The Black Wedding: revisiting Game of Thrones’ most controversial scene

Game of Thrones has never been a stranger to controversy, especially in regards to how it portrays women. From its very first episode, the series has depicted an onslaught of violence, sadism, and rape, often directed at female characters.

To be fair, much of this is runoff from the fact that the show is set in a brutally paternalistic world inspired by very real periods of human history. However, the repeated use of female objectification— whether as props for exposition, titillating scene enhancement, or objects of assault — grated on many critics and viewers over time as gratuitous, even demeaning. The story’s depiction of a nonchalant attitude towards misogyny could sometimes be read as the series itself taking a nonchalant attitude, and admittedly that confusion could be understandable.

This tension reached a cultural nadir in the middle of the show’s fifth season, with the episode “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken.” In that hour’s conclusion, Sansa Stark is married to the psychopathic Ramsay Bolton, who proceeds to conjugate their new union by raping and assaulting her, and forcing Sansa’s surrogate brother Theon to watch.

The reaction proved swift and damning. Missouri senator Claire McCasklill condemned the series on Twitter, vowing never to watch it again. Websites such as the Mary Sue swore off coverage of the show, and countless think pieces were written about how Game of Thrones had reached a level of moral irresponsibility from which it might never recover. More measured responses still found the scene unforgivable, having lazily indulged rape as a plot device yet again in order to employ shock value, and urged its creators to do better. And the episode’s writer, Bryan Cogman, received threats on social media, particularly following an Entertainment Weekly article where he was quoted as saying that Sansa had made a “choice” and now “will have to deal with it.”

So, apart from the general outcry, what were the specific arguments against this scene, and was it really the vile misstep so many claimed at the time?

1. It serves no real function other than to be horrific.

The gist here is that the show has used rape on countless occasions to illustrate how awful Westeros can get, and subjecting a character like Sansa to such well-trod treatment highlights a lack of creativity, an artistically bankrupt decision to force an upsetting moment into a subplot that doesn’t need it.

It didn’t help that this came on the heels of the previous season’s highly criticized sex scene between Cersei and Jaime in the Sept of Baelor, where Joffrey’s corpse is still on display for the traditional period of mourning. In that episode, Jaime forces himself on his sister as she tries to resist him, Cersei eventually giving in.

On a macro level, it’s not hard to discern the intention here. Cersei and Jaime maintain a codependent and mutually abusive relationship rooted in the narcissistic belief that their twinship makes them two halves of the same person. They are grieving the loss of their son, Jaime has been gone for a year in war, and they’re struggling to remember how to relate to one another.

Their creepy incestuousness hides many different power dynamics; Cersei and Jaime are addicted to one another, and have a tendency to bring out each other’s most selfish and sociopathic tendencies. In this scene, he’s forcing himself on her (something they’ve both probably done on occasion throughout their lives), while she’s struggling between the facts that he’s ignoring her pleas and that she doesn’t want to want to fuck at the foot of their child’s corpse, but nevertheless, part of her does. The addiction pulls at her. It’s a sick and abusive moment in a lifetime of sick and abusive moments for both of them.

Unfortunately, the way it was filmed and edited makes all of this come across more as just rape than a complex intermingling of abusive awfulness. It didn’t help that many people involved with the show resisted characterizing the scene as rape. After all, Cersei clearly says no, and Jaime keeps going. It appears less consensual than intended, so it’s not surprising that the audience would walk away with a different impression.

Sansa’s assault could not have come at a worse possible time, given this context. An audience already weary of rape scenes won’t respond well to this card being played in such an unsubtle fashion, and they didn’t.

In the grander scheme, however, it was always important to consider the role this was meant to play in Sansa’s arc. A naive young girl seduced by monarchic pomp and then thrown into violent political turbulence, Sansa was passed off like a plaything through a chain of monstrous personalities: Joffrey, Cersei, now Ramsay. Even Littlefinger, with all his supposed affection for (and protectiveness of) Sansa, really was just reliant on her as a tool to fulfill his twisted revenge fantasy of becoming King of Westeros with Catelyn’s daughter by his side. But all of this is a precursor to Sansa reclaiming her own life and power. Her wedding night with Ramsay was merely one moment in a larger journey of becoming the true ruler of Winterfell.

Does Sansa’s naivete mean she was weak and therefore deserved this string of horrible events? Absolutely not. The purpose of this isn’t that she “needed” rape and abuse to become badass or some other nonsense, nor is it to take away her agency. It’s that society devolved into chaos around her, and this is the path her life took as she tried to navigate the madness. These events hardened her, yet that doesn’t mean they ever should have happened in the first place.

