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“Protection” can be a dirty word in our modern world. To protect another is a kind sentiment and a noble desire, but it can also the worst sort of condescension. Protection is something that should be asked for, not given. It implies a certain type of powerlessness: Anointing yourself someone else’s protector suggests they couldn’t accomplish the job themselves. This isn’t to discount any and all instances of proactive, precautionary protection. Some people, some creatures, some ideals require such actions in the face of a threat. But when that threat is presumed—or worse, wholly imagined—such defensive impulses can be downright ugly.
This week, the Game Of Thrones is a game of defense. “Protect” or “protection” or any number of other synonyms is uttered by several characters populating David Benioff and D.B. Weiss’ script, and it’s a sign of the wide world fostered by the showrunners that “Breaker Of Chains” gives the word so many facets. It grants a Darwinian angle to The Hound’s decision to rob the farmer: “He’s weak. He can’t protect himself. They’ll both be dead come winter. Dead men don’t need silver.” For Sam, it’s the patronizing, paternal notion that Gilly is in danger if she stays at Castle Black. To Sam’s fellow members of the Night’s Watch, protecting the people and the land behind The Wall is a duty and a calling. Notice that the characters most committed to protection are the big, burly men with swords at their sides.
Elsewhere in Westeros, alternate means of protection are employed by characters who fancy themselves smarter than the average warrior. Tywin insulates his daughter’s fragile emotional state by talking around Joffrey’s failures as a king, a great monologue and a spectacular performance by Charles Dance that Alex Graves frames as a one-sided conversation with Cersei by focusing the camera on Lena Headey—even though Tywin is technically lecturing king-to-be Tommen. In a “like father, like son” display that Tywin would likely deny, Tyrion takes similarly indirect steps toward assuring Podrick’s survival. And then there’s Dany The Great Liberator, sounding ever more the politician as she denies Grey Worm, Barristan, and Jorah their requests to fight as her “champion” (itself a protector’s role) then lays a stirring bit of speechifying on the enslaved people of Meereen. There’s a real presentational edge to these addresses and Tywin’s “What makes a good king?” talk. In a time of chaos, when the power vacuum that Joffrey seemingly sealed has been violently re-opened, those who believe they’re fittest to lead are getting their stump speeches in order.
In a time of chaos, when kings and pretenders to the throne die at random, when wedding feasts become executions, the natural inclination is to seek security. After “protection,” “Breaker Of Chains”’ other refrain is “safe,” as in Littlefinger telling Sansa “You’re safe with me, sailing home” or the farmer’s nostalgia for the Riverlands of House Tully’s reign: “We were safe.”And the violation of such safety is the most horrific part of the sin Jaime Lannister commits beside his son’s corpse.
Of course, Jaime’s rape of Cersei is 100 percent horrific, a bizarre turn of events that I understand is presented as a consensual encounter in the books. I’ll leave the larger, show-wide implications of the act to the Sonia Saraiya-penned For Our Consideration essay that it inspired (and which is posting at midnight); at the micro level, it’s an odd pockmark on an otherwise spotless episode. The attraction between the Lannister twins is a complicated issue, one the show could conveniently set aside when Jaime was away from the capital. But now that he’s returned, it gives Game Of Thrones another source of tension to play with, even if it’s one that always feels designed to shock, rather than to illuminate some inner truth about Cersei or Jaime or the world in which they live.
And that’s my main beef with the rape scene in “Breaker Of Chains.” It’s a gasp-inducing moment, but the gasp is largely empty. If it’s meant to be a “when it rains, it pours” situation for Cersei, surely there was a less repugnant way of achieving that goal. If it’s meant to restore some of the villainous shading Jaime lost during his walkabout with Brienne, it comes on much too quickly. If it’s meant to be an expression of grief—God, I really hope it’s not meant to be an expression of grief.
