In The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes, Stan Brakhage films the intimacies of an autopsy. Engaging in his own branded style of subjectivity, he sheds light on death as the essential element of our existence. The beauty of Brakhage’s film is the poetry he instills on death, and how he casts light on the body when we are least willing to confront it. In this week’s Game of Thrones, “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken,” we begin on a graphically and symbolically similar note. The training of Arya (Maisie Williams) with the Faceless men consists of preparing and cleaning corpses. Though handled with far more distance than Brakhage, the scene properly evokes our own detachment with death and our complicated relationship with interconnectedness of the body and the self. The entire sequence is connected to the idea of being both “no one” and “someone else.”
One of the criticisms levelled at Game of Thrones is how it occupies itself with death, and how it treats characters as disposable. This runs contrary to how narratives have traditionally handled the element of death, reserving it as the ace in the sleeve — a handy way to inspire or horrify. The question remains though, does Game of Thrones treatment of death adhere to a brutal reality or is it exploitative?
The episode is rather beautifully structured, and in a magistral aesthetic moment, the bathing of a “corpse” is revisited as Sansa (Sophie Turner) is bathed before her wedding night. As we have long understood weddings to foretell death, in particular since we know about Ramsay’s (Iwan Rheon) reputation, this strategic engagement will likely end poorly for Sansa. This second scene evokes new ideas about the nature of the body in the context of life and death, and hints at another crack in Game of Thrones’ armour.
Rape is often portrayed as worse than death in popular culture, and unfortunately Game of Thrones uses it often as a device with little framing or exploration. The HBO series is hardly the only guilty party, but rape is used to evoke a victim narrative that ultimately does little good to anyone. So, its use in this episode is questionable. Will it just be another act of violence against women on the show that will be discarded moving forward, or will it be properly integrated within the narrative and character? The symbolic use of rape carries a lot of negative connotations, though there is no denying that it thematically ties into the opening sequence and our understanding of the relationship between the body and identity. The female body in particular becomes detached from the concept of the self, and it often seems like the makers of the show are trying to have their cake and eat it too. You can’t have scenes populated by naked, faceless women who are little more than props, and then turn around and repeatedly show your female characters being raped and not expect some kind of dissonance. I’m not going to throw my full weight on the idea that it is naturally exploitative, but it certainly warrants deeper discussion and reflection.
Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies, and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she is the film editor of Sound on Sight and a freelance writer.