In last night’s “Game of Thrones,” Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) finally got some long-awaited revenge. In an especially gruesome scene that marks the end to an especially gruesome arc, Sansa let Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon)’s flesh-eating dogs eat him alive, allowing a smile to flicker across her face as the hounds did their business. If anyone deserved such a death, it was Ramsay — a sadistic murderer who had tortured, flayed, mutilated, and murdered his way through the North. For Sansa, it was personal; Ramsay used marriage as an excuse to rape her repeatedly. Her wedding night, last season, was one of the more upsetting scenes in “Game of Thrones.” Even though Sansa had some notion of what she was getting into with him, Ramsay purposefully made it as terrible for her as possible; the only thing he reliably enjoyed was another person’s suffering.
Ramsay’s presence on “Game of Thrones” has been a streak of incorrigible viciousness in a show that often prides itself on deconstructing the mythos of evil. He is the embodiment of despair; as I’ve written before, watching him win, again and again, feels like being depressed. He died as he lived; a character I could barely watch on-screen without cringing.
Still, watching Sansa feed him to his own hounds was not exactly triumphant. Watching her embrace the same terrible violence that was so dear to Ramsay’s heart was unsettling, not victorious. If anyone had the right to watch him eaten alive, it was Sansa, the woman he alternately raised up as his bride and then bruised and assaulted in the middle of the night. But in the midst of what is an otherwise show-stopping scene lies a moral quandary that only the viewer can answer: Is it good, or even worthwhile, to seek revenge?
This is a question asked directly by season four of “Orange Is the New Black,” which, like “Game of Thrones,” showcased a really upsetting rape scene last season. That scene came in the midst of a complex courtship between Tiffany Doggett/“Pennsatucky” (Taryn Manning) and C.O. Coates/“Donuts” (James McMenamin), one that both displayed both genuine flirtation and a pattern of escalating abuse. Pennsatucky was unable to process what had happened to her, at first; she concludes that either she deserved the rape or that it was just Donuts’ way of showing affection. But after Pennsatucky confided in Big Boo (Lea DeLaria), the two hatched a plan near the end of season three to punish him for what he’d done. They couldn’t quite follow through, though Donuts did get the message that he was more vulnerable to the inmates than he’d like to admit.
In season four, Pennsatucky spends the 13 episodes mulling over what has happened to her. And what she eventually and surprisingly alights on is forgiveness. She spends the first few episodes wary of him, prone to both impulsively confront him and impulsively avoid him. He spends that time trying to get her comfortable around him again, out of what seems, anyway, like the prickling of his conscience. When they do eventually speak, it takes the corrections officer several attempts before he can admit to what he did, and even more before he can take responsibility for it. He professes to love Pennsatucky, which she observes doesn’t make her feel any better; but over the course of the season, she’s less and less scared of his presence, even as he becomes hypervigilant of respecting her space. And eventually, in a decision that nearly ends her friendship with Boo, she decides to forgive him. Donuts is still a rapist — indeed, he’s still a rapist mostly in denial. Near the very end of the season, another CO asks him if he’s ever been “tempted” to do bad things, and he denies it with comfortable self-delusion. And in the finale, after Pennsatucky kisses him in a moment of tenderness, he nearly snaps. “You still scared of me?” he asks, leaning into her with an intention that could either be menacing or sexual (or both). “You should be. Because it’s taking everything I got not to throw you on the floor and f— you right now.” Whatever self-control or respect for Pennsatucky that he’s developed over the season manages to hold, but as she slips out of his grasp and back with the rest of the inmates, there’s a palpable sense of her dodging a bullet.
