This Game Of Thrones post is for people who have read at least the first three books in the book series. It is written from the point-of-view of someone who has read those books and for the benefit of fans of the books. All discussion points are valid, up to and including the events of the fifth book. However, we would ask that you clearly mark spoilers from the fourth and fifth books. The review itself will be non-spoilery, and talk of how events here portend future events will be clearly marked with a spoiler warning in the section following Stray Observations. If you would still like to read the review but haven’t read the book, thus, you can, but you should proceed with caution after the spoiler warning and in comments. Those of you who haven’t read the books can also check out our reviews for newbies.
I try diligently to make sure that these reviews don’t turn into a laundry list of changes David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have made to George R.R. Martin’s books. Certainly, having read the books and knowing at least some of what’s coming informs my critical perspective, but I don’t think doing such a thing would be terribly helpful or interesting. Indeed, it could pretty easily turn very boring. Plus, it’s ridiculous to expect Benioff and Weiss to adapt the books word for word, and most of the changes they’ve made—even the major ones—have paid off in ways that give me a certain amount of trust in them to interpret these stories further. At the same time, though, I’m not sure there’s a way to talk about this episode from the perspective of a book reader without beginning with Jaime’s rape of Cersei.
My colleague (and fellow book fan) Sonia Saraiya will have a longer article about Game Of Thrones’ use of sexual assault as a plot point publishing here momentarily. (It’s excellent, and you should read it once you’re done arguing about this episode.) So I won’t belabor this point. But to me, changing this scene so it’s rather unambiguously a rape from what it was in the book—where it at least seemed more tender and loving—is a very odd call on the part of Benioff and Weiss. Again, they’ve earned a fair amount of trust from me, and I think the episode is rather cannily structured to place that encounter around the midpoint and Dany’s strike against Meereen at the end.
You can also make an argument that the showrunners are merely playing up something already present in the book, where Cersei seems to have second thoughts about having sex with Jaime in the middle of their encounter. But there, it really seems like she’s having second thoughts about having sex on that particular occasion. (It’s also the first time they’ve seen each other since early in book one, as the series has drastically changed up the timing of Jaime’s return to King’s Landing, in ways that have mostly worked.) It’s in the wake of their son’s death, and they’re alone in a sept, and no matter how much she may want her lover, it’s still a really weird time and place to be hooking up. In this episode, Jaime forces himself on her, no matter her protestations. It’s not as brutal as some of the other instances of rape have been on the show, but it’s still a dark, terrible moment that would seem to end whatever connection the two had permanently. (You must also remember that in the show, at least, Cersei has indicated to Jaime that he was away too long, so their relationship is over. That’s in contrast to the book, where the two sexually reunite shortly after Jaime makes it back to the city.)
The more I thought about this, however, the more I kept coming back to the single biggest change between the books and the show, one that was basically impossible for the show to maintain: the point-of-view structure. By the very nature of how film and television work, the camera is usually going to serve as an objective observer, even if a story is told from the point-of-view of a particular character. There’s simply no way to get as deep into a character’s psychology as you can in a well-written novel with well-crafted characters. Martin is also capable of hiding twists in plain sight in prose in a way that the show simply cannot, as we’ve seen with Barristan’s arrival at Dany’s side, something that’s kept hidden in the books but can’t here simply because it would be impossible to keep the identity of an actor secret for that long. By limiting himself to particular points of view, Martin is able to control the flow of information; by sitting outside of those points of view, Benioff and Weiss are necessarily forced to manipulate the story in different directions.
All of which is build-up to pointing out that in the book, the reunion between Cersei and Jaime is seen from Jaime’s point of view. And once we consider that, those moments when Cersei has questions of propriety in the middle of their love making can take on a more sinister tone. What if we’re being kept from the true horror of what Jaime’s doing because we’re inside his head? (I think there’s evidence for this in later books, too, but that will necessarily have to wait for the spoilers section.) This may be me trying too hard to cling to dim hopes that Benioff and Weiss haven’t scuttled one of the books’ best, most complicated characters in favor of a shocking moment, that they’re, indeed, offering up an interpretation backed by the text. But I almost feel like I need to, because without that idea, we’re left with the thought that Benioff and Weiss turn to sexual assault of women a lot as a device to move the story forward. I’ll leave it there, because Sonia’s covered that ground wonderfully in her article, but it’s certainly something that gives me pause and makes me wonder what the two are trying to convey with what seems like a major change from the books.
