By all accounts, the most recent episode of Game of Thrones was quite the stomach-churner, which is saying something considering that HBO’s series has never shied away from the sex and violence in George R.R. Martin’s epic fantasy novels. But it seems the series might have crossed a line in “Breaker of Chains,” when Jaime Lannister rapes his lover and twin sister Cersei beside the corpse of their son, the recently poisoned Joffrey.
Rape is nothing new in Martin’s stories. It, along with many other forms of wickedness, occurs in Martin’s novels as characters inflict all manner of damage on each other in their pursuit of power. But the presence of rape in HBO’s adaptation isn’t what’s triggering offense and criticism. Rather, it’s what appears to be a cavalier and careless attitude by the show’s creators concerning how the deed is depicted.
In a recent interview, “Breaker of Chains“ ‘ director Alex Graves described the rape scene as depicting characters getting turned on, specifically Cersei, and that the rape became consensual by the end. His comments quickly earned the ire of numerous critics. For example, Wired’s Laura Hudson wrote:
It’s one thing to present horrific acts in fictional media; it’s another to present a horrific act and deny that it is horrific, particularly when it happens to be disturbingly commonplace in real life and frequently denied its significance and legitimacy in that precise way.
And Vulture’s Margaret Lyons wrote:
But last night’s rape scene, in which Jaime assaults his sister Cersei inches away from their dead son’s body, is a new low for the deeply violent series, because the scene was rewritten from the book to recast the sex as not consensual, and yet the show’s cast and crew aren’t even sure whether it constitutes rape.
Others complain that the show treated rape as a prop, as an attempt to make the scene really bad, graphic, edgy, controversial, etc. Or as The Atlantic’s Christopher Orr put it:
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.”
The A.V. Club’s Sonia Saraiya — who notes that this isn’t the first time Game of Thrones has casually employed rape as a plot device — saw that as well:
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. This is a show that inspired the term “sexposition,” and a show that may have created a character who is a prostitute so as to set as many scenes as possible in brothels. And though it has done both those things with surprising grace, it’s still making a play for male viewers who want skin.
As disturbing as this recent incident might be, though, it shouldn’t really surprise anyone who’s been paying attention. Even as early as the first season or so, it became quite clear that HBO and the series’ creators were quite comfortable with throwing more naked flesh on the screen without any concern beyond, well, having more naked flesh on the screen. My wife and I grew tired of it partway through the first season, but the last straw came in 2012, when Neil Marshall — who directed one of Game of Thrones’ most acclaimed episodes — discussed HBO’s “contributions” to the series:
It was pretty surreal. I’d not done anything like that in my films before. But the weirdest part was when you have one of the exec producers leaning over your shoulder, going, “You can go full frontal, you know. This is television, you can do whatever you want! And do it! I urge you to do it.” So I was like, “Okay, well, if you — you’re the boss.“
This particular exec took me to one side and said, “Look, I represent the pervert side of the audience, okay? Everybody else is the serious drama side — I represent the perv side of the audience, and I’m saying I want full frontal nudity in this scene.” So you go ahead and do it.
To be clear, Martin’s novels certainly don’t shy away from vulgarity and depravity, but what has always struck me about his depictions is that for all of their darkness, there’s a great sense of tragedy looming behind them all. Everything is done in the name of gaining power in Westeros and by any means necessary, and consequently, nobody is left fulfilled. Rather, everyone is broken, twisted, misshapen, empty. Indeed, the novels are nothing if not an exploration of absolute power corrupting absolutely. As such, sex and violence may be graphic in Martin’s novels, but even the most nauseating examples rarely feel gratuitous.
One can certainly wonder just how, exactly, Martin will bring about any sort of satisfying resolution from such a dark mess (and lament that we probably won’t know for sure until sometime in the next decade). I have no doubt that many fans are using Game of Thrones as a sort of stopgap while waiting for the remaining novels. As for myself, though, I’m quite fine with tuning out and waiting, particularly if it means missing out on an adaptation that has a fundamentally flawed and/or carelessly casual approach to its source material.