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RECAP: Game of Thrones Watch: Soul on Ice

HBO

King's Landing is in flux, the plot heats up in the icy North, and last week's controversial scene looms over a story of conflicted loyalties.

Spoilers for last night’s Game of Thrones follow:

The Seven forgive me, but it’s hard to discuss this week’s Game of Thrones, “Oathkeeper,” without returning to last week’s–namely, That Scene, which loomed over many of the doings in King’s Landing–whether it was meant to or not.

I was on vacation last Monday and so thankfully sat out the Great Was It Rape Debate of 2014. (Maureen Ryan’s analysis pretty much nailed it in the Huffington Post.) But to sum it up, whatever the director and producers intended (which their conflicting comments only further confused), whatever was in the source book, whatever it says about sexual violence generally in Game of Thrones: of course it was rape, what we saw on screen between Jaime and Cersei–a woman being overpowered by a man, protesting and resisting even as he thrusts into her at the end.

From the evidence of “Oathkeeper,” which doesn’t overtly address the incident, my guess is now that the makers meant the scene not to be rape–intended, maybe, an encounter of angry sex between two damaged lovers*–but utterly botched getting any of that complexity on screen. It’s just a guess. You’re welcome to disagree. But at the point that an audience is having this argument, someone has screwed something up. Ambiguity can be a powerful thing; “Keep your foes confused,” as Littlefinger tells us in this episode. But the audience is not the enemy, and the confusion in the sept muddied not only That Scene but what comes after.

*If that’s so, it would make the intended scene something closer to the equivalent of the scene from the source book. And although some think pieces last week described that book scene as “consensual,” I don’t think it’s quite that simple. It’s eventually consensual, but it’s the sort of she-fights-it-then-gets-into-it scene–Cersei protests and “pound[s] his chest with feeble fists” before consenting–that has its own problems in portraying a “no” that turns into “yes.” Regardless, the book is the book and the show is the show; if your scene requires outside reading to interpret, you’re doing it wrong.

So in “Oathkeeper,” we see a strained encounter between Cersei and Jaime. She’s devastated and enraged (and drinking heavily), but is it simply her agony over Joffrey’s death and rage at Tyrion, or is it…? There’s clearly a chasm between her and Jaime, but is it the chasm we saw when he first returned to King’s Landing (“You’re too late”), is it bitterness at his refusal to kill Tyrion, or is it…? Is she insistent on increasing Tommen’s security because she fears a second regicide, or because she wants to display some vestige of the agency that her father is brazenly stripping from her, or is it…? Is Jaime insistent on “filling his page” in the Lord Commander’s book simply because he still feels guilt for his own regicide, or is it…?

We’re weighing, in other words, the scene we actually saw with our guesses at what scene we were meant to see–and that’s the difference between complexity and confusion. (Which is doubly a shame because Lena Headey is transfixing in her bereavement and fury here.)

And it’s too bad, because “Oathkeeper,” directed by Michelle MacLaren, though largely a piece-mover episode, is itself a model of clarity in many ways. Look, for instance, at how it leads us through the solution to Joffrey’s poisoning, like Littlefinger teaching Machiavelli 101 to Sansa.

It’s not merely didactic or expository. It uses the revelation to illuminate character: Sansa (the underappreciated Sophie Turner) overcoming her well-bred naivete to see the world as a conspirator does, Littlefinger laying out his philosophy, that most men risk too little and die anyway. (In other, less eloquent words: YOLO.) Then the episode leads us geographically to Littlefinger’s co-conspirator, Olenna Tyrell, who before skipping town shares with Margaery her own views on power–and reveals she was a hellion in the sack–while also slyly revealing not only that she helped kill Joffrey, but suggesting how: she delicately fingers the stones on her granddaughter’s own necklace.

MacLaren follows up that heart-to-heart with a scene that’s a masterly example of being nuanced but clear. Taking Olenna’s advice that she must act before Cersei does, Margaery visits Li’l King Tommen in his room at night. Tommen, as sweet and dutiful as Joffrey was vicious, is still very much a child, but it seems very possible she could be walking in to seduce him, because of Olenna’s explicit story and because, well, what won’t Game of Thrones do?

It is a seduction, but not entirely of that kind. She befriends him, giggles, makes nice with Ser Pounce. It’s girlfriendly, but in a way modulated to Tommen’s age and maturity level, to gaining his comfort and trust–while also, just ever so, intimating that they will some day be much more friendly. It’s not a sexual seduction, but it’s not entirely not sexual either. As she says good night, she leans in momentarily, makes as if to kiss him on the lips, and instead kisses him gently on his forehead. She’s putting herself forward as a friend, as a big sister and as someone he can trust in a scary time–yet she’s holding out the promise, barely perceptible to him now, of being his woman.

That’s how you do subtle-but-clear.

And how do we take Jaime now? In the aftermath of last Sunday, I saw some commenters suggesting that the show would whiplash back to Jaime as “the good guy” again. But whatever happened last week, Game of Thrones is not in the business of simply good or bad guys, period. And despite his bonding with Brienne last season, I’m not sure the show intends us to ever see Jaime as a good guy, nor intends any straight redemption arc with him.

