If Game of Thrones has one strength over many, it lies in the moral ambiguity of its characters. Characters have the chance to debase and redeem themselves in the matter of episodes. There are no fully “good” and “evil” characters; moral absolutism is a cruel myth that you believe only at your own peril (just ask Ned Stark).
In “Breaker of Chains,” we once again visit the “problems of the human heart in conflict with itself” (as said by William Faulkner). Last season, Jaime lost a hand to stop the men who wished to rape Brienne; this Sunday, he raped his sister, who also happened to be the love of his life, in front body of his dead son. A couple of episodes ago, the Hound decried thieves (“A man’s got to have a code”), then went on to justify stealing from a dead man walking. Jon Snow, ever a Stark, once struggled to kill a single man (Qhorin Halfhand) for the greater good, but last night was unblinking as he suggested killing several of his own brothers in order to maintain a tactical advantage over Mance Rayder’s wildling army.
People change. Not always for the worst, but not always for the best, either. Each character’s arc may not be– should not be– a straight line upward towards morality and redemption, but rather a sine curve of peaks and troughs. You hope that your favorite characters are on a generally positive trajectory, but you’ll forgive them for a few mistakes along the way. In “Breaker of Chains,” we get down into the ditches with the horrifically flawed Westerosi, and potentially lose a fan favorite in the process.
The latest episode starts where we left off, but nothing is the same. Tywin Lannister orders the whole capital shut down, but Ser Dontos and Sansa still manage to escape. The fool was prepared for a moment such as this, with a rowboat at the ready stored among the rocks. How could a drunken, failed knight have such foresight, such sagacity?
The answer is clear when, rising out of the darkness and the fog, Petyr Baelish’s ship is found awaiting Sansa’s arrival. While the scene is intentionally as obscure and vague as the weather in that moment, one thing is clear: Littlefinger used Ser Dontos and Sansa’s pity for him to lure her to his ship after all. He had wanted to whisk her away last season, but Sansa let that ship sail (quite literally) when she believed she would marry the handsome Ser Loras Tyrell.
With a bolt to the head, Ser Dontos is killed because dead men, especially dead drunk men, tell no tales. Though Littlefinger is in some regards her savior from King’s Landing, the scene is far too ominous and threatening for anyone to believe that Sansa is truly safe at last. As Littlefinger made clear to Varys last season, “Chaos is a ladder,” not a pit. He thrives in it, and is certainly smart enough to engineer it. He shows Sansa how he had the family heirloom necklace made to buy her sympathy, then reminds her that the capital is full of liars, just before lying to her himself: “You’re safe now, I promise you that. You’re safe with me, sailing home.”
While Littlefinger seems to be a reasonable new suspect in the King Joffrey Murder Mystery plot, Margaery might as well be struck off our list. As one of the few (and I mean few) empathetic characters in the whole series, Margaery actually feels a bit sorry for what she witnessed. “It was horrible,” she says to her grandmother, though she’s admittedly a bit upset to have lost the crown, as well.”You may not have enjoyed watching him die, but you enjoyed it more than you would’ve enjoyed being married to him, I can promise you that,” Lady Olenna reminds her. Without consummating the marriage, Margaery no longer stands to be queen, so what could she have gained by not letting Joffrey live a few more hours?
Fortunately, it seems Margaery will likely have one more shot at being queen, unlucky though she may be with her succession of mates: the first was her brother’s gay lover, the second was a murderous psychopath, and the third just might be a child, Tommen Lannister.
Tommen is Joffrey’s younger and vastly more pliable brother. We have not heard much from him so far in the series, though he did have a rather telling dialog with his mother back in the second season. Back then, he asked Cersei, “Is Joffrey going to kill Sansa’s brother?” She replied, “He might. Would you like that?” Unlike his quick-tempered brother, Tommen actually took a moment to think about his response before he said, “No, I don’t think so.” This sounded odd coming from a Lannister, but now seems rather indicative of his potential to be a halfway decent person.
