Game of Thrones: Season 4 Episode 3 - Breaker of Chains
April 20, 2014, 9:00 p.m. (EST), HBO
Note: I have read all of the books in the A Song of Ice and Fire series, and therefore am capable of having discussions about things that will happen down the road in this series. I will NOT be doing that in the body of these reviews, and any time I make reference to a future event in the series, it will come at the very end of The Roundup, and be clearly marked with a SPOILER warning.
A sense of shock hangs over “Breaker of Chains,” an episode about all of our characters contending with the death of King Joffrey and the monumental changes it will mean for them. This is a quiet episode of Game of Thrones, skipping around less frenetically than the first half of “The Lion and The Rose,” pausing to let the grief, regret, opportunism, and cynicism these characters feel in the wake of Joffrey’s death sink in. “Breaker of Chains” feels less consequential than perhaps it should, but it takes moments to remind us that, beneath all the scheming and betrayals, these characters our people whose worldviews are shaped by the events that become water cooler fodder for those of us watching at home.
And it isn’t as if nothing happens this week. For one thing, Jaime rapes Cersei in Baelor’s Sept, against the tomb where Joffrey is laying in state. As a reader of the books (and again, I won’t spoil anything outside of the clearly demarcated space at this review’s end), this change (where Jaime and Cersei’s union feels at least somewhat more ambiguous and slightly more tender on both sides) feels problematic, perhaps especially because to this point, I think the show has handled the adaptation of Jaime’s arc better than any other character’s. That this encounter occurs after Jaime has been back in King’s Landing for a while (instead of on the first occasion he and Cersei meet since the events of the first book) also complicates things substantially—Jaime feels a bit entitled to Cersei’s affections on both occasions, but here, he already knows things have spoiled between him and his sister-lover when he corners her in the sept. In both cases, Cersei is reticent; here, she is openly telling him no as he forces himself upon her.
The real question is what David Benioff and D.B. Weiss think they are communicating about Jaime’s character at this point by turning him into a rapist. The arc of Jaime Lannister to this point has been one of a vain, self-centered and entitled rich boy being brought down to earth and learning the value of living with honor and developing a code. This is pretty much entirely undermined by his actions in “Breaker of Chains,” where he takes his frustration at his own feelings (he calls Cersei a “hateful woman,” but mostly is furious that he still loves her) out on her in a way that suggests perhaps Jaime has not been redeemed nearly as much as he would like to think. On the show, Cersei has told Jaime their relationship is over. She has told him she does not want him anymore. She told him “No,” and he ignored her. Jaime Lannister has never been a hero on Game of Thrones, but “Breaker of Chains” makes him harder to root for than at any time since season one.
With the death of yet another king, the series turns back to perhaps its central thematic concern: what makes a good ruler, and is the best person for the job likely to be able to actually attain, and hold it, in a world as corrupt as ours? Tywin gives Tommen, the boy who will be king, a long discourse on what it is that makes a good ruler, but the whole speech is geared not towards actually advising the new king, but toward maneuvering him into a position where he will always listen to the real power, i.e. Tywin. The elder Lannister isn’t wrong when he argues that a good king needs wisdom above all else, but he isn’t actually telling Tommen to be wise; he is telling Tommen to shut up and do whatever he says for as long as he lives.
Yet “Breaker of Chains” isn’t ultimately about what makes a good ruler as much as it is about those strictures in its title, and the way they affect various characters and limit their options. Sansa Stark is freed from King’s Landing, but only at the behest of one of its chief manipulators. She may no longer be under the control of a sadist like Joffrey Baratheon, but Petyr Baelish is hardly the kind, benevolent, honorable liberator she has dreamed of for so long. He’s a snake breaking her out of a nest of vipers. He is pulling her out of the fire, but she’s right to wonder whether he is just a frying pan. Similarly, Cersei learns yet again tonight the limits of her own power. She is cunning, manipulative, and ambitious, but as a woman in Westeros, she can only rise so high, and even the man she thought she loved seems all too willing to remind her of her limitations.
