(Trigger warning: rape)
Here there be spoilers for both A Game of Thrones the HBO series and A Song of Ice and Fire. Proceed at your own risk.
I’m almost always in the read-it-before-you-see-it camp, which often puts me on Team The Book Was Better. Over time, I’ve come to appreciate how hard it is to translate every tiny detail from page to screen. Scenes get cut, several characters are rolled into one new, conglomerate character. Casting choices, filming choices, choices that boil down to how can we tell this story in X hours?
The first time I really got it was with the miniseries of The Stand. (Act surprised, regular readers.) Four nights to tell that sweeping story, with all the intricate plot threads weaving together. I absolutely did my share of “But that’s not how it happened in the book!” but I understood. Details change in the translation, and if you look closely, you can often see why, whether you agree or disagree with the screenwriters and directors.
The why of the rape scene in Sunday’s Game of Thrones episode “Breaker of Chains” utterly eludes me.
Well, no, that’s not entirely true. I can come up with several whys, but none of them make that scene any less infuriating.
For those not watching, Cersei stands vigil over Joffrey’s body in the Great Sept of Baelor. Jaime enters, tells the septons and guards to leave, and after a conversation in which Cersei begs him to kill Tyrion for murdering their son, he rapes her. It is clearly non-consensual, with her repeating “No” over and over, trying to push him away, and struggling. While saying no.
Westeros is not a nice place. This has been well established both in the books and throughout the HBO series. The writers aren’t pulling punches — how could they, when the deaths of Ned Stark and Joffrey Baratheon are so central to the plot? It’s a brutal world, it’s an ugly world, and not a single character is safe.
They have, however, been consistent. Ned and his honor, Brienne and her loyalty. This isn’t to say characters can’t change. Sansa Stark has long ago stopped believing life will be like the pretty stories of ladies and their true knights, even when Ser Dontos is playing Florian to her Jonquil.
Jaime Lannister’s whole POV arc in A Storm of Swords not only flips the readers’ perceptions of him on its head, it begins an arc that makes one of the previously most-hated men in Westeros (behind like, Joffrey, Viserys Targaryen, and Tywin Lannister to this point) into one of its more likeable*.
*I want to pause here and acknowledge that hooooooly shit is a lot of what goes on in the books and the series problematic. With regards to women, characters of color, sexual assault and more. Seriously, go read Sady Doyle’s piece. It’s brutally honest. Also for reference: How to Be a Fan of Problematic Things. Okay? Okay.
In A Storm of Swords, Jaime and Cersei do indeed meet in the Great Sept of Baelor while Joffrey lies in state. They have sex. It is consensual. The evidence for this is both in the text, in Jaime’s POV chapter (excerpted at the Onion AV Club here— again, go read the whole article), and from George R.R. Martin’s comments in reply to a fan’s question on his blog:
Though the time and place is wildly inappropriate and Cersei is fearful of discovery, she is as hungry for him as he is for her.
That’s not how it happened in the episode. Martin mentions what he calls the “butterfly effect” of how differences in the show’s plotlines can affect the characters as we know them, I’m not sure this holds up for the Jaime Lannister Benioff and Weiss presented to us in season 3. He’s well into his redemption arc at this point, trying to put distance between the boy everyone calls the Kingslayer, the man who shoved Bran Stark out a window, and the man he’s trying to be. We’ve heard his speech about why he killed Mad King Aerys. We’ve seen him go back to save Brienne from Harrenhal and its bear pit. We watched him get disowned rather than give up what few shreds of honor he has left. He still loves Cersei, would very likely still kill for her. But rape her? It’s out of character.
And boy was it hard for me to type that last line. Isn’t that what people say about men accused of rape? Of men convicted of it? “Oh, he’s such a nice guy, he’d never do a thing like that.” So, yes, maybe Jaime is simply the Nice Guy Who Would Never Do That and Just Fucking Did. I mean, the draw of the series is that it shows how messy life is, how ugly things happen. How bad shit happens to good people and only very rarely do the perpetrators suffer the consequences.
But from a writing perspective, that feels just plain weak. Fiction is supposed to be less messy and senseless than real life. You don’t have a character take an action without there being a damned good reason for whatever it is they’re doing. You don’t have them act contrary to what the audience knows unless it’s for a reason. Sometimes, an action that seems out of character is a clue, or is part of a Big Reveal, but I don’t think that’s what’s going on here.