Once again, Tommen is shown weighing his thoughts carefully in conversation with his grandfather, Tywin, while standing vigil over the body of his brother in the same room where the wedding just took place. The Hand of the King questions Tommen, wondering what the boy thought made a “good king.” Tommen suggests holiness, then justice, then strength. One by one, Tywin has him reconsider each value, providing him with historical examples of failed kings who were holy, just, and strong. At last, Tommen pauses to consider and supplies the answer Tywin was looking for all along: wisdom.
“The only true wisdom is knowing you know nothing,” Socrates once (may have) said, and Tywin paraphrases this exact sentiment in order to encourage Tommen to seek the advice of his council: particularly, himself as the Hand of the King. “A wise young king listens to his counselors and heeds their advice until he comes of age. And the wisest kings continue to listen to them long afterwards.” Conveniently, Tommen has his grandfather at his right hand, ready and all too willing to help him lead the kingdom for the rest of his life. He would have never had that luxury with Joffrey, elevating him high on our list of prime suspects for murder. Still, he may simply be a masterful opportunist rather than a murderer; as Tyrion says later in the episode, Tywin “never fails to take advantage of a family tragedy,” and it’s hard to believe that the fierce family man would ever orchestrate his own.
In a symbolic move, Tywin guides yet another son away from Cersei, leaving her standing alone with Jaime and their dead son. In her grief, she once again insists that Tyrion murdered Joffrey, recalling his threat to her that “the day will come when you think you are safe and happy, and your joy will turn to ashes in your mouth.” She begs Jaime to kill Tyrion and avenge their son’s death, which Jaime clearly does not want to do. He has grown to rather enjoy Tyrion, as his brother was one of the few to show him kindness when he returned to the capital without a hand.
As immoral as Cersei is for insisting on Tyrion’s death, his anger with her goes to a much deeper and darker place. Jaime is at his worst with Cersei, to say the very least, and he punishes her for it by raping her beside the poisoned fruit of their sinful union. “You’re a hateful woman. Why did the gods make me love a hateful woman?”
This is a horrible scene that dismantles much of what the writers have done to develop Jaime’s character. If it is intentional, it further proves that the Lannisters have a horrible effect on people, even themselves. That Jaime can go from saving Brienne from rape and jumping into a bear pit to save her life to raping the woman he supposedly loves, shows that people cannot really fully change. Perhaps it show our folly for believing that Jaime Lannister (the same man who pushed a 10 year old from a window) was a fully-redeemed man.
However, what is particularly confusing is that the director of this episode, Alex Graves, has given interviews stating that the scene ends with it being consensual, though the writers/producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss (not to mention the scene itself) greatly imply that Cersei was raped. In the source material, Cersei does verbally give her consent after first saying no, and in fact begs for him, but the whole scene is through Jaime’s point of view. Afterward, she is upset with him, so her feelings are somewhat ambiguous, but it is portrayed as a consensual, if regrettable, sex act. In the books, Jaime is able to retain the reader’s sympathy after it.
It’s debatable whether the showrunners were simply presenting a cynical worldview or recklessly and needlessly ruining what they built in Jaime’s character. After all, there are so many other ways to show that Jaime is still not a fully changed man, that no one can fully remake themselves. Raping one’s sister seems so finite and absolute. It will be interesting to see how the next episode handles the aftermath of this event, especially since it is not apparent that the production staff had a clear idea of the horrified reaction that they would get from TV and book fans alike. While Jaime is by no means a perfect person, he was sympathetic in that he was trying to figure out how to be something other than who he was at the start. Last season and the first two episodes of this one went through great pains to show us Jaime’s desire for change within himself. Where is the man that saved Brienne? Where is the man who contemplated his own half-empty page in the book on the lives of the Kingsguard and dreamed of accomplishing more? It could take a long time for them to build goodwill towards Jaime again, and for the first time in the whole series, I’m skeptical that they can pull it off.
