HBO’s Game of Thrones has, for a long time now, been a source of much audience controversy based in the show’s penchant for violent depictions of rape, murder, and other forms of moral and social depravity. And yet, for all of the outrage and moral upset projected upon and set against the canvas of what is the greatest fantasy epic of the 2010s, Game of Thrones is a series that has proven unapologetic and unambiguous in its depiction of a socio-cultural era of relaxed morals and questionable ethics, domestically and internationally (and thankfully so), begging the question of just what show those who would wish to register a complaint believe they are being promised.
Just two weeks ago, HBO concluded its fifth season run of what was, perhaps, the lowest note that the premium cable series has seen since the conclusion of its first season, when Eddard ‘Ned’ Stark was unjustifiably executed at the hands of the late tyrant Joffrey Lannister. Ned Stark’s very public execution served to usher in the era of George R.R. Martin, a fantasy writer with the same lofty aspirations as mid-twentieth century medievalist J.R.R. Tolkien, but with an entirely dissimilar end game in mind. At the end of the fifth season’s final episode, deceitfully titled ‘Mother’s Mercy,’ viewers were presented with a very public shaming of the Hand (and mother) to the King, Cersei Lannister, the unambiguous death and ultimate defeat of Stannis Baratheon, and the still “up-in-the-air” betrayal of Jon Snow — the latter in a final scene reminiscent of William Shakespeare, with Jon Snow’s final words (if he had made any) undoubtedly falling somewhere along the lines of, “Et tu, Olly?”
Time and time again over the course of the fifth season’s ten week run, viewers, fans, and critics have been forced to decry, defend, and apologize for the show’s increasingly gratuitous use of violence, and the near unilateral exploitation of its individual characters’ fates, particularly the women, more often than not at the hands of the men.
At the end of the sixth episode of this past season, ‘Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken,’ Sansa Stark was brutally, viscerally, and unapologetically raped by everyone’s favorite monster (Ramsay Bolton), while Ned Stark’s former ward, and veritable Benedict Arnold of the show (Theon ‘Reek’ Greyjoy) looked on in abject horror and apparent humiliation. At the end of episode four, ‘Sons of the Harpy,’ series mainstay and standing protector and servant (Barristan Selmy) to the Mother of Dragons (Daenerys Targaryen) was killed in a revolt against the Queen in Meereen, upsetting the balance of the entire projected narrative of the show, at least for some viewers of the show’s grand game of dynastic power. And in episode nine, ‘The Dance of Dragons,’ Shireen Baratheon was unmercifully killed in sacrifice to the Lord of Light at the trembling hands of her reluctant father, a bold, tumultuous move made out of a certain desperation and despair that serves to define the show’s examination of the corrupting influences of power, vice, and avarice.
While there is a lot to get upset about in the way in which show-runners and series creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have chosen to cinematically interpret George R.R. Martin’s historical fantasy, most notably in the show’s gratuitous inclusion and reliance upon multiple scenes and sequences of undisguised, soft-core pornography (serving to exploit the show’s lead actresses in ways much worse than Martin’s novels have ever done to the same heroines), the show’s thematic interrogation of such vices has never been hidden from view. Starting in the very first season of the show, Benioff and Weiss have made it clear that the ‘Game of Thrones’ titular to the show’s very premise is not for the faint of heart.
The title and credo of the seventh episode of the first season, ‘You Win Or You Die,’ (a thesis uttered by Cersei Lannister herself to the late Ned Stark) perhaps says it best, stating unequivocally that if you aren’t willing to engage in the show’s duplicity and creativity regarding culturally accepted and longstanding ethical prerogatives, you won’t last long in Westeros. Yes, Benioff and Weiss are men, and are therefore prone to the male gaze, that far too often than is perhaps entirely necessary serves to direct the show’s more prurient visual focus. But that’s not the point of the show. The point, when you’re not too busy ogling the show’s brazen, nubile, young beauties, is the duplicity, often handled casually, by those who you thought you were in the act of visually subjugating yourself, before the brink of death catches you by surprise, a la Meryn Trant in the season five finale at the hands of his prey, the disguised Arya Stark, or the great sell-sword Bronn, who was memorably and erotically manipulated by one of the Sand Snakes in this past season’s seventh episode, ‘The Gift.’
Regardless of where you stand on the show’s graphic depictions of violence and misogyny, sexually based or otherwise, show-runners David Benioff and D.B. Wiess have crafted one of the most consistent fantasy genre pieces since J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic The Lord of the Rings trilogy. In George R.R. Martin’s fantasy epic for the twenty-first century, nothing is sacred, dynastic power is everything, and yet there is still something to be found in the traditions of yore, even if the show’s lead characters and chief protagonists, for lack of a better term or worldview, range from being free thinking, secularists to outright agnostics.
When considering the show’s brutality and violence towards its many female protagonists (in addition to a few of its men), it’s intriguing to consider the fact that, of all of the show’s many deities and forms of theistic worship, the Old Gods of the North (prototypically worshipped in Martin’s supported Westeros mythology by the Children of the Forest, the Crannogmen, and the Free Folk from beyond the Wall) are the most central to the series’ basic sense of human morality and ethics, and the only Gods of the show’s narrative that appear to be metaphysically present. Ned Stark is dead, but Tyrion Lannister still leads a crusade in the service of what he believes to be right and just, and Daenerys Targaryen persists in her crusade against bondage, slavery, and misogynistic violence in its many forms, leaving plenty of reason for viewers to continue to watch the titular game, no matter how bleak things may yet become.
Whatever merits or sins that you may think Benioff and Weiss have gained or committed in what was at times a lackluster and tepid, tease of a fifth season, HBO’s Game of Thrones has not as of yet betrayed its central narrative premise. The thematic intentions underlying the rules set forth in the show’s first season have continued to run throughout the show’s entirety so far, the ‘Game of Thrones’ a past-time that will not suffer any fools. If you can’t find a reason to keep watching the show after the final shot of the fifth season finale, than maybe you’re not made of the right stuff for Westeros, and should accordingly seek shelter in the allegorical warmth of Middle Earth.
Despite supporting some of the greatest, novel moralists of the twentieth century in fantasy genre fiction, George R.R. Martin’s epic, medieval history is largely unconcerned with its individual heroes and villains. In David Benioff and D.B. Weiss’ cinematic adaptation that is HBO’s Game of Thrones, the rhetorical focus of the narrative is the titular game itself, which we have all been in the act of watching and playing heretofore with respective abandon, no matter what we may think of certain calls, plays, and character-driven penalties; hate the player (or characters), not the game (or series).