If you haven’t seen last night’s episode of Game of Thrones, spoilers abound, obviously, and you should stop reading right about… now.
If you have, you’ll most likely have logged onto the Internet this morning expecting to see a sea of think-pieces about the scene in last night’s episode where Jaime Lannister rapes his sister Cersei, right next to the dead body of their son. Even for the world of Game of Thrones, it was difficult to watch. There’s already been plenty of debate about the license the TV show took with its source material, and why. That’s a debate for forums and comment sections, but let’s be clear about one thing: that was rape we saw.
A common feature of comment sections this morning has been men (yes, of course it’s men) asking rather sanctimoniously why the Internet is more outraged about this rape scene than the deaths that happened last night, and happen every week on Game of Thrones. The answer is twofold: a) that the encounter wasn’t a rape at all in George R. R. Martin’s book, and b) more pointedly, that the director of last night’s episode also seems to think that what he (yeah, of course it’s a he) wrote also wasn’t a rape.
Sure, people get killed every week on Game of Thrones, but no one’s trying to pretend otherwise. And no one’s trying to pretend murder is a good thing — the Arya storyline, for instance, is one of the show’s strongest because it is a nuanced examination of what exposure to violence and brutality does to a person. If you were cheering unreservedly for Arya when she put her sword through the neck of the man she killed at the end of this season’s first episode, you were missing subtleties and undercurrents.
There are no such subtleties to miss here: what we saw last night was a rape scene. As A.V. Club’s Sonia Saraiya points out, this isn’t the way it happens in the book. The way George R. R. Martin writes the scene, it plays out as if Cersei wants to have sex, but feels she shouldn’t because of the gods and bad luck and, y’know, the fact that she and Jaime are getting it on next to the dead body of their son. Put crudely, her answer is, “Yes, although shit, we really shouldn’t.” There are clearly still issues of consent here, but there’s also the same moral ambiguity that characterizes the relationship as a whole: Cersei and Jaime both know what they’re doing is wrong (they’re brother and sister, for crying out loud), but they also both want to do it regardless.
There’s no such implication in the scene that aired last night — Cersei says “no” repeatedly, and tries to force her brother away, and cries throughout. It wouldn’t be first time the series has diverged from the books, of course, and if the scene was meant to be written as a rape, it’d raise a whole different set of questions — why the change was made, what it’s meant to demonstrate about Jaime’s character, where the relationship goes from here.
But here’s the real problem: the episode’s director, Alex Graves, doesn’t seem to think he was straying that far from the source material at all. As he says in an interview with Hitfix, his interpretation of the scene is that it “becomes consensual by the end, because anything for them ultimately results in a turn-on, especially a power struggle.” Clearly, the Jaime/Cersei relationship is deeply fucked up in a lot of ways, but this still doesn’t play. The implication here — that something non-consensual can magically “become consensual” because DEEP CONFLICTING EMOTIONS is at best lazy writing and at worst exactly the sort of thing that perpetuates the idea that “no” just means you haven’t insisted enough yet.
This is the sort of internalized misogyny to which you’d think a writer’s room might be savvier. You can depict whatever you want on a TV show, obviously, and Game of Thrones pushes the proverbial envelope week after week. But last night’s scene was a misstep. There’s no moral interdiction on the depiction of rape. Just, shit, at least realize what it is that you’re depicting, and be honest with yourself and your audience about it.