So, about what happened in the Sept of Baelor…
If you watched “Breaker of Chains,” the Game of Thrones episode that aired Sunday night, you were probably shocked by a scene in which Jaime Lannister rapes his twin sister, Cersei, by the body of their dead son, the murdered kinglet Joffrey. Not that this would necessarily be a great surprise: Game of Thrones is famous, after all, for its ugly shocks (beheaded Ned, the Red Wedding, the Purple Wedding…)
But this shock, I think, was unintentional—or rather, not the particular shock that showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss had intended.
The scene was based on a passage in the George R.R. Martin novel A Storm of Swords (from which this season of the show is principally adapted). But the scene is different in a few relatively minor details and in one major one: in the book the sex, however illicit and appalling, is consensual. Here’s Martin:
She kissed him. A light kiss, the merest brush of her lips on his, but he could feel her tremble as he slid his arms around her. “I am not whole without you.”
There was no tenderness in the kiss he returned to her, only hunger. Her mouth opened for his tongue. “No,” she said weakly when his lips moved down her neck, “not here. The septons…”
“The Others can take the septons.” He kissed her again, kissed her silent, kissed her until she moaned. Then he knocked the candles aside and lifted her up onto the Mother’s altar, pushing up her skirts and the silken shift beneath. She pounded on his chest with feeble fists, murmuring about the risk, the danger, about their father, about the septons, about the wrath of gods. He never heard her. He undid his breeches and climbed up and pushed her bare white legs apart. One hand slid up her thigh and underneath her smallclothes. When he tore them away, he saw that her moon’s blood was on her, but it made no difference.
“Hurry,” she was whispering now, “quickly, quickly, now, do it now, do me now. Jaime Jaime Jaime.” Her hands helped guide him. “Yes,” Cersei said as he thrust, “my brother, sweet brother, yes, like that, yes, I have you, you’re home now, you’re home now, you’re home.” She kissed his ear and stroked his short bristly hair. Jaime lost himself in her flesh. He could feel Cersei’s heart beating in time with his own, and the wetness of blood and seed where they were joined.
Here, by contrast, is how the scene was dramatized on the show:
There’s obviously a huge difference between these two versions of the scene, but it’s a difference that seems lost on—of all people—the director of the episode, Alex Graves, who told Alan Sepinwall, “Well, it becomes consensual by the end, because anything for [Cersei and Jaime] ultimately results in a turn-on, especially a power struggle.” Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, the actor who plays Jaime, echoed the sentiment, answering the question of whether or not the scene constitutes rape, “Yes, and no…. There are moments where she gives in, and moments where she pushes him away.”
Except: There’s an awful lot of explicit “pushing him away” (and telling him to stop and sobbing lightly) and virtually nothing onscreen that suggests “giving in.” So what happened?
It’s possible that Benioff and Weiss, after spending the better part of two seasons making Jaime more likable, have decided to take his character down a darker path than the one he follows in Martin’s novels. I haven’t seen beyond this episode, so I can’t say for certain. But given the responses by Graves and Coster-Waldau, it seems more likely that everyone involved somehow believed they’d constructed a scene that was more unpleasant than the book’s but still at least moderately ambiguous, rather than the not-at-all-ambiguous scene that viewers saw. How does a mistake like this occur? My best guess is that Benioff and Weiss indulged in their longstanding penchant for ramping up the sex and violence of their source material, and this time they did it so carelessly that even they didn’t recognize where it had taken them.
This penchant has been on display almost as long as the show has been on the air. Notable instances include Joffrey’s sadistic abuse of the prostitutes his uncle Tyrion sent him in season two and his target-practice murder of Ros last season, neither of which appeared in the books. The Red Wedding was granted two additional victims—Robb’s wife Talisa and her unborn child—just to make sure no one missed the tragedy of it. The extended torture of Theon by Ramsay, culminating in his arousal and emasculation, demonstrated that while women may be more prone to this sort of treatment on Game of Thrones, men are occasionally subjected to it as well. (So, too, with the scene in which Melisandre stimulates Gendry before leeching him.) And, as noted at the A.V. Club, the show did something almost identical—making consensual sex between a couple nonconsensual—on the wedding night of Daenerys and Khal Drogo, all the way back in season one.
It’s a tendency I’ve often complained about—really, the one area where Benioff and Weiss’s instincts seem consistently off—and judging from viewer reaction to the Jaime-Cersei scene, it seems finally to have caught up with them. My assumption is that the showrunners took a look at the scene in the book and thought, well, this is depraved. (Which it is: two twins having sex over their son’s corpse.) They further assumed that we viewers already knew that the Jaime-Cersei relationship was grotesque at its core. (Which it also is: decades-long incest resulting in three children, while Cersei secretly aborts pregnancies by her husband.) And they decided—as they so often seem to where sex and violence are concerned—let’s take this up to 11. As a book reader, my immediate response to the scene was not an astonished “Oh my god, I can’t believe Jaime did that,” but a resigned “Here they go again, taking something horrible and making it even worse.” (Ross Douthat called it “gore-ing the lily” in one of our roundtables last year.)
The problem is that in this instance Benioff and Weiss’s alteration wasn’t merely one of degree, but one of kind. You can take Joffrey the sadist and make him 20 percent more explicitly sadistic and it doesn’t meaningfully alter audiences’ impressions of him. Ditto with Ramsay the super-sadist. But this is different. Yes, Jaime and Cersei’s relationship is wrong and transgressive in innumerable ways. But this tweak didn’t make it wrong-er or more transgressive. Instead it fundamentally altered impressions of Jaime, who had until now gradually emerged as one of the most sympathetic characters on the show. I sincerely doubt—though again, I could be wrong—that this is what Benioff and Weiss intended to do.
Which is not a defense of the showrunners in any sense. In fact, it’s easy to make the case that accidentally blundering into a scene this disturbing and controversial is worse than deliberately engineering one. And Benioff’s recent response to Vanity Fair’s questions about the show’s treatment of sex, nudity, and women generally were cavalier, to say the least.
So blame the scene on Benioff and Weiss and anyone else involved in its production. (It’s hard to imagine that someone didn’t point out that this was a really bad idea.) But don’t assume that it implies some dramatic shift in the moral trajectory of Jaime Lannister. Until further notice, he’s still a character we’re meant to root for, however much more difficult that may now be.
Update: Many commenters have suggested that Benioff and Weiss made a clear and deliberate decision to change the (ultimately) consensual sex between Jaime and Cersei in the books to rape, for any of a variety of reasons. I admitted that this was a possibility, but noted that it seemed unlikely given that neither Alex Graves (the director of the episode) nor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (the actor who plays Jaime) seemed to think the scene was a rape. Graves gave a longer interview today in which he makes this point more explicitly, saying that the sex "becomes consensual by the end." When pressed on how this can be, given that Cersei continues to plead with Jaime to stop throughout, Graves suggests, "The consensual part of it was that she wraps her legs around him, and she’s holding on to the table, clearly not to escape but to get some grounding in what’s going on."
So my thesis that the showrunners were aiming for sex that was at least partially consensual is correct, according to the man who directed the scene. I would argue that, short of some extremely liberal body-language interpretation—"holding on to the table" implies consent?—they screwed up pretty badly.