Messages and Modern Issues in Unbent, Unbowed, Unbroken

It’s no secret that the writers for HBO’s Game of Thrones change events in the books, but they also change the sequence of stories to give the episodes to emphasize themes. In this article, Philip Hallam-Baker looks at the structure and literary devices in the “Unbent, Unbowed, Unbroken” episode (Season 5, Episode 6) — and some deliberate changes the filmmakers have made. He also examines the repercussions of cultures that espouse arranged marriages.

This particular episode has a very tightly constructed plot arc that has a lot of parallels in it and connections to the previous and succeeding episodes. This parallels a medieval interpretation of scriptures through a four-fold layered allegory of literal, historical, moral and anagogical.

In the previous episode, Dany arranges her own marriage from a position of power. In this episode, Sansa is the prisoner.

Jamie goes to Dorne to rescue someone who doesn’t want to be rescued and is caught. The episode is constructed to frame the hope that the next episode will see Brienne rescuing Sansa (who very much needs that now).

There are parallels in the two Stark girls narratives. Note the similarity between the shots of Arya washing the hair of a corpse and Myranda washing Sansa’s hair, an indicator that she is dead meat as far as Myranda is concerned. Myranda and Waif both instruct the girls in their new roles by manipulating them and showing rather than explaining.

house-black-white-dead-girl-hair sansa-hair-wash

There is also a clear contrast between the Stark girls. Sansa is in her home; Arya is as far from her home and family as it is possible to be. She is quite literally no one.

The episode has a tightly coupled narrative, but then in the middle of it, we have Kenneth Starr and Linda Tripp doing a perjury trap on Bill Clinton in King’s Landing. The construction of the High Sparrow’s trap is a direct commentary on our own time; it is not a medieval plot.

charges-brother swear-brother-innocent
walkedinonus olyvar-not-surprised

This is a tell that this episode is not just an interpretation of the Middle Ages; it is a commentary on our own time and Dave & Dan are using the vehicle at their disposal. The books’ virginity plot is not very relevant as social commentary and doesn’t need to be because almost nobody who reads George RR Martin’s books has such a narrow social view. The show’s reach is much wider and goes far beyond the US. Uncensored copies of the show are available in pretty much every part of the world.

One message — that the religious ‘justice’ is corrupt and self-serving — is very relevant in countries like Iran. There is, however, a much more important message about the nature of an arranged marriage.

In medieval society, the idea of marrying a monster like Ramsay was not just plausible, it was an ambition. Henry VIII had no difficulty finding wives 3,4 and 5 after he divorced #1 and murdered #2. And, he married again after murdering #5. The great houses were queuing up to marry off their daughters all the same.


Sansa with Joffrey before he makes her look at Ned’s head on a spike. (c) HBO.

Sansa has been prepared for her role in a dynastic arranged marriage her whole life. She was promised to the king, who turned out to be a psycho who murders her father. She then married his uncle, who is a dwarf. Now Sansa is married off to another psycho who murdered her mother and brother.

The reason Sansa ends up in this marriage is because, at every stage in her life, nobody has given her any other options.

Meanwhile, in Dorne, Myrcella’s arranged marriage has turned into a love match. And here comes her father to mess it up because the parents’ plans have changed.

The outcome of such matches in Game of Thrones is extreme, but childhood arranged marriages remain the norm in many parts of the world. The final rape scene clubs the parents who strong-arm their children into such marriages over the head.

The point of the scene is that such marriages inevitably mean an imbalance in power. The marriage isn’t Ramsay’s first choice either, but he has the power in this relationship. They may be in Sansa’s home, but Ramsay commands it. Sansa has agreed to marry Ramsay and that means producing an heir for him, which in turn means sex. Agreeing to sex was an integral part of the marriage contract.

Given Sansa’s age and circumstances, there is a big problem with consent whether Ramsay forces himself onto Sansa or not. Part of the overall message is that an arranged child marriage is tantamount to rape. And such messages are neither gratuitous or unnecessary.

Instead of the ambiguous message that many of the critics have been arguing for, the producers make the situation unambiguous. Despite the fact that Sansa is willing, Ramsay rapes her anyway. He turns quasi-consensual sex into rape to demonstrate the totality of his power over her.

There is much more that can be said on the subject of Theon, but this is not the time to say it. We do not know Theon’s future role in the show and have only hints in the books. What is clear is that if Theon has not reached rock bottom already, he cannot fall much further. But, there is a distinct difference in the circumstances.

Ramsay’s previous victims all deserved their fate, not least Theon himself. The Ironborn whom Theon betrayed at Deepwood Motte had come to rape and pillage; they ended up flayed. Theon had murdered two children, possibly one of his own bastards, in a futile attempt to keep control of Winterfell. Ramsay’s attack on Sansa is pivotal not because of its nature but because of who it happened to — and the fact that Theon is not man enough to prevent it. In fact, he is quite literally no longer a man.

“Rape is empowerment” is certainly a ridiculous trope that appears in a lot of bad fiction. But the message here is the exact opposite: rape is the result of not having choices. It’s not even clear that the rape is the final event that is going to send Sansa over the edge and fight back. The preview of the next episode certainly shows otherwise.

When Sansa fights back, it’s going to be because she has choices and has allies whom she can trust. The plot arc of this episode is built on the message that choice is empowerment. People should trust that HBO actually does understand this, and this will be the message in the next episode as well.

1 Comment

  • Reply May 26, 2015

    Watcher on the Couch

    A friend of mine from college days whose Mum was Irish had various tales about couples being “matched” in Ireland perhaps in the early – or even middle – part of the 20th century. I’ve been told by Irish people that “matching” did not necessarily include forcing couples to marry, but that it was a way of introducing people who lived in remote rural areas. Of course being introduced to a possible marriage partner by a match-maker, even if it isn’t very romantic, is a world away from being raped on the first night of an arranged marriage.

    I am prepared to cut the show-runners some slack before rushing to judgement – to see how this particular story-line is developed, but I can understand people who love the books being dismayed in that one story-line has been transferred from one character to another.

    A former work colleague’s sister (of Asian descent) decided to try meeting someone in an “arranged” way through their religious community. This was because her parents had had an arranged marriage and it had worked out well. However her first suitor’s first question was “Can you cook and clean” so she got rid of him PDQ. Of course as a modern woman she had more choices than a medieval woman.

    But thanks Mr HB for a perceptive article.

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