This Thursday through Monday: The Long Weekend Of Thrones. Full schedule here.
In the second episode of this season of Game Of Thrones, Joffrey Baratheon, the monstrous little tyrant-king of Westeros, dies on the day of his wedding. He chokes on the slyly administered poison; his face turns red, then purple. Veins stand out on his neck. Spittle dribbles from his mouth. Blood runs from his nostrils. His eyes turn bloodshot, the blue irises floating in a sea of red. His face is contorted in a rictus of agony. And the visual effect is only matched by the sounds: Joffrey gasps for air, choking on his own vomit, gurgling as he tries to survive for a moment more.
Our visual world is so saturated by violence that this type of thing is normal to the modern viewer. He’s not really dead, but, oh, he looks really dead. Fiction asks for a willing suspension of disbelief to spin its yarns, and as special effects technology has gotten ever better, we don’t have to suspend our disbelief all that far. This incident isn’t even particularly violent, as far as Game Of Thrones is concerned—which is why it’s a moment worth noting. Here is a startlingly real and graphic death, and it is one that is just par for the course.
Game Of Thrones has used its massive production budget to this end—to create one of the most indelibly violent shows on television. It offers individual episodes with the operating budget of films; its violence is some of the most technically brilliant to be found. Joffrey’s death is actually one of the tamer moments this season: Gregor Clegane’s murder of Oberyn Martell, by crushing his skull so hard Martell’s head explodes, is the most graphic. And outside of murder, there is rape, torture, abuse, and slavery—all in a single season. From crucifixion to castration, there’s little body horror this show won’t attempt.
It’s a variety of horror that resonates—which in itself is an accomplishment. We live in a world of pulpy gore and hyper-real torture across all media, including the evening news. But Thrones offers not just a massive special effects budget and an explicit interest in realistic violence; it also offers a theater of violence, every week for 10 weeks. And Game Of Thrones isn’t just violent. It’s executing its characters on television, which makes all the difference. Movies end, and novels don’t have sound effects. Game Of Thrones—a series whose source material threatens to stretch out even further—apparently lives forever.
That makes it, at times, very hard to watch. Much has been written, by myself and others, on this season’s decision to embrace a particularly graphic rape scene. But a bit less explored is why the show might embrace such violence—what it is trying to do, and does it succeed? Part of the show’s violence comes from its source material; part comes, as I’ve discussed above, from the special effects technology available to it. And part of it is a direct overture to its audience, a relatively wealthy and safe subset of the world who are nonetheless drawn to horror.
Because violence is in Game Of Thrones’ DNA—it is inherent to the unique appeal of the source material, which cherishes it and unrelentingly examines it. George R.R. Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire is brutal—characters die in droves, and many die in a lot of pain. Often, though, the brutality serves to heighten empathy, not to numb the reader. The best example is the maiming of Jaime Lannister, a former villain who turned into one of the series’ heroes as he struggled to redefine himself without his sword hand. Another example is Theon Greyjoy, an arrogant brat who is tortured so wholly that he becomes a wreck of a human being. A third is Sansa Stark, who is physically and emotionally abused to the point where she suffers from Stockholm syndrome.
One of the books’ main strengths is that they stubbornly empathize with every possible character, from the torturers who reign at the Dreadfort to the kitchen boy who tries to survive a war. It’s a broad scope that humanizes, not brutalizes—and makes the violence against the characters feel that much more horrifying. Westeros isn’t a very nice place, but Martin is fully aware of that.
And that leads to the question of readership. A Song Of Ice And Fire’s violence relies on its assumed audience—a privileged, first-world fan base with minimal firsthand experience of bodily harm. The brutality isn’t just to shock or entertain—it’s also educational. It reminds us of the frailty of our own bodies, as we live in a world that largely allows us forget that. The reminder is both bracing and transporting; the world of Westeros certainly makes day-t0-day life in America look like paradise. Martin is not writing Le Morte D’Arthur for a medieval audience who would have had more than a passing familiarity with violent death and casual mortal suffering. Martin’s audience is overwhelmingly first world—so while there are more than a few parts of the world familiar with torture, slavery, rape, violent takeover, and outright war, his readers don’t live in one of them.