And in fact, her agency is not fully stolen. When Bryan Cogman said that Sansa chose this, he was referring to the fact that she’d made an active decision to marry Ramsay as a way to infiltrate Winterfell and eventually bring it back to the Starks. Baelish is trying to influence Sansa for his own interests, but at the end of the day, she is doing this for her family and for the North. What she and Littlefinger* did not count on was Ramsay Bolton turning out to be the Patrick Bateman of Westeros. Now that she’s in this dire situation, she has to find a way to stay afloat.

(*This proved a subject of much debate at the time, but a rewatch of the fifth season reveals Baelish admitting that he doesn’t know much about Ramsay, and that this is a rare blind spot for him. In the books and the series, Roose Bolton mentions several times how he’s embarrassed by his son’s impulsive brutality, and on the show it’s implied that the full extent of Ramsay’s reputation is largely confined to the Dreadfort. Cogman has since clarified that Littlefinger indeed did not know the danger he was putting Sansa into, but the series did take time to acknowledge the confusion by having Sansa later refuse to believe Baelish’s claims of ignorance).

2. Not only is it unnecessary, the scene is too predictable.

This criticism posits that Sansa’s assault comes across as rote and obvious, unpleasant but not revealing anything new about Ramsay Bolton or his intentions. The expected move is for him to rape and torture her, and that’s exactly what he does, undercutting the dramatic tension and rendering any suspense inert.

Like the first point, this qualm is pretty cogent. One issue the series definitely had during the middle of its run was the cumulative effect of Ramsay Bolton and his misdeeds, which became four solid seasons of watching him do unspeakably cruel things and always getting away with it, a smug look of satisfaction on his face. After a while, his character and actions began to feel one note for many viewers.

But, while it’s true that one can see this incident coming a mile away, that’s also where the scene (and the ceremony leading up to it, filled with somber dread in the snow-dusted godswood) gets its power. You know what’s going to happen. And Ramsay knows, and Theon knows, and Myranda knows. Sansa has an inkling something unpleasant lurks in the near future, which is why the whole wedding feels more funereal than celebratory, her pale face stricken with a sense of foreboding.

Some have dubbed this the Black Wedding — partly inspired by the dark-colored wardrobe used throughout the scene — a spiritual sequel to the Red Wedding. In the latter, the Starks were brutally murdered by the Boltons. Here, they’re being terrorized by the Boltons again, but this time through rape as well as psychological abuse, and in the place they once called home.

It’s horrible and devastating and unfair, by design. It’s meant to feel tragic, an emotional gut punch that doesn’t involve anyone dying or having limbs cut off, but soul-crushing all the same.

3. This doesn’t occur in the book.

As far as A Song of Ice & Fire goes, none of this happens to Sansa. She’s off with Littlefinger under the guise of his nonexistent niece and learning from Baelish the finer points of how to manipulate people. It is her childhood friend Jeyne Poole, being passed off as Arya, who marries Ramsay and is subject to his monstrous whims.

The book version is viscerally even worse than the show, with suggestions that Ramsay coerces Theon to sometimes participate in his repeated raping of Jeyne, and that he’s forced her to have sex with his dogs.

The accusation is that the writers of Game of Thrones needlessly placed Sansa into this plot thread, when they could have just adapted what was in the novel and spared her character the humiliation. And of course, that’s technically true, but the argument of “could have done ______ instead” is slippery, because any story could in theory have done something other than what it did. Game of Thrones could have not had Arya meeting Tywin or Brienne fighting the Hound (both of which don’t occur in the books), or it could have spared Ned and Cat and Robb their gruesome fates, or it could have replaced the Walkers with three-headed aliens who love breakdancing.

All that matters is what happens onscreen. Any of that is fair game. The rest is abstract and speculative and can only carry so much weight.

This argument also suggests that Ramsay torturing and raping his wife would be more acceptable if it were Jeyne, because we don’t know or like her as much as Sansa. That’s a fairly grotesque assertion to make in the name of treating the subject of sexual assault with caution and respect.

4. Sansa’s assault becomes about Theon’s feelings.

The episode ends by pushing in on a close up of Theon, trying not to cry as he witnesses Sansa’s rape. Critics of the scene have frequently declared that this renders Sansa’s suffering secondary to Theon’s, milking her experience as a way to make him a more sympathetic character.

However, a closer read reveals the subtext of the scene, especially in hindsight. It’s important to remember that, at this juncture of the story, Sansa still believes Theon murdered Bran and Rickon. She has no clue they’re still alive, so she despises Theon and lacks any compassion for his brutalization at the hands of Ramsay.

Theon, meanwhile, has become so brainwashed and broken that he’s fully embraced his Reek persona, both psychologically and physically unable to tell Sansa the truth, despite the fact that she’s practically his sister.

