all in the family

It’s Pretty Creepy to Root for Incest on Game of Thrones, Right?

Photo: HBO

Where were you when Bran Stark first peered into that Winterfell tower and saw that vigorous, from-behind sex between twin brother and sister Jaime and Cersei Lannister? I was watching in the living room of my old apartment, and the thought immediately registered that I could never, ever recommend this show to my parents. What kind of daughter excitedly talks up a show that doesn’t just think regular old incest is enough, but double downs with twincest — in its very first episode?

“We shared a womb, came into this world together — we belong together,” Cersei later explained to Ned Stark, as if that bit of genetic happenstance is license to screw. At the same time, Daenerys’ brother Viserys hinted that he wanted a piece of Dany for himself, even after her marriage to Khal Drogo. Those early scenes, where Viserys viciously squeezed her breasts and forced her to stand naked before him, were meant to freak the audience out — and they did. Within just a few episodes, incest, consensual or not, became the rotten core at the center of Game of Thrones, an integral component for its queasy secret-sauce recipe of pride and greed plus a lot of bare breasts.

Within the story itself, Jaime and Cersei’s incest posed an obvious succession problem, especially since all three of their children bore the badge of a Lannister-on-Lannister towhead and creepy crystalline eyes, but there was also a stigma at play: Remember all their bickering about how openly they could (or couldn’t) show their not-so-chaste sibling affection? Sure, Westerosi society only quietly tut-tutted House Bolton for tearing skin from flesh as a form of judicial regulation (and advertising that on its house sigil!), but incest simply wasn’t sanctioned. Again and again, Game of Thrones has reminded us that incest is a major taboo in Westeros for anybody not named Targaryen. Back in season one, Ned was worried enough that the crowds — or Robert himself — would kill Cersei for what she admitted were “sins,” that he encouraged her to flee Kings Landing under cover. Later, when Jaime and Cersei fretted over Myrcella’s fate in Dorne, he reminded her that “the world can’t know” Myrcella was his daughter. “If I was a father to any of my children,” Jaime cursed, “I’d be stoned in the streets.” Olenna even used her knowledge of the affair to (politely) blackmail their father Tywin: “We don’t tie ourselves in knots over buggery, but brothers and sisters? Where I come from, that stain would be very difficult to wash out.”

Only past generations of Targaryens could get away with publicizing brother-and-sister intimacy, though even that had its limits. Aegon the Conqueror was engaged in some very sexy acts with not one, but two of his sisters, Rhaenys and Visenya (neither of which are the names of STD pharmaceuticals despite all appearances to the contrary), but a few generations later, when another Targaryen king, Aenys (yes, it’s pronounced exactly how you think it is), tried to marry his son and daughter to one another, the Faith Militant rose up against the crown in protest. The new gods were none too happy with a Targaryen prince and princess sharing a nursery and then a marital bed. And don’t think there aren’t other (genetic) consequences for Targaryen incest in the GOT universe — their flame-admiring madness isn’t just a fun little family idiosyncrasy like musical prowess or a flare for drama. “What’s the saying?” Cersei once pondered, “Every time a Targaryen is born, the gods flip a coin?”

But now, the show’s greatest open secret — that Jon Snow is really Aegon Targaryen VI, the true heir of the Iron Throne, and that he’s just fallen for his aunt Daenerys while in total ignorance of his lineage — has prompted some weird waves of hope from Thrones-erati that the two will end up together and that their kid will one day rule the Seven Kingdoms. What’s more, the showrunners seem to have given up on the problem of an aunt and nephew getting horizontal — neither Jon nor Daenerys even mentioned what ought to have been a very important, not to mention awkward, fact when confronted with the truth in the Winterfell crypts. After the initial ick of Cersei and Jaime sittin’ in a tree, S-C-R-E-W-I-N-G, the horror over Craster forcibly “marrying” his own wildling daughters, and our collective Ewwws over Theon trying to finger his own sister, it seems like we’ve all adjusted a little too comfortably to the bombardment of intrafamilial love. Hell, people are actively rooting for it! The Game of Thrones universe has collapsed one of its society’s few hard and fast (pun intended) rules: Don’t boink somebody you see every week for Sunday roast.

It’s important to note here that I’m not imposing modern Western norms on this crew of medievalesque lords and peasants. Nearly all Westerosi are disgusted by incest, based on show and book lore, though there’s a sliding scale of acceptability. Incest between brother and sister is an abomination. Between first cousins it’s tolerated (cough cough, Tywin and Joanna Lannister). For an aunt and a nephew it waffles somewhere in between, depending on the house and its history. There’s a history of a few weird Stark marriages — a niece and a half uncle, for instance — but it’s far from a common thing. And, yes, Westeros “turned a blind eye” to Targaryen incest for centuries, but that only served to underline them as an exception to the rule.

