Was It Rape? TV’s New Obsession With Sexual Consent, From ‘Game of Thrones’ to ‘Breaking Bad’

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“Get on all fours.” Those words mark a turning point for Adam Sackler, the main love interest on Girls. Directed at his new girlfriend Natalia in the penultimate episode of the show’s second season, they initiate the most uncomfortable sex scene of a series that’s built its name on uncomfortable sex scenes. Adam picks Natalia up and forcibly throws her onto his bed. Adam keeps going when Natalia objects that she hasn’t showered, and when she asks that he watch out for her dress. Adam doesn’t appear to care about Natalia’s obviously pained facial expressions. But did Adam rape Natalia?

Even Lena Dunham herself didn’t seem to know when “On All Fours” first aired over a year ago. “That’s hard for me to answer,” she told the LA Times. “To me, it seemed like a terrible miscommunication between two people who didn’t know what they really wanted.” Hardly an encouraging response, given that Dunham’s both a self-identified “rabid feminist” (per the very same interview) and, as creator and showrunner, in a better position than anyone else to pass judgement on her characters. And now another HBO hit is in the crosshairs of an argument about sexual consent, albeit one where the gap between creator and audience is far more clear-cut.

That’s because the Game of Thrones scene in question, where Jaime Lannister rapes his twin sister Cersei, is itself more clear-cut. Cersei’s protests of “stop” and “it’s wrong” are far less ambiguous than Natalia’s ambivalent verbal cues and body language. But the alarming fact remains that both the episode’s director and the actor who plays Jaime insist that the scene didn’t depict what it very clearly did: rape. Alex Graves’ pronouncement that the sex “was consensual by the end” is now infamous, and he’s proceeded to dig himself in even deeper with claims like, “She wraps her legs around him… she’s way into kissing him back.” For his part, Nikolaj Coster-Waldeau says, “The intention is that it’s not just [rape]” (emphasis mine).

As a fan of Game of Thrones, I’m disappointed we’re dedicating space to a conversation about the basics of “no means no” that would be better spent talking about what it means for a man who’s previously defended women from rape to become a rapist himself, or what enduring an assault at the hands of the only man she’s ever trusted will mean for Cersei’s rapidly deteriorating psyche. As a fan of television, however, I see Jaime’s rape of Cersei and the dialogue surrounding it as the latest in a series of explorations of consent on the small screen — some successful, some spectacular failures.

If Graves intended the Game of Thrones scene to bring up questions about, say, how sexual violence occurs even within longstanding and previously consensual relationships, he’s one of those failures. But other shows have depicted instances of assault that ask viewers to question and possibly expand their definition of what rape is, depictions that deviate from the framework of enthusiastic consent versus explicit violation that viewers are used to seeing.

Television’s been tackling straightforward rape and its impact on characters, too; as Alyssa Rosenberg argues for the Washington Post, women like Claire Underwood and Mellie Grant are both survivors whose experiences inform, rather than define, their characters. Even within series that contain horrifying examples of onscreen rape, however, there are encounters more disturbing for their ambiguity than their violence.

One of the earliest examples is Mad Men, whose poised office manager Joan Holloway is pinned to the office floor by her own fiancé during the second season. That experience remains on the periphery of the show, culminating with Joan’s decision to divorce her deadbeat army doctor: “You were never a good man, even before we were married. And you know what I’m talking about.” But in the third season, the ever-emasculated Pete Campbell has an encounter with a neighbor’s au pair that’s coercive, but not an obvious assault — or at least not as obvious as Joan’s. Pete shows up at the au pair’s door drunk, uses a dress he had cleaned for her as a quid pro quo, and imposes himself on a socially disempowered person (a woman, service worker, and foreign national) without the leverage to deny him what he wants. It’s wrong, and it’s definitely not consensual; she cries for days afterwards. Neither is it the type of sex viewers were previously conditioned to recognize as rape.

