We’ve already seen plenty of horrifying things happen on Game of Thrones. That time Viserys Targaryen’s head was melted off with molten gold. That time Theon Greyjoy’s penis was cut off and sent to his family in Pyke. That time King Joffrey impaled a prostitute with his crossbow. And so on.
But none of that quite prepared us for the horrifying encounter between Jaime and Cersei Lannister at the start of “Breaker of Chains,” Sunday’s episode of Thrones. It’s as if showrunners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff set out to violate as many taboos in a single scene as they possibly could—and then violated a couple more, just for kicks. Rape is one thing. Raping your sister is another. Raping your twin sister is even more perverse. But raping her alongside the corpse of your incestuous son? That's a whole new level of wrong.
“Not here!” the queen cried. “It’s not right! It’s not right!”
Even Cersei Lannister has to draw the line somewhere.
But despite all the attention that Jaime’s horrific act is attracting right now—on Twitter, on Facebook, on The Daily Beast—the real horror of “Breaker of Chains” is much bigger and much more insidious than any single transgression, however vile. In a way that no previous episode has, Sunday’s Thrones made plain the systemic, all-encompassing bleakness of author George R.R. Martin’s moral universe. It’s a vision that's easy to overlook amid the series’ spectacular storytelling and intoxicating characters. But it’s there all the same.
In short, Game of Thrones isn’t just the most entertaining show on TV today. It’s also the most cynical.
Consider the other interaction that took place Sunday night over Joffrey’s dead body. As Cersei silently mourned the fallen king, her imperious father Tywin conducted a Socratic dialogue of sorts with her second son, Tommen Baratheon, heir to Joffrey’s throne.
“What kind of king do you think you’ll be?” Tywin asked.
Tommen hesitated. “A good king,” he finally replied.
“I think so as well,” Tywin continued. “You have the right temperament for it. But what makes a good king?”
It has conditioned us to accept that the intelligent plan might fail, that the loyal pact might crumble, that the hero might get his head chopped off at any instant.
Tommen ventured a guess. “Holiness?” he stammered. But Tywin shot it down; one of your predecessors was holy, he explained, and he “fasted himself into an early grave.” The older man went on to debunk Tommen’s other theories as well. Horace the First was just, but his brother killed him in his sleep; Robert Baratheon was strong, but he died while hunting drunk.
“So we have a man who starves himself to death, a man who lets his own brother murder him, and a man who thinks that winning and ruling are the same thing,” Tywin said. “What do they all lack?”
At last Tommen hit on the correct answer: wisdom. “Yes!” purred Tywin. If the exchange had ended there, it might have been a nice little grandfatherly lesson on leadership—a corrective to Joffrey’s sadistic rule. But the lesson didn’t end there, because this is Game of Thrones. Instead, Tywin had to make sure that Tommen understood what “wisdom” really means.
“A house with great wealth and fertile lands asks you for protection against a house with a great navy that could one day oppose you—how do you know which choice is wise and which choice isn’t?” he asked. “A wise king knows what he knows and what he doesn’t. A wise young king listens to his counselors and heeds their advice until he comes of age—and the wisest kings keep listening to them long afterwards.”
In other words, Tywin wasn’t instructing his grandson at all. He was manipulating him: unleashing the full force of his political cunning—flattery, persuasion, sophistry, fear—to secure for himself, Tommen’s chief counselor, as much political power as possible. He is the Dick Cheney to Tommen’s “wise” George W. Bush. In Westeros, “wisdom” is meaningless; politics triumphs every time.
(Tywin’s manipulation of Oberyn Martell was just as skillful—and just as cynical. In a matter of minutes he managed to co-opt a sworn enemy of the Lannisters by offering him easy revenge [access to the knight who murdered his sister] and influence of his own [a seat on Tommen’s small council].)
The rest of “Breaker of Chains” was similarly grim. Sansa thought Dontos Holland, the king’s fool, was rushing her away from the scene of Joffrey’s murder because she had once saved his life; on Sunday, she found out that Dontos was actually delivering her to Petyr Baelish. For money. Sansa’s virtue—like Tommen’s wisdom—was no match for the amoral maneuvering of a master political schemer. Nor was Dontos’s loyalty. “Money buys a man’s silence for a time,” Baelish hissed as one of his henchmen aimed a bow at Dontos. “A bolt in the heart buys it forever.”
Elsewhere Sunday, intelligence lost out to power when Tyrion wound up in jail. Love lost out to fear when Gilly wound up in a menacing whorehouse. And generosity was bulldozed by brute force: shortly after enjoying some homemade rabbit stew, the Hound whacked his kindly peasant host over the head and made off with his silver.
“They’ll both be dead come winter,” he explained. “Dead men don’t need silver.”
“You’re the worst shit in the seven kingdoms!” cried his sidekick, Arya Stark.
“There are plenty worse than me,” the Hound responded. “I just understand the way things are.”
The way things are, indeed. On Thrones, power, politics, money, and force constantly trump goodness, in each of its ineffectual forms.
In theory, a show that subscribes to such a cynical worldview should be pretty much impossible to watch. But Thrones is impossible to stop watching. Why is that? My hunch is that the story’s cynicism—its capacity for letting goodness go unrewarded—is also its key addictive agent. Most mainstream narratives adhere to a simple rule: the good guys are always OK in the end. We’re generally able to forget about this rule while we’re watching a movie or reading a book. But deep down, it’s always in effect, diluting the story’s suspense.
Game of Thrones doesn’t play by this rule. At all. From the start it has conditioned us to accept that the intelligent plan might fail, that the loyal pact might crumble, that the hero might get his head chopped off at any instant. You never know.
“Breaker of Chains" was a perfect case in point. By the end of the episode, Ser Davos had hatched a new plan to fund Stannis Baratheon’s insurgency. The wildling army north of The Wall had captured some brothers of the Night’s Watch—men who might reveal that the Watch’s actual ranks are much thinner than originally estimated. And Daenerys Targaryen had continued her emancipatory march toward King’s Landing by delivering a stirring speech to the slaves of yet another eastern city. At some point, these forces will converge on a capital destabilized by Joffrey’s death. Jon Snow might be eaten by a wildling cannibal. Stannis might purchase the Iron Throne with gold. Daenerys’s new army might rebel and tear her to pieces.
Again: on Game of Thrones, you never know. And when you never know—when anything could conceivably happen—you’re more obsessed with what might happen next. Who knew cynicism could be so fun?