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Game of Thrones Review 4.03 - 'Breaker of Chains'
Posted by Jeremy Thomas on 04.21.2014

"What makes a good king?" This is the question that Tywin Lannister asks his grandson Tommen in "Breaker of Chains." It's a question that, in many ways, the entirety of Game of Thrones asks. The series is about far more than that of course, but given that so much of the series is focused on the race for the Iron Throne and the many bodies left in the ditch along the way you can't help but notice that theme running through the series on a regular basis. Clearly the answer is something that Joffrey lacked. And when you consider that Tywin chooses this moment in the episode to have this discussion--when he, young Tommen and a grieving Cersei are standing in mourning over the dead boy-king's body--it's clear that Tywin is making a very distinct point not only to the new king-to-be, but to Cersei as well. Joffrey was lacking in many things, and he was specifically lacking in the four qualities that Tommen and Tywin bring up. Holiness, justice, strength and wisdom...Joffrey had his traits, but none of these things would be anywhere on that list.

What is so brilliant about this scene--aside from Charles Dance's wonderful delivery and Lena Headey's masterful yet largely silent performance--is the way that it's blocked out to point out the meaning behind it. Look at the way Tywin keeps glancing over at Cersei, and look at the way she is shown side-by-side with Tommen. The message is clear: they're both students in Tywin's class at this moment. He's making a point and it's brutal and vicious but honest. As he winds young Tommen around his little finger like only Tywin can, he is letting Cersei know that none of these attributes were ones that Joffrey had and especially not wisdom.

More to the point, he's explaining how these are things that Cersei doesn't have. She isn't holy by any stretch of the imagination; she certainly isn't just, because she's so blind in her rage she wants her brother murdered in vengeance without realizing that there were literally hundreds of people in King's Landing who may have wanted Joffrey dead and could have had opportunity. (How many people do you think handled that wine after all, or that cup?) She doesn't have strength—at least in the sense that Tywin thinks someone should be strong. And she lacks wisdom for sure. That scene in the sept isn't about Tywin dispensing advice to Tommen on how to rule. It's about a father putting his daughter in what he views as her place during one of the worst moments of her life to date. In this way, "Breaker of Chains" is more about throwing shackles on than it is about ripping them off; nearly every plotline in this episode is about how the men and particularly the women of Westeros are being reminded just how brutal of a world it is for them.

Of course, something else happens in this sept that puts an underline and exclamation mark on that point. But we'll get to that.

At least Tywin's smack talk is the worst thing that will happen to Cersei in there, right?

But first let's move on to some of the other moments and plot threads in this episode. In the aftermath of last week's nasty business, everyone is learning exactly how powerless they are in the grand scheme of things. Sansa is the first to find this out in the episode, as she is whisked away by Dontos to what momentarily seems like her safety. Then old Littlefinger shows up on the boat, kills Dontos and puts Sansa in her place by oh-so-caringly pointing out that she'll be fingered for Joffrey's death and thus there's no getting away from him now. Poor Dontos, he seemed way too nice to really survive long. And Baelish more or less makes it clear here that he either was involved or at least had foreknowledge of Joffrey's impending demise, as he had a lot set up in advance so that Sansa could get away.

Similar to Sansa, Margaery is trapped, albeit in a much prettier and more comfortable cage. She laments to Olenna that she must be cursed and is angry that Joffrey is dead, only in that she isn't exactly the queen now. Much like Tywin and Baelish, Olenna (cagey little hawk that she is) deflects Margaery's anger and frustration by showing her the futility of her current position. Where Baelish sews Sansa down with subtle threats and Tywin does the same to Cersei with admonishment, Olenna does it by pointing out that she's not the only member of the family who outlived their husband. And she punctuates it by offhandedly saying "The next one should be easier." Margaery's a commodity and if the first deal went bad because the king spoiled, well then the next one is still there waiting in the wings.

It's not just the King's Landing ladies who find themselves up against something that makes them powerless though. Arya finds that despite all her efforts (and they are extensive) to get her and the Hound in a good way with the local farmer and his daughter, it's all for naught because the sellsword takes their silver and leaves. When she tries to berate him he casually dresses her down: they're weak and they'll be dead by winter. And he may be right; Westeros just isn't a place where the good people thrive. As for poor Gilly at the Wall, Sam has an honorable soul and he obviously feels something for her. But when she tries to push the issue he isn't comfortable with it because of his Knight's Watch vows and, ostensibly fearing that the other Watchmen will try something with her he sends her away to live in one of the outlying cities. This is one of those situations where I think that Sam is honestly looking out for Gilly and believes it's in her best interests, but it also points out that Gilly really doesn't have a choice in the matter. She's subject to the decisions of a man in a position of authority, even if his only real authority is over her.

