In Game of Thrones season eight’s fourth episode, “The Last of the Starks,” rakish cad Jaime Lannister broke more hearts than just Brienne of Tarth’s when he turned his back on a cozy life at Winterfell. A section of the fanbase had been very invested in Ser Jaime and Brienne forging a romantic relationship; but word from the south of Daenerys Targaryen’s vengeful intentions towards Jaime’s sister Cersei apparently prompted the Kingslayer into sneaking out of bed, saddling up his horse to head away from the North and his Night’s Watch vows. Luckily, Sam and his black brothers caught up to Ser Jaime and convinced him to stay. No wait. That was Jon Snow in season, when he had planned on heading south to join in on a fight with the Lannister regime, but had responded to the pleas from his fellows to remain where he was.
Ser Jaime is not like the heroic and selfless Jon Snow.
But we knew that already. Or had we forgotten?
Caught by Brienne before he could slink away into the night, Jaime cut short Brienne’s argument that he was a good man and could stay among decent folk by reciting his greatest hits:
Jaime Lannister: You think I’m a good man. I pushed a boy out a tower window. Crippled him for life, for Cersei. I strangled my cousin with my own hands, just to get back to Cersei. I would have murdered every man, woman, and child in Riverrun. For Cersei. She’s hateful. And so am I.
In a story filled with characters defined by their shades-of-gray morality and secrets, Jaime Lannister stood above the rest. Establishing himself as a villain in the first episode by defenestrating innocent Bran Stark, Ser Jaime did not shy away from talking to Bran’s mother about the attempted murder of her son.
Catelyn Stark: My son, Bran. How did he come to fall from the tower?
Jaime: I pushed him out the window.
Jaime: I – I hoped the fall would kill him.
With his carefree attitude towards the taking of life if it suited him, it was not a surprise when Ser Jaime killed his cousin Alton as a means to attempt an escape from the Stark camp.
Lady Catelyn eventually gave him his freedom. Or rather, unilaterally decided to exchange the hostage Jaime for the promise of the release of her captive daughters, Arya and Sansa (only one of them was actually captive, but hairs don’t need to be split here.) During his journey escorted by his future lover, Brienne of Tarth, they bonded over common cause against a mutual foe: the sadistic Boltons who threatened to rape Brienne and maimed Jaime while in their care.
During these events, Ser Jaime was also known to viewers by his nickname, the Kingslayer. Jaime had earned this sobriquet for murdering his king, the mad Aerys II. Although few shed a tear over Aerys’s death, regicide isn’t something taken lightly in Westeros, particularly when done by the sworn bodyguard of the king. That’s the opposite of the job description.
The hidden truth behind the name came out in Harrenhal, when an exhausted Jaime revealed to Brienne that he’d killed Aerys to prevent the death of thousands and thousands by wildfire. Not that he had been thanked when Eddard Stark had arrived on the scene of the murder.
“Do you think the noble Lord of Winterfell wanted to hear my feeble explanations? Such an honorable man. He only had to look at me to judge me guilty.” Jaime lurched to his feet, the water running cold down his chest. “By what right does the wolf judge the lion? By what right?”
— A Storm of Swords, Jaime V
The scene in the books is powerful, and the presentation on the show equally so. Jaime had transitioned from a scoundrel and antagonist to someone who, while still a scoundrel and antagonistic, had been misjudged and had lived with unfair prejudice for years. Too proud and scornful to set the record straight, he’d kept that secret until caught up in a moment of naked (literally) vulnerability with the earnest and exemplary Brienne.
This seemed to usher in a turning point for Jaime’s character, as well as encouraging positive sentiment for him by fans. When leaving Brienne at Harrenhal, Jaime was charged by the Beauty of Tarth to remember his oaths to Lady Catelyn. He refused to let Brienne be executed, and once in the capital supplied Brienne with arms, armor, and a squire to seek out and find the missing Stark girls.
The prevailing thought among Jaime supporters was that once removed from Cersei’s toxic influences, Ser Jaime might be able to move past his shadowy villainous ways and redeem himself. The show could not provide literal insights into character thoughts the way the book can with its point-of-view structure, but the scene where Ser Jaime, as Lord Commander of the kingsguard, considered his few chivalric accomplishments tracks with the analogous scene from the books.
