Welcome to the jungle. The moral morass of rape and incest suddenly comes to the forefront of the latest episode of Game of Thrones‘ season four. Unfortunately, the show runners D. B. Weiss and David Benihoff failed to correct the scene as it was filmed by director Alex Graves. I’m not really sure how all three could have misread the dramatic arc for Jaime Lannister, as he’s clearly become an important character in the adaptation, but it is extremely disappointing. I was on the cusp of believing the HBO series was over its miscues and it might deliver an overall better-constructed story than the novels. Now, not so much.
Spoiler Alert: This review/recap will discuss in detail the events of episode three “Breaker of Chains” and there might even be some slight spoilers to what happens in the later books by Martin. You have been warned!
The showrunners have adapted a scene that deviated significantly from the books, and the internet is ablaze and rightly so. It’s hard to see a show which understands the theme of Martin’s novels so well but gets individual stories, scenes and arcs completely wrong. I was disappointed with how the show handled Danaerys’s wedding night with Khal Drogo – making the act of sex much more rough and non-consensual than it was in the books – and the same mistake was made in this episode.
The scene everyone is talking about takes place in the Great Sept of Baelor, with Joffrey’s body lying on a bier. Cersei is left alone. Jaime enters, and he tells all of the religious folks to piss off so the queen can grieve in peace. He approaches Cersei, and she begs him to kill Tyrion to “avenge our son,” fully admitting the incest that produced Joffrey. Jaime protests, he’s not sure what he saw, and he is waiting until the trial to believe whether Tyrion is capable of murdering his nephew. Cersei and Jaime embrace – she clearly needs comfort and she takes some solace in the one man she’s actually enjoyed sleeping with. But then she sees the golden hand, and Cersei recoils in disgust. Jaime says, “You’re a hateful woman. Damn the gods for making me love a hateful woman,” and then spends a minute of uncomfortable struggling to get off her skirts, knock her to the floor and thrust into her. All the while Cersei says “No” and “It’s not right.” Jaime says, “I don’t care.” The scene ends with him still on top of her, thrusting away.
So that is a rape. Jaime rapes his sister, with the body of his son right beside them. At no moment does Cersei give any indication that she is into what’s happening to her. She sobs and says “No” as many times as she can, and Jaime saying he doesn’t care is a pretty clear indication as to his motives. He’s taking what he’s wanted since he returned to King’s Landing and he doesn’t care whether Cersei wants to or not.
In Martin’s books, Cersei and Jaime do have sex beside the corpse of their dead son, but Cersei wants to do it. She protests at first, but it’s about the dangers of being caught in the Sept not about the choice to have sex or not. Cersei clearly desires her brother, and she consummates that desire by saying “You’re home” when he enters her. She is broken with grief at the loss of her son, and Jaime is the only one that can make her feel whole. The sexual act isn’t about sexual lust, really, but the hunger at feeling anything other than pain. Cersei choosing to have sex with her brother within feet of her cold dead son means so much more for all three characters than her rape does.
Of course, the chronology is off too. In the books, Jaime’s first act coming back to King’s Landing after getting his hand cut off in Harrenhal is going to the Sept to see his sister on the rumor of their son being dead. So their tryst in the Sept is the first thing they do when they see each other after a long absence. Cersei isn’t really aware of the stump of Jaime’s hand. That is, until after the act and yes, she then recoils probably more at the smell than anything else. In order to complete of the arc of Jaime returning from war last season, he needed to get to King’s Landing a little earlier, which didn’t seem like a huge change but impacts the scene here in the Sept. That’s the danger of changing what appears to be the order of minor events in a complex story like this – the adaptation can suffer in ways the creators didn’t anticipate.
Apparently, the writers, the director, and the actors in the HBO show all seemed to miss the implications of overstating Cersei’s disgust with Jaime in the first episode of season four, and how that would play out in this weird orphan scene in the sept. I am sure someone made the point of asking why Cersei would have sex with her brother when she shows him nothing but disgust, but to my mind, the scene would have been a lot stronger if she had been swept up in the moment and then became immediately repulsed afterwards.
