Ask the Maester: Sansa’s Horrific Wedding, the Bolton-Stark Alliance, and the Sand SnakesHBO
Numerous people ask, “Can you talk about Sansa’s wedding?”
Many of the changes showrunners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff have made in adapting Game of Thrones from its source novels have been, from a narrative point of view, improvements. The combining of characters into composites, the outright jettisoning of other characters, the changing of plot arcs — all of those things aren’t just artful re-edits made on a whim for the sake of doing them, but are necessary because of the realistic demands of producing 10 episodes of Game of Thrones a year. In the same way that George R.R. Martin had to alter the structure of Books 4 and 5 (A Feast for Crows and A Dance With Dragons) because modern bookbinding techniques literally couldn’t handle the number of manuscript pages he submitted for Feast, Benioff and Weiss have to make decisions based on the logistics of a gigantic cast filming in three countries simultaneously for 200 days a year, with only one hour per episode to tell their story.
All of that is to say I was generally OK with the change of Sansa going to Winterfell to marry Ramsay when it was revealed. The somewhat convoluted book version of the arc, in which the bride is a tertiary character (the daughter of a former Stark loyalist) who is forced to pretend to be Arya, is great but just too unwieldy for television. The show’s version also had the plus of providing more emotional stakes — obviously! — for the characters, the story, and the viewers. Theon now has a real opportunity for redemption. Or he could possibly sink to heretofore unplumbed depths of debased subservience and shame. Sansa moves to the center of the story rather than being shunted aside doing this and that in the Vale, where nothing much but politicking and the manipulation of grain prices is going on. Any book reader — or even show watcher — understood the danger for Sansa and knew full well where her relationship with Ramsay logically would go. I expected what happened to be awful. What I didn’t expect was the seemingly slapdash and unthinking way that the show arrived at that place.
In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, producer Bryan Cogman was asked, “How could you do this to Sansa?” He said: “This isn’t a timid little girl walking into a wedding night with Joffrey. This is a hardened woman making a choice and she sees this as the way to get back her homeland. Sansa has a wedding night in the sense she never thought she would with one of the monsters of the show. It’s pretty intense and awful and the character will have to deal with it.” To which I say: Mmmmm, nah.
What’s worse than portraying a sexual assault? Not knowing that you are. “A hardened woman making a choice” is a statement that seems to fundamentally misunderstand what the show has been portraying over the last few seasons. Sansa depends on Littlefinger for her safety, indeed for her survival. Sure, she doesn’t believe in princes and fairy tales anymore. But “a hardened woman”? She has no means by which to fend for herself and is, along with Tyrion, one of the most wanted persons in the realm. At every point along the way, the choices Sansa has made to cope with her increasingly dire situation have been the equivalent of a prisoner decorating her cell. She’s “decided” to play along because all the other options likely end with her head on a spike. Could she have sold Petyr Baelish out to the nobles of the Vale? Sure, but putting herself in the care of yet more strangers could easily lead to her death. Could she have refused to go to Winterfell to wed Ramsay? Well, she actually did several times. Until Littlefinger convinced her. But let’s not pretend that Littlefinger and Sansa enjoy a relationship of equal footing. Also, he couldn’t have left her a few bodyguards?
As for why Littlefinger would allow Sansa to fall into the clutches of the Boltons and the serial rapist and murderer Ramsay, Cogman said: “The difference between the Ramsay Snow of the books and the show is the Ramsay of the show is not a famous psycho. He’s not known everywhere as a psycho. So Littlefinger doesn’t have the intelligence on him.” Yeah, no. That flies about as well as a dead raven.
Let’s put aside the fact that Ramsay recently had the flayed bodies of Lord and Lady Cerwyn hanging for all to see in the yard at Winterfell, and that he keeps Theon Greyjoy, only the last living son of the Lord of the Iron Islands — and thus one of the most (in)famous persons in the realm, certainly among the top three most recognizable faces in the North — as his mutilated thrall. And that the Bolton House sigil is a fucking flayed man. And that the Boltons betrayed the Starks. Knowing what we know about Littlefinger, based on, oh, four seasons of fairly calculated Machiavellian string-pulling — he was behind the downfall of Jon Arryn, he played Ned Stark like a violin, he facilitated the Purple Wedding, and he seized control of the Vale with a simple push — there is approximately zero percent chance he would broker a marriage deal with the Boltons without doing his due diligence on them. That would not ever happen. This guy is supposed to be the mastermind-behind-the-guy-behind-the-guy. Baelish taking a calculated risk with Sansa’s safety as part of a larger plot would at least make sense. Sansa getting raped because Littlefinger was flat-out lazy and inept doesn’t earn the brutal shock of the scene.
