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Game of Thrones: Two Swords


Well, it’s back.

In general, Two Swords was as unremarkable as a first episode can be expected to be. After ten months away, with a massive cast and a hundred plotlines in motion, it makes sense that the show took an episode to reacquaint us with Westeros. It had very little in the way of plot-progressing events, but it had plenty of time for characters to interact and reveal where they stand with one another. Some people have commented that it was boring, but hey, I’m here for the characters, so I at least enjoyed some time to explore who these people are and how they feel after recent dramatic events.

At least, I enjoy it when they’re in character.

Because here’s the thing. The show is an adaptation, and as an adaptation, it has free rein to change characters and plot points if they’ll improve the story as it appears on TV. And although it can suck to see some of your favorite elements of the book cut or changed, it’s an unavoidable part of viewing an adaptation, which is, in essence, somebody else’s interpretation of the story brought to life. So I don’t take issue with changes in general. If Tyrion losing a nose would involve too many prosthetics, then a scar on his face will have to do. But I do take issue with changes that flatten compelling, challenging and trope-breaking female characters in the book into sexist stereotypes. I do take issue with changes that impose misogyny on the story, not only in terms of “life in Westeros,” but also in terms of how we view its characters.

There were two shifts in the character here that don’t bode well. Firstly, we have Cersei, who shuns Jaime for taking too long to return to her. On the one hand, Cersei’s disgust towards Jaime appears in the books. She is horrified by the fact that he returns less-than-perfect, and angry that he was away from her during some traumatic events (including things that admittedly haven’t yet happened in the show). But even that Cersei would never tell Jaime that it was 100% over, for good, because he was captured and took too long to return, except possibly as some kind of power play.

The change, by itself, is fairly mild. It makes Cersei seem incredibly irrational, but Cersei can at times be irrational when she feels threatened or when things don’t go her way. It creeps into an old trope of women being irrational about love and punishing their lovers for no good reason, but the show has done worse. My concern grows mostly from the fact that this is the only Cersei scene in this episode, and our introductory view of her for the season. The writers must have a reason for starting her story arc in this way. And it seems to support some horrific Jaime/Cersei spoilers about episode 3 (which I won’t name or discuss until it airs, because… well. Denial is a powerful thing).

And then we have Shae. Shae, who shows extreme concern for Sansa in one scene, trying to convince her to eat, giving her the lemon cakes she loves, insisting to Tyrion that she must be cared for, and who then turns around completely and becomes a monster of jealousy in her next scene. She attempts to seduce Tyrion, and demands “do you love her?”, as though anyone with the slightest intelligence or knowledge of Tyrion could believe such a thing. She becomes furiously jealous of her lover and the fourteen year old he was forced to marry, a fourteen year old who Shae herself loves and wants to protect. She’s not furious because she’s concerned for Sansa. Oh no. Tyrion, she feels, is betraying her.

It’s telling that the actress, Sibel Kekilli, also disliked the scene. In a recent interview, Sibel mentioned her extreme discomfort with it:

It was so hard to act that. I thought, ‘Please, I don’t want to act this.’ I was begging [showrunners] Dan [Weiss] and David [Benioff], and they said, “No, Sibel, we are paying for this so you have to.”

When asked about potential troubles ahead for Tyrion and Shae, she responded:

Without any spoilers, let me say it like this: Shae had [a] really tough life. And she had never had a foundation in her life until she met and fell in love with Tyrion, and Tyrion fell in love with her. She started to think she has a foundation in her life. And now, after they married—Sansa and Tyrion—it’s like, you know, shaking. It’s like an earthquake. It could stop, or it could be getting stronger.

This feels very telling to me, and seems to support my (book spoiler including) theory about Shae’s narrative this season. They’ve made Shae into an incredibly passionate, independent, intelligent and caring character. And now, it seems, they want to tear all that away to fit her into the same sexist trope that they’re forcing on Cersei: the irrational, jealous girlfriend.

Of course, it wasn’t all bad. The episode took time to show Sansa’s grief, which I think is really important. It didn’t flinch away from Arya’s vengeful nature, and it even had many scenes entirely made up of female characters communicating with one another. Shae showing concern for Sansa. Margaery and Olenna discussing her upcoming wedding. Olenna meeting Brienne, and offering admiration where Brienne expected derision. Brienne and Margaery discussing Renly’s death. Daenerys and Missandei discussing the war. Women of different ages, different backgrounds, different personalities, different stations, actually discussing themselves and their relationships and their politics.

