Let’s Talk About That Scene from “Game of Thrones”
Last year I went through great efforts to do the weekly episode recaps for Game of Thrones. This season I have to struggle with a
stolen borrowed HBO Go account just to keep up with the show. When roughly 38 billion bloggers and major websites pump out a recap within hours of the episode’s end, it just makes me feel despondent and unmotivated when I so much as think about talking GoT. It doesn’t help that much of this season has been lackluster — except for the Purple Wedding (yaaaay!!) — and downright irritating at times.
The truth is that while I’d never go so far as to defend the director of the show in how they treated the scene in which Jaime rapes Cersei, especially with their insensitive comments after the fact (which you can read here), I grew really frustrated by the the overwhelming and incoherent outcry following the episode. People said it was a pointless shift in tone from the books. They said a show should never showcase or depict rape in any way. They said a lot of things that made it both seem like the presentation of rape should just be avoided altogether in our media and that by presenting it, the makers of the show somehow enshrined it and therefore proliferated the rape culture in which we live.
While my immediate reaction when the internet explodes over something a TV show does is to stew in frustration and shake my head at the masses (with this case being no different) I took the time to digest and unpack everything that Game of Thrones should have done to incorporate that scene into a larger narrative which could have helped rather than hurt our culture. So let’s have a conversation, because that’s the only way we are going to make society better.
By now, you know what this whole debacle is about: in the third episode of this season, Jaime Lannister forced himself upon his sister/lover over the corpse of their dead king/son/nephew. People freaked:
It’s hard to shake the idea that Game Of Thrones, the show, doesn’t see a problem with pushing a scene from complicated, consensual sex to outright rape … Changing a scene from consensual sex to rape is not just a pedantic issue of accuracy—it’s a problem with story.
Jaime raping Cersei is a major anomaly for these two characters—even based purely on what we’ve seen in the show. It’s just not something that either character would do.
For one thing, it’s always dangerous to nitpick about details when you’re dealing with adaptations. Jaime raping Cersei is a major anomaly when you consider the characters from the books, in which a devoted and chivalric Jaime happens upon his lover after being gone for months, and it just so happens to be right when her son has died and she is at the peak of emotional vulnerability. In the book Jaime takes her out of desperate longing and she gives in despite protests. We’re meant to interpret the reason as mutual longing with hesitation over the setting (i.e., near a dead body in a religious sanctuary-type place). Ultimately, a sexual reunion is what each of them wants in that moment, so what happens in the book is (according to Martin) not really rape at all. Take that for what it’s worth.
The circumstances surrounding the encounter are vastly different in the show. It seems like people are ignoring the context when they examine the scene: Jaime has been back at King’s Landing for awhile and Cersei has been notoriously cold towards him, seemingly for the frustratingly oversimplified reason that he “left her.” Beyond that, she even blames Jaime for Joffrey’s death to an extent. Jaime would have us believe her to be a “wicked woman” because of this, which is frankly absurd. There is never any excuse whatsoever for rape. I consider it a bit far-fetched to call it an “anomaly” for him to rape somebody when he’s pushed a child out a window before, strangled people, etc. Also, let’s not forget the regicide (king killin’)! 95% of people call him only “Kingslayer” for a reason. I wouldn’t put it past a treacherous, murderous, incestuous man to also be a rapist.
Though last season showed us a one-handed Jaime on the moral rebound via adventures with Brienne, he’s still always been one of the notoriously worst characters on the show; he’s nihilistic, arrogant, indulgent, selfish, egocentric, and all the other bad words I’m too lazy to write. Would we really put it past him to force himself on Cersei, when he’s been listless, impotent, and frustrated for months at King’s Landing while his lover scorns him and his King/son openly mocks his honor? Look at the psychology of the character and what he’s been through. Can you honestly call this behavior an “anomaly”? Are we really surprised by this? And why are we so quick to openly attack the makers of the show? Jaime has always been an privileged, spoiled, egoistic rich boy. Being denied what he wants more than anything else drove him mad, and while all of this might cohere into a logical, psychological reasoning for why he did what he did, let me forcefully reiterate that a reason is never and should never, ever be an excuse.
Salon.com had one of the best responses I found that criticized fan reactions:
Murder, incest, and sex next to your dead son are all somehow excusable in our minds, but the rape crosses a line that makes it impossible to further sympathize him. So, our answer is to basically vilify the director of the episode and the show runners for allowing a terrible person to do something more terrible than our minds will allow us to forgive.
People would rather vilify the director than accept this as something that our precious, noble, chivalrous Jaime would actually do, going so far as to claim that it’s “out of character” for him. The actor has charmed us with his devilish grin and bumbling one-handed puppy-dog routine, but we have been duped people. Have we forgotten who we are dealing with!? A redemption story is one of the most potent stories around, but don’t blame the creator of said story when a character does something you don’t like. There is a difference between complaining just because people will listen and having a legitimately meaningful conversation about the things that matter.
And why does something like this prompt George R. R. Martin himself to respond? It reminds me of the ridiculous retconning of Mass Effect 3’s ending just because fans whined loud enough and long enough. Consumers of creative media should not be in control of the product itself. They should be busy consuming, not complaining. So again, why did Martin have to say the following:
“The scene was always intended to be disturbing, but I do regret if it has disturbed people for the wrong reasons.”
