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What the rape scene on last night’s ‘Game of Thrones’ means for the show

Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in HBO’s “Game of Thrones” (Neil Davidson/HBO)

The people who actually made the episode of “Game of Thrones” that aired on Sunday evening appear to have rather dramatically different interpretations of what happened in the hour’s most pivotal scene: Jaime Lannister’s rape of his sister Cersei in the sept where their dead son’s body lay in state. Director Alex Graves told Alan Sepinwall of Hitfix that “Well, it becomes consensual by the end, because anything for them ultimately results in a turn-on, especially a power struggle.” By contrast, critic Sean Collins was listening through the episode commentary and flagged David Benioff, who is one of the “Game of Thrones” show-runners and who co-wrote the episode, describing the events rather differently. “It becomes a really kind of horrifying scene, because you see, obviously, Joffrey’s body right there, and you see that Cersei is resisting this. She’s saying no, and he’s forcing himself on her,” Benioff said. “So it was a really uncomfortable scene, and a tricky scene to shoot.”

I tend not to care very much about what showrunners, writers, or directors think they are doing in a given scene once an episode is out of the gate. Stories are like Dany’s dragons: Once hatched, they are beautiful and terrible spectacles that soar out of control of their progenitors. But if we are trying to divine how “Game of Thrones” will proceed from this dramatic alteration to its source material, it is a relief to see that the actual showrunner for the series shares the understanding that what happened on Sunday was horrifying, that he knows that Cersei’s repeated “no” means no. As much as I dislike this parsing of creators’ motivations and understandings of what they have let loose on all of us, this disparity between Graves and Benioff is revealing not just as tea leaves for the future of the show, but as a reflection of a debate that surfaced among viewers immediately on the episode’s conclusion. (This debate is intensified by the fact that the scene is a dramatic change from the novel.) The idea that the scene was a “power struggle,” but a consensual one showed up in my Twitter mentions shortly after I posted last night’s review, and similar alternative readings show up in the comments to it. The readings range from arguments that Cersei consented to everything that followed because she kissed Jaime, to suggestions that it is inappropriate to read events in quasi-medieval settings through contemporary morals, to “Given it was Cersei, who cares? Would have been better if he had impaled her on the sword from Joffrey’s stone cold hands.” Plenty of commentators, including Wired’s Laura Hudson, have identified this reaction as part of an ongoing and hugely unsettling inability to settle on a common definition of rape. The scene has reopened the ongoing debates about whether “Game of Thrones” is more or less misogynist than George R.R. Martin’s novels, and whether turning a consensual sex scene into a rape is a further evidence of what some critics see as the show’s contempt for women. I suppose we could turn these opposing into a “Bad Fan” debate, enlisting Graves’ remarks on one side and Benioff’s on another to try to figure out who is reading the scene wrong, and for what reasons. But rather than try to parse these after-the-fact debates, I want to return to the scene itself, and its place in the series.

The truth is this and it is awful: Just because Jaime Lannister tried to give Cersei solace when her husband raped her, and just because he went back for Brienne of Tarth does not mean he is incapable of committing rape himself. It may be that Jaime does not understand himself as raping his sister. But fortunately for us, as people protected by a modern legal regime, and as consumers of fiction, the question of whether or not Jaime committed rape does not lie with him. George R.R. Martin’s novels are frequently praised for their critique of high fantasy, in particularly his gleeful devotion to tearing up chivalric tropes. But even as he takes Valyrian steel to the idea that knights are good and endings are happy, Martin does have some soft spots. The Samwell Tarly of his novels would never pack Gilly off to a Molestown brothel because of his worry, deeply inflected by jealousy, that she might be in danger from his brothers on the Wall. After chucking Bran Stark out a window, the Jaime of Martin’s creation follows a fairly straightforward trajectory towards at least wanting to become the sort of ideal of knighthood that Sandor Clegane so despises. As a show, “Game of Thrones” frequently denies us the relief of those small decencies, those hopeful attempts at goodness. And while I do not think we are meant to engage in moral relativism while watching the show, excusing Jaime of rape because he is operating in a radically different context than our own, I doubt the show will be kind enough to give us some sort of justice in recompense.

If this is the case, I would not fault anyone who finds “Game of Thrones” unendurable, and chooses not to continue. Given the reaction to this sequence, I can imagine a number of other events from the novels that might be similar flash points in the episodes yet to come. We can certainly argue over whether or not there might have been another way to disrupt Jaime’s redemption without having him cause grievous harm to another significant character, and specifically, about whether “Game of Thrones” could have used some other sort of transgression to effect that shift in the story. Certainly, this will inflect both Cersei and Jaime’s arcs in the show, bending them away from Martin’s original meanings, and I can see ways that change could be good or extremely ill.

But for me, there was something striking about the juxtaposition of this scene with Joffrey’s death in the episode before. That was a grim and nasty murder, but one that felt easy to revel in because of Joff’s persistent nastiness, particularly his strong streak of sexual sadism. Jaime’s rape of Cersei suggests that Joff’s propensity for sexual violence may be as much the legacy of his biological father as his acknowledged one. Just as the manner of Joffrey’s death made us complicit in his love of violence, Jaime’s rape of Cersei revealed just how much we’d all bought into the redemption narrative of a man we met when he tried to kill a child, telling Cersei that it was an example of “the things I do for love.” Joffrey may have died by poisoning, but the scene between his parents after his death reminds us that Joffrey, Jaime and almost every other man on “Game of Thrones” has been drinking a non-lethal dose of the same venom for generations.