There is something perhaps morbidly fitting that Game of Thrones, the show that appears to have given rise to the term sexposition in TV criticism would be the one to take the concept to an area that is at once troubling, a betrayal of character and, quite simply, outdated storytelling and characterisation tactics. Now, much has already been written on the rape of Cersei Lannister in “Breaker of Chains” that can be described, quite simply, as controversial, from the aspects including the deviations from the source material (in this case George R. R. Martin’s novel A Storm of Swords), the role of women in Westeros and, of course, rape itself. I won’t be focusing on any of those; while I of course agree that they’re important issues that should be discussed, I’m not quite sure I’d be able to speak particularly eloquently on. One of the things that interests me most about that scene in “Breaker of Chains” is the way in which it has used outdated tropes in order to create characterisation.
For those who don’t know, sexposition is the idea of divulging expository plot and character passages during or in the proximity of sexual situations. There’s plenty of this in Game of Thrones, from Littlefinger’s monologue about his childhood and love for Catelyn Stark to pretty much every scene that involves Oberyn Martell (including one in “Breaker of Chains.”). Now, while Game of Thrones is the show that seems to have caused the coining of the term, it’s certainly not the first show to use it, between the strip club in The Sopranos and the brothel in Deadwood it would perhaps be fair to say that HBO has something of a penchant for sexposition. As a trope, sexposition of course has it’s own problems, from the pointless objectification of the background characters involved in the scenes to the fact it is, given it feels the need to use explicit and rather heavy-handed exposition, quite simply, bad storytelling. However, the problems of sexposition aren’t the focus here, but are instead a jumping off point to discuss the ways in which the rape of Cersei functions more as a plot device than anything else.
Before what could politely be called the unpleasantness of “Breaker of Chains,” I think it’s fair to say that lots of people were rooting for Jaime Lannister, between the season three episodes “Kissed By Fire” and “The Bear and the Maiden Fair,” he was on track for a fascinating redemption arc made all the more compelling by the fact that he is not only the infamous Kingslayer, but also a Lannister. What the adaptation of Game of Thrones does in a way that the books don’t, and I must admit I have no idea quite why this is done, is create a much more clear divide between heroes and villains. In season one, for instance, Eddard is clearly the hero and the Lannisters clearly the villains, Dany, with her myriad titles has always been painted as a hero throughout, and the opposite can be said of the late Joffery Baratheon, in that he is more monstrous and outright villainous on screen than he is within Martin’s original pages. By proxy, this has always made Cersei a somewhat more sympathetic character than she is originally written as being, here she is a long-suffering mother who watches her child become a monster; now, it’s a compelling arc, but it’s perhaps the root of some characterisation that is questionable both for it’s departure from the source material and how antiquated it is. After Joffery’s death in “The Lion and the Rose” fans everywhere rejoiced, and after all, why wouldn’t they? The savage boy king, the main villain of the series, had been killed off. But what this does is raise an interesting question: where does the show go next?
Given that Joffery is no longer among the living in Game of Thrones, it’s safe to say that, based on the hero/villain duality they’d created, that a new villain was necessary. Now, while there are plenty of characters who are viable to don that crown, from Melisandre to Mance, the issue with them is that they’re not really close enough to King’s Landing which, for all of the show’s geographical branching and dozens of plotlines, has always been the heart of the action. So, once again, that villainous gaze falls upon the Lannisters. Tywin couldn’t be the villain because, for all of his faults, he’s not as awful a person as he seems, say what you will for his grooming Tommen to be king all of five feet from dead predecessor, Tywin recognised that Joffery was a monster and that it’s not something that King’s Landing should face again; it’s not unreasonable to assume that Tywin, in spite of his hunger for his family’s glory and perhaps, in spite of himself, much like Varys, “serves the realm.” Tyrion is of course out of the question, he’s just not a villain and everyone knows that. This leaves only two Lannisters in King’s Landing who could become the next villain, Jaime and Cersei Lannister.
The issue with using either of them is that it would be a betrayal of their characters up to this point to suddenly turn them into villains, between the stepping stones for Jaime’s redemption to the power-hungry but still somehow sympathetic Cersei. All that besides, would it really be fair to turn Cersei into an out-and-out villain moments after the death of her son? Probably not, and that’s where the cheap, lazy and – for many reasons – downright offensive use of sexual violence enters the equation.
The use of sexual assault in “Breaker of Chains” is many things, but the one I’m focusing on here is it’s antiquated status as a means of storytelling and characterisation. The use of sex, and rape in particular as a way of punishing women is an age old adage that spans Hitchcock, slashers and pretty much everything else. It wouldn’t exactly be a stretch of the imagination to say that Cersei being raped is some bizarre punishment for her having given birth to Joffery in the first place given that the scene in question takes place literally right beside the dead king’s grave. In punishing Cersei through this absurd plot device of an assault, Jaime is also made to be monstrous, because, to put it simply, he rapes her and rape is a monstrous thing, considered almost unfathomable in it’s evil in society, and rightly so (even though I won’t be focusing on perhaps the more societal implications of treating rape in such a way, I feel I should again reiterate that they’re issues that should be talked about and probably have been by people much more eloquent than I.). Now, this of course goes against the source material in terms of both adapting the scene (which is disturbing but consensual) and Jaime’s character; even though the far-reaching implications of the scene are of course yet to be shown, it invalidates his redemption and immediately turns him into a villain. And as well as punishing Cersei, the scene creates an understandable sympathy for her as a victim, which again feels like, for all it’s other problems, bad writing. A perhaps fitting parallel would be the Bates Motel pilot episode “First You Dream, Then You Die,” when Norma Bates is raped by a home invader who she proceeds to kill in self defence. It’s difficult not to simply say that the attacker had it coming, because we at once sympathise with her and hate him, so when looking at this dynamic in relation to “Breaker of Chains,” Cersei becomes the object of sympathy where Jaime becomes the object of hated. Unfortunately, and again, rather morbidly, this scene serves the purpose it needs to within the version of Westeros presented to us on TV, one with heroes and villains where the villains are pure evil (Joffery’s most evil moment perhaps being the execution of the prostitutes that we see as Littlefingers informs in “The Climb” that ‘Chaos isn’t a pit. It’s a ladder.’), and so, in the wake of Joffery’s death, not only is another Lannister being groomed to be king in his stead, but another monster seems to be prepared to step to the fore.