Ramsay knows all of this, and is preying on these strained connections to torment both of them. It’s why he asks Theon to give Sansa away to him at the wedding, and it’s why he demands that Theon stay and watch the consummation of the marriage. Ramsay is torturing two people in this scene; the assault on Theon is mental and emotional, whereas with Sansa it’s also physical. (Though before this, Theon experienced plenty of physical abuse at the hands of Ramsay, including sexually. To say his abuse is not allowed to be a factor is, again, hypocritical).

Another aspect here is that, by slowly moving into a close up of Theon, we’re supposed to be hoping this is the moment he finally snaps out of it . . . where he will hit his threshold and intervene. And part of the tragedy of the scene is that he clearly wants to, but is so spiritually destroyed he instead just swallows the pain and forces himself to continue watching. In almost any other story, this would be Theon’s awakening. Instead, we’re tricked into anticipating relief and catharsis, only to have it snatched away.

There are also other, more practical reasons for not actually showing the rape and instead cutting to Theon. Namely, none of the producers wanted to put Sophie Turner through anything more than necessary to get this scene across, and there is absolutely not a chance in hell that graphically depicting her assault would have gone over any better. (Oddly enough, some remember this scene as more graphic than it was, which goes to demonstrate the power of a less is more approach).

But on the story level, this is a form of shared abuse between brother and sister, Theon knowing the endless parade of horror awaiting Sansa. It’s not about how much this hurts his feelings, it’s about how two people who desperately need each other’s help are worlds apart, even though they’re in the same room.

All of this services the larger story for each character. Sansa and Theon go on to form a familial bond they lacked as children, and help each other escape Ramsay’s clutches. In the final season, Theon arrives to defend Winterfell against the Walkers, giving his life in the process. Both his return and his demise significantly impact Sansa, who now truly sees him as a brother and as a friend she can trust, even pinning a Stark emblem to his corpse while she weeps over his body.

Theon’s initial betrayal of the family who raised him is rooted in the same poisoned idea of masculinity which allows Sansa to be treated like a breeding cow. Feeling like neither a Greyjoy nor a Stark, and full of youthful cocky assertiveness, he tried to impress his birth father Balon by taking and holding Winterfell, failing miserably in the process and resulting in the deaths of Maester Luwin and Ser Rodrick, as well as two farm boys who are slaughtered and burned on his command.

It’s clear from the mere look on Theon’s face that he can’t live with his actions, but he moves forward anyway out of the sheer desperate need to prove to someone, anyone, that he’s a A Real Man. And this patriarchal bullshit not only ruins his life, but still fails to impress Balon, who shows he’s no true father at all.

Theon is part of Sansa’s story, and she is part of his, and that fact is solidified on the night of her wedding.

Little Bird

All of this brings us back to Sansa, who’s come a very long way since that horrible night. She saved the Battle of the Basterds from a Bolton victory, fed Ramsay to his own starving dogs, out-Littlefingered former mentor Littlefinger, and now stands as more or less the ruler of the North, one of the savviest and most pragmatic political thinkers in Westeros.

And then came her dialogue in the most recent episode, “The Last of the Starks.” During Sansa’s conversation with the Hound, Clegane apologizes for not taking her with him when he fled King’s Landing. He admits to feeling responsible for everything that’s happened to her since. She in turns tells him that without her experiences at the hands of abusive men — Joffrey, Littlefinger, Ramsay — she might still be that same starstruck, naive little girl.

As expected, the internet went apeshit, the furor over the Black Wedding resurrected with one very brief exchange. In addition to thousands of outraged social media posts, numerous articles have elucidated the problematic nature of saying that rape and abuse can be good character builders.

But is that really, truly, honest to the old gods what Sansa (and/or the show’s writers) meant?

To be clear, she does take the approach of saying that her years upon years of nightmarish treatment did indeed help her become the person she is today. Being that she exists in a brutal, medieval-esque society where those with either social capital or physical strength often have their way with others who can’t defend themselves, it’s not surprising her comment here might have a Nietzschean edge to it. Westeros is a fantasy version of the distant past . . . it doesn’t exactly have people sharing #MeToo posts or Ronan Farrow writing explosive exposes.

Taking that off the table, does Sansa ultimately mean that she’s grateful for the people who’ve abused and raped her and even owes them a bit of thanks for making her a stronger woman?

No. Nothing that Sansa’s done indicates that she’s thankful or forgives the people who’ve wronged her: she ordered and presided over Baelish’s execution, took pleasure in Joffrey’s death and anticipates enjoying Cersei’s, and, again, LITERALLY FED HER RAPIST TO DOGS (a fact about which she brags at the top of this scene). Those are not the actions of someone who’s full of gratitude for the time she spent with these people.

