* MAJOR spoilers here. If you aren’t caught up reading the Song of Ice and Fire novels, you probably want to skip this one. Seriously.
Since I wrote up my brief thoughts on the most recent episode, Breaker of Chains, there have been many more words written about “that scene,” in which the show runners changed a disturbing-but-depicted-as-consensual sex scene between Jaime and Cersei Lannister into Jaime raping his sister beside her son’s corpse. It’s pretty resoundingly an unpopular choice, not least because Westeros is already a place with troublesome gender politics, and this isn’t the first time Benioff and Weiss have adapted consensual sex into rape on the way from book to screen.
A few have argued that Jaime might have raped Cersei in the novels as well, since the encounter is told from his point of view on the page and he may not be a reliable viewpoint. I don’t think this is true—there’s nothing following the encounter in the books to say so, and none of the fallout between Jaime and Cersei one would expect to follow a rape—but even if it is true, what’s the point of the change?
As Alyssa Rosenberg points outat the Washington Post, it’s not that Jaime raping his sister is the most shocking act of violence, sexual or otherwise, that we’ve seen on Game of Thrones, and anyone who is really disgusted by that scene will probably find dozens of others to be equally appalled at. Part of the point of Martin’s world is to showcase the reality of a medieval society, including the way people are sexually traded, exploited, and abused. The show, with its over the top sexuality, reflects that pattern back at the modern society that watches it, suggesting that maybe we haven’t moved as far as we’d like to believe toward a liberated, just world.
Still, I hate this change. Not because there was a rape, and not because it was Jaime. As awful as rape is, and as misunderstood in our culture (see, for example, the way the director of the episode says he thought the sex in the scene was actually consensual) I don’t take the view that it should be erased from our art, nor do I think a character in an apparent hero arc, who at one point saved another from rape, is incapable of rape.
Frankly, Jaime had been coming across as overly heroic for a while in my mind. Subtle changes to the way the character has been portrayed on TV make him rather less “gray” than in the books, and I’m pleased in a way to see the show runners recognize his darker side. If I have a thematic complaint with the show so far, it’s that certain characters—Tyrion, in particular—have been made into the clear “good guys,” when in the books there really aren’t any. Okay, maybe Dani.
What bothers me about that scene is the way it changes Cersei’s character and her arc, especially going forward from this moment.
A major theme of the Song of Ice and Fire series, and the Game of Thrones TV series, is the way women wield power and influence in a world where they are viewed and treated as property. Cersei Lannister is a woman who unwittingly sabotages herself, alienating or outright killing the men she manipulates and overestimating her reach and authority, ultimately stripping herself of what power she had in her quest for more. When she is marched through the streets of King’s Landing stripped naked , suffering a fate she tried to arrange for Margaery, it reflects the way she’s stripped of authority and dignity, and abandoned by those she leaned on and destroyed. She is a victim of her own machinations.
By having Jaime rape Cersei, exploiting her instead of supporting her in her time of grief, the show makes her a character at the mercy of men. That’s not to say such isn’t part of her experience in the books—being wed to Robert Baratheon, for instance, who repeatedly rapes her—but in the books it’s often presented as a contrast to the way Cersei chooses to see and present herself. On the show, it seems to be emerging as the thematic experience of her character. The presentation of this scene raises questions for me about the meaning of her eventual and fateful walk—instead of being the moment she can no longer ignore her powerlessness, a symbol of her fall, it becomes just another moment when Cersei the woman is abused by the men around her.
Which is not to say that isn’t an interesting perspective, I suppose. It’s just a very dramatic shift in Cersei Lannister, and a major departure from the books. So far, I’ve been really pleased with the way the show has handled her. I’ll be curious to see what follows what I consider their first major misstep.