What 'Game of Thrones' tells us about trauma
Posted August 6, 2017 1:36 p.m. EDT
The moment is different for everyone.
Maybe it was when a young girl was burned alive while her parents watched complicity. Perhaps it was the orchestrated slaughter of a family, a pregnant woman's belly stabbed again and again like the film over a frozen TV dinner. Was it when a psychopath ate a sausage next to his freshly-castrated hostage? Or one of the uncountable, imaginative depictions of rape and psychological abuse?
Every "Game of Thrones" fan has had it, the moment when they looked away from the screen and wondered:
"Is suffering the only thing these people do?"
It's exhilarating and exhausting, attending this renaissance faire from hell. But we are approaching the final episodes of the penultimate season, when plots converge and some of the more painful story lines are being resolve. In turn, the surviving characters have started down a fascinating and oft-neglected path: They are actually having to deal with the aftermath of their trauma. And we, for better or worse, get to watch.
Real life problems, but with dragons
"The Moment," for many, happened two years ago in the fifth season when Sansa Stark, a teenage member of the show's most sympathetic and suffering family, was raped and belittled by her psychopathic new husband, Ramsay, on their wedding night.
The story arc, which wasn't included in the books, was a brutal nadir for the show. Sansa had already risen above several seasons' worth of manipulation and abuse, and viewers were turned off by the regression.
Mercifully, in time, things got better for Sansa. She eventually escaped and fed her husband to a pack of starving dogs before returning home and reuniting with her scattered, broken family.
Where some narratives would treat this new chapter of her life as a clean slate, it's clear Sansa carried her trauma with her, as a laurel on her head and an albatross around her neck.
Sometimes, it pulls her down. This season, she speaks with alarming admiration about an enemy who previously held her hostage and manipulated her. She conflates justice and revenge when she tries to banish two children whose disloyal houses had chosen to support the now-dead Ramsay.
TV and movie writers are often criticized for using rape as a piece of character development and then ignoring whatever comes after. As ominous as they appear, Sansa's uneasy interludes make her trauma journey realistic.
"Sansa is a victim of complex trauma, particularly in the form of domestic violence," says Sharie Stines, a therapist, relationship coach and writer who specializes in complex trauma recovery and personality disorders. "She was betrayed by everyone and abused and objectified."
That's not something a person just gets over, Stines says. In fact, even when someone is healed, the ordeal is never completely erased.
"All of our experiences mold and shape us, so recovery is a lifelong process, not a destination."
Come for the action, stay for the complex character decisions
Let's look at a slightly less sympathetic character. In the opening episodes of this season, Theon, a man of middling morals who was held hostage, tortured, castrated and brainwashed (by Ramsay, as it so happens), is faced with saving his sister during an attack on their ship.
As he contemplates his choice, you can see his mind retreating to the days of his captivity. His eyes flick around, observing the present horror. Someone is getting their tongue cut out. Death is everywhere.
He jumps overboard, leaving his sister behind.
What are we to make of that?
Some viewers jeered: What a coward! What a selfish man. On cue, the Twitter machine churned out memes mocking his quick escape.
Even though Theon has never been a favorite character, others recognized the decision as a realistic manifestation of his pain, perhaps even symptomatic of post-traumatic stress disorder.
"You see, when people experience trauma their personality splits off into 'sub-selves' or personas or 'modes,'" to compartmentalize and protect themselves, Stines says.
This hits home for Theon, who was groomed to become a servant name Reek during his captivity, a manipulation so strong he struggled with his identity even after he was rescued.
While Theon as Theon is intense and full of swagger, "Reek represents the part of a person triggered by trauma," says Stines. "And he has a learned response to acquiesce to that trauma."
In other words, Reek came roaring back, and with him came compelling conversations about choices and why they're made, and what it means to recognize someone's internal struggle.
The viewer feels it, too
With any piece of good storytelling, there's a symbiotic relationship between the viewer and the characters they care for. Whether or not we feel for Theon, how we react to Sansa's abuse, it shows us something about ourselves.
"Because of the power of TV and film, people experience certain emotions while watching. With a show such as this, where the traumatic experiences never stop coming, the audience is definitely going to feel something," Stines says.
The importance of the characters' journeys are not lost on the actors, either. Alfie Allen, who plays Theon, spoke at a press event in 2015 about a moving fan encounter.
"She pulled me aside and said 'I get beaten by my husband. He hits me in places that no one ever sees, in the way that you receive abuse in 'Game of Thrones,' it's not pathetic and it gives me strength'," he said. "...(I)t kind of made me realize that I do have responsibilities as an actor."
Indeed, Stines says watching fictional drama can actually help people work through their own trauma.
"It can break through denial and minimization and assure someone that what they are going through is not trivial, that they are not crazy," Stines says. "It seems to me, if there is some sense of satisfaction from a resolution of some sort (on the show), that could be therapeutic."
It's not about a happy ending
An interesting byproduct of all of this suffering is that, almost universally, the triumphs of every hero in "Game of Thrones" have been forged by their trauma. By now, even non-viewers could recognize the long silver hair of Daenerys Targaryen, one of the show's most important heroines. So much has happened, it's easy to forget the first time we saw her: About to be sold as a bride to a stranger in a strange land, timid and scared, unprepared for the dark days to come.
Six seasons later, with dragons circling above and a throne at her back, she delivers an affecting speech that shows she has not forgotten a thing:
"I spent my life in foreign lands. So many men have tried to kill me, I don't remember all their names. I have been sold like a broodmare. I've been chained and betrayed, raped and defiled," she says.
"Do you know what kept me standing, through all those years in exile? Faith. Not in any god, not in myths and legends. In myself. In Daenerys Targaryen."
How many viewers could see themselves in that self-affirmation? How many trauma survivors had a much-needed moment of recognition, a reminder that one of the most powerful women on television is also one of their own?
Showing suffering as a whole experience -- the complex healing, the lifetime of coping, and yes, the possibility of triumph -- isn't wish fulfillment. It's accuracy.
After all, we derive so much more from fiction than pure entertainment. It inspires and challenges us, and when we invest in a story we are doing so with the hope we will be repaid -- not necessarily with a happy ending, but with something that, despite dragons and doom, will be unmistakably, unshakably human.