(you can see Martin’s original response in the comment section on his blog)
I would never defend the man or the character for his reprehensible actions, but I can see what the makers of the show are trying — and largely failing — to do with Jaime’s character arc. They’re trying to add characterization by using a sensitive subject (perhaps the worst of human atrocities), but they just did a really lousy job at it, plain and simple. This was made clear by the most recent episode: “Oathkeeper.”
What they were trying to do: one of the fundamental aspects of storytelling is the character arc, in which a character starts at a certain point and works towards some goal or change. He or she will try and fail and through their experiences they will grow into something else. We root for characters because we relate to their struggles. We want their success because all of fiction is a mirror, and we not-so-secretly just want to see ourselves succeed and thrive.
A lot of people also complained about the change being “pointless” or “not making any sense.” But does the inclusion or even existence of rape ever “make sense”? The act itself is fundamentally dehumanizing. It violates the Natural Law which includes the dignity and sanctitude of the human body. That’s why it strikes a compelling low point for Jaime. Whereas before that point he was listless and frustrated, the very act desecrated not only Cersei’s dignity, but his own as well. In that way, this should have been his lowest of low moments, when he had nowhere to go but towards redemption. That would have made for interesting characterization. Instead, his low point was losing his hand, and we barely gloss over the rape. Seriously?
Jaime has long been an abominable human being. Pretty much the only thing worse than killing your king, crippling a boy, and countless other atrocities was to do exactly what he did. The showrunners took a highly insensitive risk by turning the scene into incestuous rape over a dead body. It’s absurd and obscene. It’s about the worst possibly thing one human being can do to another and in that regard, registers as an absolute low point for Jaime. It should be a point of demarcation for the character where he is forced to reevaluate his humanity.
In the episode “Oathkeeper” (the episode after the rape) we see Cersei chide Jaime’s conflicting vows to the king and to Catelyn Stark, and we also see Bronn chastise Jaime for not helping Tyrion in his time of need. By the end of “Oathkeeper,” however, he has turned away from his own darkness and begun to make the just, honorable, and more difficult decisions. Divorced from the presentation and mistreatment of rape, it’s arguably some pretty decent storytelling to finally see the villain begin to become more humane in such a ruthless world. It’s a shame they oversimplified it and took advantage of rape for the sheer shock factor.
How the makers of the show failed miserably:
- They made the rape solely about Jaime. George R. R. Martin once said that he considers women people. Sounds great of him? But if that is true, then why and how is Jaime humanized after the experience and Cersei only dehumanized? Perhaps in a man’s mind, in a man’s world, that means making the portrayal of aggravated rape about the man and not the woman. Even in the books, this event is more about Jaime’s personal growth and moral rebound whereas Cersei just shrivels into stagnation and alcoholism. There is literally no difference in Cersei’s character before and after. She doesn’t even directly address it or hold Jaime responsible, unless you count her cold shoulder and biting criticisms. Rape is about the victim, and rape is about the perpetrator. Beyond that, it’s also about the faults in society that make such atrocities possible, how we can heal the victims, rehabilitate the assailants, and most importantly, prevent it all from ever happening. These are things that need to be addressed if rape is going to be employed as a narrative device and a conduit for character development. It’s one thing to include rape at Dothraki weddings or Crastor’s Keep as a matter of coloring a setting with disturbing imagery (despite how overly simplistic and problematic that is in its own right), but it’s an entirely different circumstance when used in characterization. There are things you have to do and they were simply not done in Game of Thrones.
- They didn’t even address or acknowledge Jaime’s guilt. If you’re going to use the scene as a way to characterize Jaime and start him on a journey towards redemption, shouldn’t he at least reflect upon what he’s done? Where is his guilt? Perhaps it was subtly tucked away in his pouty face and listlessness, but that just indicates lazy writing or directing to me. He can cry in bathtubs about killing a king but he doesn’t even bat an eyelash over raping his sister? Now let’s have a conversation about “character anomalies.”
- It was completely ignored. On an emotional level, the rape didn’t register whatsoever in “Oathkeeper.” It’s like the show itself forgot about it, and the viewers are supposed to follow suit as if it didn’t matter. Why was there no fallout between Jaime and Cersei? Why did literally nothing happen? It’s as if the directors thought, “Just another day at King’s Landing!” and moved on to have Jaime focus on his ego and need for validation via words of his deeds literally being written in a history book. Why is that the priority here? Does Jaime want to be redeemed for past sins? Or does he just want to be remembered as someone important?
If the showrunners of Game of Thrones made any mistake — other than speaking insensitively and obnoxiously — it is not addressing the event in its full importance. The scene could have been used to question rape depictions in a critical and effective way, and it should have been used to contextualize the personal arc of the two characters involved. But nope. Neither one.
But ultimately, why are we even surprised by this? This is what Game of Thrones has been from day one: an over-simplified and much darker pastiche of Lord of the Rings with weird magic principles, no dwarves, no elves, and above all, no soul. You show up each week not to get your happy-go-lucky world views reaffirmed. You show up to be entertained, shocked, and infuriated.
Why is the public so quick to condemn a clear cut act of one-on-one rape in a show that displays or at least threatens rape in every other episode? Where was the outcry from the naysayers after the Red Wedding when we watched somebody stab a pregnant woman in the stomach? Was that a “pointless change” the director chose? Was it just lost in the wake of emotional devastation? Or are we so desensitized to violence and so sensationalized to rape that it’s all we care to talk about?