The interplay between Pennsatucky and Donuts is part of one of “Orange Is the New Black’s” primary concerns in season four — the constant struggle each character suffers in terms of asking for forgiveness and learning to grant it to others. Characters as far-flung as Luschek (Matt Peters) and Alex Vause (Laura Prepon) struggle with guilt for the havoc they’ve wreaked; characters as unlikely as Brook (Kimiko Glenn) and Caputo (Nick Sandow) find themselves asking for forgiveness; and inmates like Nicky (Natasha Lyonne) and Taystee (Danielle Brooks) are apologized too, profusely. In one of the season’s most inspired metaphorical motifs, Lolly (Lori Petty) builds a “time machine” out of scavenged metal and cardboard that the other characters try to find solace in, looking either backwards or forwards as the case may be. But there is no escaping the present, with its uncomfortable truths and forced intimacies; at the end of the season, two drunk inmates tear it down, believing it to be cursed.
So it is not exactly surprising that “Orange Is the New Black” approaches its rape plot by thinking about forgiveness, while “Game of Thrones” approaches its own by depicting brutal revenge. Both conclusions suit each individual show. But it is an important distinction, in this case, that while neither is real, “Orange Is the New Black” exists in a world much closer to our own. The inmates of Litchfield are all flawed characters themselves — criminals, by and large, that the show asks the audience to understand and feel for. Pennsatucky is, after all, both a rape victim and a murderer. One does not cancel out the other, but that she is both villain and victim renders both of those terms less meaningful.
And though Sansa’s methods are enviable, here in 2016 in America, we cannot throw every rapist to the dogs. In addition to the punishment probably violating the mandate against “cruel and unusual” punishment, there are just way too many. We simply do not have enough flesh-eating dogs — and though I guess we could get more, revenge and punishment raise the question of whether or not we believe in rehabilitation and forgiveness for sexual assault, and if we do, what that forgiveness looks like.
It’s a worthwhile question without an easy answer, but this is the debate that has to happen now. The viewing public is the most knowledgeable today about rape culture than they have ever been. They — we — might not know what to do about it, but there is more news and discussion about how we react to and discuss rape and sexual assault, both in real life and in fiction, than there ever has been before. Witness the extraordinary reach of one rape survivor’s letter to her rapist, which went from an anonymous letter posted to BuzzFeed to a document read on the floor of the House of Representatives; even as judges entrenched in the system fail to understand the scope of the crime, a great deal of the rest of the world has picked up the horror of with alacrity. To be sure, if Internet comments are any indication, we have a long way to go. But in terms, at least, of awareness, we are in an unprecedented era of understanding both rape and its opposite, consent.
But there is an immense feeling of “now what” to the uproar. There is a clear consensus that the Stanford victim’s rapist, Brock Turner, got off lightly for the crime he was duly convicted of. But is there a clear consensus for what his punishment or treatment or post-conviction life should be? What logically follows so much awareness is the question of what to do with these rapists. Sansa suggests dogs, at least for one as heinous as Ramsay. Pennsatucky suggests forgiveness, citing the New Testament when she makes her case to Boo. Boo, for her piece, suggests extreme vigilance: “We’re good,” she says to Donuts, “because she’s good. But if you ever hurt her again, I mean if you even so much as hurt her feelings, you are f—ing dead. I mean it, literally, dead. You are still a rapist in my book. You didn’t f— up. You didn’t make a mistake. You are a f—king rapist.”
And for what it’s worth, Sansa Stark will be doing her own meditations on forgiveness in next week’s “Game of Thrones.” I only have the teaser to go by, but in that, Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen) — the man who orchestrated her marriage to Ramsay, who, as she herself says, must have known what kind of monster he was — is trying to get back into her good graces, after sending her an 11th hour dispatch of mounted soldiers to win the Battle of the Bastards against Ramsay. Littlefinger’s motivations are more than a little contradictory, but then again, most abusers’ are; he both wants to possess Sansa and to worship her, and has made a game out of killing everyone she is related to. He did not do what Ramsay did to her, but he did enable Ramsay to do it — and kidnapped her, ruined her reputation, and brainwashed her, when it suited him. Might he also be destined for the dogs? Or does “Game of Thrones” seek its own story about forgiveness?