[Spoilers for “Game of Thrones” Season 5 (but not Season 6) below. Trigger warning for discussion of rape.]
When “Game of Thrones” won the Emmy for Best Drama last year, many were surprised, given the controversy surrounding the show that season. The complaints weren’t terribly new, given how the fantasy series’ depiction of sex and violence has been under close scrutiny since the beginning. But Season 5 seemed to push beyond those previous limits.
We’re now about a third of the way into Season 6, and while there’s been plenty of violence, none of it has been of a sexual nature. Reviews are good — per Rotten Tomatoes, all three episodes have hovered in the A- to A range — and the premiere broke ratings records. Buzz is solid and the show heads into the awards race strong.
But right now, we’re all watching very carefully. This show’s legacy has already been compromised by problematic depictions of sexual violence. A big play for shock value (beyond, of course, resurrecting the dead) could have lasting effects.
Something to remember about reviewing “Game of Thrones” week-to-week — those invested episodically are very likely to grade on a curve. After all, when you’re contending with a phenomenon, the show doesn’t necessarily have to prove itself every time. Even a relatively dry “table-setting” installment (as our review panel calls it) will include well-liked characters interacting. That can be enough to sustain a middling episode.
That being said, Rotten Tomatoes not only breaks down reviews for “Game of Thrones” by season, but by episode, and looking back at Season 5 — the season that won HBO its first Best Drama Series win since 2007 — the episodes all score highly.
With one big exception. The only episode of “Game of Thrones” to ever receive a “rotten” rating is Season 5’s “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken.” Why? Its final scene — the rape of Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) by Ramsey Snow (Iwan Rheon) as Theon Greyjoy/Reek (Alfie Allen) stood to the side — was brutal to watch, even for this show.
The issue isn’t necessarily that a character was raped on screen during “Game of Thrones.” Rape and other forms of physical and mental violence are quite common in the context of the show. But what really got critics of “Unbowed” upset was the way that a violent and devastating act was recontextualized (thanks to the camera shifting from Sansa to Theon’s horrified face) to emphasize the witness over the victim.
According to writer-producer Bryan Cogman on the episode’s official DVD commentary (as reported by EW):
“The main reason we cut away at the end, frankly, is that this was Sophie’s first scene of this nature, and we didn’t want to show the attack. And so we cut to Theon to hear the attack. I understand why many people reacted to that, [thinking] we were making this scene about Theon and not Sansa. I’m sorry it was viewed that way. All I can say is it’s certainly not my intention when I wrote it or when we were producing it … We could have stayed on her face of the entirety of the attack, that would have been a perfectly valid choice. To me it was about being respectful to Sophie.”
While the intentions are good, the results remain disturbing. Looking at the actual reviews for this episode, there’s enough of a critical consensus to explain why it’s the only “Thrones” episode to ever be rated as “rotten” by critics. (Before then, the lowest-graded episode was Season 3’s “The Bear and the Maiden Fair,” at 81 percent.) “There’s nothing inherently wrong with this storytelling technique, but when it seems like your only storytelling technique, it eventually becomes wearying and stale,” Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff wrote at the time.
Again, this is the only episode that “Thrones” Season 5 critics found to be too brutal. Episode 9, “The Dance With Dragons,” received an 88 percent rating. In that episode, they burn an innocent child alive.
Even beyond critics, the online outrage that occurs when “Thrones” fails, especially when it fails in its depictions of sex and sexual violence, is not quiet. But showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss say they aren’t listening to it. “I can literally say that not one word of the scripts this season have been changed in any way, shape or form by what people said on the Internet, or elsewhere,” Weiss told EW at the beginning of April.
That may be true, but it does appear that Benioff and Weiss perhaps learned a thing or two from last year’s outrage, and adjusted accordingly. “Game of Thrones” is already the leading Outstanding Drama contender; avoiding last year’s misstep could make it a shoo-in to repeat that win.
“Game of Thrones” airs Sundays at 9pm on HBO.