While I think it’s silly to accuse Game of Thrones of treating rape “cavalierly” simply because sexual assaults occur routinely in its narrative world, I’m not gonna lie: when the mutineers from the Night’s Watch stormed into that room last night, intent on violating Meera Reed, my first reaction was “Are you kidding me?! Another one?”
Between that now-infamous scene between Jaime and Cercei two weeks ago, and the ubiquitous way the mutineers were abusing Craster’s wives/daughters last week, rape has hung like a malignant fume over most of this season. It was a relief that the assault by Jon and the other members of the Night’s Watch ultimately spared Meera, but even that seemed problematic; a woman reduced to an object in need of male rescue. That said, I think last night’s “First of His Name” ultimately acquitted itself well on that score. The leader of the mutineers — the creepy one who’s really good with knives, and whose name I don’t remember — would’ve carved Jon to pieces if one of the women at the keep hadn’t taken the initiative to jam a blade into his back.
And after the battle, when Jon suggests (almost insists) that the women return to Castle Black for protection, they shut him down with the most brutal of real talk: Craster brutalized us, and then your own men brutalized us, so we’ll make our own way now thank you very much. It was an instance of agency and hard moral realism that inverted the earlier sense of female helplessness when Jon and the other soldiers first came storming in. And it’s to Jon’s credit that he respects their decision. Burning Craster’s Keep was certainly a moment of cleansing and absolution, but it was also a deeply inadequate one.
And the show seemed acutely aware of that inadequacy. Early in the episode, when Oberyn assured Cercei that young women are treated decently in his kingdom, it was hard to contradict Cercei bitter reply: “Everywhere they hurt little girls.” Cercei’s own transformation was the other big turn last night. It’s almost impossible at this point to watch Cercei be friendly with someone and not think she’s up to something, but her efforts to bury the hatchet with Margaery for the sake of protecting Tommen’s reign seemed genuine. How could she not have been shocked by the things Joffrey did? Though “shocked” itself seems a woefully inadequate reaction, it at least pointed in the general area of moral awareness. Given their circumstances, there really is no reason for these two women to not work together, and it was good to see them moving in that direction.
And while Cercei’s efforts to build a relationship with Oberyn are obviously motivated by her ongoing and inscrutable obsession with Tyrion’s supposed guilt, she did it by baring the genuine hole her daughter’s departure has left in her life. Asking Oberyn to bring the ship south as a gift to Myrcella was quite possibly the most human we’ve ever seen her, and Oberyn’s response was gracious.
For what it’s worth, and as I said last week, I think these developments show a certain logic to the show runners’ decision to make Jaime forcing himself on Cercei in the third episode much more brazenly nonconsensual. With Joffrey dead and Jaime decisively out of the picture as a potential source of support, Cercei is now looking elsewhere for partnerships and intersections of power she can leverage. Personally, I’ve found Cercei’s arc this season to be far less mercurial, and thus far more accessible on a human level, than her equivalent developments in the books. As Tywin observed last night, we all need allies.
On that note, Cercei’s father himself seemed unusually humble, bringing Cercei back into his confidence after the way he dismissed her last season. Catastrophe has hit him as well, not just in the form of Joffrey’s death but in the depletion of Casterly Rock’s gold reserves and the enormous debt King’s Landing owns the Iron Bank. (Which, come to think of it, sounds like a weirdly all-powerful medieval version of Wall Street in Tywin’s telling.) Admitting to such failures must’ve been no easy thing for the patriarch, so it says something that Cercei was who he confessed to.
Other parts of “First of His Name” were far less kind to the hopes of admittedly-compromised human fellowship. Lysa’s treatment of Sansa was a disturbing resurfacing of the woman’s distorted worldview. Her resentment of Cat actually gave us new and useful information – that Cat may once of have been a shallow young woman, used to her entitlement and privilege. The pathos was that we the audience realize Cat grew from that starting point to become a principled and honorable woman, which increases our regard for, while all Lysa can see are the old flaws. And all she can remember is her own resentments, which she’s now projecting onto Sansa.
Of course, we were denied a reunion between Jon and Bran. (I mean, it’s Game of Thrones. What did you expect?) Bran literally dragging himself across the snow towards his brother was a hard thing to watch, as was his inevitable decision to abandon the reunion because Jon would never allow him to continue north. It was a complex moment, one that did Bran the courtesy of recognizing his maturation, and his new-found value of discoveries and journeys beyond a return to the bosom of his now-scattered family.
But we got a consolation prize of sorts: Jon’s reunion with his direwolf, Ghost. It took a bloody season and a half – and at that rate getting the rest of the Starks back together will take forever – but it did finally happened, and the look on Jon’s face a small blessing. That’s something, at least.