The discussion about one particular scene in the third episode of "Game of Thrones'" fourth season has been illuminating and necessary. As was the case with an important recent event on "The Good Wife," I have many thoughts about the scene and its aftermath, hence the attempt to corral them on this list. (Needless to say, don't read on unless you have seen "Breaker of Chains.")
- What occurred was rape. That is without question. Yes, Jaime and Cersei have a complicated relationship. Rape can occur within complicated relationships. Rape can occur between siblings, spouses, friends, acquaintances and strangers. Let's be clear about this at the start: Jaime raped Cersei.
It's disturbing that the director of the scene, Alex Graves, suggested in an interview that this act of rape "becomes consensual by the end." It can't. Let me point you to posts by articulate writers pointing out why Graves' statement to that effect and other assumptions embedded in some reactions to "Breaker of Chains" are disturbing and unfortunate (and why they reflect a culture-wide misunderstanding of what rape is).
As many readers and even "Game of Thrones" author George R.R. Martin have pointed out, in the books, Jaime and Cersei have a charged sexual encounter in which Cersei is somewhat reluctant and Jaime is insistent, but the act between them is clearly consensual. The TV narrative could have gone that way, but did not. There seems to be some murkiness as to what the director, actors and writers involved in that scene thought they were conveying, but whatever the intent, the result is unequivocal.
HBO sent the first three episodes of the season to critics weeks ago, and when I saw that scene, my reaction was relatively muted. It did not strike me as out of character, so to speak, for "Game of Thrones." This is a show in which sexual assault has never been unusual. As I've written, the show is about the acquisition and exercise of power: Who has it, who wants it, what kinds of people use it well and what happens when it turns people into despots or unleashes their inner sociopath. Brains and cunning matter in this world -- the story is essentially about how the marginalized and dismissed infiltrate the centers of power -- and to fight off those incursions, those with power use it in ugly ways. I'm not saying I approve of the narrative choice; I'm saying that what occurred in the sept struck me as "par for the course" for this world, to echo Anne Helen Peterson.
It's certainly true that far too many TV narratives have used rape as a cheap device in a ham-handed attempt to amp up the drama. That's not just demeaning to rape survivors, it's patronizing to all viewers and it belies a lack of understanding of narrative consequences. My complaint about how rape is often depicted on TV boils down to this: Many writers treat it as the narrative equivalent of a cheap firecracker and don't get that they set off the story equivalent of a nuclear bomb. If rape occurs, especially one involving a leading character, it has to be given the weight and gravity it deserves and not treated like a lesbian kiss during sweeps -- a melodramatic event that is quickly forgotten. If "Game of Thrones" goes that route, it will be disappointing, not to mention irresponsible -- but I hope the show demonstrates intelligence on this front.
It's certainly possible to approach a rape narrative sensitively and well. Doing so involves approaching the arc of the rape survivor with thoughtful, rigorous intention. This can be done even in the context of mainstream entertainments and genre pieces: As Alyssa Rosenberg pointed out, "The Americans," "Sons of Anarchy," "Scandal" and "Mad Men" are among the popular shows that have dealt with sexual assault stories to positive effect (and I'd add "The Shield" and "Spartacus" to that list). When the post-rape emotions and actions of the survivor are given weight, prominence and meaning, a storyline about rape can rise above the level of the exploitative or the expedient.
I've never cared much how closely "Game of Thrones" hews to the books. I want an entertaining, thought-provoking show on my TV screen, and if the powers that be think they need to make changes for it to work as filmed entertainment, they should go for it. Of course, some of the changes haven't been great, some have been excellent. But does the show have the right to insert a rape into the narrative and change Jaime's and Cersei's arcs? Sure. Viewers have the absolute right not to like some of the things executive producers/showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss do with Martin's story, including the sept scene, but the showrunners have every right to do what they want with the tale.
"Game of Thrones" depicts a brutal culture in which almost no one -- regardless of class, wealth or status -- can completely avoid inflicting or enduring violence and degradation. Compelling arguments (by Sonia Soraiya, among others) have been made about the fact that female characters have had more of this violence inflicted on them, and males are likely to be the ones inflicting it. Frankly, I wrestle with these implications and how much "Game of Thrones" reflects our own society and whether the show normalizes or even promotes certain kinds of sexual subjugation, objectification and violence. It's complicated, and the show's a work in progress on this front.
