This post contains spoilers from the books and show. I might even throw in a trigger warning, although in general I do not make a habit of it.
Ever since A Song of Ice and Fire superfans Elio Garcia and Linda Antonsson put up a preview video discussing their impressions of the first three episodes from the fourth season of HBO’s Game of Thrones there had been some speculation over a comment made that, as the plot lines change increasingly from book canon, the third episode in particular (Breaker of Chains) would feature a controversial scene, and probably not sit well with fans of a certain character.
Many people’s gut instinct, and certainly mine, was to expect something particularly unsavory to happen to Sandor Clegane, The Hound, whose storyline this season has diverged dramatically from the books after he emerged unscathed from a fight that should have left him critically wounded. Speculation, of course, runs towards explaining his continued good health as a way to draw out Arya’s story before shipping her off to Braavos, but either way you look at it there will likely be some new ruinous trauma for the beloved character in the very near future (a run-in with his brother Gregor, The Mountain, makes sense in terms of geography and would work to re-introduce the elder Clegane before Tyrion’s coming trial).
But to the relief of many fans nothing too ridiculous happened to Sandor during episode three (although he did rather brusquely rob a peasant family, painting him in a decidedly less sympathetic light). Instead, we were given a disturbing interpretation of Jamie and Cersei’s tryst in the Great Sept of Baelor (which in the books, remember, is the first time they’ve seen each other in months) that really cannot be taken as anything other than a straight-up rape.
“Wait, wait, wait… what the fuck is happening!?” – Everyone who watched this
Let’s pause a moment to contextualize rape a little bit in the world of Ice and Fire. As someone who does not willingly court fictional depictions of sexual assault, it has really been quite refreshing to see the way those themes have been dealt with in ASOIAF. Make no mistake: the setting involves a good bit of medieval warfare and the accompanying violent patriarchal order, so in truth there are hundreds upon thousands of rapes dotting the narrative in Westeros. At the same time, it is not something that is ever brought to bear too explicitly on our main characters, the majority of whom of course seem to be of the nobility (I point this out because of the intersections between class and sexual violence, not to criticize the writing). Although rape pervades the story in many ways (Elia of Dorne, anyone?) it is never used exploitatively or to add needless drama. Martin’s portrayal of his female characters and their inner motivations has been rightly praised for years, not least because it allows for some really interesting reflections on female culture in a world where one’s sexuality is treated as being the property of a man (the juxtapositions between Brienne of Tarth and Catelyn Stark being some of the most masterful).
In contrast, the television series has struggled to develop anything close to the same level of depth around these themes and, absent the particular constraints and opportunities of a point-of-view narrative, has unfortunately tended more towards the pornographic.
Last season saw Melisandre rape Gendry for no discernible reason other than to provide Carice Van Houten with another nude scene. Seriously… go back and try to find some narrative justification for it; it’s a scene that not only didn’t exist in the books, but had no real cause to exist in the show. Sansa’s assault during the riot in Kings Landing (Season 2) is much more heavily dramatized and sexualized in the show, with the implication that she is about to be raped made very clear. Even the first season’s wedding night between Daenerys Targaryen and Khal Drogo was simplistically enacted as rape whereas the depiction of their marriage in the books (while still beginning as an exchange of property wrought with sexual coercion) benefits largely from Daenerys’ point-of-view and manages to explore ideas of consent with some nuance. No such care is taken in the television series, leaving watchers to try and sort out all the ambiguity for themselves.
These often minor, sometimes jarring shifts in the story obviously reflect the limitations of translating to the screen a source material so heavily reliant on implied events and inner dialogue, but are likely also indicative of what kind of tone is expected from HBO dramas as a whole.
Let’s also contextualize our characters a little bit: Jamie is of course a darling of the series and of show watchers in particular right now, a good chunk of the preceding season having been devoted to his redemptive arc. So at least some of the popular outcry over Sunday’s episode comes not necessarily out of an instinctual revulsion to rape but rather feelings of personal injustice over what many are seeing as character assassination.
It’s not long after this point in the books that Jamie and Cersei will have drifted apart entirely, which is a very delicate transition to pull off believably and so it’s possible that the show creators are using this scene to help develop tension between the characters.
Eric Levenson over at The Wire put together a pretty good synopsis of the differences in the scene from the books to the show, with excerpts of dialogue and some pretty perplexing commentary from episode director Alex Graves and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, who plays Jamie.
Perhaps most satisfyingly for fans, the controversy even spilled over into A Song of Ice and Fire author George R.R. Martin’s personal blog, where he left a lengthy comment discussing the scene and its various implications relative to the narrative presented in the books. There isn’t much more to be said after that, so I’ll leave you with it.
PS. I had entertained notions of reviewing each new episode this season as it premiered, but haven’t found myself quite motivated enough. If you’d like to see this type of content featured more regularly on this blog however, I’d love to hear about it.