Another angle getting lost in the conversation about this episode is that Sansa is addressing Sandor’s feelings of guilt, which — despite the fact that he’s doing his usual shtick of hiding his emotions behind the exterior of a callous asshole — are deeply troubling him. He’s always felt protective of her, and his nickname of “little bird” is as genuine in its affection as it is a taunting transference of his own self-hatred.

Both he and Sansa have encountered serious trauma in their lives, and they now share more in common than they ever have, so she does her best to assuage his needless self-blame. She doesn’t owe him consolation, but offers it sincerely, letting him know that she’s okay and that her ordeals were not his fault.

There’s also the simple truth that Sansa, after everything she’s seen, can’t bear the thought of ever going back to who she used to be. This woman has been through absolute hell and back, and has moved on. There is no recourse, no recompense, nothing she can do about the past; it’s inextricably a part of her. But that doesn’t mean everything she’s achieved is defined or owned by those travails. Sansa is more than the sum of her abuse.

Nearly all of the characters have been through the wringer and found themselves changed as a result, for good or for ill. If Sansa were discussing literally anything else — a disease, drug addiction, the battlefield, fighting a monster, being lost in the wilderness for five years — no one would think she was flippantly endorsing that thing as a path to self betterment.

It’s inevitable that a tale centered around an abusive male-driven monarchy would have parallels with our own world, where women have been subjugated and mistreated throughout much of history, and where a reckoning is currently underway in the cultural consciousness. The reality of modern sexual and gender politics cannot be dodged that easily.

But it’s also a disservice to demand that a character such as Sansa be used mostly as a mouthpiece or figurehead for what we wish to hear in the narrative of being a survivor, reducing her to a prop.

Yes, Sansa learned quite a bit from Cersei’s cynicism, Littlefinger’s snakiness, and Ramsay’s cunning. She in some way admires these certain qualities of the people who terrorized her, skills which helped keep her alive. Still, none of that is the same thing as dismissing abuse, or glibly accepting that rape is a fair trade-off for knowledge.

If anything, Sansa is using her power to make the North a place where the things that happened to her won’t happen to other people.

Author’s full disclosure: Part of the reason this is such an involved topic for me is that I have experienced my own share of abuse, and have also been sexually assaulted. It’s taken years of guilt, blame, and denial to recognize and unpack what happened. Beyond that, some of the people closest to me have been brutalized by real-life Ramsay Boltons, those individuals who feel no remorse and are allowed to get away with their behavior without a care in the world. The reality of abuse, and the lifelong fallout it causes, hang heavily over my world.

Yet to expect that all survivors are uniform in how we process what’s happened to us does us no favors. That also applies to entertainment which might grapple with these issues in a messy or imperfect way, maybe even intentionally so. To be perfectly frank, it’s misguided, condescending, and reductive to assume that just because Game of Thrones presents an especially unsettling treatment of rape that all people who’ve experienced rape must therefore have the same exact response or interpretation.

By no means is this meant to disparage those who feel put off or negatively impacted by the show’s choices. Those reactions need to be heard and taken seriously if we want to continue the work of social introspection so integral to, well, breaking the wheel.

The other side of this particular sword is that we live in a culture of 24/7 media scrutiny, fueled by reactionary hot takes and the need to cultivate an intriguing narrative of conflict and indignation so that websites can generate revenue. The function of social media visibility and the climate of modern criticism demand an immediate, easily packaged opinion that will result in clicks, shares, and likes, and nothing guarantees those more than outrage.

In that web of supply and demand, it becomes more difficult to discuss the series’ treatment of certain subject matter, because the criticism and analyses find themselves ground into a homogeneous pulp declaring that Show X Has a Y Problem. The voices of survivors who found something positive or meaningful are drowned out in the accepted narrative that the thing in question is objectively, inarguably bad, a position which hijacks the voices of those very survivors.

To return to the Black Wedding, this scene may have been treated with more acceptance had been it not been saddled with the show’s prior depictions of abuse, or the unavoidable Ramsay Bolton fatigue settling in at the time. A closer look suggests that it unfolds quite purposefully the way it’s meant to. This isn’t Jaime/Cersei in the Sept, awkwardly filmed and further hampered by clumsy and contradictory statements from the producers about their intentions. Everything here is handled in a very intentional manner, whether or not viewers find it agreeable.

Even if Sansa’s wedding night or her moment with the Hound never find any critical reevaluation down the line, her storyline will remain primarily one of empowerment. Sansa Stark is flawed and vulnerable and scarred, like any other character in Westeros. But in the end, her spirit remains more resonant than ever. Unbowed, unbent.

And unbroken.

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