Well, it's back.
In general, Two Swords was as unremarkable as a first episode can be expected to be. After ten months away, with a massive cast and a hundred plotlines in motion, it makes sense that the show took an episode to reacquaint us with Westeros. It had very little in the way of plot-progressing events, but it had plenty of time for characters to interact and reveal where they stand with one another. Some people have commented that it was boring, but hey, I'm here for the characters, so I at least enjoyed some time to explore who these people are and how they feel after recent dramatic events.
At least, I enjoy it when they're in character.
Because here's the thing. The show is an adaptation, and as an adaptation, it has free rein to change characters and plot points if they'll improve the story as it appears on TV. And although it can suck to see some of your favorite elements of the book cut or changed, it's an unavoidable part of viewing an adaptation, which is, in essence, somebody else's interpretation of the story brought to life. So I don't take issue with changes in general. If Tyrion losing a nose would involve too many prosthetics, then a scar on his face will have to do. But I do take issue with changes that flatten compelling, challenging and trope-breaking female characters in the book into sexist stereotypes. I do take issue with changes that impose misogyny on the story, not only in terms of "life in Westeros," but also in terms of how we view its characters.
There were two shifts in the character here that don't bode well. Firstly, we have Cersei, who shuns Jaime for taking too long to return to her. On the one hand, Cersei's disgust towards Jaime appears in the books. She is horrified by the fact that he returns less-than-perfect, and angry that he was away from her during some traumatic events (including things that admittedly haven't yet happened in the show). But even that Cersei would never tell Jaime that it was 100% over, for good, because he was captured and took too long to return, except possibly as some kind of power play.
The change, by itself, is fairly mild. It makes Cersei seem incredibly irrational, but Cersei can at times be irrational when she feels threatened or when things don't go her way. It creeps into an old trope of women being irrational about love and punishing their lovers for no good reason, but the show has done worse. My concern grows mostly from the fact that this is the only Cersei scene in this episode, and our introductory view of her for the season. The writers must have a reason for starting her story arc in this way. And it seems to support some horrific Jaime/Cersei spoilers about episode 3 (which I won't name or discuss until it airs, because... well. Denial is a powerful thing).
And then we have Shae. Shae, who shows extreme concern for Sansa in one scene, trying to convince her to eat, giving her the lemon cakes she loves, insisting to Tyrion that she must be cared for, and who then turns around completely and becomes a monster of jealousy in her next scene. She attempts to seduce Tyrion, and demands "do you love her?", as though anyone with the slightest intelligence or knowledge of Tyrion could believe such a thing. She becomes furiously jealous of her lover and the fourteen year old he was forced to marry, a fourteen year old who Shae herself loves and wants to protect. She's not furious because she's concerned for Sansa. Oh no. Tyrion, she feels, is betraying her.
It's telling that the actress, Sibel Kekilli, also disliked the scene. In a recent interview, Sibel mentioned her extreme discomfort with it:
It was so hard to act that. I thought, ‘Please, I don’t want to act this.’ I was begging [showrunners] Dan [Weiss] and David [Benioff], and they said, “No, Sibel, we are paying for this so you have to.”
When asked about potential troubles ahead for Tyrion and Shae, she responded:
Without any spoilers, let me say it like this: Shae had [a] really tough life. And she had never had a foundation in her life until she met and fell in love with Tyrion, and Tyrion fell in love with her. She started to think she has a foundation in her life. And now, after they married—Sansa and Tyrion—it’s like, you know, shaking. It’s like an earthquake. It could stop, or it could be getting stronger.
This feels very telling to me, and seems to support my (book spoiler including) theory about Shae's narrative this season. They've made Shae into an incredibly passionate, independent, intelligent and caring character. And now, it seems, they want to tear all that away to fit her into the same sexist trope that they're forcing on Cersei: the irrational, jealous girlfriend.
Of course, it wasn't all bad. The episode took time to show Sansa's grief, which I think is really important. It didn't flinch away from Arya's vengeful nature, and it even had many scenes entirely made up of female characters communicating with one another. Shae showing concern for Sansa. Margaery and Olenna discussing her upcoming wedding. Olenna meeting Brienne, and offering admiration where Brienne expected derision. Brienne and Margaery discussing Renly's death. Daenerys and Missandei discussing the war. Women of different ages, different backgrounds, different personalities, different stations, actually discussing themselves and their relationships and their politics.
The introduction of these moments, almost none of which are in the books, seems a strange contrast to the rest of the show's treatment of its female characters. Allowing Margaery and Brienne to discuss Renly, or Olenna to show Brienne admiration, seems to suggest that female characters have worth and emotions and storyarcs independent of their male counterparts. How strange, then, that the very same episode begins to destroy other female characters in the name of male characters' arc. Even stranger, perhaps, is the fact that the show still manages to treat other female characters as literal objects.
It's a little tired, at this point, to comment on sexposition brothel scenes in the show. They're old news, and this week's was positively mild compared to some we've seen before. But it's the first week back after almost a year away, so indulge me for a second. Within ten minutes of the start of the show, we're treated to a line of unspeaking girls, who are stripped naked one by one for us to assess. They don't speak, they just pose, as a newly introduced male character comments on their worth. Naked girls literally lined up like objects for our assessment and viewing pleasure.
And that scene, I think, is the show's true stance on its female characters. Sure, some female characters are allowed depth and story arcs of their own. Some can be treated as worthwhile protagonists. But only until they're needed in a male character's plot -- whether to provide him with angst, or make him look good, or introduce him to the show, or provide something to look at in the background while he expositions away. In the end, the female characters are just tools for the narrative. Any hope to the contrary is just going to end in disappointment.