes) a little girl, and is rewarded for her efforts with the promise that she will get new face. I must admit I don’t quite understand Arya’s burning desire to be No One.

And finally, Littlefinger promises Cersei that the Knights of the Vale will defend King’s Landing when Stannis attacks, in exchange for being named Warden of North, in a total betrayal of Sansa that can be surprising to no one who knows Littlefinger at all. As far as Sansa has come, as much as she’s grown, she still fell for the old “Marry into the family that slaughtered your family and took over your hometown so that when the rightful successor to the throne attacks and moves on to King’s Landing he will install you as Wardeness of the North.” Oldest trick in the book!

Vanity Fair’s Joanna Robinson pushes back against the Sansa rape scene:

I’d never advocate that Game of Thrones (or any work of fiction) shy away from edgy plots out of fear of pushback or controversy. But edgy plots should always accomplish something above pure titillation or shock value and what, exactly, was accomplished here? Allen said in an interview that this story would position Ramsay as “the new Joffrey in town, and then probably me followed closely after that.” But haven’t we had ample time to understand the depths of Ramsay’s depravity? If, best case scenario, Sansa and Theon (and probably Brienne and Pod) band together to take down Ramsay over the next few episodes, did we really need this rape scene to drive that engine? I think most audiences would have been happy with Sansa as avenging angel without subjecting her to a rape. After all, these are the people who killed her family.

We know that Sansa was horrified at first to go into enemy camp when Littlefinger proposed they return to Winterfell. But she later stiffened her spine and resolved to go along with his plan. She likely expected some unpleasantness from her association but, based on how Turner played the scene two weeks ago, it seemed as though Sansa believed Littlefinger when he told her she had Ramsay wrapped around her finger. (There’s a special hell reserved for Littlefinger in all this.) So whatever horrors Sansa Stark of Winterfell was prepared to face in order to avenge her family, we can safely assume that this wasn’t one of them. An unpleasant wedding night was in the cards—she told Littlefinger she’d be a married woman when she returned—but not even goth Sansa could have seen this dress-ripping, Reek-watching indignity coming.

Even worse than the idea of Sansa needing this to motivate her into vengeance is the notion that the Theon character needed to watch her rape in order to snap out of whatever zombie/Reek fugue state he’s been walking around in. I’m afraid that is the show’s interpretation, based on where the camera lingered. But the last thing we needed was to have a powerful young woman brought low in order for a male character to find redemption. No thank you.

Calling the episode “easily the weakest of the season,” Grantland’s Andy Greenwald piles on:

Thank goodness at least for the return of Diana Rigg’s Lady Olenna Tyrell. No, she was unable to talk sense into the completely over-her-head Cersei. But at least she could talk! I love the way Cersei, like all bullies — be they physical, verbal, or merely wine-brave — can dish it out but is completely unable to take it. Is an old lady calling you a tart really worth going to war over? And so what if Olenna saw through your shoddy Dad-imitation? Scribbling at a desk doesn’t make someone Tywin any more than speaking in a British accent makes me Madonna. Under Olenna’s withering glare, Cersei’s entire scheme was reduced to a Family Circus gag. Was it any surprise that Loras and Margaery ended the hour in chains? No, really: Was it any surprise at all? This is another plotline that feels scrunched and rushed. Like Bronn’s dirty song, it’s more about the end than the middle.

But then we reach the finale of the episode and are left to wonder if Bronn, and really everyone involved here, ought to be a little less enamored with boffo conclusions. That Sansa was willing to transform her role in the Game of Thrones from bystander to tragedy to full-on victim of it was clear enough. She had said as much to Littlefinger and did seem to be no longer merely resigned to her fate. After all, she was in her home (or what’s left of it), and, in the buildup to her second nightmare wedding, she flashed Myranda with a bit of her parents’ imperious spunk when she refused to cower at the telling of Ramsay’s horrific exploits. Despite the context in which she repeatedly finds herself, Sansa in Season 5 is more than just a regal pawn. She’s a living embodiment of the North, where the motto is about remembering — which is really a nice way of saying they’ve learned the hard way how to endure a lot of awful s—.

But I don’t think there’s really any storytelling acrobatics that can forgive what happened next, particularly when it all seems so clear where it’s going. Or was that itself the trick? That instead of giving the audience the sight of what we’ve long wanted and expected — Reek reclaiming his essentially not-terrible Theon-ness by stabbing Ramsay in the throat — we were given something not needed at all? Sansa’s anguished screaming as she was violently assaulted by her new husband was hideous, full stop. But it was almost worse the way Jeremy Podeswa’s camera lingered on Alfie Allen’s tear-filled eyes, as if his violation was somehow equal to Sansa’s; as if this disgusting act was somehow part of Theon’s long and ugly path to redemption, not a brutal and unwarranted violation. Five seasons in, Game of Thrones is long past the point of earning gold stars simply by showing us the worst possible thing. There’s a fine line between exposing the dirty truth of the world and wallowing in it.

Vulture’s Nina Shen Rastogi makes it a threesome:

When Ramsay leads Sansa into a bedchamber — filled, like the Hall of Faces, with candles — and asks if she’s a virgin, you know where things are going. When he tells her, almost gently, to take off her clothes, the knife twists a little further. When he commands Reek to stay and watch, it just gets to be too much. Yes, Ramsay rapes Sansa on their wedding night, and it’s vile. It’s repulsive on a character level, naturally: Ramsay is a villain, and a savage and inelegant one at that.

