** This post will contain spoilers about Episode 16 of OUTLANDER and Episode 6 of GAME OF THRONES, as well as discussion of rape and graphic violence.**
As both an aspiring novelist and screenwriter, I pay close attention to the works of fiction I read and watch, hoping to glean some knowledge, some nuggets of storytelling gold. I make it a point to consider the motive behind not only a character’s actions, but the motive behind the writer or filmmaker responsible for the story. In other words, I rarely just watch or read anything anymore.
Watching the now widely discussed episode of Game of Thrones, Unbowed Unbent, Unbroken, I turned to my husband and said, “He’s going to rape her,” before Ramsay even, horribly awkwardly, kissed Sansa beneath the Gods Wood. It was absolutely in Ramsay Bolton’s nature to take Sansa — his new bride — into their wedding chamber and violently force himself on her. It was even completely logical for Ramsay Bolton to do this in front of Theon Greyjoy to further humiliate and demean a character he had already broken beyond repair. If you were expecting him to treat Sansa any differently, you were not paying attention to a few key things: who Ramsay is as a character and what kind of show these filmmakers are committed to create.
I think it’s important to tell you now, Game of Thrones is quite possibly my favorite current television show. You can judge me for that, as a female and a writer, even just on the basis of taste, but there it is. I love it hard, like a bad habit, I just can’t quit it.
The creators of Thrones have delivered, consistently, on the promise of showing us every dark and twisted part of human nature. So consistently that their thesis statement could very well be found in the line delivered by Cersei Lannister (my guilty pleasure favorite), “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground.”
In other words, if they can show you a rape scene, they will show you a rape scene because they don’t do middle ground. And on that basis what happened to Sansa fit within their premise. I want to be clear, at no point in this statement am I agreeing with their decision for her character or the way they executed it.
I was shaken by the experience, but I wasn’t surprised, nor was I surprised by the Internet’s response. Still, it annoyed me that so many expected a show that has featured brutal violence and sex from season one — beginning on episode one — would make a different choice.
Then came Outlander’s season one finale. An episode, as a reader, I had been dreading and waiting for since I finished the book. After watching, hunkered into myself, hands covering my eyes, fingers spread just enough so I could see, I walked away with a startling realization.
Outlander captured what Game of Thrones missed. Not missed, like didn’t show me properly, because the sadism of Ramsay Bolton and Black Jack Randall are similar in execution. But where we watch Ramsay and feel rage, with Randall we feel a loss of humanity. We see not only the surface motive this character might deal with, but the very core of his soul. At times, Ramsay comes off like Sid, Andy’s toy torturing neighbor in Toy Story, not because the actor isn’t fantastic, not because the writing isn’t there, but in a show like Game of Thrones, this evil does not stand out as extraordinary.
On To Ransom a Man’s Soul, Randall became the embodiment of this concept, a living, breathing witness to how this affliction poisons the mind of one living with it. The character of Black Jack Randall is a microscope into humanity’s evil, as much as Jamie and Claire have been an examination of real love. And this, in no small way, is a testament to author Diana Gabaldon, as much as to the show runners.
It wasn’t that the Outlander scenes were more graphic — we have seen this kind of violence on Thrones — or that I felt more for Jamie than Sansa. It was the precision of filming, the focus with which the scenes were handled, and the fact that this whole season we have been building to that moment. We have watched Black Jack blossom into that man, we remember the moment Claire realized this was no ordinary villain, we experienced his deliberate pursuit, and then finally we saw him violently rape Jamie in a prison cell only steps away from a rotting corpse.
In this way, Outlander succeeds where Game of Thrones fails, not because the filmmakers aren’t capable, but because the nature of their beast makes that impossible. Thrones has too many players, too many plotlines and POVs, to ever dedicate the screen time necessary to thoroughly examine the black center of Ramsay Bolton. And so, the rape of Sansa Stark feels mishandled. Unnecessary. More of the same and not different enough to really hit us properly.
And I would argue, that they don’t really need to. We’ve gotten that from Outlander. We’ve seen shades of it with Joffrey. To me, the more interesting choice now is to focus the lens on Sansa. Here is a young woman who, until now, had managed to hold onto a piece of herself, to have kept her body and her sexuality within her power, her control, and now that, too, has been taken away. Don’t be outraged for Sansa the victim. Be looking for Sansa the hero.
In Claire Fraser, we saw a true female hero emerge. A true antithesis to Black Jack Randall, Claire is a caregiver, a nurse, and a woman capable of great love. Love that ultimately is the key to Jamie’s survival.
As the writers of Game of Thrones diverge further from the book’s plot lines, I hope to see more from Sansa than we have come to expect. I, for one, refuse to give up hoping. Thrones can’t give us elation in big doses until our villain and our hero emerges, until they narrow the playing field that much more.