That progress proceeds in fits and starts, but the fact is, in many ways, "Game of Thrones" has increasingly displayed feminist tendencies. Its gender dynamics are still occasionally problematic, no doubt, but it has come a long way from the "sexposition" follies of the first season. At this stage, "Game of Thrones" features a host of female characters who have agency, complexity and are portrayed in nuanced, unpredictable and resonant ways. The core female characters of "Game of Thrones" are not cardboard "strong women" -- they are human beings who make mistakes, feel pain, display intelligence and wit and have agendas and relationships that they care about and fight for. Brienne, Arya, Daenerys, Sansa, Ygritte, Shae, Margaery, Olenna, and yes, also Cersei: These disparate women occupy a lot of the show's real estate, and their stories are often about the oppression, dismissal and marginalization they battle with every tool at their disposal. Does that mean the rape of Cersei was the right storytelling choice? Maybe, maybe not. But on some shows, the sexual assaults of women and girls are merely side notes to male-driven narratives. Again, it's not perfect, but "Game of Thrones" has demonstrated a willingness to give the stories of its female characters prominence, complexity and importance. Going forward, I hope it accords Cersei the same respect.
Without condoning what Jaime did, the roots of Jaime's actions were set up, I thought, in a generally adequate way. As a warrior, the loss of his hand had unmanned him. He was adrift and lost, and the one relationship that had given him comfort -- his twisted bond with Cersei -- wasn't working. Even before Joffrey's death, she was shutting him out emotionally and, in the sept scene, she simply wanted to use him to kill their brother. Also, Jaime, a knight and sworn protector of others, watched his son die in front of him. Jaime also may have wanted to end his painful relationship with Cersei forever, and assaulting her may have assured that outcome. Again, such reasons don't legitimize the rape. He was entirely capable of making a different choice, but that action did not strike me as particularly out of character, especially for a guy who once threw a kid out of a window. Could "Game of Thrones" have achieved its narrative goals for these characters by depicting a difficult, complex yet consensual sex act between Jaime and Cersei? Probably, and I lean toward thinking that's what the showrunners may wish they had opted for (Hayley Krischer makes that case quite well). But they didn't, so here we are.
Much of my reaction to the "Game of Thrones" rape scene is dependent on how the show treats it going forward. Thoughts on the Jaime part of that: When I viewed the scene in "Breaker of Chains," I did wonder if the showrunners thought Jaime had been excessively tamed by his redemptive arc with Brienne, and I speculated that they may have wanted to bring his negative qualities to the fore again. If "Game of Thrones" airs for seven seasons, we're only halfway through its run, and Benioff and Weiss may have thought it was too soon for "nice" Jaime to take up residence at the center of the narrative. That said, having Jaime rape his sister is a blunt instrument when it comes to characterization, and it may prove an ineffective one if not handled appropriately. If this sprawling narrative doesn't have time to play out the consequences of his actions in a meaningful way, the showrunners may regret how the scene was written, acted, shot and edited.
My thoughts on the Cersei part: Lena Headey has brought the TV version of Cersei alive in a way I didn't think was possible. Cersei can be vindictive, cruel and self-absorbed, but she's not one-dimensional. It wouldn't be much of a leap to call her an alcoholic -- not an implausible response to the years of rape and violence she endured during her marriage to Robert Baratheon. Witness this proud woman's piteous plea not to be sold off in marriage again to another man not of her choosing: It was heartbreaking to see her beg for a scrap of autonomy from her ruthless father, who has always cared more for power than for his own children. Cersei has been treated as an object to be bought, sold and displayed all her life, and now the one person in whom she could find comfort has violated her in the most heinous way, beside the corpse of their son, no less. Many people have written that the rape was the most disturbing scene they'd ever seen on "Game of Thrones," and I can understand that. A grieving mother had had one relationship that was intimate and safe for her, and that one scrap of comfort was ripped away from her in the most brutal way possible. The one person who didn't see her as an object objectified her, selfishly and violently. A lot of people have been killed in Westeros, but this was an attempt to kill someone's soul, and it may well have worked. Rape is a crime of power, and Jaime did everything he could to reinforce Cersei's sense of powerlessness and isolation. That is a special kind of cruelty and brutality, and it cannot be glossed over or minimized. The biggest fear that I have is that "Game of Thrones" may not have enough time to deal with the aftermath of the rape, and this development absolutely should not be treated as one more in a series of unfortunate Westeros events. If we just get the occasional scene of Cersei drinking wine and throwing shade at anyone in her immediate vicinity, that will be a serious abdication, and it will affect how I view the show.
The rest of the season will show us whether the choices made in the sept scene deepen or cheapen the narrative. If "Game of Thrones" is truly interested in examining the consequences of brutal acts and oppressive attitudes -- and that has long been its principal obsession -- what happened to Cersei should have large and important reverberations. Not because she's a Lannister, but because she's a survivor, a woman and a human being.