It’s been suggested that this was done to make Cersei seem more sympathetic. We’ve watched her pick off Starks and be a terrible person for three seasons, and now the writers are maybe trying to steer away from that image. Again, potentially accurate, but if so, that’s lazy fucking writing. If the only way you can think of to make a female character more likeable is to have her raped, kindly go flush your laptop down the nearest toilet.
Unfortunately, I think there’s something even more despicable at work here, and the more I think about that scene in the context of the last few episodes, the more I fear I’m right.
In episode 1, Arya kills Polliver. Fans cheered because he had it coming.
In episode 2, Joffrey is poisoned and dies. Fans cheered because he had it coming.
In episode 3, Cersei is raped by Jaime.
Go ahead and fill in that next sentence.
We’ve seen her be scheming and manipulative. Cersei Lannister is a character we love to hate. Tyrion told her that someday her joy would turn to ash on her tongue, and oh, we wanted to see that day. We did see it, in “The Lion and the Rose,” but I’m not convinced the writers thought it was enough. How do you punish a headstrong woman? How do you break her even more? How do you get her as low as she can possibly be? Rape her.
And another thing, with regard to Jaime’s redemption arc that I’d mentioned earlier: we’ve watched him trying to become a better man. Since he’s come back to King’s Landing (much earlier than he did in the books), we’ve seen Cersei reject him over and over again. But he’s such a nice guy, you’re supposed to think as she flinches away from that missing hand. All the good stuff he’s done — leading the battle against Robb Stark (good from Cersei’s perspective, since King Robb would have possibly equalled dead Joffrey), being held captive by the Stark bannermen, his time with Brienne, his friendship with her, and through it all, trying to get home to the woman he loves. Doesn’t Cersei see what a nice guy he is?
What a Nice Guy. How dare she reject him? Doesn’t she owe him?
Maybe I’m wrong. I hope I’m wrong and something in the episodes still to come will address this. But I don’t have a lot of hope for that, especially after reading this excellent piece by Genevieve Valentine, “It’s Complicated.”
Twice now, we’ve seen what were consensual (if highly problematic) scenes turned into rapes. The first was in the pilot, with Dany and Drogo. In the books, she’s a 13-year-old girl sold to a 30-year-old man, so if you said her ability to consent was non-existent, I’d agree with you. The same can be asked of Cersei, whose age when she and Jaime first had sex currently escapes me. Setting those questions reluctantly aside, however, the characters both consented. In their situations, they had the agency to say yes. What does it say that the show is taking those away for shock value (Dany) and quite likely Punishing the Bitch (Cersei)?
Will I keep watching? For now, yes. The show usually gets more right than it gets wrong. In rewatches, I’ll skip over that scene, or get up and refill my drink. But the trust I had in the writers has taken a serious hit, and I’ll be watching with a more skeptical eye than usual for quite some time.
I highly recommending reading every piece I’ve linked so far. Some further reading for you:
The episode’s director, Alex Graves, considers the sex consensual. Also gross, the person who interviewed him, Alan Sepinwall, also seems to think Jaime’s been deprived of his rightful sexytimes, stating: “Jaime in turn seizes the moment to finally perform the act he’s been denied of since the war with the North began, even if he has to get very rough at first to get what he wants.”
Alyssa Rosenberg, on what this means for the show going forward.
Time.com: “The Game of Thrones Sex Scene Can’t Be Both Rape and Not Rape” by Eliana Dockterman (thanks, Marty) I hadn’t seen Nikolaj Coster-Waldau’s quote on it. Sigh.
Also, as pointed out by Melissa McEwan at Shakesville: no one seems to be asking what Lena Headey thought of the scene. We’ve heard from several of the men involved in it. How about the woman at the center of it?
Vulture.com: “Yes, Of Course That Was Rape on Game of Thrones“ by Margaret Lyon
My friend Reuben Poling, at Dorkadia: “Jaime and Cersei’s relationship, fraught, and conflicted and generally fucked-up as it is, is also separated from the power dynamics that define the rest of their lives – a two-person feedback loop of mutual dependency, as much a bizarre expression of self-love as it is incest. Pressing the cheap, easy add-a-rape button that’s so common to “edgy” media doesn’t just do the source material and the characters a disservice; it cheats the audience.”
More as I get them.