Follow his timeline back. Last week, he at worst raped his sister, at best had hate-sex with her by the corpse of their son. Before that, he saved Brienne from rape and murder. Before that, he tried to kill a boy by pushing him out a window. Before that, he killed an insane king to save a million people in King’s Landing. Before that, he served an invading army that used rape as a weapon of war. Before that… The point being, it is entirely possible he will always be able to do good and reprehensible things; he may want an honored name, but not too much goodness in a world that tells him it’s a liability. (“You learned to fight like a good little boy,” Bronn tells him, after knocking him on his ass.)

What Jaime can do, anyway, is follow promises if he cannot trust himself to follow principles. He can resolve his agony over Joffrey’s death by drawing the bright line that he can’t kill his brother (whatever he’s done to his sister). And in the scene that gives the episode its title, he can outsource his honor, giving his sword to someone who can use it better and telling Brienne that she at least should keep her own oath as best she can.

In many ways, “Oathkeeper” was about forms of loyalty: loyalty to family (and contradicting claims of loyalty by different family members); loyalty to oaths; loyalty to principles; loyalty won through seduction and insinuation. Loyalty may often travel in the same lane as goodness, but it’s not the same thing. It’s a way of securing good-adjacent behavior, or at least to fend off anarchy. Get rid of loyalty to oaths, for instance, and you have the hellish rapists among the oath-breaking mutineers against the Night’s Watch at Craster’s Keep. You have the Red Wedding, which broke a sacred vow of protection to guests who have taken your bread and salt. Like laws or mottoes–”The Lannisters always pay their debts”–loyalty is a way of securing predictable behavior in a world that tends to chaos. Jaime’s kingslaying is both the best thing he’s done and the greatest stain on his name–secretly preventing a mass murder, through the greatest violation of loyalty that his society knows.

So he sends off the more trustworthy Brienne off to be an oathkeeper on his behalf. For someone like Jaime, maybe loyalty is what you fall back on when you can’t trust yourself to be good.

Now for the hail of arrows:

* Like last season, and like the GoT Close-Up posts I’ve done earlier this season, I’m going to try to focus these posts on individual scenes, storylines, or themes, not list every damn thing that happened. Feel free to talk about anything I didn’t cover in the comments. That said…

* Meereen: current-events synchronicity alert; just after Cliven Bundy suggested slavery might have been better than welfare, we see a slave rebellion that gives voice to the slaves themselves. The opening dialogue of Missandei and Grey Worm sharing their memories of being “taken” (or lack thereof) was a great example of the small revelatory conversations that Game of Thrones uses to link plot action. (It’s interesting how Grey Worm, though he wants to “kill the masters,” also retains pride in being Unsullied, even as it obliterated his previous identity: “Before Unsullied, nothing.”) Where the storyline has largely focused on the liberator–Danaerys, “Mhysa”–here we had Grey Worm declaring, “No one can give you your freedom.”

* The Wall and Beyond: I’m as baffled as you are, and maybe more excited. This is where Game of Thrones is playing its longest and most mystical game (Bran’s visions, the White Walkers), reminding us that this is ultimately about an existential battle for life on the planet. Things have sometimes dragged with The Night’s Watch, as it awaits a Wildling invasion that seems to be moving as slow as molasses–well, molasses at The Wall. But that Bran’s and Jon’s stories seem to be converging is exciting–Bran a hostage at the keep, Jon marching toward him–especially since (not to get into details) if I recall correctly this storyline departs almost entirely from the books.

* The Craster’s scene involves, yes, more rape, but here at least it’s unambiguous and anything but glamorized. The issue, I think, is not how often a series depicts rape, any more than how often it depicts murder, but how seriously (or cavalierly) the show treats its effects and consequences. Craster’s daughters have gone from abuser to abuser. (Not only is rape a weapon of war in the Seven Kingdoms, but the Night’s Watch, we’ve been reminded, has been an exile for many of Westeros’ rapists.) And the effects of the women’s abuse by their father have chillingly outlived the old man; they insist on handing over the male baby, per Craster’s arrangement, as if a religious obligation–”a gift to the gods.”

* A nitpick, but I have never been satisfied with any representation of the Walkers, who I imagine as more spectral: not version 1.0 of the first season, not the white-maned rebooted version. And now it would seem we have more than one type of Walker, including–what, a Walker priest?–who looks a bit like an albino Darth Maul. Should we assume that the baby’s being frozen, body and apparently soul, is how little Walkers are made? (In other words: they are literally conceived of abuse and cruelty?)

* Big thanks to my colleague Eric Dodds, who did the first three episodes of Game of Thrones Watch this year. We may yet switch off again this season, but you’re stuck with me for now.

* And finally: no book spoilers in the comments. (Book readers, I know you’re dying to talk about the changes, but please do it without discussing any book events not yet depicted onscreen.) But you knew that, right?

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