My suspicion is that Benioff and Weiss have done this to underline one of the episode’s major themes, highlighted right there in its title, “Breaker Of Chains.” Throughout the episode, there are twin themes running alongside each other. In the first, we return again to the question of what makes one a good ruler. In fact, we do so directly, as Westeros’ new power team of Tommen and Tywin talk over how important wisdom is to being a good king. In the second theme, we consider the role of women in this world and how limited their options are in the face of male brutality. Indeed, the woman with the most raw power in the series got where she is through cunning and smarts, sure, but it certainly didn’t hurt that she had three dragons she raised as her own children. (Dragons tend to give just about anyone the upper hand in an argument.)
Look how the episode is structured: It opens with Sansa being deliberately told how much of a pawn she’s been in the games of powerful men, reaches its midpoint by showing us Cersei realizing just how little power she has, and concludes with Dany underlining how her unique place in this world’s power structure helps her understand how best to upend said power structure. Along the way, we check in with a Gilly who Sam is terrified to contemplate being the subject of the sexual fantasies of everyone on the wall, an Arya who realizes how little control she has over the Hound, a Margaery who’s trying to figure out where she fits after she’s seen the death of yet another husband, and an Ygritte who’s taking part in wholesale slaughter. The argument seems clear: In a patriarchal monarchy like Westeros’, women are inevitably reduced to bargaining chips, and when you’re a bargaining chip, there’s little to stop men from treating you like property. It’s no wonder, then, that the two women we see with the most freedom are those who’ve realized the system needs to be leveled and replaced with something else. (Arya’s on her way to that, too.)
It’s also interesting how those last two sequences seem to deliberately answer the questions raised in King’s Landing by things happening to the Lannisters. Tywin asks what makes a good king, and in the next-to-last sequence, we see Jon Snow practicing the kind of wisdom Tywin talks about, the wisdom of knowing his particular weaknesses and strengths and how to minimize the former. (That said, if Jon Snow is the next king of Westeros, I will be very sad. He’s so boring!) Then we have the last scene, where Dany utilizes everything she has at her disposal but her dragons to send quakes of fear into the slave masters of Meereen. It’s almost as if Dany is directly speaking to all of those scenes we’ve had where Cersei has lamented the lack of power she has simply because of her reproductive organs. In both thematic throughlines, a Lannister is reduced, while a seeming outsider is built up to new heights. It’s crafty, canny storytelling. I just wonder if the writers completely understand what they’re doing to Jaime.
I talked a little bit last week about how the death of Joffrey opens up a power vacuum in Westeros that won’t be easily filled (though Tywin has high hopes for Tommen, who has the right temperament to be a good ruler). And “Breaker Of Chains” is deliberately structured so that it spirals outward, farther and farther from King’s Landing, roping in as many far-flung locations as it can. This may not sound like much—there are always lots of quick drop-ins on various characters on this show—but “Breaker Of Chains” plays off of the power plays that the players make in the wake of Joffrey’s death, whether they’re conscious of that death or not. (Davos, for instance, sends word to some friends at the Iron Bank, seeing an opportunity to help Stannis gain the upper hand.) Indeed, who’s the character we see for the first time in this episode? Littlefinger, who reveals himself as one of those in on the plot to kill Joffrey with a wink and a smile, then dispatches with Dontos in much the same manner. And if there’s anyone on the show who’s most comfortable with the language of power plays, it’s our favorite master of manipulation. (Our other favorite master of manipulation, Tyrion, is rotting in a cell and almost certain to die for the crime of killing Joffrey, but even there, he’s weighing his options and trying to solve the crime from behind bars, which should make for a fun arc.)
Again, the show teases out this particular thematic thread by using Arya and the Hound, whose adventures in the countryside increasingly seem like the closest thing the season has to a core. The two come upon a farmer and his daughter, who offer to take the two of them in and pay in silver for the Hound helping with the farm work for the rest of the year. It’s all prompted by a lie, of course. Arya tells the farmer that the Hound is her father, and that he fought for the Tullys in the war. But it’s a useful lie, one designed to keep the peace and ideally keep the Hound in check. Yet as with all useful lies, it eventually falls apart. The Hound won’t be bound by the promise of silver at some point in the future. He takes what he wants and leaves the farmer and his daughter destitute, no matter what Arya might say to him. In the absence of true leadership or just in the absence of the lie agreed upon that is the idea of all of us agreeing to fall under the same banner, men will take what they want. Sometimes, that’s just silver, but sometimes, it’s other human beings. The end is almost always the same, though—other people, dead and broken, learning the hard way that without the trappings of civilization, it’s all too easy for humanity to become a single-elimination survival of the fittest tournament.