It's not just the ladies who are suffering under the yoke of chains though; the men have their restraints too. Of course Tyrion is the most obvious of these because he's literally in prison, where he isn't even allowed to see Bronn and where only young Podrick is there to help him out. Tyrion's paranoia is justified; the point where he basically says his pool of potential culprits consists of literally anyone in King's Landing not named Cersei, Sansa or Tyrion is a great point of humor in the episode. He's still not down and out; Tyrion has taken his lumps lately but it seems as if jail has motivated him and he feels a bit back to himself from last week's humiliating episode. Davos and Oberyn are also put in their place a bit; Davos by Stannis when he is berated for letting Gendry get away and Oberyn by Tywin, who maneuvers him as he wants by offering him a meeting with the Mountain if he serves as a judge. And of course there's Styr helping the wildlings destroy a village and displaying his power over a young boy; he basically tells him exactly how he'll be tracked to Castle Black because he knows he can. All of these characters are becoming prisoners in their own way.

Moral of Oberyn's story: if you're going to be a prisoner, get some very good cellmates.

And of course, getting back to Cersei, she is the one who suffers the most in this episode. Not only is she berated by her father while in the depths of her grief over the body of her son, but then Jamie shows up. She asks Jamie to kill Tyrion, obsessed with the idea that he was the person who did it, but Jamie refuses because of their blood ties. Of course, those blood ties don't stop him from making a move on Cersei and when she says no, Jamie proceeds to force the issue by sexually assaulting her.

The rape of Cersei has already spilled a lot of digital ink and I'm not going to go too far into charges of misogyny or the like. I do believe that this is a deeply troubling moment, but that's a topic of discussion that is raging all over the internet right now. I will say that I am aware that the book depicts the scene differently (and in fact took the opportunity to read the scene before writing this) and makes it seem much more consensual than the episode did, to the point that they seem to have edited the scene a few moments too short to turn it from dark but very morally gray to out-and-out rape. Stopping at Jamie's "I don't care" instead of including Cersei's later comments that suggest other possibilities makes it clear how the scene played out. While director Alex Graves said that he intended for the scene to play out as it did in the book, it is safe to say that he failed in that attempt. This isn't some kind of oversensitivity; as the scene played out Cersei specifically said "No" more than once and there was no moment that softened it because those bits were cut.

Do I have an issue with the depiction of rape or the effects it can have on an character on television? Not in an categorical sense, though I understand why some people do. When done well (which is rare, but does happen) it can be a powerful and important moment character-wise. And I should be clear that at no point does Graves try to make this sexy. Kudos for that. But it's a tricky road to tiptoe down and while there are sensitivities in play, I'm going to discuss the way it changes a character, specifically Jamie. We know Jamie's not a good guy, but much of Season Three--as well the first couple of episodes of Season Four--has been building sympathy for him, giving us some hope. Of course path to redemption that should be tempered, and especially during a trying time like this for Jamie. He's trying to take back control of something. But this turns him so far in the other direction that it's whiplash inducing. He's no Joffrey of course, but it is a very big moment to his character for the wrong reasons and colors him a certain way going forward. That's this scene's biggest flaw, right alongside its attempt to depict "no-no-yes" (always a dicey proposition) and coming up "no-no-no."

Not gonna lie. Dany could be saying first grade-level fart jokes and
if it was in Valyrian I'd still find her deeply compelling.

With all of these characters rendered powerless and restrained, Danaerys becomes a crucially important character for the episode even though she doesn't get all the screen time. Where most of our other main characters are finding themselves subjugated, Dany turns that around and is the titular Breaker of Chains. She is the character who defies the patriarchy of George R.R. Martin's fantasy setting; she leads an army of men to a city of slaves, chooses her champion to destroy Meereen's champion, delivers a speech to rival the best in the series and then--in a moment of stunning overt symbolism--she fires barrels full of collars to show the slaves of Meereen "what your enemies [their owners] deserve." It's a triumphant finish to the episode which puts her, away from the oppressive politics of Westeros, in a position of power. Holy, just, strong and wise...Tywin wanted to know what makes a good king, and while she's surely have her challenges along the way, for the moment the Mother of Dragons has the answer.

The 411: If not for the potential damage done to Jamie Lannister's character here by see-sawing him back and forth between sympathetic and not, this would be a pretty brilliant episode. Lena Headey, Charles Dance, Emilia Clark and Pedro Pascal are all fantastic and the various plot developments unfold nicely, taking us in interesting directions after Joffrey's death. That one glaring flaw brings it down from being a flawless episode to simply a great one.
411 Elite Award
Final Score:  8.5   [ Very Good ]  legend


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