Jaime sat alone at the table while the shadows crept across the room. As dusk began to settle, he lit a candle and opened the White Book to his own page. Quill and ink he found in a drawer. Beneath the last line Ser Barristan had entered, he wrote in an awkward hand that might have done credit to a six-year-old being taught his first letters by a maester:
Defeated in the Whispering Wood by the Young Wolf Robb Stark during the War of the Five Kings. Held captive at Riverrun and ransomed for a promise unfulfilled. Captured again by the Brave Companions, and maimed at the word of Vargo Hoat their captain, losing his sword hand to the blade of Zollo the Fat. Returned safely to King’s Landing by Brienne, the Maid of Tarth.
When he was done, more than three-quarters of his page still remained to be filled between the gold lion on the crimson shield on top and the blank white shield at the bottom. Ser Gerold Hightower had begun his history, and Ser Barristan Selmy had continued it, but the rest Jaime Lannister would need to write for himself. He could write whatever he chose, henceforth.
Whatever he chose . . .
— A Storm of Swords, Jaime IX
As presented on the show, Jaime’s redemption arc was, quite deliberately by the writers, not a straight course. He kept returning to Cersei. After the destruction of the Sept of Baelor, orchestrated by Cersei’s minions, the fans assumed that Jaime would now break from his sister, but he did not. The question was asked “since Jaime killed the Mad King for threatening to use wildfire on King’s Landing, why isn’t Jaime killing Cersei for actually doing it?”
The obvious answer would be that Jaime was not in love with Aerys. That we know of.
Jaime: We don’t get to choose who we love… but I don’t recall being in love with him.
Jaime finally broke ranks with Cersei and headed north to fulfill his promise to fight for the living, a promise made in bad faith by Cersei to the Starks and Targaryens who were trying to build a coalition to stop the existential and life-ending threat of the White Walkers. Brokering a pass for his various crimes against, well, everyone, Jaime knighted his former warden Brienne of Tarth, and after a grueling battle against the undead, the two knights consummated an attraction that had been growing for something like six seasons.
The climax of this will-they-won’t-they was presented with Jaime behaving more awkwardly than romantically. And led to the heartbreaking scene of Jaime saddling up his horse, explaining to Brienne why she can’t have good things, and then riding south with Cersei on the horizon.
It’s understandable if fans of the Jaime/Brienne relationship feel upset or unsatisfied. They’ve had years to imagine a more romantic coming together of the pair. The interactions that Jaime and Brienne have had over the years have lent themselves to romantic embellishment. Jaime having custom armor made for Brienne, indicating that he had memorized her body, is prime boyfriend material. When Brienne tried to return the sword Oathkeeper to Jaime during their meeting at the siege of Riverrun and Jaime refused, insisting that it would always be hers, it wasn’t a stretch to imagine him referring to his heart when talking about the sword.
This sword and shield chivalric romanticism climaxed (non-sexually) in the episode before the battle of Winterfell, when Ser Jaime charged Brienne of Tarth with her knightly vows, with the same gravity of wedding vows.
Ser Jaime: In the name of the Warrior, I charge you to be brave. In the name of the Father, I charge you to be just. In the name of the Mother, I charge you to defend the innocent.
All of this felt like the earmarks of a Shakespearean drama, with two star-crossed lovers destined to be bound together, not so much with the power of love (although that seemed to be in evidence) but by the directed purpose of chaste and courtly chivalry.
So when the two finally did have sex, the awkward booty call nature of Jaime showing up, fumbling with his clothes, felt so wrong to some. Where was the shining knight from before?
But there is no contradiction. Jaime had never been what can be called good with the ladies, because his only sexual partner in his life had been the no-nonsense Cersei, where sex had been transactional and selfish. Jaime had been romantic and charming with Brienne in their knightly interactions because Jaime has all of that chivalric-ritual experience. It was more natural to him, and easier to infuse affection into those familiar interactions.
It’s not that Jaime’s love for Brienne might be false, it’s likely that he’s just bad at loving.
With Jaime abandoning Brienne and vocalizing his past misdeeds, framed as being done for Cersei, as a means to separate away from his lover, Jaime transitions from a more Shakespearean mold and becomes a character from a different genre. The anti-hero who has to make a choice, between a virtuous woman offering him salvation and a less-virtuous woman from his past, is a common Film Noir trope.
