Why We Should Pretend the ‘Game of Thrones’ Rape Scene Never Happened
The show tried to depict consensual sex between Jaime and Cersei Lannister—but messed up big time. How should fans react?
Forget about the rape. Just overlook it. Ignore it. Pretend it didn't happen.
Still reading? Phew.
In case you were worried, the rape I'm referring to—the one I'm urging you to unremember—wasn't a real-life rape. Overlooking a real-life rape would be horrific. But a fictional rape—well, that might be a different story. Especially when it's clear, at this point, that it wasn't designed to be a rape at all.
I know that sounds awful. It's certainly painful to write. But bear with me here.
For two weeks now, fans of Game of Thrones have been caught in an unusual moral conundrum. Jaime "The Kingslayer" Lannister—the handsome, haughty blond warrior played to perfection by Danish actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau—started the series with a villainous bang: he blithely pushed the pre-pubescent prince Bran Stark out of a window because the boy spied him shtupping his own sister, Cersei Lannister.
But Jaime wasn't a black-and-white baddie for long. In fact, GoT spent the next three seasons transforming him into a pretty sympathetic character. The turning point was when Jaime was captured and chained up by the Starks—an ordeal that humbled him, humanized him, and eventually left him without a sword hand, struggling to find a new, post-Kingslayer identity for himself. Sure, Jaime could still slaughter his own cousin to escape captivity. But he could also rescue his sidekick Brienne of Tarth from a bear. And pledge to return the Stark girls to their mother, Catelyn. And refuse to kill his brother Tyrion on Cersei's behalf. And so on. He was a compromised, conflicted asshole—but he was basically trying to do the right thing.
Then came the Sunday before last—and with it the moment my colleague Marlow Stern called "the most screwed up sex scene ever broadcast on television." You know, the one in which Jaime forced himself on his twin sister over the dead body of their incestuous son. It was 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.
Pretty much 100 percent of the people who tuned in for "Breaker of Chains" thought that what Jaime did to Cersei on screen was rape—and they were unequivocally, unavoidably, undeniably correct. There was no verbal consent—just refusal. “Stop…it’s not right!” Cersei snapped. “I don’t care,” Jaime hissed back. The last word Cersei said before the cameras cut away? "Stop." Again. For the fifth time. And Jaime kept going. That's rape, plain and simple.
And so pretty much 100 percent of viewers were upset—again, rightly so. In George R.R. Martin's books, Jaime doesn't rape Cersei alongside their son's corpse in the sept. Yes, he is aggressive. Yes, she resists at first. But as Martin himself has put it, "though the time and place is wildly inappropriate and Cersei is fearful of discovery, she is as hungry for him as he is for her."
"Hurry,” Cersei whispers in the book. “Quickly, quickly, now, do it now, do me now. Jaime Jaime Jaime.”
And that's what pissed everybody off. By changing consensual incest to incestuous rape, GoT appeared to be changing Jaime's character. "Benioff and Weiss’s alteration wasn’t merely one of degree, but one of kind," The Atlantic's Christopher Orr explained. "You can take Joffrey the sadist and make him 20 percent more explicitly sadistic and it doesn’t meaningfully alter audiences’ impressions of him. Ditto with Ramsay the super-sadist. But this is different. Yes, Jaime and Cersei’s relationship is wrong and transgressive in innumerable ways. But this tweak didn’t make it wrong-er or more transgressive. Instead it fundamentally altered impressions of Jaime, who had until now gradually emerged as one of the most sympathetic characters on the show."
Or, as The A.V. Club's Sonia Saraiya wrote, "Jaime raping Cersei is a major anomaly for these two characters—even based purely on what we’ve seen in the show. It’s just not something that either character would do."
Hence viewers' moral conundrum: is Jaime still supposed to be the sympathetic character he is in the books—and was, until now, on the show? Or is he something else entirely?
This is a real problem, because the two Jaimes—the old Jaime and the rapist Jaime—are mutually exclusive. Coster-Waldau's character can't be both. But I've also decided that it's an unresolvable problem, for one simple reason:
The rape wasn't supposed to be a rape. It was supposed to look consensual. The filmmakers messed up.
Consider the evidence.
After the episode aired, its director, Alex Graves, told Alan Sepinwall that the sex "becomes consensual by the end, because anything for [Cersei and Jaime] ultimately results in a turn-on, especially a power struggle.”
Coster-Waldau echoed that sentiment in an interview with The Daily Beast, answering the question of whether or not the scene constitutes rape by saying “Yes, and no…. There are moments where she gives in, and moments where she pushes him away.”
Meanwhile, Lena Headey, the actress who plays Cersei, also seemed to think her character was a willing participant. "There’s lust and desperation and you know, a need to feel something other than this searing, empty loss," Headey explained in a Google Hangout. "And so that’s where I came from when we were filming. There was this need and it wasn’t right and yet it felt great."
Finally, in the following episode—last Sunday's "Oathkeeper"—Jaime reverted right back to his good old sympathetic self. He bonded with his imprisoned imp brother. He deputized Brienne to find and protect Sansa Stark. He shielded Podrick Payne from harm. And while Cersei was upset with him, it wasn't because of the whole rape thing. It was because he was siding with Tyrion over her.
In short, despite the fact that virtually nothing onscreen suggested “giving in,” neither the director of the scene nor the two actors who played it seem to think that Jaime raped Cersei—and the story itself is continuing to chug along as if the rape never happened and Jaime is still a character we're supposed to root for.
As a viewer, this is a very strange situation to find yourself in: a character has clearly done something horrible—but the show doesn't realize it. Maybe a consensual line was cut. Maybe Graves thought Cersei's body language was enough. Maybe everybody assumed that what was going on in their heads on set somehow materialized on screen. But it didn't. So how should we react?
We could continue to insist that Jaime is a rapist and spend the rest of the series complaining about his inconsistencies every time he's depicted in a relatively flattering light—thereby allowing a single instance of unintentionally ham-fisted filmmaking to jaundice our entire impression of his character.
Or we could ignore the rape—at least from a narrative perspective. Pull the clip from the show. Play it in sex ed class. Use it as a teachable moment. Insist that it's as clear an illustration of rape as you're going to see on cable TV—because it is. That said, as you watch the rest of Game of Thrones, you might also want to consider pretending that Benioff and Weiss had adhered to George R.R. Martin's original scene instead of botching it.
At this point, it's clear that's what the show is going to do. For my own sanity—as morally discomfiting as it is—I'm planning to play along.