That’s not the only problem. I’m not sure the director of the episode really knew how the scene would be perceived at all. According to the director Alex Graves – who’s getting more name-checking on the interwebs today than he ever has before – the scene was meant to depict consensual sex, eventually. “Well, it becomes consensual by the end, because anything for them ultimately results in a turn-on, especially a power struggle,” Graves said in an interview with Alan Sepinwall over at Hitfix. He then admits later that he and the actors didn’t really talk much about the sex part. “Nobody really wanted to talk about what was going on between the two characters, so we had a rehearsal that was a blocking rehearsal. And it was very much about the earlier part with Charles [Dance],” he said. He also said they rehearsed four days before the scene was shot, so as to give them time to think about it instead of shooting the next morning as per usual. If he didn’t want the sex to be rape, Graves did an awful job of it. Perhaps more rehearsal was needed.
I don’t actually care about whether rape is depicted in TV, film or whatever medium, but I do think it should be used in a way that’s responsible. The idea of a woman “being turned on” by a man forcing herself on her is very, very difficult territory to tread, and it should only be attempted with extreme care. What pisses me off is that it seems the director and actors themselves were uncomfortable with the subject material, so they just winged it. And what came out was a scene that’s muddy as hell and screws with the character progression of Jaime Lannister. It’s just meaningless, cruel rape, whereas the original scene in the books is so much more nuanced, creepy and, well, better.
The arc of Jaime Lannister’s growth into more of a heroic character was something audience members could latch onto as a surprising development in a series now quite devoid of heroes. With one sloppily directed scene, he’s gone back to being a villain. There is some chance that his actions later in the season will redeem him … again – the next episode is called “Oathbreaker” which means Brienne will have something to do with that.
And it’s even possible that Jaime’s rape of his sister is his last horrible act – he survived through so much suffering with only the thought of returning to Cersei keeping him going. When she kept her love from him, he lashed out like the spoiled angry punk he used to be. I can imagine a story in which Jaime does what he does because he realizes what he was like, and he chooses to no longer be that way. He won’t abandon his oaths anymore and he won’t have sex with his sister any more either.
One of the themes of Martin’s story is to destroy the fantasy tropes of heroism and honorable knighthood. He’s reinforced that in so many ways: Sansa’s doe-eyed love of Joffrey turns to torture, the beheading of Ned Stark, the Red Wedding. Every character that is good and honorable dies, while the cutthroats, schemers and liars survive. Perhaps that’s the point of Jaime’s rape of Cersei – this is not a story in which scoundrels and rogues turn into just heroes. Jaime will always be an asshole. They are no heroes in King’s Landing, just assholes.
You could argue that’s the point of several other scenes in this episode. Arya and the Hound are still riding through the Riverlands, pissing in fields and talking about going across the Narrow Sea, when they are stopped by a farmer. He says they are trespassing, but Arya deftly apologizes for her “father’s” actions, claiming he’s been rattled in the wars. There’s another funny scene at the farmer’s table – both Arya and the Clegane are hungry but the farmer drones on in prayer for all seven gods. The farmer offers the Hound honest work for honest silver, and Arya’s surprised when he accepts. Until the next morning when the Hound beats down the man, takes the silver and rides away. “You are the worst man ever!” Arya screams. Sandor Clegane just says that he knows how the world works.
Following the comedy Arya and the Hound have shown in their scenes together, and the amazing action scene in the first episode, not to mention the memes that have popped up on the web, the audience clearly has a bond with these two companions. The Hound quit the King’s service, and he fought for Arya. Maybe he’s turning into a good guy? Maybe? Please? Nope, he’s the Hound, a dirty realist who thinks it’s ok to steal from a weak farmer because he will be dead soon anyway. Just assholes.