Westeros’s other favorite bad boy, the Hound, also proved that he was not above sinking to new lows in the name of pragmatism. He and Arya run into a farmer and his daughter who offer them shelter when Arya claims their loyalty to the Tullys of Riverrun, her mother’s house. She pretends that the Hound is her father, and their interactions continue to prove they are one of the best pairings in the series.
In the end, the Hound steals silver from the naive man after agreeing to work on his farm and offer him protection in return for an “honest wage.” This is a wild contradiction to his earlier code against thieving, but Sandor justifies it by claiming that the man is too weak to defend himself and, therefore, is as good as dead anyway. (“Dead men don’t need silver.”)
Arya, unable to fully shed her Stark pelt, is shocked to learn how the man can justify his dishonorable actions. However, when she calls him the “worst shit in the Seven Kingdoms,” he teaches her that, “There are plenty worse than me. I just understand the way things are. How many Starks do they got to behead before you figure that out?” Sandor’s mentorship, like Jaqen H’ghar’s before him, is teaching Arya the hard lessons that she could not have learned under her father: ones that will help her survive in a world too brutal and violent for honor. What is the cost of trying to be good in a land full of horrible people?
Arya’s scene is appropriately punctuated by a visit to Castle Black, where someone is taking an audible log of the men in the Night’s Watch: “Raper, raper, horse thief, ninth born son, raper, thief, thief and raper…” Sam worries about Gilly in this company of men and takes her just south of Castle Black to Mole’s Town. There, he makes a deal with the brothel madam to house Gilly and her son in exchange for her work (cooking, cleaning, and babysitting– not prostitution). Gilly is skeptical of Sam’s intentions; she is so distrustful of men (from previous experience) that she can only think that Sam wants to send her away for his own good. Sam, of course, has made a mess in trying to protect Gilly. He has simultaneously managed to make her feel unwanted and unsafe, putting her in a place where she is much more likely to come to harm.
Meanwhile, on Dragonstone, Stannis has seemingly forgotten all about his decision in last season’s finale to defend the North from the malevolent forces advancing on the Wall. Though it’s odd no one has made reference to his plan to head North, Stannis does remind us of the blood magic he and Melisandre used against the “usurpers” Robb Stark, Joffrey Baratheon, and Balon Greyjoy– two of which are no longer with us. Stannis frets to Daavos that he is missing his opportunity to take advantage of the chaos and uncertainty in King’s Landing. He does not have the troops or the money necessary to buy them, yet is unwilling to “become a page in someone else’s history book.”
It is through such a book that Daavos comes up with his plan to get his king the troops he so needs. During his reading lessons with Stannis’s daughter, she has him read a book about the First Sword of Braavos. This position is the chief protector of the ruler of Braavos, a free city in Essos, the continent directly to the east (where Daenerys is currently campaigning).
We’ve heard of Braavos a few times now. The first was with Syrio Forel, the man who taught Arya how to sword fight (“What do we say to the god of death? Not today.”) and who also happened to be a former First Sword of Braavos himself. Jaqen H’ghar, the faceless assassin, was also from Braavos and invited Arya to come there someday. Also, in the last episode, Lady Olenna Tyrell had a brief conversation with Tywin about how much money the Lannisters owed to the Iron Bank of Braavos, which is the most powerful financial institution in the known world. When Tyrion was made Master of Coin, he realized that Littlefinger had racked up enormous debts for the kingdom. “We owe [the Iron Bank] tens of millions. If we fail to repay these loans, the Bank will fund our enemies. One way or another, they always get their gold back.”
And therein lies Daavos’s new plan. He tells Shireen Baratheon to start writing a note to the Iron Bank on behalf of the “one true king of Westeros,” presumably with an offer to collect on the Lannisters’s debts with the help of their money and Braavos’s infamous mercenary troops, the Golden Company.
