[Trigger warning: discussion of rape scenes. Spoiler warning: discussion of last night's Game of Thrones.]
Last night, absolutely nobody was watching Turn at 9pm, because everyone was watching Game of Thrones. As Turn isn’t very good (yet), that’s not surprising. I was watching, though, as I’m recapping it at AV Club; I was excited because the episode was markedly better than the ones before it, and especially excited to get a relatively meaty scene between protagonist Abraham Woodhull’s wife Mary, and Anna Strong, his old flame and current co-conspirator in spying.
As it turns out, Mary was intended for Abraham’s brother Thomas, but after Thomas’s death, Abraham got called on for the sake of the families, and he broke his engagement with Anna to marry Mary. And Mary’s come not to condemn what she thinks is an affair, but instead merely to ask for discretion. What she feels for Abraham is unclear; it pains her to think he’s been unfaithful, but whether it’s family pride or the specific pain of rebuffed love is harder to say.
I thought about what the show has suggested about their marital intimacy under these newly-revealed conditions. Mary’s insistence that a marriage hinges on children—and the baby tromping across the cabbage farm—suggests sex at least enough to try for a kid. But the idea that Abraham’s a respectful and kind husband was the first thing the show ever established, in the series’ first scene (deliberately edited in ahead of the opening scene that appears in the shooting script), so some of the potential dread of their bedroom becomes polite awkwardness. Maybe fondness has crept in around the edges—sometimes they seem fond, and not just cohabiting—but maybe this is just second-generation family duty. Complicated, these intimate politics.
I thought about this scene again as reactions on Twitter began to suggest that we’d reached a scene of Game of Thrones that I’d viewed weeks ago, had been embargoed from discussing, and had somehow vaguely hoped would be different when it aired than it was when I saw it. (Shows do reshoots at the last minute, sometimes, when something’s too horrible; they edit it to go first when it’s an impression they want you to carry with you; they edit it out when it’s past the point of being salvaged.)
Director Alex Graves doesn’t think it’s horrible. “That’s one of my favorite scenes I’ve ever done,” he says.
You’ve probably heard what happened on Game of Thrones last night. Even if you don’t watch the show, you’ve probably heard; it was a pretty big deal to a lot of the viewers. Not as big a deal as a man getting killed at a wedding, to the people in charge, but it was to people who know what’s happening when someone (a woman, last night) says No, over and over, and someone (a man, last night) doesn’t stop. When he forces her backwards, when he holds her down.
“Well, it becomes consensual by the end, because anything for them ultimately results in a turn-on, especially a power struggle,” says Alex Graves.
Cersei’s reaching for her son’s hand, like the dead will wake up and save her.
The most direct parallel that springs to mind, both in terms of pop-culture ubiquity and in terms of how fixedly it was shot, is Joan’s rape on Mad Men, seasons and seasons ago (though even there we saw more crushing detail that highlighted the moment as an awful violation – her hand pushing her skirt down in last-ditch, quiet panic; her face, unblinking, when she realizes fighting is useless).
She married him anyway. (The year this occurs in the show, marital rape is not yet a crime. The start of legal classification of marital rape as a crime won’t happen for a decade, when Joan is raped.)
But the rape wasn’t a one-off stunt to narratively punish Joan, or a shock tactic to get people talking around the water cooler. It was a horror that lingered; it was the third person in their marriage. It appeared in the room with them when he demanded she perform on accordion for guests at a dinner party, and it appeared every time he hinted that he didn’t like her office work. It was the spectator of every argument, the secret fulcrum of judgment that directed his life. (He was a surgeon. When he was passed over for promotion and they told him he had no brains in his fingers, we’d never seen him at work; all we needed to know to understand his hands couldn’t save anyone was what we’d seen them do in the thing we couldn’t forgive.) When she cracked a vase over his head during an argument, when he joined the army and kept volunteering for tours, when she kissed him goodbye at the door, the rape was there – it flavored every drink she ever poured him.
