The audience doesn’t really see the event that ends “Unbent, Unbowed, Unbroken,” just two close-ups: the first on a terrified Sansa, the second on a man who identified himself as Theon Greyjoy just hours before. The second closeup lasts far longer, the emotion on its subject’s face rawer. That’s because, to make an already disgusting situation even more so, what happens to Sansa isn’t even about Sansa; it’s about teaching “Theon” he’s still Reek. It’s also about Game of Thrones destroying the narrative the show has constructed around her—deliberately, of course, but perhaps not wisely.
Ever since Sansa strutted into a beam of sunlight wearing a dress made out of feathers and condensed male tears, her arc was supposed to be about recovery, or at least reclamation. Very few characters on very few series could view psychological coercion by a creepy uncle figure as an improvement, but Westeros is a brutal place. A return to Winterfell seemed like an opportunity for Sansa to reclaim her home by breaking away from the passive, naive girl who had it taken from her.
The tragedy of “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken” is that Sansa reaches what is likely, in retrospect, the apex of her newfound agency. The only person she’s able to exercise any kind of control over, though, is someone who’s located even further away from the epicenter of male power than she is. Her verbal smackdown of Miranda feels tremendously satisfying in the moment; by the episode’s end, it’s revealed to be a hollow victory. Miranda may be sadistic and jealous, but as Ramsay reminded us last week, she’s just the kennelmaster’s daughter. It’s those enabled by patriarchy and oligarchy both women truly have to fear.
Which brings us to the question of just why Sansa’s rape had to happen. Ramsay’s assault is the third example of a phenomenon critic Sonia Saraiya pointed out last year: Game of Thrones, the show, adding instances of sexual assault that do not appear in Game of Thrones, the books. (In the original storyline, Sansa remains in the Vale and does not return to Winterfell at all, let alone marry Ramsay Bolton.) Unlike the Red Wedding, in other words, there’s no reason David Benioff and D.B. Weiss had to bring one of the show’s most interesting character evolutions right back to square one.
It’s too soon to judge the effects of her marriage to Ramsay on her overall arc, and it’s possible that Sansa will find a way to exact revenge when Stannis show up. But my immediate feeling after Theon’s face cut to black and the credits started rolling was that, sometime in the last two seasons, Game of Thrones crossed the line between showing what a cold, hard world its women live in and abusing them past the point of being useful to the narrative, or even interesting. There’s a world of difference between Dany’s rape at the start of the series, a rock bottom one can and should compare to her next husband literally cowering at her feet, and the casual abuse experienced by Cersei in the fourth season and now Sansa in the fifth. Unlike the encounter between Cersei and Jaime last year, we’re at least meant to perceive Sansa’s experience as rape—but that’s about all that’s improved.
Moving past the more plot-heavy elements of the episode (Jaime experiences a hollow victory of his own when he reaches the Water Gardens in time, only for Doran’s soldiers to prove they’re capable of protecting Myrcella without him; Tyrion and Jorah convince their slaver captors to take them to Meereen for Jorah to enter the fighting pits), Arya learns to play the “Game of Faces.” The Faceless Men’s supernatural talent, it turns out, is based on an all-too-human skill: figuring out what people want to hear, then telling them. It’s the kind of thing brash, aggressive Arya Stark has ironically never been good at, particularly relative to her sister. The point, however, is that she soon won’t be Arya Stark anymore.
Arya’s supervisor simultaneously shows her how it’s done and lets her know the Faceless Men aren’t fooled by playing on all her fantasies. The woman, she tells Arya, is really a lord’s daughter—one who’s successfully crossed off the only name on her particular kill list and come to live out the rest of her life in murderous, satisfied peace. Jaqen sends the message home by revealing he’s able to tell when Arya’s lying, even to herself. (Of course she doesn’t hate The Hound.) And finally, Arya shows she’s learned her lesson by coaxing a sick girl into drinking from the temple’s fountain.
As a reward, Jaqen leads her onto one of the more visually stunning sets in Game of Thrones history. Soundtracked by an eerie theme we’ve never heard before, as sure a sign we’re watching something important as any, Arya looks at the thousands upon thousands of faces in the Faceless Men’s repertoire—faces, it’s implied, generously donated by the temple’s dead. Game of Thrones generally doesn’t explain its magic or even depict it on such a large scale. The House of Black and White’s inner sanctum, however, is a visual representation of what Arya is agreeing to: many faces as no faces; many identities as no identity. Her first step forward, Jaqen explains, will be trying on a new self before she does away with a self entirely.
Finally, the High Sparrow plot brings back Olenna Tyrell for the sole purpose of demonstrating how little her cheerily forceful political style gets her in “the new King’s Landing.” Her meeting with Cersei sees Tywin’s daughter use her newfound powerlessness to her own advantage: “I have no love for these fanatics…but what is a Queen Mother to do?” Her position on Loras’ inquest doesn’t save him from Olyvar’s betrayal. And her reassurance of Margaery doesn’t save the queen from being imprisoned for perjury.
She does, however, manage to give Cersei the dressing-down she deserves. “I didn’t particularly like him,” Olenna says of Tywin, “but I respected him. He was no fool.” Cersei’s currently on a high, having successfully maneuvered her prophesied replacement into jail, but it’s a high that’s sure to be undermined by stupid moves (promising Littlefinger he’ll be Warden of the North) and the uncontrolled emotions that drive them (blind hatred of Sansa Stark). We’re witnessing the pride that comes before the fall; sometime in the next four episodes, the other shoe—or rather, the other shoeless, pious foot—is bound to drop.