Game of Thrones: Season 4, Episode 4–Oathkeeper

“A man with no motive is a man no one suspects.”

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(SPOILER WARNING!)

Well, that didn’t take long, did it? As I mentioned last week, the identity of the killer (or killers) of King Joffrey, in the novels, took several volumes to ascertain for sure. In part, I think that’s because George RR Martin cast it as a fairly slight part of the plot; everyone wanted Joffrey dead, and everyone’s better off with him that way. Does it matter that much who actually did it – as long as it wasn’t Tyrion?

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Of course, you could argue that maybe George’s multifarious plot lines were starting to get the better of him by then, and he was leaving loose ends where, strictly speaking, it would be better if he didn’t. Either way though, showrunners Benioff and Weiss made the (probably wise) decision to resolve the mystery fairly promptly, in yet another murkily lit scene between Sansa and Littlefinger aboard his perpetually fog-enshrouded barge. Littlefinger not only confessed to his involvement (though I’d find it hard to take anything he says at face value) but even told Sansa how it was done, and how she was unwittingly involved – a poison stone from the necklace Ser Dontos was paid to give her.

He couldn’t have done it alone though – he wasn’t even there. The identity of his mysterious new “friend” was however revealed in the very next scene, as Olenna Tyrell twinklingly confided to Margaery that she couldn’t have had her granddaughter married to a little monster like Joffrey. That even Margaery seemed shocked was interesting; she’s obviously just starting out on a road Olenna traversed a long time ago. But as her grandmother told her, “I was good. I was very, very good. But you’re better.”

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So, yes, a diversion from the source material, but I think a useful one. It wasn’t the only one though, and one from last week has caused an online storm of fury – namely, Jaime Lannister’s apparent rape of Cersei. I say “apparent” not because the scene had any ambiguity (to me anyway), but because director Alex Graves has perhaps unwisely waded into the debate with a contention that the act had become consensual “by the end”. It didn’t come across that way, to me or many others it seems.

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And yet, why such fury about the rape when the show repeatedly shows us the most horrific acts of violence and degradation – including, when it first began, the rape of Daenerys Targaryen by her new husband? Certainly, it’s arguable that the show’s very frequent depictions of sex and violence could be considered exploitative or titillating. But why, in a show full of beheadings, crucifixions, disembowelment and the gruesome removals of nipples and penises, does this particular act draw so much ire?

I suppose the answer is that, in the modern Western society, those kinds of thing are now pretty rare. Rape, unfortunately, is not – and as such, needs to be fairly delicately handled. That said, a show which is, to all intents and purposes, set in an analogue of medieval Europe probably shouldn’t shy away from showing it at all; it was, unfortunately, a fact of life (as beheadings etc were too).

So, despite the director’s muddled comments, I can’t agree with all the outraged blogs along the lines of Dear Game of Thrones: You Blew It, or How Game of Thrones Is Going Very Wrong. If the scene had been played for titillation, they’d have had a point. It wasn’t. Whatever the director intended, last week’s rape scene genuinely came across as horrific and traumatic, just as it should. It does somewhat reverse the viewer’s growing sympathy with Jaime Lannister – but then, this is a man we first met throwing a small boy from the top of a high tower. He may have regained some flawed nobility, but he has a very nasty side to him.

Yes, it is a change from the books, where the scene was more obviously consensual (though still pretty twisted, given the circumstances), and that seems to be a part of the problem many fans have with it. But as George RR Martin himself weighed in to point out, the characters were at a very different place in their stories there, with Jaime only just having returned, maimed, to King’s Landing. Here, he’s been back for a while, and Cersei has been coldly dismissive of him, even while exhorting him to murder their brother.

None of which excuses his actions, of course; but if he wanted to genuinely hurt Cersei, he probably couldn’t have found a better way. Having been deprived of agency so often, by her father, her (arranged) husband, and even her psychotic son, to be forced into sex by her brother and lover must have been the final indignity. And despite that the act went unmentioned in their single scene together this week, her cold silence towards Jaime, and his apparent awkwardness, spoke volumes without the need for dialogue.

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And yet, this week Jaime was behaving more honourably again, and I wonder if that look on his face in Cersei’s chambers was actually shame. Perhaps he is on a path to redemption, but the writers want him to stumble every now and then to make it more believable. Certainly his relationship with Brienne has never been less than honourable, and we saw that friendship again here as he gifted her with the Valyrian steel sword she named ‘Oathkeeper’ – the oath in question being to save the Stark daughters. Nobody knows Arya’s still alive of course, but Brienne’s hot on the trail of Sansa. And with Podrick Payne in tow as her squire, too, presumably a favour for Tyrion. I’m glad we’ve not seen the last of him.

However twisted Jaime’s feelings for his sister may be, his love for his brother is unconditional – it’s been the one constant in his character. We saw that again this week, in a touching scene in Tyrion’s cell; despite his half-serious question, Jaime clearly never believes Tyrion killed Joffrey. Not, as Tyrion gloomily pointed out, that it’s liable to make any difference.

