|I really find myself wondering what Jack Gleeson thought of that scene.|
State of Play
The choir goes off. The board is laud out thusly:
Lions of King’s Landing: Tyrion Lannister, Jaime Lannister, Cersei Lannister, Tywin Lannister
Dragons of Meereen: Daenerys Targaryen
Direwolves of the Wall: Jon Snow
Mockingbirds of King’s Landing: Petyr Baelish
Roses of King’s Landing: Margaery Tyrell
Ships of Dragonstone: Davos Seaworth
Burning Heats of Dragonstone: Stannis Baratheon
Direwolves of King’s Landing: Sansa Stark
The Direwolf, Arya Stark
The Dogs, Sandor Clegane
Archers of the Wall: Samwell Tarly
Bows of the Wall: Ygritte
Paws of the Wall: Tormund Giantsbane
Flowers of the Wall: Gilly
Shields of King’s Landing: Brienne of Tarth
Spiders of King’s Landing: Varys
With the Bear of Meereen, Iain Glenn
The Dreadfort is abandoned.
The episode is in eight parts. The first part runs fourteen minutes and is in three sections. The first sections is four minutes long; the opening image is identical to the closing image of the previous episode. The second section is two minutes long. The transition is by implication, from one of Joffrey’s murderers to the other. The third section is six minutes long. The transition is by dialogue, from Olenna talking about Joffrey to his corpse.
The second part runs six minutes and is set in the Riverlands. The transition is by hard cut, from Jaime raping Cersei to some hills.
The third runs three minutes and is set at the Wall. The transition is by hard cut, from Arya to the yard at Castle Black.
The fourth runs four minutes and is set on Dragonstone. The transition is by hard cut, from Sam to the table in Dragonstone.
The fifth runs two and is set in Molestown, just south of the Wall. The transition is by hard cut, from Princess Shireen writing to Sam and Gilly riding through a street.
The sixth runs eleven minutes and is in two sections; it is set in King’s Landing. The first section is six minutes long; the transition is by image, from one brothel to another. The second section is five minutes long; the transition is by family, from Tywin to Tyrion Lannister, and by dialogue, with Tywin and Oberyn talking about Tyrion’s trial.
The seventh part runs five minutes and is set at and around the Wall. The transition is by hard cut, from Podrick departing to an babbling river.
The last runs eight minutes and is set in Meereen. The transition is by family, from Jon Snow to Daenerys Targaryen. The final image is of a slave landing on a ladder as he looks at a broken collar.
For the most part, “Breaker of Chains” is a standard-issue bit of transitional play, primarily concerned with placing the season on its forward course following the ridiculous fireworks of “The Lion and the Rose.” And yet look at that State of Play: eight parts. That’s insane. The only Season Three episode to have that few parts was “Valar Dohaeris.” All told, the only other episodes in the first three seasons to come in under ten are “Winter is Coming,” “The Wolf and the Lion,” and “Blackwater.” Whereas the first three episodes of Season Four all have been, and, spoilers, they’re not the only ones that are going to be. Indeed, this is more or less a permanent transition for the show – the days where a standard episode is stitched together out of a dozen or more scenes averaging three to four minutes are largely over.
This gives the episode some real focus. The thirteen minute opener in King’s Landing, for instance, is more time spent in the immediate aftermath of a shocking twist than has ever been spent before. “The Pointy End” spent eight minutes in King’s Landing after Ned’s arrest, “Fire and Blood” cut to Winterfell after just a minute, “Valar Morgulis” opened with ten in King’s Landing, while “Mhysa” started with two minutes at the Twins. Here the first fourteen minutes are spent just reacting to Joffrey’s murder.
What this benefits most directly and decisively is the initial scene with Sansa and Littlefinger. Of particular note is how it handles Ser Dontos, who gets a few minutes of being a straightforwardly heroic figure before getting brutally killed off by Littlefinger, whose explanation of what was actually going on manages to undermine Dontos and make perfect pragmatic sense without making the turn any less unsettling. But more than that, it marks the point where Sansa finally escapes King’s Landing and gets to start working towards carrying a plot on her own terms instead of being a bartered-over object as she has been since “The Pointy End.”