The introduction of these moments, almost none of which are in the books, seems a strange contrast to the rest of the show’s treatment of its female characters. Allowing Margaery and Brienne to discuss Renly, or Olenna to show Brienne admiration, seems to suggest that female characters have worth and emotions and storyarcs independent of their male counterparts. How strange, then, that the very same episode begins to destroy other female characters in the name of male characters’ arc. Even stranger, perhaps, is the fact that the show still manages to treat other female characters as literal objects.

It’s a little tired, at this point, to comment on sexposition brothel scenes in the show. They’re old news, and this week’s was positively mild compared to some we’ve seen before. But it’s the first week back after almost a year away, so indulge me for a second. Within ten minutes of the start of the show, we’re treated to a line of unspeaking girls, who are stripped naked one by one for us to assess. They don’t speak, they just pose, as a newly introduced male character comments on their worth. Naked girls literally lined up like objects for our assessment and viewing pleasure.

And that scene, I think, is the show’s true stance on its female characters. Sure, some female characters are allowed depth and story arcs of their own. Some can be treated as worthwhile protagonists. But only until they’re needed in a male character’s plot — whether to provide him with angst, or make him look good, or introduce him to the show, or provide something to look at in the background while he expositions away. In the end, the female characters are just tools for the narrative. Any hope to the contrary is just going to end in disappointment.


Rhiannon Thomas is the author of A WICKED THING and KINGDOM OF ASHES. She lives in York, England.

11 thoughts on “Game of Thrones: Two Swords

  1. Something that irritated me was the Jon and Samwell scene where Jon stated that Robb was better than him at everything, and wanted to hate Robb for it. Samwell responds that he wanted sometimes to hate Jon for being better than him at everything except reading.
    In the books Jon claims to be a better swordsman than Robb, while saying that Robb are better with the lance. He also remembers that he at times beat Robb at sums and other things(to lady Catelyns dismay). Personally I think that Jon is a better at solving problems and at statescraft(referring to events that hasn’t happened in the show yet) than Robb but a lesser soldier, and Jon might have done well at the kings small council.
    So I really don’t see any reason for that speach, there is also no indication or reason in the books that Jon should hate Robb, and Samwell only felt friendship and gratitude towards Jon. Also Jon statement that girls liked Robb there is no indication at that in the books, likely Robbs wife took his virginity, Theon on the other hand was a womanizer.

    Maybe the show has an attitude towards men who aren’t really justified, overestimating our competitiveness and simplifying our sexual behaviour. A man can be brave, strong and capable and still have problems with love.

  2. …Oh god, if that spoiler is what I think it is, it’s not only another slew of misogyny. It’s also the first actual assassination of a male character, one they tried to make likeable too. And one who, in the books at least, was like, the least misogynistic dude around. For twisted reasons, but still.

    Gonna make him one hell of a hypocrite, too, when he does that awesome thing with Pia. Who I think they might have cut? But we assumed the same with Dontos, so… Ugh. I loved that part.

    (…or will this just serve to fuel Cersei’s paranoia? Oh, god, this is horrible to even think about…’)

  3. SPOILERS for Seasons 1-4 and Books 1-4

    I dont mind how Cersei acted with Jaime. Its not just he is crippled, its that their relationship is no longer a secret. Cersei fears losing what little power she has left. Jaime on the other hand is too prideful. In his first chapter he thinks there is nothing wrong with their relationship since the Targaryens often married siblings. If it was up to him, he would tell everyone the truth (like when he admitted it to Catelyn)

    I’ve always thought Cersei loved her children and herself. I think its in A Clash of Kings (and season 2) where Jaime mocks Catelyn about Jon Snow, and tells her that Cersei is the only woman he has loved and the only woman he has ever slept with. In the books while at Harrenhal there is a servant known as Pretty Pia that tries to have sex with him, but he sends her away. As oppose to Cersei who has sex with Lancel. In Two Swords Jaime stays in the kingsguard because becoming Lord of Casterly Rock would mean he has to marry someone else.

  4. It’s like they realised the Shae they created for the tv show wouldn’t act in the way book Shae does when she betrays Tyrion, so they tried to fix it by going the whole ‘jealous girlfriend’ route. I’d almost rather they just kept to the book character than if her arc is going to play out like this.

    1. I agree, I quite like Shae in the show, but in the back of my mind I’ve always had her betrayal darkening the character for me. TV Shae just doesn’t seem like the kind of woman who would ever do the things that fit Book Shae, so the only way to get her there is to ruin her character.