Jaime referenced his willingness to massacre people at Riverrun, which would have included Brienne, as she had joined with Brynden Tully and the castle’s defense. This echoed the conversation where Jaime extorted compliance from Edmure Tully, who agreed to surrender the castle against the wishes of his uncle the Blackfish.
Edmure Tully: You understand, don’t you? You understand on some level, that you’re an evil man?
Jaime: I’ll leave the judgment for the gods.
Jaime convinced Edmure Tully to surrender the castle to spare lives, with a statement that Jaime only cared about Cersei. He could return to Cersei once Riverrun had fallen, and it could either be surrendered without loss of life, or loss of all life. Jaime asserted that it was all the same to him.
But was Jaime being honest? In the books, we have insight into Jaime’s thought processes in regards to the siege. He’d sworn an oath to Catelyn Stark not to wage violence against the Tullys, and an assault on Riverrun would break that vow. In those latter books, Jaime was trying hard to keep to his vows. So he made threats that he hoped he’d not have to go through with, and it paid off.
The show can’t easily give us an insight into these unspoken motivations. Who would he talk to about this? To Bronn?
Bronn: Afraid to break a vow? I thought you were a hard man, Lannister. Har.
Instead, the show added Brienne to the siege to raise the stakes. Assaulting Riverrun would put Brienne at risk. Something Jaime wanted to avoid, and something he couldn’t reveal to Edmure Tully.
Jaime: Please surrender the castle. My non-sibling crush is in the castle, and if we attack, she might get hurt.
Edmure: Am I dreaming? This can’t be real.
So it might be worthwhile to view some of Ser Jaime’s words with skepticism, even though he’s occasionally brutally honest.
Jaime: I – I hoped the fall would kill him.
During the final conversation with Brienne, Jaime was cagey on what he was planning on doing, although she reasonably assumed he was leaving her because he was still in love with Cersei. Other fan interpretations included Jaime feeling that he was undeserving of happiness with Brienne. These might all be true, in part.
A common interpretation is that Jaime will be killing his sister in these final episodes. Although the show has not brought up the often-discussed valonqar prophecy from the books, where the “little brother” will end Cersei’s life, fans have long assumed that Jaime would eventually end his relationship with Cersei with fatal finality.
This doesn’t feel right in this instance, since the word from the Targaryen front indicated that no mercy was being planned for his sister, and she’d likely wind up dead. A reasonable assumption vocalized by practical pragmatist Ser Bronn of the Blackwater.
Bronn: I knew your sister was dead the second I saw those dragons.
Why leave Brienne to go do something that someone else will already be planning on doing? Is it that Jaime loves Cersei so much or hates Cersei so much that he has to be responsible for her death?
There’s another answer. Love. Not love for Cersei though. And not love for Brienne.
THE THINGS WE DO FOR LOVE
After Robert’s rebellion, Ned Stark, for love of his sister, accepted the dishonor and risked marital discord by taking his nephew Aegon Targaryen to Winterfell and declaring him his bastard, Jon Snow.
Years later, to spare the children of his enemy Cersei Lannister, he offered her a chance to flee the city with her children, and the doom that would come to then when her cuckolded husband Robert returned to the capital.
Jaime Lannister, for almost as long as Ned Stark kept the secret about Jon’s parentage, had been keeping the secret that all of Robert Baratheon’s children were his. To prevent suspicions, Jaime kept an emotional distance and maintained at most an unremarkable avuncular disposition with his secret offspring. He watched Joffrey die by poison, he held Myrcella in his arms as she died from poison. He was absent from the capital when his last child, Tommen, committed suicide as a result of Cersei’s scheming.
In King’s Landing, Cersei awaits. But so does Jaime’s unborn child. He had failed to protect Joffrey, had possibly forced the murder of Myrcella by trying to save her, and had been unable to do anything about Tommen. Jaime has no loyaly that can be reasonably expected by Cersei. She’d sent Ser Bronn as an assassin to kill him. But their child represents something, a potential for the future.
Like the blank page in the White Book that waited for him to write what he chose, he could still have a future with this child.
As long as Cersei lives through the pregnancy.
Jaime often doesn’t explain himself. He didn’t explain why he had killed the Mad King. He seems to be happy for people to think the worst of him.
Although he might have been able to explain his situation to Brienne, it would have been against his nature to do so. By what right does the wolf judge the lion?
And until we get all the information, by what right do we?