Speaking of Starks and pointy ends, the Arya/Hound scene is afforded a luxurious seven minutes of material invented for the show that doesn’t actually advance the plot in any meaningful sense. No matter. It is, of course, brilliant, and for reasons that are essentially stated within the scene, which is that the Hound, while a thoroughly rude and violent person who thinks nothing of casually robbing a perfectly innocent farmer who took him in for the night, is indeed not even close to the worst shit the show has provided. And this really does present Arya with an interesting situation – someone who very firmly challenges the complete lack of pragmatism in Arya’s worldview. The bluntness of pointing out that the farmer and his daughter have no chance of surviving in the Riverlands through winter is at once disturbing and compelling – not unlike Littlefinger’s explanation of murdering Ser Dontos, in fact. Plus, of course, Arya and the Hound are fucking hilarious.
The bulk of the other scenes are firmly transitional, and it’s worth noting that after the first two scenes, which make up nearly half the episode, the scenes get short again for a bit as a pair of Samwell scenes are used to bracket a Stannis scene. None of these are bad by any measure – Davos’s lamenting that Stannis fails to appreciate the finer points of bad behavior is one of his single best lines in the entire series, in fact. After this come the final three – a second block of King’s Landing that finally deals with the crucial “what happens to Tyrion” question, a fairly perfunctory Wall scene (this time with Jon instead of Sam) that mostly serves to re-do the setup of “Two Swords” in case you forgot about it during “The Lion and the Rose,” and a perfectly serviceable Daenerys scene marred only by the degree to which it’s ignoring Daenerys all episode and then giving her a big, triumphant scene at the end is something of a cliche as gameplay goes. But even it’s enlivened successfully by the ending image, which, while being just as emphatically a triumph as her sacking of Astapor or adoption of Yunkai (the two previous times this tactic was employed), is a fundamentally quieter and more unsettled image. Notably, it’s another invention of the show.
Unfortunately all of this is rendered a largely moot point by the spectacularly bad handling of the Jaime/Cersei scene. It is important to take care and be precise here. First, then, let us be unambiguous – there is simply no way whatsoever to read the scene as transmitted as anything other than Jaime raping Cersei. Nowhere in the scene is there even a passing moment that can be read as Cersei consenting, whereas her cries of “no” and “don’t” are blatant. Second, the matter of the books, where Cersei’s protests do explicitly turn to encouragement. Two important caveats apply, however. The first is that the chapter uses Jaime as a POV character, and thus his account of Cersei’s reactions is not entirely reliable. The second is that Cersei still explicitly says no and he goes on, and that’s still rape. Finally, there is the detail that Headey, Coster-Waldau, and director Alex Graves all did not think they were shooting a rape scene at the time. On one level, this is straightforwardly absurd – as with the book scene, she says no. But even allowing a (bullshit) “she consented midway through” defense and assuming that somewhere on a cutting room floor is the crucial moment that makes that definition of rape relevant in the first place, this is hard to credit, requiring a spectacular obliviousness.
And yet it really does appear that obliviousness was in play. Delicate and nuanced handling of sex has never been a strong point of the game in any medium, and the television version has always been particularly egregious between its famed “sexposition” and the fact that it flipped a sex scene into a rape scene in the first episode for relatively tenuous reasons. This, however, marked something of a new low, coming as it did immediately prior to an episode whose (already announced) title clearly flagged it as a major beat in Jaime’s redemption arc, at least to anyone who’d read the books. Which, of course, were the same people who were most adamantly questioning the shooting of the Jaime/Cersei scene. The sudden, visible sense that the show’s handling of sexual assault was haphazard, incompetent, and lacking in any serious thought about the larger needs of the storytelling was unsettling. This is not yet the big breaking point with regards to this issue, but in hindsight it’s clearly recognizable as a major turning point – a sudden and massive erosion of cultural trust in the show. What remains is still substantial – indeed, the show’s legacy is at this point undoubtedly secure. But nevertheless, something changed here.