  5. I am honestly baffled by the constant nudity in the show. It’s CONSTANT, in every single episode. A few cases of female nudity actually had plot justification: Petyr Baelish’s brothel scene showed us just what kind of meglomaniacal, single-minded man he is. This last one was one of the least rational. Those girls didn’t HAVE to strip for the audience to understand that Oberyn and Elia are sexually voracious. Who among the GoT fandom actually likes all this excessive nudity? No one, and no one actually likes the show for that reason. It’s producers and the showrunners, who are hidebound to the belief female nudity is absolutely needed to sell the show, and even if the entire global audience sent them a signed letter telling them otherwise, they would still insist on it. I just fast forward through the nudity scenes now, now matter how important the plot points in it are. I don’t care.

  6. “And that scene, I think, is the show’s true stance on its female characters…In the end, the female characters are just tools for the narrative.”

    As a feminist (a radical feminist in fact), I could not possibly disagree with you more. Something you might not be aware of is that ALL characters in ALL stories are just tools for the narrative. That’s the purpose of characters. It doesn’t matter if they have a penis or not.

    Here’s what I’ve noticed, women in the show are far more likely to be naked. Men are far more likely to die in horrible and graphic ways. My question to you is, would you rather those roles be reversed? I’m thinking of poor Theon, and his ever so graphic, and perhaps just a wee bit sexual torture. In fact, it wasn’t a “wee bit.” It was torture porn. We should probably be clear about that.

    In the particular scene you refer to, in the brothel, I remember a bisexual woman, fully clothed, viewing those other women. That was a rather powerful statement to me, a radical feminist who also happens to be bisexual. Both she and Oberyn were respectful and playful with the prostitutes. They did not beat them, cut off any bits, force them to change their names to Reek.

    In your review, I see you dismissing the roles that make positive statements, and focusing on those that line up with the usual song and dance that makes non-feminist look at us and shake their heads. There is no shame in nudity. There is no shame in sex. Sex is not obscene. Violence is obscene. Women are beautiful. People like looking at them. At the same time women are not just for looking at. Diana Rigg is acting her heart out on that screen (fully clothed, powerful, and amazing), and the feminists throw their hands up in the air because there’s nudity. I’m going to focus on Arya, stabbing the people who have wronged her and her family. You can wring your hands over some boobies.

    1. I think you’re wrong to suggest that female characters aren’t victims of violence in the series. Male characters face violence and cruelty when the plot demands it — aka when it’s in the books. Female characters face violence, especially sexual violence, just as often, in added scenes that AREN’T in the books. Theon’s torture is excessively graphic in the show, and I wish they hadn’t portrayed it in that way, but it is important to the plot. We can’t say the same thing about Joffrey torturing prostitutes, or about Ros’s incredibly sexualized murder, or Talisa getting stabbed in her pregnant stomach during the Red Wedding when she shouldn’t even have been there, or Sansa nearly getting raped during the riot, or threats against both Ygritte and Arya in this single episode. Violence against women in this series is common, and it’s incredibly sexualized, and it’s part of the same attitude that allows us to have endless naked women in brothel scenes, but never a naked man. If we’re praising the show for bisexual representation, why were all of the prostitutes women in that scene? Why should we praise a female character for having power just over other women?

      I am aware that all characters in all stories are tools for the narrative, in the sense that of course they’re constructions used to tell a story. I’m a novelist and was an English literature student, so the idea is hardly new to me. But the point here is that a good character doesn’t APPEAR to just be a tool of the narrative. They seem like people that have their own thoughts and motivations, people we care about… they ARE the narrative. And while male characters in the show are granted this status, female characters are contorted and used in order to prop up the stories of male characters, or else as objects for viewer pleasure. Neither of those things is good storytelling, or what I’d consider particularly feminist.

      Of course, there are strong and compelling female characters in the show. I’m a massive fan of the books for that reason. But those characters are only allowed to remain like that as long as they don’t make a male character look bad or somehow get in the way of his development. When THAT happens, they’re twisted every which way and diminished in favor of HIS narrative and HIS popularity.

    2. In the case of Ellaria, it’s doesn’t sound like progress for a woman to use other women as sexual objects. Moreover, are not going to talk about how most of the prostitutes in that brothel, as Petry Baelish has elluded to, are either there because of extreme poverty or because they were trafficked (both in the context of the story but also that would almost certainly be true in real life). There’s no doubt that the nudity is usually has no plot importance. It’s gratuitous, it’s exploitative, as almost the whole fandom agrees.

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