Welcome back! As you probably know by now, I will be talking about the big ideas in “Game of Thrones” every week, writing from the perspective of someone who has read George R.R. Martin’s novels, though not always with an eye towards parsing the differences between the novels and the books. My Post colleague David Malitz, who is new to the series, chimes in here. This post discusses the events of “Breaker of Chains,” and some elements of book three, “Storm of Swords.”
One of the biggest differences between “Game of Thrones” and the novels it is adapted from has been the perspective. In the books, each chapter is told to us from the perspective of a different character. And while the HBO show jumps from plotline to plotline in the same way, it cannot go inside different people’s heads in the same way. Much of the time this has been an advantage — getting to see Jaime Lannister as Brienne of Tarth sees him, for example, has been a wonderful addition to the show. And tonight, two diversions from the perspectives we were familiar with in the novels yielded some surprising results.
In a striking scene, “Game of Thrones” departed not just from the characters’ heads, but from their plotlines to show us a wildling raid on a village south of the Wall. A small boy, told to run by his mother moments before a Thenn cuts her down, watches Ygritte at her bloody work from what he assumes is the safety of a wagon. But of course, he is dragged out of his meager refuge by one of the invaders, who drags him off to see the slaughter.
“You know how to get to Castle Black?” the man tells the boy, terrified into muteness. “Those your parents? Open your eyes. I’m going to eat them. Do you hear me? I’m going to eat your dead mama, and I’m going to eat your dead papa. Go tell the crows at Castle Black.”
It is a horrible moment that sets up the episode’s theme: How do you endure what is unendurable? How do you get up and keep moving when the alternative is not just death, but a death that breaks your sense of what is permissible and humane?
Jon Snow faces that sort of decision when he gets the news, and declares that he and his brothers must massacre the mutineers who took over Craster’s Keep and killed the Lord Commander last season. “It’s not about justice,” Jon tells the dissenters, already skeptical of him because of the oaths he broke under orders to integrate with the wildlings. “I told the wildings we had over 1,000 men at Castle Black alone. Karl and the others know the truth as well as we do. How long do you think they’ll information to themselves when the wildlings are peeling their fingernails off.” Survival is as good a spur as any — like the lost little boy, Jon will think of the consequences and the slaughter when he can afford to.
But sometimes it is not the threat of death that is unendurable, but the possibility of continuing to live with pain and hatred. In the second major print-to-screen change, the television show had already monkeyed with the books’ timeline of Jaime Lannister’s return to King’s Landing, getting him there in time for his son’s wedding feast and hideous death. And in a further change from the novels, a sex scene between Jaime and Cersei that in the books is both a celebration of their reunion and a profound act of grief, is turned in this episode into a rape.
Cersei is distraught when Jaime arrives in the sept to see her. Convinced of Tyrion’s guilt, Cersei begs her twin to kill their younger brother for her. “You saw it. You saw Joff point at him just before,” Cersei tells Jaime. “Avenge him. Avenge our son. Kill Tyrion. … I don’t want a trial. He’ll squirm his way to freedom given the chance. I want him dead. Please, Jaime, you have to. He was our son, our baby boy.”
What happens next dramatically complicates the work “Game of Thrones” has done to make Jaime a more explicable, even sympathetic character, given what we learned of his reasons for killing the king he was sworn to protest. Jaime has experienced profound losses over the last two seasons. His hand and his identity as a fighter have been taken from him. His son has been murdered. His father, a toxic, commanding man has returned to his life. And what Cersei is asking of Jaime is that he remove one of the few remaining things that gives him happiness, the little brother who makes him feel better about his hand, from existence. To assuage her pain and grief, Cersei is asking Jaime to inflict more pain on himself. “You’re a hateful woman,” Jaime tells her. “Why have the gods made me love a hateful woman?”
But his response is not to stop loving her, not to stop believing that he is victim to the gods. Instead, Jaime rapes his sister, passing that sense of unendurable pain on to her. He must know that this is the worst possible way that he could hurt her. Jaime knew that Robert raped Cersei, and in the novels, he wanted to kill Robert for it. Not only does raping Cersei remind his sister of her repeated, humiliating violation, Jaime is poisoning their own relationship, the thing that had been Cersei’s antidote to the miseries of her marriage. It is an exceptionally cruel thing for Jaime to do.
Meanwhile, in the Riverlands, Arya Stark is learning how dangerous it is to believe that you have seen the worst of someone, when they become desperate. In the first episode of this season, she and Sandor Clegane shared in a spasm of savagery. But just because the Hound trusted Arya enough to let her ride her own horse does not mean that they actually share values. After sharing dinner and prayers with a family who has managed to stay a notch above destitute, and after the Hound agrees to work for them for “fair wages,” Arya wakes up to the sight of her captor robbing the farmer and his daughter. “You told me you weren’t a thief,” Arya tells him, displaying the tattered shreds of her innocence. “I wasn’t,” Sandor tells her bluntly. “He’s a nice man. His daughter makes a nice stew. And they’ll both be dead come winter.” Arya has little choice but to go with him, and to accept that tolerating the Hound is the cost of her continued survival.
Back in King’s Landing, Oberyn Martell cloaks even greater hate in spiteful courtesy when Tywin Lannister interrupts his orgy to find out whether the Red Viper killed his grandson, and to offer him a deal. “I don’t believe that a child is responsible for the sins of his father,” Oberyn tells Tywin. “And his grandfather. It’s an awful way to die.” He is distinguishing himself from what he sees as Tywin’s depraved willingness to kill children, while simultaneously informing Tywin that Joffrey’s death changes nothing between them. And Tywin proves Oberyn’s equal in poise. “Men at war commit all kinds of crimes without their superiors’ knowledge,” he tells Oberyn. “So you deny involvement in Elia’s murder?” Oberyn wants to know. Tywin’s “Categorically” cuts as deep as Valyrian steel, and is just as soaked in mockery as Oberyn’s politesse. They may achieve a detente, but Oberyn has not nurtured his rage so long for theirs to be a permanent peace.
And finally in Meereen, Dany believes she can turn the conditions of slavery to her advantage. “I am not your enemy. Your enemy is beside you,” Dany tells the slaves of that city. “Your enemy steals and murders your children. Your enemy has nothing but chains and suffering and commands. I do not bring you commands. I bring you a choice. And I bring your enemies what they deserve.” The barrels of chains and collars Dany lofts over Meereen’s walls are fabulous symbols. But they are a tool to make life unendurable, rather than real instruments of liberation. If she was watching Westeros as closely as we are, Dany might have some sense of what a bitter harvest she is sowing.