Spoilers ahead for episode nine of Game of Thrones.
Like the Mona Lisa removed from da Vinci’s verdant landscape and plunked in front of Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, Sansa Stark’s smile at the end of “The Battle of the Bastards” is all the more enigmatic for the madness of its context. Here is the young woman who’s endured the attentions of a long succession of the worst people in Westeros: Joffrey Baratheon, Cersei Lannister, Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish, Lysa Arryn, Roose and Ramsay Bolton. Here is the heir to House Stark, so far as anyone knows — the torchbearer for Ned’s decency in the face of injustice and Catelyn’s tenacious defense of those she loves. Here is a survivor, who made it out of murderously abusive conditions under which her hot-tempered siblings would not likely have lasted half as long. Here’s the generational hope for the North, the way Daenerys Targaryen and Yara Greyjoy represent similar paths to a better future. Here she is … grinning as a man is eaten alive by dogs.
What’s wrong with this picture?
Nothing, if you believe in righteous revenge. Sansa was repeatedly raped, beaten, and psychologically tortured by Ramsay Bolton during their arranged marriage. Now his forces have been defeated, his face has been smashed to a pulp by her victorious half-brother, Jon Snow, and he’s at her mercy, or at the very least those of his starving hounds. “I can still feel what he did in my body, standing here right now,” she told her deadbeat mentor Littlefinger earlier in the season; Ramsay echoed the sentiment by cockily claiming “You can’t kill me — I’m a part of you now,” even as he sat beaten and bound before her. I wouldn’t call it “poetic justice,” since there’s nothing poetic about it, but there’s a gruesome but unmistakable resonance in Sansa’s orchestration of the physical dismantling of Ramsay’s body with her reassertion of autonomy over her own. It’s a resonance that rape-revenge narratives from the reviled (I Spit on Your Grave) to the debated (Kill Bill) to the all but universally acclaimed (Mad Max: Fury Road) have used as their highly combustible fuel.
But revenge under any circumstance — even one as justly deserved as Sansa’s over Ramsay’s — is a sword without a hilt, in the parlance of Game of Thrones’ times. There’s no way to control which way it swings and how deep it cuts. And if the final image of this week’s episode seems clearly intended to call other instances of vengeance on this series to mind, it’s hardly controversial to point out that none of them have gone according to plan. On the contrary, retribution on Game of Thrones is portrayed, virtually without fail, as an occasion for repulsion and remorse, not fist-pumping catharsis. To fully comprehend Sansa’s smirking strut, we have to consider the wider context, and it’s the opposite of “an eye for an eye.”
Take the counterexamples on offer in this episode alone. Even as Sansa and Jon plot to retake Winterfell from the ruthless forces of House Bolton, their counterparts Daenerys Targaryen and Tyrion Lannister confer as to how best to defeat the cities of Slaver’s Bay. Dany’s initial plan is one of barbarous simplicity: “I will crucify the Masters. I will set their fleets afire, kill every last one of their soldiers, and return their cities to the dirt.” It falls to Tyrion to remind her of her insane father’s plot to burn King’s Landing to the ground rather than see it fall into the hands of his enemies — the kind of strategy that makes a Mad Monarch. Even moral relativists like Jaime and Tyrion could see that this kind of payback is unforgivable. It’s hardly a coincidence that this exchange takes place in the same episode that Ramsay is eaten alive.
Nor is Theon’s presence in the Khaleesi’s court this episode an accident. After betraying Robb Stark, conquering Winterfell, putting its defenders to the sword, and murdering two neighboring farmboys to cover up his loss of Bran and Rickon Stark, Theon may have been the most hated character in the series; few would have objected to his execution. But he wound up subjected to a fate worse than death: captured, tortured, gelded, and broken by the Bastard of Bolton. That he managed to pull himself together enough to help rescue Sansa and support his sister Yara is a miracle on par with Jon Snow’s resurrection. But more important, the disproportionate severity and brutality of his punishment is the classic case of Game of Thrones making you be careful what you wish for. You want Theon to pay for his crimes? Choke on this. Few if any of us could swallow what we were served.
Indeed, the deeper you dig into GOT’s tales of revenge, the more bitter the taste becomes. Arya’s duly deserved kill list? You tell me if you felt good when she left the Hound for dead, or when she butchered the pedophile knight of the Kingsguard Ser Meryn Trant like something out of a Hostel movie, or when she tore into various Frey and Lannister goons like Ted Bundy at a sorority house. The Red Viper’s quest for justice against House Lannister and its enforcer, Gregor “the Mountain” Clegane? It blew up in his face, somewhat literally, when the towering mass murderer crushed his skull mid-confession. (The conduct of his common-law widow Ellaria Sand and their daughters the Sand Snakes afterward, as they murder their way through innocent Martells and Lannisters alike, is hardly any more noble or justifiable.) The comeuppance of Craster, the incestuous wilding chieftain who abused and brutalized his countless daughter-wives? It was dealt out by Night’s Watch mutineers who, if anything, were crueler than the tinpot tyrant they replaced. The long-awaited takedown of Cersei by the High Sparrow and his fundamentalist Faith Militant? An appallingly misogynistic walk of shame that left audiences sympathizing with one of the show’s most implacable antagonists. Shit, Joffrey himself died in agony as his parents looked on in horrified impotence, casting a pall over a death we’d all eagerly anticipated. Even the relatively legalistic and legitimate consequences doled out to traitors and murderers — the beheadings conducted by Ned, Robb, and Jon; the hangings of the Night’s Watch mutineers and the Brotherhood rogues — are filmed with unflinching finality.
And to cite the experience of one last participant in this week’s episode, consider Tyrion’s Oedipal assault on his father Tywin following the Lannister patriarch’s pronunciation of a death sentence against his own son. Until this point, Tywin was essentially the series’ arch-villain; he was to Westeros what the Emperor was to a galaxy far, far away. But his demise takes place with his breeches around his ankles and crossbow bolts in his guts as he takes a dump. And to even get to that point, Tyrion had to (or “had to”) strangle his ex-girlfriend Shae, the ostensible love of his life, in a sordid domestic-violence incident. For Game of Thrones, revenge smells like shit and feels like the horrendous violation it really is.
So when you watch Sansa’s swaggering strut from the scene of her rapist’s demise, don’t blow off the discomfort you feel in its blend of triumph and atrocity. That discomfort is precisely the point. Game of Thrones has never shied from showing us the sad truth behind its pseudo-medieval story of valor and glory — a truth that often involves horrendous betrayals and abuses. Naturally, we want to see those betrayals and abuses repaid in kind. But revenge is as ugly as a man with his face torn off by the jaws of a hound. Smile about it at your own risk.