It’s a man’s world.
In this episode, ‘Breaker of Chains’, the showrunners take a rather unexpected leap into dangerous territory, adapting an already controversial scene in the books into one that could bring with it accusations of misogyny.
The scene has already prompted responses questioning why David Benioff and D.B. Weiss would take a moment from the books where Cersei reluctantly has sex with Jaime by the tomb of their recently murdered son Joffrey, and turn it into a scene where it is quite clear that Jaime rapes Cersei. As Sonia Saraiya writes for the A.V. Club:
‘Why change this? Why make a scene from the book that depicts consensual sex into one in the show that depicts rape?…It seems more likely that Game of Thrones is falling into the same trap that so much television does – exploitation for shock value.’
It’s not a new complaint for the series, given that the books have already dealt with discussions over their treatment of female agency. The complaints that George R.R. Martin could have made any old type of world rather than one that is extremely patriarchal, given that this is fantasy, are wide of the mark, however. Merely because something is fantasy doesn’t mean it is all make believe. Fantasy works by shifting the real into unreal, but still recognisable settings. The patriarchal underpinnings of Westeros are an extension and amplification of our own world, and as the first two episodes of this season have shown us, the rules and traditions that govern Westeros are quickly disappearing. The land is becoming anarchic, and what was once secret plots and political conspiracies designed to overthrow while maintaining order has quickly become overthrow at the sake of order.
Benioff and Weiss are moving the series into a portrait of our own world, our own society. Westeros is emblematic of our world, if ours were to grasp its present underbelly of cruelty and nihilism with two hands and drag it fully into the light.
We must question ourselves when we cheer at Joffrey’s death, but are sickened by Ramsay’s torture of innocents. So too must we question why we embrace an antihero like Jaime Lannister, merely because the most recent beats of his arc are favourable, and enough to make us forget where we began with him. Have we lost sight that once upon a time he was the character who fathered children with his sister and pushed Bran Stark out a window, hoping he would die as a result? That he was the one who fought Nedd Stark and so led to Nedd’s arrest and execution?
We can cut off his hand and trawl him through the mud and make him buddy up with Brienne for a season, but he still did those horrible things. And last episode he was still wanting to do these horrible things with his sister. All else has been taken from him, yet he is a character faced with an adoring crowd. His actions in this episode are a shocking reminder of just who we’re dealing with, and where he happens to live.
Game of Thrones is all about power. Who has it, who doesn’t, and the things people do to acquire it, or cling to it. What is so shocking about this episode, is it reveals to us that even the characters we think of as powerful, or growing in strength and influence – Cersei, Sansa, Daenerys – are still in a man’s world. What power they have has been given to them, and can be taken away. Jaime’s rape of Cersei is a power grab. She has it, and he doesn’t, not anymore. He is lifelessly clinging onto the old world he had, and it’s been taken from him. Cersei has removed herself from his life, and by extension, his family. He has only Tyrion, who is locked up due to Cersei’s demands, and Jaime can no longer wrestle between them.
The change from the books with this scene is horrific, but understood only if this is to further distance Jaime from the group of characters the audience supports. It’s a big if, and I don’t still see it justifying the scene. It’s hard to see how this would be the only way of allowing the character to be viewed negatively, and given the way they’ve adapted the series to date, it’s disappointing and inexcusable to see yet another show use sexual violence as character progression.
Given that in the books we are afforded Jaime’s interior monologue, the readers are more greatly aware of the problematic nature of the character. But a TV show tells a story in a different way, and time is the greatest impact on our understanding of characters. Jaime has been around for four years now, and familiarity breeds comfort. Witness those who now miss Joffrey’s sadistic exploits, for what they added to the show. I don’t like this scene, and while I agree with Saraiya’s summation that it is infinitely problematic, I don’t think anybody’s meant to like it, nor feel it’s exploitative. Rather I think it’s a reminder about how awful this character is, and a challenge to the audience to not fall into the regular traps of comfort we feel with ‘normal’ TV storytelling. The good guys don’t always survive and the bad guys aren’t always redeemed.
This episode is very much about that: re-establishing our perspective on the show and the characters.
All the scenes in this episode are seen from the perspective of the female characters present. Margaery must contend with what she’s done to be in line for the throne – marry first Renly then Joffrey – while Olenna talks of the oaf she had married and being forced by ‘them’ to look at his dead body. Cersei must watch as Tywin discusses becoming king with Tommen, Joffrey’s younger brother. She has to listen to the instruction Tommen receives about how to be a king, knowing that this is a conversation she could never have had. Time and time again, the women must sit by as power is dissected and distributed by the men in their lives, and what little they can claw and claim for themselves can be taken away in an instant by swift and violent acts. It’s a captivating scene, and possibly the strongest in the episode.
