By Duncan Chalmers
(Spoilers for both Game of Thrones and The Sopranos present)
Despite a number of characters being killed off, with one occurrence seemingly celebrated by almost every viewer, none of the deaths so far in this season of Game of Thrones have been able to achieve the same level of reaction as last year’s “Red Wedding.” Although it certainly was not intentional, there has been one scene that sent the internet into a comparable frenzy a number of Sundays ago. The episode it appeared in, “Breaker of Chains,” did little in terms of narrative progression, but the media has reacted intensely to a fairly short sequence in which Jaime Lannister rapes his sister, Cersei.
Despite comments from the director that suggest otherwise, rape is unquestionably what we witnessed in that sequence. The majority of the outcry seemed not to be focused at what actually occurred on screen, rather the scene’s inconsistencies with the novel, and the implications brought forth with those changes. I respect people’s desire for faithfulness to the source material, but any problems with that scene are not related to the adaptation process.
I am comfortable with David Benioff and W.B. Weiss making any changes that make the series work better on television. Therefore I want to consider this event on the basis of a narrative decision. If handled in the right way, art should be able to represent almost everything that occurs in reality, including sexual assault. As a form of social discourse it can allow us to consider and contemplate the most difficult elements of society. At its best, art can present powerful messages about subjects we are normally uncomfortable dwelling on.
Although the scene was handled so crudely, with a clear division of villain and victim, I do not think it’s fair to say that the series was problematic from that episode alone. Isolated from the comments of the people involved, the scene didn’t present the actions in anything but a demonizing tone. I believe that the context of such a scene is far more important than the content itself.
As much as I was frustrated with the decision when discussing the scene in the days following, I begrudgingly agreed that I would wait to see what the fallout would be as the season continued. To justify such a bold narrative choice, I thought the writers clearly intended to redirect the course of the series for these characters. But in the four episodes following, there has been little evidence of any impact.
I remember a while ago, when I was working my way through The Sopranos, having a debate with my father about a particular plot point from that series. After listening to me rave about the third season (which I personally consider one of the greatest ever,) he expressed his discontent with a scene from the episode “University.” In it Ralph Cifaretto violently beats a stripper named Tracee, who is pregnant with his unborn child, ultimately resulting in her death.
The scene is incredibly gruesome and intense; I remember nearly crying at its brutality. My father thought that the writers had crossed the line by displaying such violence, particularly against a woman. And he wasn’t alone, when the episode was released it received similar criticism to what Game of Thrones is experiencing now.
At the time, I passionately defended David Chase’s decision to include this scene, and I feel the same now. As awful and painful as it is, the sequence has a great significance to the entirety of the series. Not really in terms of plot, but more of the general tone of the show.
One of the things The Sopranos had to contend with is the moral representation of its characters. When creating an anti-hero driven story you have to establish a balance between keeping the characters engaging without absolving them of their sins. There is no denying that the mobsters represented in the series are likeable; they are funny, at times sympathetic, and truly fascinating. Captivating characters are important for maintaining an entertaining show, but the fear is that the writers will justify their actions in the pursuit of making them interesting.
With Tracee’s death, The Sopranos made a clear statement about the world it was portraying. These men, despite their charm and humour, are immoral people. That’s not to say there is no ambiguity or conflict to the morality the show represents; that was always something that it flourished in. But from that point forward it was impossible to ignore the true nature of the characters. Much of the criticism was directed at the detail of the violence. It is no doubt disturbing, but that’s what makes it so powerful. Sanitizing the event would only act as a disservice to the reality being portrayed.
That’s why I didn’t really have an issue with the rape scene itself. If the writers want to make a statement about sexual assault that will have a significant impact on the characters and themes of the series, then all the power to them. But as the season continues, that is slowly being revealed to not be the case. Neither of the characters involved show any sign impact from what occurred, and the way the show deals with them seems to ignore it altogether.
As Tyrion’s trial is playing out, Cersei has been forced back into a villainous role, and Jaime is still well on track with his redemption arc from last season. I’m not saying that this plot point has to entirely alter the representation of them, but its strikingly false to simply ignore it. If we were expected to pretend as if it didn’t happen, then why even do it at all, especially since it was not even in the book. Anytime Jaime is on screen now, I feel alienated and uncomfortable.
There is still a possibility that the series could do something to salvage what has occurred. In The Sopranos the event altered Tony and Ralph’s relationship in a way that would not fully culminate until well into the fourth season. The fallout that occurred was not entirely explicit, but that subtleness proved to be both genuine and intensely poignant.
I’ve had a number of conversations with people about this scene, and the reason behind its inclusion. You can read in whatever sort of meaning you like, but I have not found any to be very convincing. And to me that’s a problem. Not simply as a disappointing flaw in the plot, but because when an artist uses something so impactful as sexual assault in their work, they better do so with proper intent.
As a viewer, I expect creators to say something important when they take such a bold risk. When Game of Thrones had one of its characters rape their own grieving sister, they didn’t say anything at all. And that silence speaks volumes.