Why Game of Thrones‘ excessive violence is self-sabotaging

ramsaysansaSPOILERS for Game of Thrones season five. I’m putting the whole article under the cut for reasons that will probably be obvious in the first paragraph.

Was it the child being burned alive on a pyre that led me to seriously consider giving up on Game of Thrones? Or was it the flayed corpse of an old woman, her face left intact to stare vacantly? Perhaps it was the brutalised teenage girl gouging out a man’s eyes and then slowly, ritualistically slitting his throat. That this followed a scene of the man fetishistically whipping even younger girls was presumably supposed to make what followed easier to tolerate, but it just added to the despair.

To attack Game of Thrones for its violence initially seems misguided. After all, part of its agenda is to remind us of the hideous actions perpetuated throughout history to accumulate or maintain power. For this reason, I’ve watched and appreciated the show for five seasons while giving it leeway for its excesses. But as showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have had to deviate from the increasingly labyrinthine books, an unsettling pattern has emerged.

With many of these changes, they’ve introduced even more violence than the already unremitting books, particularly of the sadistic and sexual kind. Here are some of the major instances:

  • At the Red Wedding, Robb’s wife Talisa is repeatedly and graphically stabbed in her pregnant belly. The equivalent character wasn’t pregnant in the books or present at the wedding.
  • Jaime and Cersei still have sex next to Joffrey’s body, but where it was unambiguously consensual in the books, Jaime forces himself on her in the show. Worse, the director of the episode didn’t believe he’d filmed a rape scene, just a moment in a messed-up relationship.
  • In the books, we never revisit the mutinous Night’s Watch men who kill Lord Commander Mormont at Craster’s Keep. To add more conflict to Bran’s journey north, the show has his party captured by the mutineers, who rape Craster’s wives in the background of dialogue scenes while their leader drinks from Mormont’s fleshless skull.
  • Theon’s emasculation is implied in the books because his transformation into Reek happens off-page. In the show, however, we see episode after episode of Theon being tortured and broken, the sadistic lead-up to the event itself, and a later scene where Ramsay marvels at the scarring.
  • As part of the consolidation of their stories, Ramsay rapes Sansa on their wedding night while Theon is forced to watch.
  • Stannis’s daughter Shereen will be burned alive in the books according to Martin via Benioff and Weiss, but seeing that play out on screen is arguably more viscerally confronting than reading about it, perhaps off-page.
  • Arya is punished with blindness in the books for cutting the throat of a Night’s Watch deserter rather than killing Meryn Trant. In the show we see every moment of the graphic eye gouging and throat slitting described earlier, whereas the less extravagant murder in the book happened off-page.

(I won’t delve into how much worse is it to see than read things like Oberyn’s eyes and head being crushed by the Mountain since they’re true to the book, but they compound the problem of omnipresent excessive violence. Plus there were less graphic ways of filming that death scene anyway.)

Many of these changes can be justified as a consequence of adaptation: the new additions still have to be consistent with the unflinching worldview of the books. But they’re not the only possible choices, and their violent intensity is often unnecessary to achieve the narrative goal. We did not need to see an old woman’s flayed corpse to know Sansa was in serious danger. We did not need to see Theon tantalised with naked women after endless torture so he could be emasculated after arousal. And Arya’s killing of Trant did not need to go so far, nor did we need to watch his fetishistic molesting.

With these ‘enhancements’, Benioff and Weiss – and HBO, if they’re encouraging more sex and violence to draw in viewers – don’t account for how seeing these actions on screen is much more visceral than reading about them. Violence is violence, of course, and reading it is no picnic. And they can rightly say that Ramsay flays people, so showing flayings not mentioned in the books isn’t adding to his abhorrence.

Viewers who accept this level of violence can rightly say that finding it too much is a matter of personal taste. They’re right, but Game of Thrones is not aimed solely at gorehounds. Modulating the amount of violence on screen is vital so a range of viewers can still contemplate the ideas it’s ostensibly meant to illustrate. This show aims to have wide appeal, after all. If it pushes too far, many will be lost in their own revulsion, and the creators may jeopardise the critical acclaim and awards that mean so much in the business. Parts of the audience will not only stop believing they have anything meaningful to say, their respect for the quality and elegance of the rest of the series will diminish.

