This Week on Dear Television:
“Do I Have a Champion?”
By Sarah Mesle
April 21, 2014
I’M INTERESTED, of course, in Cersei, but I want to talk about Shae. Shae wasn’t in this episode, which is my point: she’s been championed out of it. A man, wielding force on her behalf, protected her from the brutal forces threatening her. She is on a ship, it seems, somewhere far away, and her main trace in the episode “Breaker of Chains” is not as an active narrative presence herself but rather as a part of someone else’s interior life. She’s important to the forward progress of the story right now only to the extent that her champion, Tyrion, is using his hope that he’s done a good job of championing as emotional ballast in his own psychological struggle. That’s the thing about a champion: if they’re doing a good job, they stand between you and your story.
Shae didn’t ask for a champion, which makes her different than several (but not all) of the women in this episode who did: Cersei (there she is), Sansa (implicitly), and most importantly Daenerys. Back to Dany in a minute. Let’s lay out, Dear Television, some of the other Champions called into play lately in Game of Thrones. Oberyn is in King’s Landing partly for the wedding but mostly to avenge his sister’s rape and murder — he is championing her cause, if belatedly, and he also takes great pleasure in championing his paramour Ellaria to anyone who might possibly insult her (“Are you saying my Lady is an acquired taste?”). Sam is trying to be Gilly’s champion, though Gilly is having none of it. Arya and the Hound would both be outraged at the suggestion that he is her champion, but that’s nevertheless part of what’s going on. The Crows, perched at the wall, are defenders, not champions exactly — and they decide not to defend the villages near them, where helpless women and children (and families, but the women are featured) are attacked.
The Champion relationship is an interesting one, both entirely characteristic of Westeros and, in other ways, antithetical to it. It’s a relation of honor and trust, so it’s out of place in this world where honor has dubious efficacy (this is why the Hound would not want to be a champion. He doesn’t, probably, believe in them.) And it’s a strangely prosthetic relation, or a de-individualizing one: the champion becomes a surrogate or amanuensis for the will and integrity of the person he (it’s usually a “he”) champions. Or put differently, in a world where sheer force is the ultimate currency, the champion becomes a way to translate one person’s moral value into physical strength. They are relations of dependency — and the fact that these strange relations matter so much, at so many scales, to Game of Throne’s world, tells us something about the weaving of its social fabric.
I’m getting a little cerebral here, but keep with me: despite Westeros’s "five kings enter, one king leaves" individualist logic, no one there can make it alone. The show’s interest in disability and particularly dismemberment — Jaime’s hand, Bran’s legs — make physically apparent the way all it’s characters need each other. Jaime needs a hand (here: five fingers, a palm and thumb) because his actual wrist was severed, but the King needs a Hand (Ned, or Tywin) because he just needs help. Champions are like Kings’ Hands in that they remake the borders of individuality in a world where everyone believes that individuality matters supremely.
And — okay, now here’s the pay off — champions are a primary way in which this world’s women can navigate their individuality. Or put differently, champion relationships are gendering engines. But who gets to ride, and who gets plowed down?
Much will be said, I hope, about this episode’s brutal treatment of Cersei, and how, in the moment when she asked her brother to champion her cause and avenge their son's death, he raped her. I want to consider this rape in the light of the show’s broader treatment not just of sexual violence but also of gendered self-making. Cersei asked Jaime: become the force that represents my moral will. She said, in effect: I am a woman, and cannot act politically myself. She called on Jaime to represent her moral vision, and he said, “You are a hateful woman,” and then forced her to the ground.
I am in no way saying that rape, as a real crime, is equivalent to other social negotiations, and I’m not even saying that, as a narrative event, Cersei’s rape is equivalent to the way Tyrion championed Shae out of the story or Littlefinger used Sansa’s desire for a champion to trap her under his thumb. But the construction of this episode aligns these moments, and it does so in a way that helps the viewer see how gender in Westeros is made through relations of alignment.
Consider, by contrast, Tywin’s negotiation with Oberyn. Tywin, like Cersei, needs help, and he needs it from Oberyn. “You need us!” Oberyn crows. But Tywin is able to fudge: “We need each other.” Tywin has things to offer: political power, and revenge. To get help, he doesn’t have to ask to be replaced. He doesn’t have to give up his will. He gets to stay at the table.
It’s important, I think, that Tywin chooses to stage his relationship with Oberyn in a brothel, where Oberyn celebrates the sexual freedom he identifies with Dorne. In Dorne, women have different choices: they are not judged by the same standards of sexual purity. Sexual identity, too, seems fluid. But Tywin pulls Oberyn out of bed and up to the bargaining table. This was a miserable moment for me as a viewer, and not only because I hate it that Tywin gets to win again. It’s because I saw, in Oberyn’s acceptance of Tywin, the hope for a different kind of gender relation die.
Cersei is different than her father in many ways, but this episode features one quality in particular: when she asks for help, all she has to trade is her sexual and reproductive capacity. She asked Jaime for help using the collateral of the child they had already made; he exacted a price based on his anger and sexual desire. Gilly wants Sam’s help, to protect her body and her baby, but she doesn’t have much choice about the form that help takes. Shae doesn’t want Tyrion’s help, she wants a relation of equals, but he shames her (rehearsing his father’s brutal logic: Shae was a whore, thus she can’t be a mother) until, broken, she took the help she abhorred.
So we’ve got all of this on the table in the episode’s final scene, when Daenerys shows up as usual, to make us feel better about all we’ve been through. She’s such a balm, isn’t she? She wears soothing clothing; she knows the difference between slave and free. She asks, “Do I have a champion?” Everyone wants to be her champion. (I mean: I want to be her champion! Did you see her blue dress?) She shows her wealth in the number of men willing to stand in her place; she can pick and choose.
One of the great things about this moment, why it soothes us, is because she shows that the Champion relationship might be more fluid than the episode thus far has led us to believe. Shae, Sansa, Gilly and Cersei are all diminished differently by their champions, but it seems that Dany’s champion’s diminish themselves for her. No two-way relationship moves only in one direction — and the King she battles has a champion too. It’s not just the ladies, it seems.
This episode is called Breaker of Chains most explicitly because of Dany’s glorious final moment — catapulting freedom into the city of Mereen. But let’s not forget that the freedom she offers comes in the form of more slave collars. And it’s glorious when Daario fights for her so her voice can be heard. He did it because he wanted to — but what does she have to pay for the fighting he offered for free? The smoldering look they exchange shows that even Dany is not immune to the sexual economy of the Champion.
And so I keep thinking about Daario's jokey gesture; peeing in the bloody dust. Dany is Daario’s leader, and she is the victor of his fight. But Daario’s gesture reminds everyone that the male body still matters: he is the one with his tool, finally, in his hand.
No time for losers,