Sansa Stark and the Hound reunited on Sunday night’s Game of Thrones episode, “The Last of the Starks.” The pair hadn’t spoken since season 2’s “Blackwater,” when a drunken Hound gave Sansa the option to leave King’s Landing with him, and she refused.
The Hound hides his own trauma behind a gruff demeanor; his brother burned his face as a child, and now he’s terrified of fire. Sansa has been through her own hell. She begins the series as an idealistic teenager, but the “game” grinds the naïveté out of her. The Sansa of season 8 is much more world-wise, guarded, and cunning.
When she approaches the Hound after the army’s victory over the Night King, they have a lot to catch up on. The ensuing conversation polarized viewers, some of whom saw it as a reminder of Game of Thrones’ poor track record with women characters, and Sansa in particular.
[Ed. note: This article contains discussion of rape, and also, spoilers for Game of Thrones through season 8, episode 4, “The Last of the Starks.”]
“Heard you were broken in rough” is the Hound’s clumsy line. He’s speaking specifically about the rape and abuse Sansa suffered at the hands of Ramsay Bolton in season 5. He tells Sansa that if she’d left King’s Landing with him, she would’ve been safe.
“Without Littlefinger and Ramsay and the rest, I would’ve stayed a little bird all my life,” she replies.
Setting aside the far-fetched notion that Clegane could’ve somehow protected Sansa (Arya leaves the dude for dead in season 4), many saw the interaction as Sansa excusing her own abuse. Fans and critics expressed disbelief that Sansa, of all people, would say that the ends justify the means. It equates sexual assault to character development, and many critics side-eyed the way the scene played out.
“The writers’ decision to have Sansa seemingly attribute her sense of worth to a man who raped her is upsetting,” wrote Julia Alexander at The Verge.
“I can’t help but feel disappointed in the male writers’ understanding of Sansa,” Caitlin PenzeyMoog wrote at The AV Club, “which suddenly doesn’t feel as good as I’d thought.”
Even Jessica Chastain weighed in with a strongly worded tweet, saying, “Rape is not a tool to make a character stronger. A woman doesn’t need to be victimized in order to become a butterfly.”
Rape is not a tool to make a character stronger. A woman doesn’t need to be victimized in order to become a butterfly. The #littlebird was always a Phoenix. Her prevailing strength is solely because of her. And her alone.#GameOfThrones pic.twitter.com/TVIyt8LYxI— Jessica Chastain (@jes_chastain) May 7, 2019
Game of Thrones has come under fire for this type of characterization before. When Ramsay raped Sansa in season 5, critics debated whether the assault was necessary for the narrative. Ramsay was already well-established as an abusive sadist, viewers argued, and Sansa’s rape didn’t complicate our understanding of him. For Sansa to now say that she’d still be an idealistic waif if it hadn’t happened is seen as a tacit approval of this storyline — one that hinges on the notion that women characters need to be punished to be interesting.
Thrones has made mistakes
Maggie McMuffin, a burlesque performer and educator, has performed as Sansa for years, giving her a unique perspective on the character’s journey.
“I come out as happy princess Sansa and then act out her watching her father’s execution, being held captive,” McMuffin says. The act culminates with Sansa finally expressing herself in a scream. After the deaths of Ramsay Bolton and Littlefinger, McMuffin updated the performance, “to honor the character’s growth.
“I made it a tribute to Sansa surviving. It’s a strip from her old costume and putting on her Lady of Winterfell look, and at the end I smile and just breathe.”
McMuffin sees more potential for nuance in this episode’s interaction between Sansa and the Hound.
“She’s owning what happened to her,” McMuffin says. “She’s moving on from the initial trauma of it and making peace with the woman she is now. It’s her choosing to be who she is.”
For McMuffin, and frankly for myself, it’s tempting to interpret the narrative in a way that respects the character. For many longtime viewers, the show’s fumbling track record makes that difficult or impossible.
“This was definitely a scene where I credit the actors more than anyone,” she says. “I think the showrunners have made awful choices with women.”
In earlier seasons, nude women are used as set dressing in “sexposition” scenes. Sex workers are often collateral damage in scenes that remind us who’s evil — as when Joffrey orders Ros to whip another woman, or when he later murders Ros, and her naked body is shown strung up, full of crossbow bolts. Sansa’s rape is shown through the prism of Theon Greyjoy witnessing it. Her rape becomes about his pain.
Over and over again, moments of women’s suffering have been handled with all the delicacy of Oberyn Martell’s skull in Gregor Clegane’s hands. Fans of Sansa are particularly protective. It’s part of what drove McMuffin to create her act.
“How much people hated her just made me want to defend her,” she says. Critique of Sansa often revolves around grudges over her season 1 mistakes as a 13-year-old girl, and can veer into misogyny. (“Sansa has no moral compass, she is disloyal to her loved ones, and she is literally always crying,” this viewer wrote helpfully, back in 2014.)
That’s why every scene that discusses Sansa’s rape will always be pored over by fans, and weighed against every misstep the show has made. For many viewers, the show hasn’t earned their trust.
Sansa has learned to protect herself
The Hound’s primary memory of Sansa is a scared child he met in King’s Landing — the “little bird” who was under Joffrey’s thumb. By using the nickname, he references her suffering without remarking on her growth. She’s the Lady of Winterfell now, and she’s far from ignorant about Westerosi politics.
“In all the reunions, men keep expecting her to still be a little princess. Jon does it the most and it’s annoying,” says McMuffin. “It’s common for men to think supporting a woman as she grows up means always treating her the same way they did when she was a girl. [Clegane] was always protective of her, at times when no one else was. She may not hate him the way she does other people, but he’s still a connection to her early abusers.”
In this context, Sansa’s comment can be seen as a reminder to the Hound not to patronize her.
“I’ve seen some people condemning the writers for making Sansa ‘cold’ and that this is a betrayal of her earlier, girlier self,” says McMuffin. “Honestly, I think it’s another way people are saying she’s not an ideal survivor.”
There’s wiggle room for Sansa to acknowledge that she’s a survivor of very public abuse, and that she hasn’t been cowed by it. But with the season finale looming, McMuffin hopes that Sansa can pull off one more transformation.
“I want her to have a moment of triumph. I don’t think the show will do that. But it’s a big part of overcoming trauma, learning to be happy again. She just needs a free moment to realize she’s made it.
“It’s the story I need. That’s selfish viewing, but it’s true.”