Well, that was unexpected.
Kudos to the show for making Bran’s endless trek north interesting for once. As someone who spent parts of this episode going, “Wait, why does Jon know about Bran?” and “How did they get past the Wall??” (two things that I’ve been assured are well-explained in the show, but which I have zero memory of), I appreciated that the show actually made me sit up and pay attention during his scenes this week. Since the show has changed so much already, in smaller and more frustrating ways, it’s fun to see it dive straight into “AU fanfic” territory and be completely surprised by the plot.
Although clearly my standards for the show have become pretty low, since I was relieved and pleasantly surprised when Meera Reed wasn’t explicitly threatened with rape at the end of the episode. But then, I suppose there’s always next week.
As for the episode’s final moments in the Land of Always Winter, it was pretty dramatic stuff. I must admit, I care about the White Walkers about as much as the Lannisters do, so the appearance of their homeland and their apparent king didn’t send me scrambling for the theory boards, but it was definitely a cool moment, and it’s exciting to have something positive to discuss and dissect in the world of Game of Thrones for once.
Of course, the show couldn’t allow it to be entirely positive. We also saw the return of the Night’s Watch’s mutineers, and apparently their evilness wasn’t clear enough from the fact that they killed the Lord Commander, drink wine from his skull, capture Bran, and mock and torture Hodor. No, no. For us to know that they’re really evil, their scenes had to be accompanied by perpetual rape. Multiple girls, mostly off-screen, their cries punctuating all other conversation.
Beyond the use of violence against women as a narrative crutch, this setup is problematic for two reasons. Firstly, the show uses sexual violence to let the audience know that a character is really, really bad — canonically with Ramsey Snow, but also with Joffrey, with the torturers that Arya killed in the first episode of this season, and now with the mutineers. Their evil is incomplete without rape. Yet not only has the threat become so ubiquitous as to lose all impact, but the show also undermined its own message of “this is what evil people do” last week with Jaime. He raped Cersei last week, but the assault remains entirely unaddressed. We’re certainly not supposed to think less of him. In fact, Cersei is still presented as the cold, cruel, vicious woman, while he’s the noble man striving to do what’s right.
So much for rape being the mark of an evil man. It doesn’t seem to have set back Jaime’s redemption at all.
And that’s the second problem with these scenes. Sure, rape is supposed to be evil, but parts of this episode made me think that we were also supposed to enjoy it. Why else would the show be using background rape scenes to fulfil its nudity quota? As fully dressed men rape naked women who fill up the entire screen? Is that supposed to evoke our sympathy for the girls, and increase our hatred of the mutineers? Or are we just supposed to appreciate it?
Luckily, the episode did have other strengths. The scene between Greyworm and Missandei was fascinating, and it was a powerful and positive change for the show to spend time with some of the slaves that Daenerys is attempting to free, and for us to hear their thoughts and concerns from themselves.
The Queen of Thorns also continued to be amazing, and although some people have criticized the show’s lack of subtlety in solving the mystery of Joffrey’s killer, I did like that it made explicit that it was a woman from one generation protecting the interests of a young woman from another. Yes, crowns matter, but Margaery’s safety matters too, and even she could not have ensured her continued favor in Joffrey’s presence. Of course, I’m disappointed that Olenna is now going to disappear from the show, since she’s a fierce and capable female character who hasn’t been sexualized (the perks of being elderly, I suppose), but perhaps it’s best to get her out of the way before her characterization can be ruined as well.
Because then we turn to Margaery. I have mixed feelings about her being completely oblivious to the plot against Joffrey. On the one hand, the book never confirms how involved she was or how much she knew. On the other hand, the show’s portrayal of Margaery so far suggested to me that she would be involved. She’s a schemer and a manipulator, with a lot of personal ambition and a talent for self-preservation. It seems unlikely that she’d be utterly clueless while her grandmother plotted murder on her behalf, or that she wouldn’t have had plans in place to deal with The Joffrey Problem from the beginning. It seems slightly contradictory for the show to emphasize what a scheming deceitful schemer she is for the first two seasons, and then turn around and say she was 100% willing to marry Joffrey with no thoughts of murder now.
Meanwhile, Margaery’s scenes with Tommen moved her from “intelligent self-possessed schemer” to “creepy child predator.” Yes, Margaery needs to win over Tommen while Cersei is distracted. But did she really need to do it at night, while he’s in bed, telling him their meetings will be “our little secret?” and moving as though to kiss him on the lips? Ageing Tommen up from an eight-year-old to a twelve-ish-year-old only made it even creepier, in my opinion, because it encouraged the writers to play the scene more sexually, rather than have Margaery take the motherly role she does in the books. Although Margaery doesn’t actually do anything to Tommen, the entire vibe of the scene was skin-crawl-inducing, and one again seems to play into the idea that sexual abuse and manipulation are evil, unless they’re done by main characters we like, in which case they’re completely valid ways of gaining power.
But hey. Ser Pounce was cute.
As the episode was called Oathkeeper, I feel like I should address the Oathkeeper scenes between Jaime and Brienne. But frankly, I don’t think I can. Were they a good translation of the scenes in the books? Was there are a strong emotional connection between Jaime and Brienne? Was it poignant to see them say goodbye? I have no idea. I could barely watch. I feel like the show is pushing a Jaime/Brienne romance, and that should leave me babbling in incoherent delight, but I tuned out of most of their scenes. Because Jaime raped Cersei. He defends Cersei to Tyrion by telling him her son just died, but leaves out the fact that he also raped her by her son’s corpse. He made Brienne a suit of armor based on her guessed measurements, and that becomes creepy, because he raped Cersei. He defies Cersei by sending Brienne out to rescue Sansa, setting them up as the good woman who is fighting for his honor and the bad woman who stole it. He calls her “Brienne,” and she looks back over her shoulder, and it should all be very emotional, but it isn’t, because she should be running far, far away, because he raped Cersei.
The show might want us to forget it, but I’m sure as hell not going to. A character can’t be a rapist in one episode and part of an emotional, reluctant, blossoming love story in the next. The show can’t use rape as the sign of evilness one week, and then also insist it’s “no big deal.” It’s not only insulting and misogynistic, it also makes no sense from a narrative perspective. And if you’re going to be misogynistic and change characters into rapists, you should at least do so with some narrative consistency. At least have it have a point.