Warning: Spoilers ahead.
Game of Thrones has been very fairly criticized, again and again, for its rampant depictions of violence—against kids, against women, against random characters, against everyone. The criticism generally involves a subsidiary accusation: not just that the show revels in its violence, but that it isn’t thoughtful about the way it deploys it. That it depicts blood and gore and death—and the human pain that comes with it—wantonly and gleefully. Sadism, without strategy.
Sunday night’s episode—definitely, as my colleague Spencer Kornhaber summed it up, “one of the most memorable episodes in Thrones history”—offered something of a rebuke to those criticisms, and also a rebuke to the show’s own checkered history of violence. The episode considered time travel. It considered the machinations of fate. In all that, it considered the circularity of violence: the notion that a violent act cannot be understood as a single event, but rather as something that will reverberate across people and space and time. As something that will, indeed, linger in the air.
The most striking instance of all that was, of course, the straining, clawing, and self-sacrificial death of Hodor. (The phrase “Hold the door,” which is outside of the Game of Thrones universe the stuff of polite banality, will never be quite the same.) But there was a subtler—and arguably more significant—moment of violence in the episode, too: Sansa returning to Littlefinger and forcing him to hear the atrocities that Ramsay—whom Sansa had been married to, ultimately, because of Littlefinger’s manipulations—had committed against her.
“Did you know about Ramsay?” Sansa (Sophie Turner, in a standout performance) spit, stone-faced, to Littlefinger, as Lady Brienne looked on. “If you didn’t know, you’re an idiot. If you did know, you’re my enemy.”
She continued: “Would you like to hear about our wedding night?”
Littlefinger did not want hear about that. She continued anyway.
“He never hurt my face. He needed my face—the face of Ned Stark’s daughter. But the rest of me? He did what he liked with the rest of me. As long as I could still give him an heir. What do you think he did?”
“I can’t begin to contemplate,” Littlefinger replied.
Sansa was not deterred. He would be made to contemplate. “What do you think he did to me?” Sansa asked again. They stared at each other in wide-eyed silence, until Lady Brienne interrupted: “Lady Sansa asked you a question.”
“He beat you,” Littlefinger said.
“Yes, he enjoyed that. What else do you think he did?”
“Sansa, I don’t—”
“What else?” Sansa said.
“Did he cut you?”
“Maybe you did know about Ramsay all along.”
Finally, Littlefinger admitted, “I made a mistake.” Sansa, however, ignored him. The admission was not what she was after. “The other things he did,” Sansa continued, “ladies aren’t supposed to talk about those things. But I imagine brothel keeps talk about them all the time.”
As Littlefinger stared at her, dumbfounded, Sansa continued: “I can still feel it. I don’t mean ‘in my tender heart, it still pains me so.’ I can still feel what he did, in my body, standing here, right now.”
Standing here, right now. The dialogue took place in a notably darkened room; there was nothing to see here—no action, no setting—there was only something to hear. Sansa was coming to terms with what Ramsay had done to her, via nothing but stark (and Stark) words. And she was forcing Littlefinger to do the same. She was insisting on being being heard. Her recitation—her forcing Littlefinger to know of her pain, and maybe even to experience just a little of it himself—is a telling moment of verbal vigilante-ism. Because Sansa has, in her current state, very little recourse for Ramsay’s abuse, and no way to undo the past. But she has her words, and she will weaponize them as best she can.
In all that, the scene sent a powerful message: Sansa is a survivor, but that does not mean, she insisted, that she is “unharmed.” On the contrary. She is scarred. She is wounded. She is hurting. She will continue to be all of those things, because of Littlefinger and Ramsay and memory and time and the fact that violence lives on long after the act of it is done.
But: She won’t be silent about what she is, or about what happened to her. She has her voice, still.
And Game of Thrones, the show, is letting her use that voice. It is letting her tell her story. You could read the exchange as a kind of literary act of contrition: an admission on the part of the show’s creators, to its unseen but vocal audiences, that violence—even, yes, violence that the show inflicted on its own character—will have its consequences. You could read it as an insistence that the violence here has a purpose, and its own kind of story to tell. Here was violence, treated not as a titillation or an entertainment, but acknowledged as, simply, pain. And here was violence, too, made full in its cyclicality. As my colleague Lenika Cruz noted, the episode’s opening scene, which showed Sansa at work with her sewing needle, was “a sweet throwback to when we met her in the pilot—smiling as Old Nan praised her stitching, while Arya fidgeted nearby, distracted by the sounds of arrow-shooting outside.” And as she talks to Littlefinger—another full-circling—here was Sansa coming to terms, or trying to come to terms, with her own past.
And here was Game of Thrones, doing something similar. Here was the show, letting its survivor tell her story of violence, in her own voice. “I can still feel it,” Sansa says. And she will keep talking about what she feels and what she has endured—even though ladies aren’t supposed to talk about those things. She will talk, and the show will talk, and that won’t undo anything, but it will be something. The words here are a small measure of catharsis, for the character who utters them and for the show that’s played its own part on inflicting pain on her: They acknowledge the way violence reverberates, and insinuates, and destroys. They understand that it will come back in the most unexpected of places and times. They admit that, in violent acts as in so much else, what is dead may never die.