Tywin does not consider Stannis or the Iron Bank as a real threat, but sees plenty of others amassing at his borders. There is Balon Greyjoy’s rebellion in the west, Daenerys’s dragons in the east, and the White Walkers to the north. With these enemies, Tywin is forced into bed with Oberyn Martell. He is shrewd enough to understand that he needs Dorne’s help, especially since they have a history of successfully resisting the threat of dragons. Oberyn, also understanding that Tywin may be of more use to him alive, agrees to serve as one of Tyrion’s three judges and take a highly-coveted spot on the small council. With a boy king, his influence could be greater than a second son of Dorne may ever hope to achieve. The icing on the cake is the chance to avenge his sister Elia’s rape and murder, with Tywin implying that, in exchange for Oberyn’s loyalty to the crown, he will be given a chance to deal justice to the Mountain.
Oberyn makes a good argument for his innocence in Joffrey’s murder, reminding Tywin that the murder of his infant nephew and niece was part of what sparked the current feud between the Dornishmen and the Lannisters– why would he then kill a child in return? Tywin is skeptical, however, especially given the fact that Oberyn studied poisons at the Citadel. In the end, he puts his suspicions aside for the potential political gain. He is certainly exploiting the death of his grandson to the fullest.
Tyrion, meanwhile, is still locked in his cell, though he seems more unlikely than any other candidates for Joffrey’s murder. “The world is a better place without him, but I had nothing to do with it,” he tells his faithful squire Podrick. Tyrion has been made to look guilty of the crime, what with him holding the supposedly-poisoned chalice and the sudden disappearance of his wife, Sansa. However, if he had truly wanted to kill the king, he would have certainly been more intelligent than to make himself the number one suspect. He sends Podrick away for the boy’s own safety, though the squire was loyal until the last, refusing a knighthood in return for false testimony against his lord.
To the north, Ygritte and Thormund’s wildling band has been attacking villages in order to try to draw the Night’s Watch out of Castle Black. The Crows are not so easily baited away from their ultimate purpose, which is to stay and protect the Wall. Several of the missing rangers, who had been present at Craster’s Keep when several men mutinied and killed Lord Commander Mormont, stumble through the Wall half-dead. They report that their rebel brothers are still at Craster’s Keep, holed up with the old man’s women. Jon Snow immediately determines that they must send a party out to kill them, showing a sudden willingness to make the tough decisions. In a shrewd tactical decision, he determines that his bluff to Mance Rayder (that there are thousands of men at Castle Black, instead of merely a hundred) is the only thing stopping the wildlings from crushing them. Dead crows tell no tales of woefully inadequate defenses.
Finally, Daenerys approaches the walls of Meereen, the latest city in her quest to free the oppressed peoples along Slaver’s Bay. The people watch her from the walls as they send out their champion fighter in what becomes, quite literally, a pissing contest. Daario is selected to meet the warrior on the open field, and shows off a bit in dealing with the warrior in a comically cool fashion. Daenerys delivers a speech to the people of Meereen, imploring them to see their slaver holders as the true enemy. She shows them her army of freed slaves and shoots barrels full of broken chains over the walls of the city. It is brilliant propaganda, setting up the city to be sieged from within.
According to Faulkner, bad writers write “not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars.” Luckily, Game of Thrones does not suffer from these problems. Our favorite characters are at constant war with themselves, and are often losing the battle over their own hearts. The stakes are high and good people don’t always win, but this makes the small victories all the sweeter. A character like Daenerys, the “Breaker of Chains,” gives hope in a world where there is so little.
Other thoughts on “Breaker of Chains”:
- George R.R. Martin has responded to Jaime and Cersei’s scene in the comments on his personal blog. This is worth a read for those who had the same reaction I did to this scene. There are no spoilers for future events from the books, only a description of what happened in the books versus what happened in the show. “The scene was always intended to be disturbing… but I do regret if it has disturbed people for the wrong reasons.”