For a show that has long stretched the boundaries of appropriate content in favor of an unexpected gut-punch, HBO’s Game of Thrones surprised viewers this past Sunday when the characters Jaime and Brienne had a sexual encounter. For those who have followed the two since the show’s beginning, this was unexpected, even for a last season whose writers are desperate to maintain intrigue while tying loose ends. For some, it was exciting to see these two open up to each other—while equally disappointing to the same fans when Jaime left Brienne alone shortly after. For me, however, the entire encounter is cringeworthy.
This is how I see it: Jaime comes in uninvited, proposes she drink more, complains about it being hot in here, and starts unbuttoning her shirt. Jaime proceeds to make a sexual advance on a shocked virgin Brienne, showing no sensitivity for what’s at stake for her. His out-of-character treatment of his long-loyal friend and comrade can only be explained by drunkenness or depressed selfishness.
Many seasons ago, when the episodes were based on George R.R. Martin’s books, Jaime sacrificed his hand in defense of Brienne’s honor, employing all he could to keep Brienne from being raped by barbarians. Now, HBO seems to set up the scene of Jaime and Brienne alone at night as a long-awaited tryst for viewers to celebrate. We’re somehow supposed to view the encounter as a consummation of their long-held platonic relationship transforming into something more. But what it if it’s just Jaime in a moment of sexual compulsion (he’s had many) taking advantage of the very woman he once protected from exploitation? What if it’s not their union to celebrate but the ultimate betrayal of someone who trusted him?
Lifting her up just to let her down
For those who haven’t seen the show, Brienne is one of the only longstanding honorable characters in a world where it’s hard to find any. This makes it all the more heartbreaking for viewers to see Brienne cry when Jaime leaves her. For me, it is equally painful to read interviews of the Game of Thrones actors try to make sense of the HBO writers’ curveballs such as these. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, actress Gwendoline Christie first speaks of the history between the two saying, “I haven’t been certain of the relationship between Jaime and Brienne. It hasn’t been a love story.” But when asked about how she felt when she first read the sex scene in the script, Christie tries to accept it, saying:
What’s always important to me is the “how.” Not the “what,” it’s the “how.” It’s important to me how these things come about. I felt it was important to see a moment of choice from Brienne where she chooses to do this. Brienne is a virgin. . . . It’s important that she choose to explore life in that way and have that experience. I was pleased that if something happens between her and another character that she wants it. I like that she instigated it. As an unconventional woman that we’ve seen grown, I enjoy that she decided to grow in a different way.
Christie adds that, in the books, Brienne slept with her armor on, to protect herself. (In this episode, however, Brienne is settling down for the evening in a button-down shirt and pants, when Jaime invites himself to her quarters.) Nevertheless, Christie coped with the scene because of the “how”—what she perceived to be a consensual encounter.
But is it consensual? Encouraging her to drink, advancing quickly while she appears unprepared and shocked, Jaime's behavior could also be viewed as eerily close to forcing himself on her, just as quickly as he forced himself into her room.
An unfortunately relatable moment for many women
Even if, as the actress, writers, and many viewers seem to think, Jaime and Brienne’s sexual encounter was consensual, it couldn’t help but remind me of many a modern woman’s problem in today’s sex and dating culture. In the name of sexual ethics, everyone emphasizes the importance of asking for consent in sexual situations, but how one treats the person after the sexual encounter is little addressed. As long as they both consented in the moment, all is fair in love and war, it seems. Meanwhile, anecdotes abound of women who feel hurt when men who enjoyed them sexually for a night proceed to never call them again. As one woman put it in a New York Times Modern Love column, “he asked permission to touch but not to ghost.”
It’s fair to say that, despite our culture’s desire to see it otherwise, what’s being translated in the body’s language during sex is saying something closer to connection and commitment than the markedly disconnected words and actions many men and women today exchange (or don’t at all) after hookup sex. We know that biologically sex releases great amounts of oxytocin, known as the bonding hormone. But perhaps we also know this bonding aspect of sex takes place emotionally as well, despite our attempts to say otherwise. Why else would millions of Game of Thrones viewers balk at Jaime leaving Brienne moments after a consensual sexual encounter?
Perhaps our culture could use more of what Washington Post writer Christine Emba describes in her 2017 #MeToo-grappling article “Let’s Rethink Sex”: “We might pursue the theory that sex possibly has a deeper significance than just recreation and that ‘consent’—that thin and gameable boundary—might not be the only moral sensibility we need respect.”
The truth, to me, is sadder than any heartbreaking episode of a fictional series: countless real men and women today suffer the feeling of being discarded after being used for sex. This may explain the rise in “sex regret”—a growing phenomenon that describes consensual encounters one party later wishes never happened—which women report experiencing in greater number than men. Additionally tragic, many struggle with longer-term difficulties finding intimacy and love as a result.
When it comes to these types of sexual encounters, these are real-world problems, not just ones in the world of ice and fire. And that’s what, for many this past week, made Game of Thrones’ episode so heartbreaking—because it's relatable.