The Darkness of Game of Thrones

There will be Game of Thrones spoilers in this post. 

The cover of Game of Thrones, back before it went mainstream.
The cover of Game of Thrones, back before it went mainstream.

George R. R. Martin can write.1 I’ve known that since I read A Game of Thrones nearly 20 years ago. I was bothered by crippling a child in one of the first scenes, and by the time I got to Ned Stark’s execution at the end of the book I knew that the series wasn’t for me. I haven’t read any other books in the series, and I haven’t watched a single episode of the HBO adaptation. But, because I follow a lot of pop culture with interest, I do keep up with most of the memorable moments. From the Red Wedding to the death of Jon Snow, I keep tabs.

And it’s pretty grim stuff.

It turns out that Jon Snow’s not dead after all, by the way. This is the big reveal in the most recent episode, but it was overshadowed by, you know, brutally feeding a mother and her child to a pack of ravenous dogs. Here’s what Kelly Lawler wrote about it:

So in an episode where fans were given what might be the greatest news they could hope for, they were also treated to a mother and newborn child being eaten alive by dogs. Why? I couldn’t tell you, but I can tell you that an episode like “Home” demonstrates what is the fundamental underpinning of this show: It will do anything in its desperation to shock you. And while having actors and producers flat-out lie for a year in the press is the more innocent end of that spectrum, we certainly hope we’re not forced to listen to more infants being eaten alive. Because that’s not the shock we’re looking for.

Lawler goes on:

And so the audience was treated to the sounds and very nearly the sight of a woman and her newborn son being ripped apart by dogs. We’ve already seen countless women raped, a young girl burned alive by her own father, not to mention the weekly grind of violence and death we’ve become accustomed to. Sure, some of that is par for the course with the genre and the path this show has decided to take, but even for the most ardent fans, for the most faithful viewer, when is enough enough? Is there no line this show won’t cross?

There is something that people do not seem to understand about values, and it is this. Particular values are subjective and contingent. But having values at all is objective and universal. Where a society chooses to draw lines in what is acceptable and what is not changes with history and location and context. That societies draw lines is not.

Lawler seems to think that the important question is, how far do you go? But that doesn’t really matter, because different societies–and different individuals–have their own tolerances and their own lines in the sand. Location is largely meaningless. What matters is direction. Lawler writes that the show “will do anything in its desperation to shock you.” Why desperation? Because the more you shock the audience, the less sensitive they become.

No matter what your tolerances are, the danger–I believe–comes in crossing them habitually and for no higher purpose and in so doing desensitizing yourself. The world we live in certainly does not need less sensitivity. It certainly does not need less empathy. It does not need less light.2

Just something to think about.

4 thoughts on “The Darkness of Game of Thrones”

  1. The show is ahead of the books at this point, and the books are plenty violent and shocking, but from what I’ve heard (I haven’t seen the TV series), the series goes above and beyond the books in crossing lines, such as adding nudity and sex in scenes where they weren’t in the books, and turning consensual sex in the books into rape in the series.

  2. All of that is true, Ivan, but it’s still living out the spirit of the books. They may not have been as violent or as sexual, but they had plenty of both and–what’s more–they were deliberately trying to repudiate the image of fantasy as idealistic. Oh, you think kids are off limits? Watch as I throw one out the window to get things started. Oh, you think the good guys should win? Watch me behead the good guy at the end of the first book and devastate his family.

    This is why I loved the Epic Rap Battle featuring George R. R. Martin vs. J. R. R. Tolkien. It pointed out that Tolkien, a veteran of the trenches of World War I, didn’t feel the need to indulge in gratuitous violence not because he was some fluffy-headed romantic, but because he’d seen the true horrors of war. Martin, by contrast, was LARP-ing during Vietnam. So naturally he fills his books with horror and barbarism because, frankly, what does he know about it. That critique seems to hold at the general level as well. HBO subscribers are part of the most prosperous, pampered and protected generation in the history of humankind. So naturally they want to watch a show where a mother and her infant are torn apart by dogs.

    It seems so edgy to fill novels with murder and rape, but what kind of edginess is it, really?

    So yeah: the show has upped the ante, but “upping the ante” is, itself, what Martin’s novels have been about since the beginning.

  3. As always, Nathaniel you have a way of articulating some profound concepts. “Where a society chooses to draw lines in what is acceptable and what is not changes with history and location and context. That societies draw lines is not.” What a profound observation! Thank you! You restore my faith in the IQ of the human race, both intellectually and morally.
    And after Trump’s win last night, I need some restoration.

  4. Good points. I read the series into a Feast for Crows and then stopped, both because the sex/violence was becoming (for me) too repulsive, and because the plot seemed to have come to a dead halt. Purely from a literary point of view I think Martin could have written a great trilogy but his 7-book ambition got the better of him.

    I once saw some Martin fans online defending the gore and violence with a “this is realism, go and read Tolkien for cheerful fantasy” line. Apart from application of the word “realism” to books involving dragons and warlocks, this seemed to involve an assumption that violence and lust are “real” in a way that love and honor are not (I think C.S. Lewis said something about this in one of his books). And one of Martin’s tricks in this regard was to make the “good” guys almost incredibly and pathetically naïve, and the bad guys almost preternaturally cunning and effective. Hence, Eddard Stark dies because he gave Cersei Lannister advance notice of his intent to arrest her in some reductio ad absurdium of chivalry, and Tyrion Lannister, set adrift by Lyssa Arryn in a land of savage tribes who kill all travelers, somehow persuades all of the tribes not only to let him through, but to follow him as their leader (something for which there is no historical parallel). In other words, part of Martin’s game is not only the consistent sex and violence, but (it seems) the message that those who refrain from such will come to grief through their own innocence.

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