But it also feels hateful on a narrative level. It’s cruel to strip Sansa of the agency she’s been accruing so painstakingly, but to do so by literally stripping her is so cheap, such an obvious choice, I felt offended as a fan. And if this means Sansa loses all her momentum, which has brought such a fresh energy to the show’s plot — I’ll be mad as a fan, not just as a feminist. I suppose this is what rape is: a blunt way of taking a woman’s selfhood. But if it’s going to be used as a plot point, I want it wielded more intelligently, with more care, and especially from a show that has proved it can do graphic violence so hauntingly. To show Sansa being raped as the kicker to an episode — and then to cut to Theon, as if it’s his view, his reaction, his internalizing of the moment that matters — just felt like more of the same old same old we’ve been getting since Ros died, since Tansy was hunted, since Cersei was raped.

The A.V. Club’s Erik Adams zeroes in on dishonesty as the episode’s theme:

A Game Of Thrones character telling a fib isn’t front page news, but “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken” stands out based on the sheer volume of lies told and variety of whom they’re told to. There are lies that save their necks, like the slightly embellished account Tyrion gives of Jorah’s heroic deeds—none of which sink in as deeply as the incredible true story of Mormont Vs. Qotho. There are lies that lead characters to the next step in their journey, as with the comforting words Arya offers to the sick girl in the House of Black and White. There are even lies that go unspoken because their consequences have proven so dire: Theon didn’t kill Bran and Rickon, but pretending like he did kicked off the chain reaction that took him from Prince of Winterfell to House Bolton torture puppet. Coming clean to Sansa would thaw the chill that now exists between the surrogate siblings, but it would also mean reliving a gauntlet of physical and emotional pain.

Both types of pain are familiar to the Stark girls; what’s interesting about Arya’s current arc is that it invites her to channel the losses she’s experienced into the experience of complete strangers. There’s still so much about the House of Black and White and the Faceless Men that’s unknown to us, but “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken” provides a tantalizing look at their methods. Curious about the corpses she’s shown meticulously cleansing (in ways that are eerily echoed by Sansa’s pre-wedding bath), Arya pushes The Waif for more information. She counters with a story that’s similar to Arya’s: Daughter of a noble, dead mother, mistreatment at the hands of other nobles, assistance from the Faceless Men. Once she’s finished, she puts this question to Arya and the viewers: “Was that true or a lie?” The answer isn’t really important—what’s important is that she told the story so convincingly that it could go either way.

But this also exposes the shortcomings of lying as a narrative device, because while it’s one thing to be a Faceless Man, it’s an entirely different thing to be a man of as many faces as Petyr Baelish. Westeros’ ultimate schemer returns to King’s Landing this week to relay information that Cersei finds too good to believe: Sansa Stark is alive, living in Winterfell, and promised to Roose Bolton’s newly legitimized son. As we’re helpfully reminded, Cersei once tasked Littlefinger with locating Arya, so this report is partially meant to compensate for a failure. It’s also setup for the latest Baelish power grab: If the Vale remains loyal to the crown and seizes Winterfell from whatever depleted army wins the pending Baratheon-Bolton bloodbath, Baelish will be named warden of the North.

Rolling Stone’s Sean T. Collins looks at the emphasis the episode puts on faces:

What’s in a face? To Jaqen H'ghar, the Faceless Man, the answer is: everything. When he takes his young pupil Arya Stark into the cavernous crypt where his order of assassins houses the flayed human countenances they use to become other people, he rattles off the features she must be prepared to sacrifice to become “no one.” Eyes, ears, lips, tongue, voice — “All that makes a girl who she is, forever.”

Faces tell so much of the story in “Unbent, Unbowed, Unbroken,” tonight’s mystical and comical and ultimately brutal episode of Game of Thrones, that Jaqen would surely approve. All that makes these characters who they are is communicated by a glint in their eyes, a tremor in their cheeks, a tug up or down at the corner of their mouths. And whether you want to see what’s there or not, it’s hard to look away.

Unsurprisingly, Jaqen himself can read faces like a book. When he interrogates Arya to see if she’s prepared to leave her old self behind, he’s so good at recognizing her tells that he detects a lie she doesn’t even realize she’s telling: She hated the Hound. Sandor Clegane was just the latest and greatest of the series of surrogate warrior-fathers with whom the Stark girl formed attachments, but it’s clear she’s not ready to examine what this says about the severity of her loss. “I’m not playing this stupid game anymore!” she shouts. “We never stop playing,” H'ghar replies, in what could well be the motto of the entire show.

And in an additional post for Vanity Fair, Joanna Robinson worries that a fan favorite character may be circling the drain after the fight in Dorne:

That dagger was likely poisoned and this could be the end of Ser Bronn of the Blackwater.

How do we know the dagger was poisoned? Well, in the context of the show, we know that Oberyn Martell was a dab hand at poisons. In last season’s episode “Breaker of Chains” Tywin tells Oberyn “I hear you studied poisoned at the citadel” and in the Season 4 finale, “The Children,” it’s clear that Oberyn dipped his spear in poison when fighting The Mountain. That’s why he’s called the Red Viper of Dorne, you see, he sticks them with those venomous, pointy ends.

Back to What's On