“I’m going to hijack the commentary track for just a minute to talk about this subplot…” says writer-producer Bryan Cogman on the upcoming DVD release of Game of Thrones season 5.
And thus launches a detailed explaination of what’s arguably the most controversial scene in the HBO fantasy hit’s history, where the innocent Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) is raped on her wedding night by the sadisic Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon) as her family’s traitorous former ward Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen) is forced to watch. The scene resulted in outraged worldwide headlines and even a U.S. senator swearing off the show.
Cogman, who wrote the episode “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken,” and showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss, have largely avoided discussing the scene – save some brief comments Cogman made last year that were given a rather cynical spin by some critics online. For the DVD commentary, Cogman wanted to set the record straight.
“I think it’s important to talk about because of the response this storyline got,” Cogman says. “It’s sort of ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t.’ If you don’t talk about it, people think you’re ashamed of it; if you do talk about it, everything you say is taken out of context. Basically, when we decided to combine Sansa’s storyline with another character in the books it was done with the idea that it would be hugely dramatically satisfying to have Sansa back in her occupied childhood home and navigate this Gothic horror story she’s found herself in and, of course, to be reunited with Theon – setting her on the path to reclaiming her family home and becoming a major player in the big overall story. That said, when we decided we were going to do that we were faced with the question: If she’s marrying Ramsay, what would happen on her wedding night? And we made the decision to not shy away from what would realistically would happen on that wedding night with these two characters, and the reality of the situation, and the reality of this particular world.”
A reaction among some fans was that Sansa should have tried to kill Ramsay in the scene. “Yes, it would have been hugely satisfying [for Sansa] to have a shiv up her sleeve and gut Ramsay, but that’s not Sansa,” Cogman says. “We can’t all be Arya (Maisie Williams) and, in fact, most people aren’t Arya. Most people in that situation, they have to play a longer game. She goes [into the marriage] without the right information about Ramsay, she gets the sense that he’s dangerous, and when he turns out to be even worse than she thought, she’s not broken by the attack, she immediately sets to getting the hell out of there and planning her next move.”
Williams is on the commentary track too, and is quite supportive. “Good for you,” she says. “It’s important to have your say openly and honestly, and not just through headlines and Twitter and things like that… there is so much more to the whole sequence than people are allowing.” Turner is absent from the episode’s commentary, and Williams says she had a schedule conflict to work on her upcoming film, X-Men Apocalypse.
At one point, Cogman seemed to get a bit choked up. “It was a very difficult scene for me to write,” he says. “I’ve known Sophie since she was a kid… I think it was the attack on our motives behind it that upset me. Because I love these characters. I’ve spent the better part of the last decade with these characters, and I love these actors – I’m getting emotional talking about it – I love Sophie, I love Alfie, I love [Maisie] and it’s … very personal to me and it’s not an easy thing to put a character that I love through a scene like this.”
Cogman also addressed the final shot of the sequence, where director Jeremy Podeswa (who was nominated for an Emmy for this episode) cut to Theon’s anguished face while Sansa was attacked. “Another argument – and I get why this criticism was leveled at us – is idea that we took Sansa’s story away from her and made it all about Theon [by cutting to his face at the end],” he says. “I personally don’t believe that’s the case … Certainly Theon’s redemption journey is an element of the subplot. But if you really watch this scene it’s played from Sansa’s viewpoint, for the most part. 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.”
Summing up, Cogman emphasized that the scene is most accurately judged as part of Sansa’s entire storyline and teased that she will play a major role in the upcoming sixth season. “It’s an upsetting scene, it’s a horrifying scene, it’s meant to be … [But] the accusation that our motives were [that we] just threw in a rape for shock value, I personally don’t think the scene as shot, or as written, or as acted by our wonderful actors, supports that argument. Nor do I think the aftermath of the scene supports that argument. Not only in these episodes, but also in future episodes. This story is not over. This is a long ongoing story. Sansa has a journey ahead of her, and what happens to her in that room is a huge part of that journey, and one that we’ve thought through.”
After recording the DVD’s commentary, Williams told us that Cogman was genuinely upset during the session. “He was really sad, he was heartbroken,” she said. “He loves these characters and all the actors on the show.”
While the Sansa scene was deeply divisive, Thrones’ ratings continued to climb after the episode (hitting a record 8.1 million viewers in same-day viewership for the finale), and the season won the Emmy for best drama series. “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken” was nominated for direction, cinematography and production design.
Cogman and Williams actually have much more to say about the sequence in the full commentary. The DVD and Blu-ray is released March 15. The set contains the complete season, along with deleted scenes, audio commentaries, a documentary on the real-life European history that inspired Thrones author George R.R. Martin, a deep-dive documentary into the season finale, and more. Thrones returns for season 6 on April 24. For ongoing Game of Thrones news, interviews, recaps and more, follow @jameshibberd.