AMC’s other prestige drama, Breaking Bad, set its first instance of sexual violence within a preexisting relationship. The second season premiere, which aired just a few months before the Mad Men episode in question, has a pre-Heisenberg Walter White transition from crying on his wife’s shoulder to pulling down her underwear and pushing her against a fridge, face mask and all. Skyler’s hesitant throughout, telling Walt to let her clean up her face and reminding him their teenage son will be home from school soon, statements he ignores. Eventually she yells at him to stop, and he does, but not before disregarding her when she asks him to “hold up” and indicates she’s had “enough.” That makes Walt’s advances, however understandable their motivations (the guy has lung cancer) or darkly comic their results (Skyler’s mask smeared across the kitchen appliance) a likely instance of marital rape. Though not one fans or critics picked up on at the time; the A.V. Club recap, for example, doesn’t even mention it.

Then there’s The Americans, whose Elizabeth Jennings is one of the women Rosenberg touches on in her article. As a 20-year-old cadet in Russia, Elizabeth is raped at the hands of a commanding officer. Years later, as an undercover KGB officer, she asks her husband and mission partner Philip to role-play as “Clark,” an alias of his with a penchant for rough sex. She insists, he obliges, and even though he checks in to ask if this is what Elizabeth really wants, she breaks down in tears. Philip doesn’t enjoy the act, but neither does Elizabeth; the result is far closer to the “terrible miscommunication” Dunham describes than the Adam-Natalia scene itself.

Sex that is neither consensual nor textbook rape isn’t limited to the small screen; Dan Schindel used the unfortunate term “grey rape” to describe an encounter in Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, and a late scene in Wolf of Wall Street notoriously jump-cuts between Naomi’s initial denial of Jordan Belfort and the final time they have sex, leaving the viewer to imagine what coercion or force might have come in between.

Since encounters like Adam and Natalia’s or Pete and the au pair’s appear to be a permanent addition to the boundary-pushing TV toolbox, it’s more productive to ask what purpose they serve than whether they should happen at all. By refusing to make these scenes unambiguous instances of rape — often perpetrated by protagonists — are artists irresponsibly passing the buck along to their audience? Or are they reminding viewers that traumas like Natalia’s and Gudrun the au pair’s happen in real life, just as Joan’s and Elizabeth’s do?

When dealing with a medium as diverse as television, the answer to those kinds of questions is always going to be: it depends. Occasionally, the outcome is disastrous, as we saw this week, when a scene that shouldn’t have been up for debate at all became a reminder of our culture’s horrifying unwillingness to recognize even the most blatant instances of rape for what they are. It’s the same unwillingness that barely registered Skyler’s assault as a blip on our collective radar, a lapse that’s less horrifying yet still disappointing.

On the other hand, the recognition many feel while watching Natalia crawl across Adam’s floor, or the empathy we retain for Philip even while Elizabeth cries in the other room, are productive responses, if not comfortable ones. They remind us that there’s a reason many survivors of sexual assault don’t realize they’ve been assaulted until after the fact, and that perpetrators aren’t one-dimensional, diabolical strangers. Adam, Walter, and Pete would never call themselves rapists; neither would their real-life counterparts, or even a sizable chunk of their audiences. That doesn’t erase the impact of what they’ve done, but it does force viewers to come to terms with some of the tougher realities of addressing sexual assault.

Representing situations like Skyler’s, or Gudrun’s, or Natalia’s onscreen is an important part of recognizing their prevalence, and their validity, in real life. With Jaime and Cersei, Game of Thrones provided a negative example of how to handle rape, one that threatens to undermine its seriousness by having minimal impact on the series’ plot or the development of the characters involved. But the storylines on Mad Men, The Americans, and even Girls may mark the beginning of a trajectory that accepts the seriousness of sexual assault while recognizing the various forms it takes. Discouraging as creators like Graves may be, that’s a good sign for television overall.