Photo: Courtesy of HBO.
Sex in Westeros is complicated. George R. R. Martin doesn't shy away from depicting the grim reality of sex slavery, child brides, and female consent being optional at best; these all confirm his richly created world that is inspired by medieval cruelty, where savagery is just another part of the day. In the books, Martin confronts this head-on — and even the young, barely pubescent Arya is acutely aware of the threat of rape, and it is never eroticized or depicted as anything other than a brutal everyday occurrence.
So last night, when Jaime pushed Cersei down into the altar where their dead son lay, their incestuous relationship suddenly became the third-least problematic thing about their exchange. (To be fair, I got that quantification from the AV Club's recap, read it here.) As a fervent reader of the books, I didn't want to see what I was seeing, and I immediately saw the "WTF" tweets light up on Twitter. Damn it, I thought, Jaime Lannister is now a rapist, and for the sake of the series, he really shouldn't be. This scene happens in the book, but last night's episode removes the nuance, the implications of the twins' continued relationship, and the meaningful symbolism of doing it on their son's altar. In its place is shock and violence, specifically against the body of Cersei.
The scene plays out as such: Jaime and Cersei begin to kiss, and Jaime becomes aggressive with Cersei. At first she is willing, and then she isn't, and then she is again, and then she definitely isn't. She repeatedly says "no" and "this is wrong," while Jaime ignores her objections and has his way with her. Cersei's powerlessness is a central theme to this scene; powerless to stop the death of her son, her father's manipulation, and now her brother who is also her most stalwart champion.
Photo: Courtesy of HBO.
The book plays out very differently, and while Cersei certainly isn't reticent, she has grown wary and concerned of their illicit affair. The scene starts passionately, and then, after both are satisfied, Cersei turns on Jaime, showing just how much has changed whilst he was away. It goes like this:
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.
But, what happens after that scene in the books is even more interesting: Cersei becomes disgusted, by her "moon blood" (which appears everywhere), by Jaime, and by their act. It is a symbolic moment of their loss of connection. Jaime has seen the outside world and now, as "half of a man," he is humbled by his experience, while his twin has moved farther into the inner machinations of politics.
This is not the scene in the show.
Nikolaj Coster-Waldau spoke to The Daily Beast about the difficulty of shooting this scene, and how it is going to look when it plays out on screen. “There is significance in that scene, and it comes straight from the books — it’s George R.R. Martin’s mind at play. It took me awhile to wrap my head around it, because I think that, for some people, it’s just going to look like rape. The intention is that it’s not just that; it’s about two people who’ve had this connection for so many years, and much of it is physical, and much of it has had to be kept secret, and this is almost the last thing left now. It’s him trying to force her back and make him whole again because of his stupid hand.”
Yes, that is exactly the impression the reader gets when reading the book. The perfect knight that Jaime once was (who stood as Cersei's consolation prize in her horrible life) is now battered and useless. Says Coster-Waldau: “He wants her, and wants everything to go back to the way it was. But there’s no way back.” The scene exists to point out that, surprisingly, the incest seems to be the least of the troubles between Cersei and Jaime. That nuance is important, and that nuance is lost as Cersei's last "don't!" closes out the scene. As A.V. Club's Sonia Saraiya writes: "Changing a scene from consensual sex to rape is not just a pedantic issue of accuracy — it’s a problem with story."
Photo: Courtesy of HBO.
The rise and fall of Jaime Lannister is one of the most compelling aspects of the series. He starts off as an entitled jerk who throws a kid out of a window (pretty reprehensible) and then, through a countryside adventure that includes starvation, embarrassment, and limb loss, he witnesses a true knight in the form of Brienne. His friendship and partnership with Brienne turns into a redemption story as the Lannisters circle the drain.
The TV show has made some wonderful improvements upon the book, turning Shae into a full-bodied character and adding Talisa Stark to the Red Wedding. Obviously, screenwriters are entitled to massage the plot. But, why take a nuanced scene and make it clearly non-consensual? There are two reasons.
The first is that the Jaime Lannister I have aggressively stuck up for is not the Jaime Lannister of the TV show, and that his path is going to be darker, and that this latest incident is leading to a real rift between Cersei and Jaime, one that shows how deeply problematic and poisonous their relationship — and their personalities — have become. In that case, that may be great for the show but disappointing for those familiar with the story. (As I said before, Jaime Lannister ends up being a character we root for with wary — but real — affection.)
The choice to paint the scene as non-consensual could also be the decision of director Alex Graves to show how bitter the treatment of women is in Westeros (something we've seen again and again). But, in doing so, it propagates a troubling message. According to Saraiya, "It seems more likely that Game Of Thrones is falling into the same trap that so much television does — exploitation for shock value. And, in particular, the exploitation of women’s bodies." Yes, the men in this world are exercising their authority over Cersei, and the complex power dynamic between the twins is forsaken for shock value and discomfort.
Director Alex Graves himself doesn't think it reads as rape: "It becomes consensual by the end, because anything for them ultimately results in a turn-on, especially a power struggle." But, "no" and "please stop" isn't a struggle — it's a refusal, and the gray area of complicated, difficult, consensual-but-troubled sex isn't navigated here, but ignored. It's thrown out the window in a shocking and violent manner — and, perhaps, so is Jaime's redemption.