Sansa Stark is rushed through the streets of King’s Landing by Ser Dontos. Dontos is the guy who claimed he was giving her a necklace that belonged to his family for generations, and who just so happened to have the foresight to flee the wedding as soon as the king fell choking. They get into a boat to go somewhere safe, and end up on a big sailing ship in a fog. Sansa climbs the ladder and is grabbed at the top by … duh, duh, dunnnnnnh … Littlefinger. Dontos asks Lord Petyr Baelish to pay him 10,000 gold coins so he can get back to the city and Littlefinger pays him with crossbow bolts to the heart and face. Sansa is confused, but Littlefinger gives away a little bit of his plot by taking off the necklace Dontos gave her and smashes the jewels showing them as glass. He was doing Littlefinger’s bidding the whole time – Dontos was an asshole too.
Oh and Prince Oberyn? After some sexy talk with lads and lasses, Lord Tywin bursts in and has a heart to heart with the Prince of Dorne. The Hand of the King offers much – a seat at the small council, a place in the judging of Tyrion in Joffrey’s murder – but he knows that Oberyn really wants: justice. Tywin is willing to trade the life of Gregor Clegane for Oberyn’s loyalty. Oberyn just needs to accept Tywin’s innocence, and it will all will work out just fine. The sad part is even though Oberyn passionately said he was in King’s Landing to see Tywin brought to justice, he may trade all that for some lesser punishment of the Mountain. Oberyn is a bi-sexual asshole.
Tywin does some good in this episode though. Before the rape in the sept, he is there with Cersei and Tommen, the boy who is now king, all looking at the body of Joffrey. There’s a shot that’s eerily reminiscent of the show’s first episode when it was Jon Arryn’s body on display. The ever-scheming Tywin does not waste the first opportunity to speak to the new king. He begins coaching Tommen on how to be a good ruler as soon as he gets a chance – a chance he never had with Joffrey. Despite Cersei’s protestations – “This is hardly the time or the place,” she says to her father over the body of her dead son – Tywin seems to actually get through to the good-hearted Tommen with his teachings and you’re left with the feeling that Joffrey’s death will actually work out for the Lannisters. Again, all this seems a bit too good to be true for Lord Tywin, as if he knew Joffrey would not survive long. Yep, Tywin’s an asshole, too.
In fact, the only pair who don’t appear to be assholes are in the most dire straits. Podrick Payne, the greatest squire in the world, goes to see Tyrion in the dungeon. Pod’s been approached to testify against Tyrion with a lie of buying poison for him, and Tyrion tells him to leave King’s Landing. Their scene together is heartfelt and actually really sweet and seeing Pod walk out the door I couldn’t help but think that’s the last friend Tyrion is going to see for a while.
And Samwell Tarly isn’t really an asshole either. He clearly loves Gilly, the girl he smuggled away from Craster’s north of the wall and he sets her up in Mole’s Town to keep her safe from the prying hands of the rapers of the Night’s Watch. She will hate him for bringing her to a whore house though – so maybe he still is an asshole.
Jon Snow knows nothing, and is therefore kind of an asshole, but he also knows the wildings are coming. And he doesn’t have much to do in this season before the climactic events at the end of the book, so the writers needed to create some plot for him. The answer, seeded in this episode, is to go to Craster’s Keep to kill the brothers of the Night’s Watch who murdered Lord Commander Mormont. I’m not really sure what’s going to be the pay off there, and I wish the show’s creators had spent more time foreshadowing the politics of the Night’s Watch rather than waste time on made up action, but I’ll wait to pass final judgment there.
Finally, we go across the Narrow Sea to witness Daenerys approaching the walls of Meeren. A champion emerges from the city, and pees in her general direction. We get another tedious introduction to the four named men traveling with her, and a somewhat badass Daario Naharis takes out the charging Meeren champion with a thrown dagger and a brief swipe of his arakh. The strutting champion silenced, and a quick piss from Daario, and Daenerys is free to speak. She starts delivering a stirring speech, which you at first believe is being delivered to the rulers of the city. But as it goes on, it slowly becomes clear that she is in fact speaking to the slaves of Meereen, who wear collars around their necks, asking them to rise up and strike against the enemies in the slave-owners around them. She is not an asshole; she is the breaker of chains.
The season is progressing, but this episode will really only be remembered for the bungling of Jaime and Cersei’s sex scene. Like his character, it’s possible the writers and director Alex Graves will be redeemed later on in the seasons. But maybe that’s the point, they are all assholes too?