Considering the justified uproar over Cersei and Jaime in the Sept last season, the way the production handled this is troubling in that it suggests they’ve learned nothing at all.
Daniel asks, “So Roose Bolton is a pretty terrible guy. I mean, he’s flagrantly sadistic (his sigil is a flayed man for Hodor’s sake). So how is it that he was an ally of Ned Stark before the Red Wedding? Caitlin seemed friendly enough with Roose before he turned on her, and the impression I got was that the Boltons and the Starks had been allies, at least since Robert’s Rebellion. But how could good old Honorable Ned Stark be allies with such an openly awful guy?”
The short answer is that allies aren’t necessarily friends. The longer answer, as you might expect, is that the lord-and-vassal relationship between the Starks and the Boltons is complex, rife with conflict and quite a bit of foreshadowing. The Starks ruled the North — first as Kings, then as high lords and Wardens of the North — for about 8,000 years, and a house doesn’t expand its control over the whole of a region like the North by asking politely and campaigning on a platform of good governance. Though we view their house through the tragically heroic lens of Ned “Bring Your Honor to a Sword Fight” Stark, over that vast ocean of time there have been good Starks and bad Starks, strong Starks and weak Starks, just Starks and rapaciously warlike Starks. The ancient North, just like the rest of Westeros, was made up of numerous petty kingdoms. The Starks’ rise from local warlords to Kings in the North necessitated the subjugation of these minor kingdoms, not to mention occasionally grappling with warg armies and greenseers and giants and various inhuman creatures native to the North and beyond. Many of the notable houses of the North today were once rulers in their own rights who bent the knee — the Flints, the Slates, and the Glovers, for example — and others who refused were wiped out and lost to history.
Of these ancient kingdoms of the North, the Red Kings of the House Bolton — who ruled the lands between the Last River and the River Whiteknife from the Dreadfort — were among the most powerful and definitely the most antagonistic to Stark hegemony. King Royce II was the first Bolton to sack and burn Winterfell. The Starks rebounded, only to have their home destroyed again 300 years later by King Royce IV Bolton, known as “Redarm” for his habit of thrusting his arm into his enemies’ stomachs and tearing out their intestines. Cool family. Also: Make your castle stronger, Stark homies. Roughly 6,000 years ago, King Rogar “the Huntsman” Bolton bent his knee to the Starks, ending the contest-of-equals phase of the relationship between the two and ushering in the mostly-loyal-vassal-with-occasional-bouts-of-bloody-insurrection phase. As subjects of Winterfell, the Boltons took part in the Starks’ wars, most notably between the North and the Arryns of the Vale. That war, to hear the Arryns tell it, was not lacking in Northmen atrocities: children killed and boiled in pots; entrails torn out and roasted before the eyes of their owners; the head-Bolton-in-charge at the time supposedly making a headquarters tent out of the skins of his captives. It isn’t clear whether any of these things actually occurred and, if so, who took part in them; Northerners dispute the accounts. But considering the documented scope of Bolton depravity, it’s fair to surmise that these horrors did occur and that either the Boltons hid them from the Starks (it wouldn’t be the first time, or the last), or the Starks pretended they didn’t know.
There’s some evidence that, during this time of relative amity, Winterfell pursued a strategy of containment in order to dissuade the Boltons from rising from their knees. A fortress called the Wolf’s Den (which has since grown into the city known as White Harbor) was established at the mouth of the White Knife by King Jon Stark. The Den was ostensibly raised to guard the river from invasion, but it’s hard to ignore that the fortress and its attendant lands also happen to hem the Boltons in from the south. The Wolf’s Den was kept under direct Stark control, and some Kings in the North actually preferred to use the Den as their seat over Winterfell. To the East of the Dreadfort, Karlon Stark, an ancient second son of an unknown King in the North, built the castle of Karhold with lands that may or may not have been taken from Bolton domains. Over time, as the Wolf’s Den and Karhold were passed down within various branches of the Stark family, offshoot branches appeared. The branch that sits at Karhold calls themselves the Karstarks; you might recall Robb Stark beheading the Lord Karstark for going rogue and killing the young Lannister hostages a few seasons back. At the Wolf’s Den, various cadet branches appeared, the longest-running of which were the Greystarks. They reigned for 500 years — until they joined with the Boltons in yet another Dreadfort rebellion against Winterfell and were exterminated. It is said that over the years of outright warfare and simmering resentment (which occasionally bubbled over into insurrection), numerous Stark kings and lords were flayed, their skins worn as Bolton cloaks or hung as drapery.
