Game of Thrones: Breaker of Chains
There was about an hour of Game of Thrones on Sunday night, and much of it probably deserves discussion. Tywin Lannister’s history lesson, the sudden brutality of the wildling raid and the nuance of the Night’s Watch response, everything involving Daenerys’s nascent siege of Meereen – a lot happened, and it seems a shame to push it all to the background. But that’s what “Breaker of Chains” did; much like “Rains of Castamere” or “Baelor,” this episode ended up being really all about That One Scene. Just, well, probably not in the way that Benioff, Weiss, and director Alex Graves intended.
From the start, “Chains” was a somewhat meandering episode, of the “scene-jumping string of vignettes” model that Thrones falls back on between dedicated impact episodes. That’s not to say it’s an inherently bad model, but usually the scenes are tied together by a theme, and this week’s theme – perhaps, freedom from or establishment of bondage – didn’t hold up universally. But there were enough individually strong scenes, particularly from Daenerys and the continually delightful Sandor/Arya pairing, to keep this episode moving along at a good clip and advance the plot sensibly. Except, of course, That One Scene.
I speak, of course, of the disastrous shooting of Jaime and Cersei’s already cringe-inducing encounter, wherein a couple practicing incest next to their son’s dead body in a church was somehow reduced to second place for overwhelming grossness. Because, regardless of the intentions of the director and the nuance of the actors, what showed on our screens on Sunday was a rape, and one distinctly not written in the books. I don’t take pleasure in ripping the show’s departure from the source material – I’ve probably spilled a little too much virtual ink mocking those who do criticize discrepancies – but this particular adaptation choice is hard to understand on a whole lot of levels.
In a lot of ways, Jaime Lannister functions as the series’ most pointed commentary on the ideals of chivalry – from an idealistic boy punished for upholding his oath to defend the innocent, to a festering shit of a man consistently rewarded for betraying it, and all stops in between. For all the Kingslayer’s renowned villainy, from the third season/book on that core of decency and yearning for heroism becomes his prime motivator. (Whether it’s too late to redeem Jaime at all, given that he starts the series by casually defenestrating a pre-teen, is another conversation). And similarly, the twisted relationship between him and Cersei is one of King’s Landing’s few consensual, committed pairings – at least until Jaime flees the city and Cersei starts looking elsewhere for her mirror. That mix of romanticized idealism and grotesque reality, and the ways they bleed into one another, is a hallmark of A Song of Ice and Fire and something that’s carried over into Thrones in interesting ways.
And then we get a scene like last night, an out-of-nowhere piece of ugliness jarring enough to stand out from the usual brutality of Westeros. It’s not just that Jaime’s arc up to this point has been a slow journey towards something resembling morality, and that an act of rape is about as far back a step as could be possibly taken; it’s that Cersei is anything but a passive victim. The last man who abused her had his guts ripped out, and she’s disposed of the just and unjust alike with equal apathy along her road to power, like a murderous Daria. As low as she’s fallen after the death of her son, expecting her to do anything but plot revenge against Jaime seems like a strange reading of her character. And for Jaime’s part, the audience has seen him at his most private and personal, with no witnesses, reverting to the very same crime that the Mad King used to perpetrate when he was a boy who still thought he could be a knight of the Kinsguard and a decent man at the same time. How are they meant to root for him now?
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. Last week’s “The Lion and the Rose” was an episode full of nuance, with lines unspoken and facts left unclear, trusting the audience to draw their own conclusions. But in “Breaker of Chains,” a scene already written to sum up a twisted, unhealthy romance and the conflicts of the people engaging in it was deemed not enough – that the point, “Hey, these people are a mess!” had to be hammered home in the most tasteless, pointless way possible. It’s a discouraging misstep from a show that hasn’t made too many of them, and it remains to be seen how one of the core story lines of this season will recover.
-Boy, that was a cheery review, wasn’t it?
-As awful as the scene was, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Lena Headey both did a spectacular job. I have nothing but praise for the actors involved and the way they played a demanding and difficult scene.
-In non-That One Scene news, Emilia Clarke hasn’t lost any of her touch, with her speech at the gates of Meereen avoiding the potential cheeseball trap a lot of “long dialogue in made-up languages” falls into. I’m excited to see where the show goes with the Meereen story, which had some plotting issues in the books.
-Michael Huisman continues to play Daario Naharis effectively, which is to say, a smarmy, unbearable prick jostling for Dany’s favor and favors at all times. Good luck, buddy.
-I suppose Stannis is still intending to respond to the letter received at the end of Season 3, and just doesn’t have the resources? It’s strange that Dragonstone is still in a holding pattern, but if it gets us more scenes between Davos and Shireen, I suppose that’s bearable. Shireen is largely a non-entity on the page, and Kerry Ingram is bringing her to life.
-Hey, it’s Littlefinger! And I think I’ve finally figured out what’s going on with Aiden Gillen’s accent – it sounds sort of like a take on Contemporary Shakespeare.
-I appreciate that the show is presenting the eminently dislikable Alliser Thorne, upon his return, as a competent and loyal man of the Night’s Watch. There’s that nuance again, long may it reign.
5. Podrick Payne. Go get that knighthood, kid, you’ll be better off.
4. Tommen Baratheon, First of His Name, making the wise choice to listen to Tywin.
3. The sex workers’ guild of King’s Landing. Do they not have one? They should get one. They’re going to have the money for it.
2. Sandor Clegane, and that’s what kind of week it was in Westeros – The Hound gets the #2 spot for beating up a farmer and stating the obvious to a teenage girl.
1. Tywin Lannister, reigning unchallenged on the power rankings and, effectively, on the throne.