I referenced this in my review a bit, but the Craster’s Keep sequence in the most recent Game of Thrones episode is The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, it’s Hostel, two of my favorite horror films of all time. (Texas Chain Saw is one of my favorite films of any kind, period.) The spectacle, the excess, the relentless primal-scream tone, it’s deliberate, it’s meant to be shattering, it’s meant to concretize the experience of cruelty and moral degeneracy. Under normal circumstances I’ve had responded quite favorably to that, I think, particularly as it segued into the supernatural/cosmic horror of the White Walkers. That too is a spectacle of a kind — the endlessly long takes in which you’re just rooted to the spot with a screaming infant in the cold as monsters gather to snuff out its life. Excruciating, and communicative in a way more subtle filmmaking can’t be.
The thing was, though, that the (mis)handling of the Cersei/Jaime scene the previous week, and potentially into this week depending on how you view the follow-up sequences, had thrown me for a loop, making it difficult for me to process the Craster’s Keep material the way I normally would have. What might normally have read as Salo-style forcing your face into the filth instead made me think that, for example, either some of the nudity or some of the on-screen visible rapes should have been elided.
Which tracks back to the Cersei/Jaime scene, which I believe to be a failure of filmmaking, not of morals or ethics. As a basic platform for discussion, I should note that I think the change from consensual to nonconsensual, if indeed that was the intention, is a valid choice. I don’t think it “ruins” Cersei or Jaime as characters, I don’t think it ruins their future arcs (which for the purposes of the show don’t even exist yet); I don’t think it’s inherently misogynist or reflective of misogynist thinking — I think it reflects the misogyny of the fictional society being chronicled. Be all that as it may.
Right, so. The more I think about it, the more I watch the episodes, the more interviews I read with the involved parties, the more I suspect one of two things took place. Possibility number one is that they tried to show a sex scene between two very fucked-up and violent people in which power exchange and the violation of taboo is a huge part of the sexual dynamic, but they screwed it up, and it came out as a rape scene. Because everyone involved was, well, involved, no one saw it. A secondary possibility is that while the writers intended the scene to be rape, the director and the two actors involved on the day read it and played it differently (there’s famously little background preparation done by the cast in terms of comparing notes with the books or with other characters’ storylines, so it’s not inconceivable), and the result is muddled and flawed. In neither case do I think the scene is reflective of a disgusting misconception that rape is okay, that sometimes no means yes, that it’s fun to insert rape scenes for no reason, or anything similarly depiction-as-endorsement rape-culture supportive. I think that while the apparently HBO-mandated use of nudity needlessly muddied the waters, the show has been as strong in its condemnatory presentation of this fictional world’s morally and practically disastrous institutionalized misogyny as the books. (I still prefer the books as a work, for whatever that’s worth.) If the scene failed it’s a failure of execution, not ethics.
But ultimately, using authorial intent — or textual absolutism, or adherence to a specific set of sociopolitical ideals, or the use of a favored set of aesthetic signifiers (in my case, my much beloved heads on sticks) — as a pass/fail metric is a fallacy when it comes to responding to art, an attempt to objectivize what is inherently subjective and prohibitively complex. So in the end what Benioff, Weiss, Cogman, Graves, MacLaren, Headey, and Coster-Waldau thought they were doing matters much less than the sum total of their work on screen. The text is everything and these are some thoughts about how I read it and why.