Game of Thrones Recap: I Am Sansa Stark

Photo: HBO
Game of Thrones
Episode Title
Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken
Editor’s Rating

The Stark sisters bookended last night’s Game of Thrones and were given the most compelling moments of the hour (more or less — more on that in a bit). Each girl crosses a threshold, their scenes linked through key motifs: gentle ministrations on a naked body, mind games, rooms full of candles. One is losing her name but gaining her power, while the other gains a name but loses something even more precious.

We open on Arya, slowly washing a corpse in the House of Black and White. The first few moments are all close-ups of her hands and small stretches of flesh; her movements are delicate and deliberate. Water is wrung into a bowl from freshly washed hair. The shots here reminded me of Vermeer’s quiet, contemplative paintings of women in small rooms, attending to their work. (I don’t know much about art history, but I do know the GoT designers modeled Braavos after the Dutch Golden Age.) It’s like a rather icky tea ceremony.

Arya may be learning to be quiet and still, like a Faceless Man — just as she once learned to flow like a water dancer — but she hasn’t fully shed her characteristic Arya-ness. She tries to find out what’s behind Door No. 1 — the one the bodies leave from — and is rebuffed by the smug, pale acolyte with Lancel’s old haircut. Frustrated, Arya tries to engage the girl (called “the Waif” in show credits) in the Game of Faces, but the Waif tells her she already tried and failed. When she asks where the girl is from and how she got here, the Waif seems to soften, telling her that she was once the daughter of a Westerosi lord, “just like you,” whose stepmother tried to poison her. She looks away, remembering the pain, but smiles a little, conspiratorially, as she tells Arya how she went to the Faceless Men for help “and my father was widowed again.” Arya cracks a little grin in return.

Arya, ya got FACED!

Apparently the House of Black and White is like summer camp, where you get hazed via a really rough version of Two Truths and a Lie. Just like the last time, Arya didn’t even know she was playing the Game of Faces. But she’s starting to pick up the rules by the time Not-Jaqen visits her at night, with a rod. She recites her history for him, planting little lies (her father was beheaded, he didn’t die in battle; she stabbed the stable boy in the belly, not the back). She invites a beating each time she’s caught in a lie, but she’s learning. Not-Jaqen apparently knows her better than she does herself, though, because he beats her when she says she hated the Hound and even more viciously when she swears she wants to “be no one” — words she fully believes to be the truth.

Fairy tales do their business in threes, and with the third biography in the House of Black and White, Arya begins to understand how the Faceless Men wield stories: with a mixture of truths and lies. When a man brings his sick daughter to the temple — “She suffers every day of her life,” he tells Arya — Arya begins to weave the girl a tale: She was very sick, once, too; she was dying, and her father loved her, so he brought her to the House to be healed by the waters from the fountain. (The story recalls the one Stannis told Shireen, which makes me wonder how much of that one was a lie, and whether a similar fate lies ahead for Shireen … Given how heavily this season has been foreshadowing future events, I can only say, uch, I’m not ready.)

Then Arya gives the girl a drink, and with it, the gift of the Many-Faced God. With that hard but compassionate lie, Arya gains admission to the gorgeous and gory Hall of Faces, aka the Leatherface Lounge, where the Faceless Men keep all the corpse faces they’ve been storing up, Princess Mombi style. Not-Jaqen declares that Arya is not ready to give up “her loves and hates,” and all that makes her who she is, but she is ready to become “someone else.”

Her sister’s scenes open in a similar key: a slow, deliberate bath; wet hair streaming into a bowl; an antagonistic young woman reciting histories to tease her. Sansa lets Myranda into her chamber to prepare her bath and listens as the girl taunts her with a litany of Ramsay’s old lovers, each of whom bored him in due course, with some meeting violent ends for the crime. But Sansa is no longer a girl to be cowed so easily. She calls Myranda out on being in love with Ramsay, and then says, “I am Sansa Stark of Winterfell. This is my home. And you can’t frighten me.” As a character crescendo, it’s a quiet one, but it’s as stirring as Daenerys riding out of Astapor and as moving as Stannis’s naming of Shireen. Sansa’s voice seems to drop a whole octave, as if she’s possessed. But it’s a self-possession. This is the self that Sansa has been building to, step by step, for nearly a season now, and the fact that she claims that power once she’s shed the armor of her witchy black dress, her bright hair washed of its camouflaging blackness, makes it feel all the more righteous and true.