During their last argument, Joan nails down the sense of masculine pride the army gives him as she tells him to go. He grabs her arm; he specifies that the army makes him feel like a good man. And before we can say it, unexpectedly, explicitly, Joan does it: “You’re not a good man. You never were. Even before we were married, and you know what I’m talking about.”
It’s stunning, after three seasons, to have someone name the ghost that’s in every frame of their lives. It’s vindication of what we’ve known all along. After that, it’s pretty much over: he leaves, she looks around, she drinks a cup of coffee. She’s not smiling—this isn’t a switch so easily flipped—but she never moves from her chair to go after him.
(She doesn’t know this yet, but she’s not far from a partnership at the firm; Pete Campbell, who raped a woman in season one, will make it conditional on sleeping with a client. The show has never condemned him for it the way it’s condemned Joan’s husband. The show has made Pete pretty funny; occasionally he’s been called a “grimy little pimp,” but when his life’s a misery, these aren’t the moments he’s meant to be recalling. These moments, one suspects, never really occur to him at all. If we find Pete amusing, the show occasionally suggests, that is because we are complicit in the system that allows him to operate.)
Her husband’s the one who filed for divorce, in the end. Joan said it made him feel like he had the moral high ground. Complicated, these intimate politics.
This piece at AV Club calls last night’s rape what it is, and points out that the show has used rape as a plot device before without ever interrogating or really addressing it; then it was the beginning of a love story, now it’s the end of one. (It also suggests that when you get down to brass tacks, the books are little better either in their writing or in their sexual politics, which should surprise no one, but any degree of better is still better.)
But when you’re discussing rape, there are things that go unspoken, the assumptions that have to be laid out and dismantled every time anyone talks about rape, because people come in and demand clarification every time anyone talks about rape. You know the list, probably, of things that have to be debunked: It’s not rape if you’re in a relationship; it’s not rape if your relationship is contentious. There must be, deeply unspoken as regards this show but indelibly there, the quiet and terrible satisfaction of some that it’s not rape because Cersei’s such a bitch that it must, somehow, have served her right.
Intense is not synonymous with rape. Complicated is not synonymous with rape. To film a scene that is both intense and complicated requires a knowledge of the lines between, and the awareness of what it becomes when you cross over.
“I wanted to rehearse that scene four days before, so that we could think about everything,” says Alex Graves. “And it worked out really well.”
It’s possible, in some Schrodinger’s writers’ room at HBO headquarters, that the show has planned to use this as a searing deconstruction of the ideals of courtly heroism, that someone who will fight for the honor of someone he sees as an unimpeachable virgin will be violently dismissive of someone he sees as a whore—that dichotomy is painfully real and it deserves examination. (The pedestal’s as dangerous as the gutter.)
Maybe next week opens with Margaery realizing what’s happened and offering Cersei a sympathetic ear; maybe it opens with Brienne realizing what happened and tearing the Lannister coat of arms from her tunic. Maybe Jaime will have a season ahead of him in which he’s forced to reflect on his actions, and try to understand what’s involved in atonement—if atonement is possible, and if Cersei will let him atone. Maybe Cersei will have a season ahead of her in which she’s able to work past this betrayal, which made Jaime just another man who’s seen her as something for sexual use, and come out all right on the other side. (TV tells us that as a rape victim, she’s already one step closer to being redeemed; she’s been easy to hate, but rape is the thing we know is Bad, that’s deployed so often to gain our sympathies and define the enemy. Maybe Alex Graves quietly knew how it looked, that it was rape, and that’s why it’s here—the only way the show could think of to help people understand her at all.)
But it might be that the next time we see him, he’s gifting Brienne with a sword, and she’ll think he’s a true knight, and we’ll be meant to think the same. It might be that the show will say no more about it, except that Cersei was angry with Jaime before, and now she’ll be cold, withdrawn when they’re alone; soon he’ll leave her, maybe, and it will, somehow, have served her right.
Complicated, these intimate politics.