How I’m choosing to view it, the perspective from which it does the least harm to the best hour of season four to date, is as a wrongheaded expression of power. “Wrongheaded” here is relative: Everything about the way Jaime feels about Cersei (and vice versa) is wrong. They’re brother and sister, and their incestuous bond created the monster who now lies dead in the sept. And there was nothing that Jaime Lannister, maimed Kingslayer, could’ve done to prevent that death. So now he seizes the opportunity to harness the one emotion he’s never been able to control, doing so by cruel, barbaric, hateful methods.
It’s important that “Breaker Of Chains” in no way condones the act, Graves’ blocking and cinematography purposefully avoiding any sort of erotic charge. Compare it to Oberyn and Ellaria’s visit to the brothel in this episode—or any previous Game Of Thrones sex scene, really—and notice the care that’s been taken to portray the pure evil of Jaime’s attempt to feel like the “Jaime Lannister” of myth yet again. But the matter-of-fact presentation works against the sequence, in a way, its plainness mutating and gnarling into a different form of gratuitousness. And then to move on, so swiftly, leaving any consideration of the fallout for next week—it’s an odd, off-putting choice, but I have a feeling it could’ve been much worse.
That scene is “Breaker Of Chains”’ only serious bungling of its primary themes. After the progress reports that formed most of the last two episodes, this is the first hour of season four to feel like it’s feeding and telling a larger story, one that monitors the ripples of major events in Westeros while using the show’s vast setting to illustrate the way a cast of dozens can put many spins on a universal notion. Human beings want protection, they want to feel secure and able to go about their lives. When that protection is forced upon us, it’s terribly uncomfortable—particularly when it’s separated from any sort of perceivable threat. Heartbreaking as the episode’s Gilly-Sam scenes are, Hannah Murray does excellent work expressing the quiet anguish of being shunted away “for her own good,” Sam blind to the fact that her new home isn’t exactly a suite at the Ritz. The people who love us shouldn’t hurt us this way; the people who love us should respect our wishes, should know what the words “no” and “stop” mean.
But there are threats in Westeros—on many fronts, taking many forms. “Breaker Of Chains” excels at reinforcing the current state of imbalance in this world, an entropy that Tywin now openly catalogues while offering Oberyn spots on Tyrion’s jury and within the small council: “The king is dead, the Greyjoys are in open rebellion. A wildling army marches on the wall—and in the east, a Targaryen girl has three dragons.” Arrows abruptly fly into view several times during tonight’s episode, heightening the sense that danger waits just out of view. Chickens also wander into frame on separate occasions—first when Arya is awoken by a robbery, second when Styr captures the young boy he sends to Castle Black—neither one letting off any sort of warning that foxes have arrived in the barnyard. Not that they need to: The growing legions of the dead should be enough to indicate that any sense of safety projected at the beginning of the season was just an illusion. Forget protecting anyone else: With the Free Folk on the move, everyone on Game Of Thrones ought to be more concerned with self-preservation. At the very least, they might want to take some archery lessons.
- The comic relief in “Breaker Of Chains” has some serious Monty Python And The Holy Grail vibes. First, Shireen chides Davos for pronouncing reading “knight” like he’s an insulting French guard; then, the champion of Meereen is depicted in a wide shot straight out of “The Tale Of Sir Lancelot.” I wonder if this is a nod toward the series’s shared history with one of Holy Grail’s primary filming locations. Then again, the punchline of that scene outside the Meereen walls is a little more Indiana Jones than Terry Jones, know what I mean? [Wink wink, nudge nudge. Say no more, say no more.]
- The Tommen-who-will-be-king is a new actor for the role, meaning Bobby Draper Syndrome has at least reached Westeros. Bran Stark, however, will mysteriously develop the ability to grow a full beard by the time season eight rolls around. (If Bran’s even alive at that point. You never know with those Starks.)
- I really don’t want “Who killed King Joffrey?” to turn into the main thrust of Tyrion’s story this season, but I do enjoy the drawing-room mystery feel of his conversation with Podrick. Also, this: “Podrick…” “Yes, my lord.” “They’ll be following you now.” “Who?” “I don’t know… they, they! The ominous they!”