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Baptisms by Fire in ‘Game of Thrones’

HBO
HBO

Leave it to Ramsay Bolton to demonstrate the best thing about a Game of Thrones episode by doing his worst. Before Daenerys had her second baptism by fire, and after Cersei finally found a place to put her anger (that isn’t a wine glass), and Sansa and Yara and Margaery all whipped their comparatively fragile brothers into shape, Ramsay got to use yet another woman like a proverbial chew toy. Rest in peace, Osha. You died so your compatriots could roast their oppressors alive.

Game of Thrones, of course, has come under more scrutiny than anything else on television for what it puts its female characters through. Some of these arguments are fair; others are not. Mostly, the hot takes pour in because this show is a case study in both the grotesque lows and unmatched highs of depicting trauma, much of it (though not all) experienced by women. Most of the lows come courtesy of Mr. Bolton: Theon’s torture, Sansa’s rape, and now, Osha’s murder. The highs were on full display in “Book of the Stranger,” an action-packed hour of Women Getting Shit Done not in spite but because of what they’ve endured.

Every single female character who made her move last night was motivated by indignities she had suffered at the hands of men. Some of this we’ve witnessed at length: Daenerys started the show as a captive of the people she’d eventually force to kneel before her, and Sansa has spent her adult life in the hands of the most monstrous men in Westeros. Some we’ve heard about only secondhand, like the Dothraki widow whom Dany recognizes as a kindred spirit. All of it comes to a head in “Book of the Stranger,” in which the Mother of Dragons takes her revenge while a humiliated Cersei, imprisoned Margaery, and deeply scarred Sansa begin to plot theirs.

This is what productive (fictional) trauma looks like: characters seizing control only after we’ve seen how elusive — and how necessary — that control is. Was everything that came before “Book of the Stranger” necessary to achieving its payoff? Does the episode excuse the nasty flourishes, like Osha’s death, that show no sign of payoff at all? These are questions without easy answers. But “Book of the Stranger” gives the women of Game of Thrones something that torture porn — a label that this show has come dangerously close to earning — doesn’t. It gives them a path forward.

This piece originally appeared in the May 16, 2016, edition of the Ringer newsletter.