Do we really think they’re all cool with incest now? For the past few seasons, Thrones fans have been acting (far too) natural about the whole thing. “Game of Thrones’ Incest: Why it’s OK that You’re OK With Jon Snow and Daenerys’s Relationship” and “Why We Secretly Love the Incest on Game of Thrones read real headlines on real websites. “Perhaps if Daenerys had known that Jon Snow was Rhaegar Targaryen’s son,” another article wonders, “and thus the rightful heir to the throne, she would’ve hesitated before consummating their relationship.” Ah yes, because she would have known he was her nephew, you might think. But no, it’s “because her baby with Jon Snow would be second in line to the Iron Throne,” and Dany would then move down to third place. Over here, nobody bothered to mention that a Jon and Dany baby would be its own cousin or sister or something—I can’t quite do the math. And this story suggests that “these genetically-blessed babes would have the cutest little bambini, if you were to ignore the whole ‘auntie and nephew’ thing.” Right, if you just ignore that one small thing.

I’m no prude — coulda watched Oberyn and Ellaria Martell slither on each other all day — but surely upon hearing that the dude she’s screwing is her brother’s kid, Daenerys would have at least mentioned it. I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt since their chat was cut off by invading hordes of dead people, but Jon’s initial reaction was no better: He and Sam had all damn day to sit in that crypt and hash out the intricacies, but nope, not a problem for Lord Snow! Sure, when Sam spilled the beans he also upended Jon’s entire identity, but still — you just screwed your aunt, buddy! I would have settled for a mumbled “I’ve made a terrible mistake,” or a worry-faced admission to Sam that he’d taken things too far. Targaryen or not, Jon didn’t grow up hoping and praying that he might someday marry his close kin and father some children with her. Aunt-and-nephew lovin’ isn’t a natural familial progression for the Starks.

As for Daenerys, everyone loves to point out that she’s a Targaryen after all, and would love to cuddle up against one of her silver-haired brethren. But no! Dany was horrified by Viserys’ groping, terrified he would marry her, and rightfully perturbed when he came in for a casual threatening chat while she took a bath. In all fairness, she didn’t know there were other Targs she could wed and bed, but surely a woman perceived as a foreign invader isn’t planning on further alienating the populace by telling the people of Westeros that she’s not a regular Targaryen, she’s a cool Targaryen — but Oh yes, that is my nephew’s baby inside me.

There are, somehow, hopeful fan theories about other incestuous couples too. The most chilling speculation is that Sansa and Jon might marry for the sake of the realm. So, in other words, one of the show’s heroes will discover he’s screwed his aunt and leave that relationship behind him, only to hop into bed with a woman he believed to be his half-sister but who’s actually his cousin? And in Sunday’s episode, Sansa and Theon locked eyes over a bowl of gruel like there was a little bit of lustful understanding between them. It would be the most Jane Austen thing to happen on this show if a smart, savvy young woman came into her own and then married the less-principled dude she grew up with, as if being a ward isn’t nearly as close as being a brother.

Are we all really just fine with this?

Why are Jon and Dany an okay kind of incest, but we draw the line at Cersei and Jaime? Is it just because one couple wasn’t raised as family and the other one was? Is it the sibling thing? Or has GOT wrenched our perceptions of villainy and virtue into such tangled knots and spurred on so many “secret baby” theories that we’re all just collectively shrugging our shoulders at an aunt and nephew slipping between the sheets? Have the showrunners just abandoned one of the major governing principles of their own world because it might just be fun to have everybody screw their siblings? Are some of you actually kind of … liking this?

I get it: Now that we’ve all cheered on a teenage psycho killer girl (Arya), a devious sex slave trafficker (Littlefinger), and a whiny ingrate who charbroiled two little boys (Theon), what’s a little incest? But people, if there’s one rule good world-building can’t break, it’s that we have to abide by the boundaries a fictional universe erects. It’d be kinda fun, if you’re into that sorta thing, if Jon and Dany had a magical Targaryen baby who reunited the Seven Kingdoms, but that doesn’t mean the Westerosi would stand for it.

I’m not trying to be judgmental here, but I’m worried about Jon, I’m worried about Westeros, and I’m also pretty concerned about all of you.

It’s Pretty Creepy to Root for Thrones Incest, Right?