HBO’s audience for Game Of Thrones is in a similar boat—the fact that they can afford HBO puts them in the global 1 percent. Game Of Thrones exists on the same network that advertises Girls as a show about the everyday lives of young people in New York City, after all—and on the same network that professes an insider’s look to the world of politics and power on Veep. Game Of Thrones is for rich people. No doubt, piracy and popularity have extended the reach of this story into less privileged parts of the world. But it seems reasonable to guess that they weren’t the target audience.
In a 2000 interview with International Socialism, China Miéville, a genre writer himself, was asked: “Is fantasy escapist?” And he responded:
The problem with escapism is that when you read or write a book society is in the chair with you. You can’t escape your history or your culture. So the idea that because fantasy books aren’t about the real world they therefore “escape” is ridiculous. Fantasy is still written and read through the filters of social reality. That’s why some fantasies (like Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels) are so directly allegorical—but even the most surreal and bizarre fantasy can’t help but reverberate around the reader’s awareness of their own reality, even if in a confusing and unclear way.
What Game Of Thrones’ readers and viewers bring to the show is a privileged, heightened naïveté about the terrible mortification possible for the human body. The series’ glee, at times, in excavating these horrors is so enthusiastic that it’s also alienating. This is not violence designed for the victims. It’s violence designed for the privileged. It’s violence underwritten with carefully pointed empathy and staged for shock value, so that those who haven’t experienced mortification of the body might get a taste of its indignities. Critics of the show and the books, while making excellent points about both, have trouble with the idea that Martin created a fantasy world that is so brutal. But as I see it, the brutality is the point. As Martin said to The New York Times.
I have to take issue with the notion that Westeros is a “dark and depraved place.” It’s not the Disneyland Middle Ages, no, and that was quite deliberate … but it is no darker nor more depraved than our own world. History is written in blood. The atrocities in A Song of Ice and Fire, sexual and otherwise, pale in comparison to what can be found in any good history book.
Game Of Thrones, it appears, is brutal both because it can be and because it wants to be. The question for the audience is simple: Is it working? Is the brutality adding to the quality of the story, or is it instead detracting from it?
It’s hard to say, because that question excavates one of the more troubling aspects of Game Of Thrones. Yes, the brutality has a point. Yes, violence is part of the fabric of our lives. But doesn’t it seem like the show is taking an enormous amount of pleasure in offering these scenes of horror to us?
Lately, it’s felt less like Thrones is exploring violence because it has to, and instead that it wants to. And that isn’t merely a critique of the show, because the books are absolutely not above gratuitous violence—Oberyn Martell’s gruesome death in “The Mountain And The Viper” is more or less canon, except that Martin preceded the head-crushing with teeth-smashing, not eye-gouging. But the show has so much more punch with its visuals that it’s harder to avoid its violence—whether that’s Jaime’s rape of Cersei in “Breaker Of Chains” or Karl Tanner’s reign of terror over the women in Craster’s Keep, which included a prolonged near-rape of a teenage girl.
It’s hard to blame the show for enthusiasm. Game Of Thrones does violence better than any show on television—unlike a show like Hannibal, that is invested in the artistic quality of blood and bone, or a show like Fargo, that finds the humor in its maimed bodies, Thrones is seeking maximum impact, and usually gets it.
But it hurts. And it becomes harder and harder to understand the violence of the show when the tone of the imagery feels like an id reveling in destruction. It seems a little as if the show has compensated for Joffrey’s absence by inventing a few extra horrors, as if that teenage-boy sensibility is a requirement.
Visual effects are fascinating and transporting; sound mixing is an underappreciated art; computer-generated explosions are always cool. But Game Of Thrones isn’t a show about spectacle, and this season, at times, it has forgotten that. At its best, this is a story that is committed to anti-escapism, as Miéville outlined it—to telling stories about violence as a way to depict how terrible violence is, whether that is physical, sexual, or emotional abuse. But its own thirst for blood this season has gotten in the way of Thrones’ fundamental truth: a connection and reconnection to empathy and understanding, a lens that offers not just brutality, but also the assiduous follow-through of healing, grieving, and surviving.
At the end of its fourth season, Game Of Thrones is one of the best shows on television—still. After the Red Wedding, the series has proven it can and will do whatever it wants to, and by and large, it does it well. It’s a show that delights in showing the audience how easily our bodies can be destroyed. But it would do well to remember that there are some audience members who know all too well how fragile and mortal their own bodies can be.