- This is the last episode for which HBO sent out screeners. It’s entirely possible the network will send out more, though I sort of suspect they won’t. (Given how hot this show is right now, they know we’ll be writing about it anyway, so I don’t blame them.) All I’m saying is: If the other reviews this season seem late, that’s why. We’ll have ‘em up as quickly as we can get them up.
- I really enjoyed that scene with Oberyn and his bisexual carnival of wonders, especially once Tywin entered it. (There should really just be an episode this season that’s Tywin visiting everybody who’s still alive to strike hard bargains with them.) The show is playing Oberyn as both a master of swordplay and a master of cunning, and I like the way it’s playing up the latter.
- Here’s something that seems a bit odd: Is there any way all of this is happening at the same time? The stories in King’s Landing are covering, at best, a few days, while the stories up North and over by Meereen seem to need weeks if not months to unspool. I get that the timeline is even a little wonky in the books, but this seems seriously all over the place.
- I will never get tired of listening to Emilia Clarke issue grand proclamations in made-up languages. She’s got that authoritative cadence down cold. Even without the subtitles, you’d more or less know what she was saying.
- I found the scene with Tyrion fascinating for a number of reasons (many of which I’ll move to the spoilers section), but I particularly liked how he was trying to figure out just whom he could find as an ally at this point in time. It’s also nice to see that he’s so concerned for Podrick’s life, but c’mon, Tyrion. You know that you’re not going to talk Podrick into turning on you, even if it will save the boy’s life.
- Olenna trying to help Margaery understand what her place is in the kingdom now that she’s had a second king die out from under her is also a good scene. Diana Rigg has so much fun with lines like Margaery not quite being the queen but having a better claim to it than she did a few days before.
- Just in case you’d forgotten, Sam killed a White Walker last season, but nobody believes that he did it. In fact, they’re making fun of him for it, which, to be fair, is a completely rational response.
- I sort of hoped when Tywin was telling Tommen all about how King Robert was strong but not wise, Tommen would pipe up with “You mean my dad?” and then there would be a quick freeze on Tywin’s anguished face, and the opening credits for a new spinoff called Can’t Tywin ‘Em All would begin.
- Jon’s mission for the time being: Go and kill a bunch of mutineers, so they can’t tell Mance that the Night’s Watch is actually nowhere near as strong as he said it was. Sounds like a plan.
- Jack Gleeson is credited for this episode, which means that he just got to lie around while all of those other scenes were going on. Most awkward acting job ever.
- Tyrion’s list of suspects for who killed Joffrey: everybody that isn’t Cersei; definitely not Tyrion; probably not Sansa. Good starting point, Tyrion!
Here be spoilers! (Do not read if you haven’t read the books.):
- So as far as the idea of Jaime raping Cersei having textual support, there’s both the fact that this is the last time the two ever have sex, and their relationship rapidly starts disintegrating. Similarly, Cersei slowly loses herself in her machinations and attempts to keep from having anybody else around her die. In the books, this seems an all-too-rational response to just how much death has been sewn around her throughout, but I guess if you squint, you can see this as a response to also being betrayed by the man she loved after he forced himself upon her. I don’t really think it’s a strong case, but you could make it if you really wanted to (i.e., if you wanted to work a sexual assault into an episode of your TV show for some reason). Who knows? Maybe we’ll see a raft of Martin interviews where he says this was always his intention for that scene. I somehow doubt it.
- It’s interesting to me that Tyrion is going to try to solve this case when it seemed to me that episode two really laid it on thick with the “The Tyrells had a hand in this” visual language. Then again, I didn’t see a ton of newbies arriving at that conclusion, so maybe I’m giving everybody too much credit.
- The sad thing about Dany having Daario take on the champion of Meereen is that it really does seem like Strong Belwas has been written out entirely. Granted, that’s a character who can be excised pretty easily without losing too much, but he was still the kind of figure I was interested in seeing turn up on the show. Oh well. I am intrigued to get into the sections of Dany’s story where she realizes that winning is much easier than ruling, which should be right around the corner.