For the previous three years, watching “Game of Thrones” as a reader of George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire novels has been like attending an incredibly traumatic family reunion after years away. Sure, it feels odd that the Stark girls grew that fast, and after finding ourselves in a corner with someone like Shae, a character we never really get to know in the novels, she turns out to be fascinating.
The things that are different, or not quite as we pictured them, only serve to deepen our sense of the familiar. This is the same story about the poison of patriarchy and the toxins of inequality, only a whole lot worse. Even if I have known what was coming next, as I suspect many of us think we do for the rest of this season, it still has been hugely satisfying seeing Joffrey and Margaery’s wedding unfold in a grand social panorama, or to watch Arya at her needlework. Among its many other accomplishments, the casting work Nina Gold and Robert Sterne have done for “Game of Thrones” is impeccable.
Tonight, though, was totally different. Many of the things that happened in “Oathkeeper” happened in “A Storm of Swords,” but we are seeing them from radically different perspectives. “Game of Thrones” is now deep in a story that does not happen at all in the books, in which Ramsay Snow’s murderous henchman Locke infiltrates the Wall to try to try to track down Ned Stark’s heirs, while Bran Stark and his protectors have fallen into the clutches of the very mutineers Jon has gone off to fight. And we saw something that never shows up in Martin’s novels: a gathering place for the White Walkers, deep beyond the Wall. We are off book — off the map, even — and I love it.
These diversions do what they have always done, of course: deepening our understanding of the story Martin first laid down for us. In Missendi’s language lessons with Grey Worm, we learn more about the trauma of the people who were sold in Slaver’s Bay, and about the impulses that will guide Dany’s tenure as Queen. Dany may enjoy being greeted as “Mhysa,” but what binds men like Grey Worm to her so deeply is her impulse to crucify the men who enslaved the Unsullied and call retribution justice.
In King’s Landing, hearing Bronn’s stories about his relationship with Tyrion gives us some perspective on how obvious Tyrion’s tie to Jaime is, even to outsiders with no access to his thoughts. Learning that Olenna Tyrell seduced her way to a marriage she preferred over the one that had been arranged reinforces our sense that she is fun, while her confession to Margaery demarcates her ruthlessness. And watching Margaery seduce her next husband-to-be by recognizing that a boy Tommen’s age wants the promise of sex in the future, but the reality of a kiss on the forehead in the present, is a testament to her psychological acumen.
The new plots serve this purpose, too. When Locke arrives on the Wall, slipping in amidst the chaos, he tells a story about inequality and injustice that Jon is likely to fall for. “I was a game warden in the Stormlands,” Locke explains. “Fed a prized partridge to my hungry kids.” Rather than lose his hand, Locke says he chose the Wall, and Jon believes him.
It is one of the virtues of the Night’s Watch that it offers a sort of plea bargaining in an otherwise profoundly unjust legal system. But one of its greatest risks is that it offers the same deal for men who are victims of savage inequality, and those who are a part of Westeros’ toxic sexual culture. Karl, one of the lead mutineers at Craster’s, embodies both of these strands. He gives the order that Craster’s wives should be raped “’til they’re dead.” And when Bran falls into his lethal custody, he cracks the Stark boy across the face, telling him “See, where I come from, common like me slaps a little lord likes you, I’d lose my right hand. But we’re a long way from home, aren’t we?” When entirely justified class resentments twine into a braid with the lawless environment beyond the Wall, and a sense of extreme sexual entitlement, the results are ugly.
Westeros has seemed frightening and unpredictable before. But knowing that I can no longer count on the books to signal when I should brace myself for a wedding massacre or a lost hand suddenly puts me in the same position as the characters. That this has happened when Bran is facing savage danger, or Jon is warming to a cunning foe, is particularly unsettling. We are all balanced in a tower window or at the lintel of the Moon Door in the Eyrie now.
This post would not be complete, of course, without a discussion of the ways in which a significant deviation from Martin’s novel affects the show’s going forward. Whatever Alex Graves, who directed last week’s episode, thought he was putting on screen, for most viewers, Jaime Lannister is a rapist now. The conversation between Jaime and the woman who was his sister and his lover, and is now also his victim, is not quite as frank as this very funny rewrite of the scene. But I thought it was a powerful evocation of what lies between them now. Cersei told Jaime earlier this season that she was drinking more because of what her life has become, and he does not question it when she brandishes a full glass of red at him now. The subject of their discussion is ostensibly Tommen’s security, now that he is king. But the real issue is whether Jaime respects Cersei’s wishes, and her attempt to regain control of the dynamic between them. “Why did Catelyn Stark set you free?” Cersei murmurs in disgust. “I’ve been wondering for months, ever since that great cow brought you back to the capitol.” Cersei’s real question is what she got back. Joffrey, Cersei’s oldest son with Jaime, died on Jaime’s watch. Jaime refused to give Cersei what she wanted in the immediate aftermath of Joffrey’s death. And Jaime raped her.“You’ve always pitied him. Our poor little brother,” Cersei tells Jaime bitterly. “Abused by the world, despised by his father and sister. He’d kill us all if he could. I want four men at Tommen’s door, day and night. That will be all, Lord Commander.”
It is a striking, curt little speech, and it leaves unsaid what could be a fascinating dynamic between the pair. Less interesting than the gap between the showrunners’ and director’s description of the rape scene is the one between Cersei and Jaime. Disturbing as it might be, it seems entirely possible that Cersei believes she was raped, while Jaime believes that what happened between them was consensual.
She cannot resolve that, or any of the other unresolved things that lie between them. But Cersei can shut a certain gate on their relationship. By addressing Jaime as the Lord Commander, by turning away from him, Cersei imposes a formality on their relationship. It is a paltry thing, but this is the authority that remains to her as former queen regent, the little power she can claim as Tommen’s mother. When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. But that maxim does not mention how painful and protracted your life can become before it ends.
Less altered from the novel is a subsequent scene in which Jaime gives Brienne of Tarth his Valyrian steel sword and a set of armor, charging her to use both to bring Sansa Stark home. But the shade of the sept falls over their exchanges, too: Jaime frequently looks away from the clear gaze of the woman who has come to believe in him, and who pledges to uphold not just her honor, but his own.
When Brienne rides away with Podrick Payne, Jaime sees his honor going with her. Now that Cersei has abjured him, Jaime is left with himself for company, and the account of himself that he writes in the Book of Brothers. When Bronn knocked Jaime to the dirt with his own, gold-plated hand, the sell-sword could not have possibly known how right he had it.