In the Riverlands, Arya, who once upon a time had to pretend to be a boy just to survive, is now fully indoctrinated into lies and murder and is continuing her tutelage under The Hound, as they take shelter with a farmer and his daughter, before robbing them. They’re a double act, mimicking and bouncing off each other, and the farmer is a distant echo of the father Arya once knew, who too wanted to protect her virtue and honour, but chastised by The Hound as weak and – literally and symbolically – dead to the world.
Gilly in the North is there to prop up Sam’s pride and masculinity, being the only witness to his destruction of a whitewalker last season. She is content at least, knowing that she’s better off than she was with Craster, but Sam still explains to her that she’s the only woman there, in a castle populated by a hundred men. The Night’s Watch, meant to be the last line of protection for Westeros – the only characters seen swearing to a moral code – are still a threat to her. It’s not safe for her in the respective warmth and comfort of Castle Black, so she must make do in a local brothel, raising an infant in a cold and dank environment, merely because the men can’t be controlled.
At Dragonstone, Davos is still learning to read thanks to Shireen, Stannis’ daughter. There’s lots of talk of Braavos in this scene – a mention too in Arya’s bit with The Hound – which gives some hints about where things are going to go for certain characters. Shireen here holds the key to Davos’ success, and so too for Stannis, though for her troubles she is locked away from view due to her condition. A thankless life, though Davos does his best.
The one scene that is distinct from this pattern is that with Oberyn – once again in Littlefinger’s brothel in King’s Landing – which is cast in a warming glow, in stark opposition to the coldness that pervades the rest of the episode’s cinematography. And yet, despite the fact that this scene is dominated by Oberyn and Tywin’s bartering over who has more blame and claim to power, it is Oberyn’s sister Elia – raped and murdered by The Mountain at Tywin’s orders – who oversees this scene. This event long past is still present to Oberyn, and given how prominently this backstory is featuring (in every episode so far), one can assume it is the driving force of this particular plot. Regardless, Oberyn here is one man who can see clearly what it is that men do in Game of Thrones. In the books, The Mountain is the personification of monstrous male acts, and it is no accident that his main opposition is someone like Oberyn.
Tyrion, despite appearing like the main character (in a series longing for one) after the first couple of episodes, doesn’t appear until forty minutes in, speculating with Podrick over who might be to blame for Joffrey’s murder. Given that the audience should know by now, it’s a rare moment of weakness for the character, as we’re left watching him fumble about with random guesses as to who might have levelled him up for the accusation.
(On the blame for Joffrey’s murder, are we allowed to talk about it yet? Obviously readers of the books know what’s going on, but viewers may not, given that the show has opted to show where the blame lies, rather than tell us outright. Can we talk about it? Come on. It’s all there plain as day.)
Finally, to keep the tone of the episode consistent, it moves two longer sequences to the end of the episode. In keeping with the rhythm that this season has had – short scenes throughout until longer, action-based moments at the end – we first see the increasing threat from the Thenns and the Wildlings, and the panic at Castle Blackover what to do when the time comes to man the wall. This looks to be building to an increasingly spectacular and visceral conflict, come later in the season.
And Daenerys has at last arrived at Meereen, complete with glittering pyramid, and the episode finally embraces its widescreen with stunning results. However, Daenerys must watch as someone fights for her, unable to be her own champion. It’s a showing off, men playing with violence, for the spectacle and glory that comes in meaningless violence. Literally, a pissing contest.
What’s effective here is how Daenerys is equally capable of feats of strength, but only when it’s has importance and meaning. And with it she has excellent voice projection, speaking to the entire city as she enables civil uprising to match her assault on the walls of Meereen. Finally, some direction and momentum in an area of the story that severely needed it.
- Valar Morghulis: poor Ser Dontos, shot through the face by Littlefinger, after helping Sansa escape King’s Landing.
- Three episodes in and the credits remain unchanged. Surprised more hasn’t been made of this, but it does confirm my suspicion that this season is a change of direction for the storytelling.
- Nothing from the Dreadfort, which you would think would lessen the cruelty of the show, but alas.
- the attack on Castle Black seems sooner than initially thought – mid season action? What then for the climactic episodes?