Then there are the darker whispers, the folktales that the fabled Night’s King — the power-mad former 13th Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, who fell in love with a strange pale woman, possibly begetting the White Walkers — was, perhaps, a Bolton. Or a Stark or a Norrey or a Skagosi cannibal. At any rate, Bolton is always the first name on the list.
So why do the Starks put up with this? Well, basically, war in Westeros is prohibitively expensive. The majority of the soldiers who make up the armies in Westeros are simple peasants, small folk who normally would be working their lord’s fields, milling their grain, or doing some other needed service. In addition to the common footsoldiers, there are the landed knights and lords and their noble squires, and their armorers, all in the field risking their lives when they could be at home working. When King Harlon Stark laid siege to the Dreadfort to put down yet another Bolton rebellion, it took his army two years to starve the Dreadfort into submission. That’s two years of economic and agricultural activity basically ground to a halt. This is why Westerosi wars usually end with the losing side capitulating and agreeing to terms rather than the ultimate extinction of a noble house, though that does occasionally happen. (See: Reynes, Castamere.) Once a side knows they can’t win, they pay a few hundred pounds of silver, maybe give up a few sons as hostages, maybe marry off a few daughters, hand over a few parcels of land, and promise never ever ever to do it again. Ninety-nine percent of the time, all is forgiven because everyone just wants to fucking go home and not die when the other side is willing to surrender. It’s just easier that way, and most of the time the system works. Up until the Red Wedding, the Boltons had been more or less loyal to the Starks for a thousand years. Sure, they might still flay people now and again, and, yes, Ramsay is insane. But that’s nothing worth calling the banners over.
Who are the Sand Snakes?
Listen: I had — and still have — high hopes for the Sand Snakes. I really did. That said, not winning a fight in which they had a numerical advantage, and where one of the dudes they were fighting does not have a hand, does not bode well for their martial prowess.
The Sand Snakes are the bastard daughters of the late Dornish Prince Oberyn “The Red Viper” Martell and various women including Ellaria Sand. They are as dangerous and lascivious as their father. The three we’ve seen are Obara (mother: an unknown peasant), Nymeria (mother: a Volantene noblewoman), and Tyene (mother: Ellaria).
The others we haven’t seen are Sarella, Elia, Obella, Dorea, and Loreza. Of those, Sarella, the daughter of a Summer Isles pirate captain, is notable for her fierce intellect and independence and her possible undercover work among the Maesters of the Citadel.
Kevin asks, “What happens if a Stoneman touches a Whitewalker?”
Mischa asks, “How does Jaqen know when Arya is lying? Is he a wizard?”
While there is certainly some kind of quasi-magical element to the lying game, Faceless Men training involves gaining control over every subconscious smile, tic, and tremor that usually flashes across a person’s face without their even realizing it. Arya does not yet have that kind of control.
Dan asks, “Was it just me or did Bronn get cut at the end of the fight with the Sand Snakes? If they poison their tips like Oberyn, that’s it for him, isn’t it?”
The camera did linger a beat longer than normal on the cut on Bronn’s forearm. Shouts to episode director Jeremy Podeswa for that subtle all-caps foreshadowing. Still, there are numerous possible poisons, assuming that the DAUGHTERS OF OBERYN WHO ARE NAMED AFTER VENOMOUS REPTILES DO TREAT THEIR WEAPONS WITH POISON. Maybe they just gave him severe hemorrhoids or bad breath or farts.
Mauricio asks, “What’s the name of the song Bronn was singing? How does it end?”
It’s called “The Dornishman’s Wife.” Consider it Dorne’s answer to R. Kelly’s “Trapped in the Closet.” It ends with the dude who slept with the Dornishman’s wife bleeding out.
Michael asks, “Is there any canon explanation for why there seems to have been like no technological advancement in the world of GoT for the past 8,000 years or so? I mean, I know the doom of Valyria set things back a bit, but 8,000 years and they haven’t invented the steam engine, discovered electricity, or anything?”
This hasn’t been dealt with directly, but (as with everything else) there are numerous fan theories, some of which are quite involved, none of which are really worth talking about, because the answer is, “That’s the genre.”
Scene(s) of the Week: Westerosi Work Styles
Pretending to be writing something important.
Actually writing something important.
Writing bondage haiku.
Bills, bills, and more bills.
Wildling study hall.