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I doubt this furore will dent the show’s popularity – viewers should expect by now that the characters will have a horrible time. But if you are annoyed by changes from the books, you may be getting very annoyed, as there are increasingly more each week. This week, we saw more continuation of the newly intermingled plot threads of Jon Snow, the Night’s Watch mutineers, and Bran Stark’s journey Northwards; all of which have been added for the TV show, but actually make better sense than the books, where Bran heads North with implausibly few problems.

Also added for the show was the unexpected appearance of Bolton henchman Locke at Castle Black, presumably on his quest to find Bran for Roose. This plot too is new – and yet makes perfect sense. After all, Bran is now the eldest legitimate male heir to House Stark. Regardless of his mystical quest, he potentially holds an enormous amount of power.

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Making him the nexus of so many plotlines meant that this week saw a welcome focus on events in the North, rather neglected of late. Thus, we had power struggles at Castle Black, as the devious Janos Slynt counselled slimy Ser Alliser to let Jon go off in search of the mutineers, where with any luck he’d get himself killed; and we got to see what the mutineers themselves were up to, with Burn Gorman outdoing all his previous ‘nasty’ roles as ringleader Karl, promoted from background thug to lead heavy since his dispatch of Jeor Mormont.

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In a show full of unpleasant people, Gorman immediately shot Karl up near the top of the list, drinking wine from the late Commander Mormont’s skull while prodigiously employing the word “cunt” with a frequency unheard of even in this show. Perhaps unfortunately given the furore over last week’s episode, the other mutineers were busily having sex with the late Craster’s daughters in the background – more rape, presumably, though given that their father had been repeatedly raping them since birth, they may (horribly) no longer even see it that way.

Jon and the Watch may be on their way – but not soon enough to prevent Bran and crew being caught by this gang of thugs, who cemented their loathsomeness by torturing poor Hodor. If you thought rape was nasty, how about the torture of a man with the mind of a child?

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Jojen, who’d been looking obviously feverish throughout, was left having a seizure on the floor, and Bran’s direwolf Summer is still caught in a trap. Unlike in the books, things do not look good for the gang. And with Karl aware of Bran’s importance, I suspect a very bloody showdown in the near future.

That’s if all concerned can avoid the real enemy. The White Walkers too were back this week, and with a new dimension also not present in the books, as we saw just what they’d been doing with all those unwanted babies they got from Craster. It looks like  the babies themselves are transformed into Walkers; so it’s not just zombies they can turn people into.

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This is all new, but important, detail. I gather the showrunners have been made privy to Martin’s intended ending to the cycle, in the (increasingly likely) event that the show overtakes the narrative in the sporadically published books. I wonder if this new detail about the Walkers is something the books would have revealed in due course?

Sex and violence

Having pretty much plumbed the depths of titillation with Oberyn Martell’s orgy last week, there wasn’t much sex on display this ep – and what there was, was yet more unpleasant rape. It was at least in the background, though those who consider the show unforgivably misogynist may find it even worse that the act – and its anonymous victims – were not given more prominence. Whatever else it may have been, it certainly wasn’t a turn on.

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At least there was something to look at, if you like men wearing nothing but loincloths (and I do), since that was the only item of clothing worn by the slave population of Meereen. Dany’s surprisingly swift conquest of the last remaining slave city was facilitated by means of Grey Worm infiltrating himself into the slaves with some inspiring words and a lot of weaponry. This also meant that he too wore nothing but a loincloth. What a pity he’s a eunuch (the character that is; I assume actor Jacob Anderson has a fully functioning set of genitals).

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Astonishingly for this show, Margaery Tyrell’s midnight visit to new boy king Tommen (newly recast as Dean-Charles Chapman) didn’t result in his deflowering, so no sex there. Actually he didn’t seem that interested – perhaps she should send her brother.

Not much actual depicted violence either – though the pseudo-crucifixion of the Masters of Meereen wasn’t too pleasant.

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Language

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No, not Karl’s astonishingly frequent deployment of “fuck” and “cunt”; this week saw Grey Worm getting a lesson in Westerosi (which we conveniently hear as English) from handmaiden Missandei. Like Star Trek, the show has well-worked out invented languages – Dothraki, Braavosi etc. So why was “Kill the Masters” written on that Meereenese wall in English (ie Westerosi)?

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It’s hard to imagine that Benioff and Weiss are unaware of the controversy they’re wading into with last week’s rape scene, followed by yet more rape this week. I therefore assume the consequences have been considered; though interestingly the show’s only been officially censured once, and that was over the use of a replica head of George W Bush on a spike. Have they Gone Too Far? Not in my opinion; as I said, the rapes we have seen over the last two weeks have been genuinely portrayed as horrible and traumatising, more so in fact than the rape of Dany by Drogo back in season one (that one really was questionable in its portrayal).

Game of Thrones is not a show for the fainthearted; nor was its inspiration, the real medieval Europe. Life was, as has been famously described, “nasty, brutish and short”. Amidst all the debate, perhaps the worst horror is that an act so common 700 years ago isn’t rarer today.

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