Then there is Daenarys Targaryen, who is mocked at every turn as “just a woman,” someone who can be metaphorically pissed on by the male slaveholders she opposes. Daenarys could attack Meereen outright tonight. She could lay low the city like she has others before it. But she doesn’t. What she says to the assembled masses, and what she launches over those walls at the episode’s end, is much more powerful than violence, and shows us once again that Dany knows how to think outside the box. She doesn’t need to sack the city if she can overthrow its power structure from within. Offer the oppressed their freedom, show them that life can be better than what they know, and the power structure loses its stability. The few at the top now have to worry that the masses they are keeping down may not be so easy to control.
We also see Arya try, and fail to control the Hound, even as we watch that poor farmer and his daughter come up against how much their honor and hospitality is worth in a world that has lost faith in either. We see Sam cart Gilly off to Mole’s Town because even the fact of her gender becomes a perceived threat to her at Castle Black (that Sam thinks Gilly is better off working in a brothel because he told the Madam that Gilly should not be whored out feels like naivety, though admittedly of the sort that is in character for Sam). Then there’s Margaery Tyrell, who has been a pawn more than anyone else on this show, even if she is a pawn in her own game. She has been traded from king to king to better her position and her family’s, and each time, the deal has quickly soured. Margaery and Cersei perceive themselves to be rivals, but what both seem to miss is how similar their situations are. They are smart, ambitious women coming up against the slate ceiling that is Westeros’ patriarchy. They can rise only so high before they are reminded that they will go no higher.
“Breaker of Chains” has a lot on its mind, but it also reminds us that nature abhors a vacuum as various players rush to fill Joffrey’s place before the body is even cold. Stannis rages at his inability to seize back the throne, and blames Davos’ releasing Gendry for their current predicament. Tywin pretends to be advising Tommen on how to rule, when mostly he is cementing his own rule for the foreseeable future. Littlefinger, who basically admits complicity in Joffrey’s death and dispassionately dispatches Ser Dontos here, is playing a longer game, but angling to rob the Lannister’s of their seat of power and one of their best bargaining chips (he may see Sansa as more, but Baelish is nothing if not a pragmatist, and his “liberation” of the only Stark known to still be alive is far more strategic than heroic). Throughout “Breaker of Chains,” men take what they want, regardless of the consequences. It is fitting, in a Hobbesian sense, that this is an episode in which Westeros is technically without a King. In the State of Nature, without the bindings of a ruler and of laws, the world is a cold, cruel place where the strong seize from the weak—their property, their money, their freedom, their agency. There’s a reason society’s form, and tend to be reasonably stable even in the face of massive injustices. We can all imagine the alternative, and chaos is a nightmare we’d rather not experience firsthand.
- -“Why did you kill him?” “Because he was a drunk and a fool, and I don’t trust drunk fools.”
- -“You may not have enjoyed watching him die, but you enjoyed it more than you would have enjoyed being married to him, I can promise you that.”
- -“What do I want? This is my land.” “If I’m standing on it, its my land.”
- -“He’s weak. He can’t protect himself. They’ll both be dead by winter.”
- -“I will not become a page in someone else’s history book.” Stannis, isn’t that kind of your ultimate endgame anyway?
- -“When it comes to war, I fight for Dorne. When it comes to love, I don’t choose sides.”
- -“Pod. There has never lived a more loyal squire.”
- -SPOILERS: Considering the way Cersei and Jaime’s relationship progresses in the books, I can sort of almost see why Benioff and Weiss decided to just make their coupling explicitly rape, but I still think this is a huge misstep for Jaime’s arc, and that it will, if anything, make Cersei’s increasing circling of the wagons in the time to come seem a little more reductive than it otherwise would. Tyrion is already plotting to find an ally tonight, even as Tywin is arranging for Oberyn Martell’s involvement in the trial, which will, of course, eventually hand Tyrion his champion. Also, there was no Strong Belwas in this episode, which makes me think that the series has forgotten Strong Belwas exists. Never underestimate Belwas, Game of Thrones. You overlook him at your own peril.