And then, and then. Dressed once again — in layers upon layers of white wool and fur — Sansa’s led into the godswood by Reek. The wedding ritual itself has a fairy-like quality, all lanterns and dark, quiet snow, so unlike the pompous weddings we’ve seen in King’s Landing. The ceremony has the pleasing structure of a dance, with Roose, Ramsay, and Reek (using his Theon name) each taking a turn to speak. When her time comes, Sansa’s resolve falters a bit, and she finally answers, “I take this man” in a small voice.

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.

I don’t want to play this stupid game anymore, Sansa’s sister said.

In last night’s other major story lines, there was plenty of plot movement but strangely, not a ton of narrative excitement. In Dorne, everyone seems to have come down with a serious case of Dany-itis and is just making terrible decisions all over the place. Jaime and Bronn’s big plan is to stroll right up to Myrcella and Trystane in broad daylight, as the two teens are canoodling in the Martells’ water gardens. (The scene echoed Sansa and Loras’s pre-nuptial turn in the gardens of King’s Landing — and probably foreshadowed similar odds of marital success.) Jaime’s all like, Get in the car Myrcella, and Myrcella’s like, NO, DADDY, I LOVE HIM, and THEN the Sand Snakes all tumble out of a clown car and try to kidnap Myrcella themselves but then, whoops, everyone gets captured by Prince Doran’s bodyguard.

Jorah and Tyrion are SOL, having lost their boat — and Jorah, his health — to the Stone Men of Valyria. Tyrion is complaining, as he is wont to do these days, but they share a moment when Tyrion tells Jorah of his father’s death by mutineering Nights’ Watchmen. (Jeor Mormont, or “the Old Bear,” was the Lord Commander who was killed by his own men at Craster’s Keep.) Jorah opens up a bit more. When Tyrion asks him why he thinks a girl who’s never spent a single day of her adult life in Westeros, whose family was legit crazy, deserves the Iron Throne, Jorah answers, “Have you ever heard baby dragons singing?” (I think I had that on a Lisa Frank TrapperKeeper back in the day.) Then before Jorah and Tyrion actually get to do anything, whoops, they’re captured by a bunch of slavers. At least we got to see Tyrion use some of his famous fast thinking to get his not-so-dwarf cock saved and steer everyone toward Meereen, by promising the slavers that the mighty warrior Jorah will win big for them in the fighting pits, which Dany so conveniently re-opened.

Finally, over in King’s Landing, even the return of Head Head-Poof Olenna Tyrell couldn’t rouse a flat subplot, which felt curiously abrupt. Loras is the subject of an inquest by the High Sparrow, and as soon as his sister Margaery is called to the stand, you can see from a mile off that she’ll end up perjuring herself. And sure enough, the High Sparrow calls a surprise witness: Olyvar, the prostitute who tells everyone that Loras has a birthmark shaped like Dorne, up in a place that most squires don’t get to see. (A birthmark we conveniently learned about in the first episode of the season, when Margaery walked in on the two of them.)

Littlefinger, meanwhile, returns to King’s Landing and not only does he tell Cersei that Sansa is alive and engaged to Ramsay Bolton, he promises her that the Knights of the Vale (whom he rules now that Lysa Arryn is dead) will fight for the Lannisters to take Winterfell — so long as he is named Warden of the North in Roose Bolton’s place. He even seems to promise Cersei Sansa’s head on a spike.

Is he serious? Who knows whom Littlefinger’s conning at this point. I understand that the whole “point” of Littlefinger is that you can’t trust him as far as you can throw him out a Moon Door (though if a character has a “point” maybe he’s not a character worth your time), and I don’t doubt I’m in the sick-puppy minority for enjoying watching the way Sansa and Littlefinger’s relationship has developed. But if he’s not for Sansa — if he truly is morally unmoored and emotionally detached — then he’s not only as villainous as Ramsay, he’s as uninteresting. When everything is a shock, nothing is a shock.

Till next week, then. (Insert obligatory cock-merchant joke here.)