Accounting for the genre is crucial as well. In a gorefest horror film, the wet, graphic imagery in Game of Thrones wouldn’t be out of place. But in a quasi-historical drama notable for its character work, beautiful imagery, and poignant moments, it’s counterintuitive. Kingdom of Heaven morphs into The Raid 2 and back again, constantly. If Game of Thrones is trying to be a drama metaphorical about human history, why isn’t it taking its stylistic cues from historical cinema rather than gory action or horror films?

The relative restraint of earlier films set in the medieval period is of course more reflective of when they were made than of the setting. Less was palatable on screen in decades past, and there was less willingness to parade the true horrors in our own history. The unwitting benefit, however, was that explorations of power and suffering weren’t smothered by the deliberate spectacle of grisly detail, even though a text like Game of Thrones justifies such spectacle as historical truth.

But fidelity to that truth is only useful as long as your audience is willing to witness it as part of an optional entertainment. This is especially true when every other element of the show from writing and acting to intricate world-building has already helped the audience contemplate the harsh unfairness of the show’s world. When that art moves from feeling like a dark but necessary analysis into gory spectacle aimed at topping what came before, its claims to being art start to wither.

The gruesome last two episodes of season five are the culmination of this spectacle, but what’s crushing about them is how they drown out the exhilaration of the stunning battle at Hardhome that ends episode eight. The sequence is impressive not because it embraces the story’s fantasy leanings, nor because it’s an amazing action scene. Hardhome matters because it shows the creative team operating at the peak of its powers and with good judgement, producing perhaps the grandest and most cinematic battle sequence ever achieved for television. It could easily slot into a Hollywood blockbuster and surpass many recent equivalents. The action is coherent, not cacophonous, with dazzling shots like Jon’s view of the White Walkers looming overhead.

It also indisputably advances the story. In the fifth season, we finally feel like a conclusion awaits, that the constant cycle of war, betrayal, and murder south of the Wall is taking us somewhere instead of spinning in place. Best of all, while the battle is violent, it’s hardly ever gory or excessive. Yet the horror of what we’re witnessing is still readily evident. We’re left with no doubt about the unremitting threat Jon and his allies are facing.

But that’s the exception in this show, not the rule. To be fair, a strong argument can be made that, even in a fantasy world entertainment, explicitly depicting the limits of human cruelty for the purposes of oppression and conquest has its place. George R.R. Martin, Benioff and Weiss, and cast members like Gwendoline Christie have advocated for this. If these actions are smuggled into ostensibly escapist entertainment, we’re forced to acknowledge them. When reading descriptions in the news or in history of atrocities happening far away or long ago, we can quickly compartmentalise and dismiss them. But when seeing them play out in a glossy and exciting big-budget TV series, we’re led to empathise with the nature of human suffering. The vigorous debate about the treatment of women in Game of Thrones is proof of this.

Given how often they state it, presenting brutality is quite possibly one of Martin’s reasons for writing the novels and Benioff and Weiss’s for adapting them. Not in a sadistic sense, but that doing proper justice to the carnage of history was a distinct objective, not just exploring the depths people will descend into to acquire power.

But while well-intentioned, framing this as a separate goal underestimates how a more restrained approach can achieve the same results with greater integrity. The descent to acquire power is a prominent theme in Breaking Bad which, while occasionally violent, did not resort to gruesome imagery as regularly as Game of Thrones. But does anyone feel that it held back in depicting the brutality of relentless, amoral kingpins in a grimy, morally ambivalent world? Apart from perhaps the severed head on the tortoise, Breaking Bad was measured and strategic with its violence, deploying it occasionally so it had power. Gus Fring slitting his underling’s throat with a boxcutter while he stared at Walt and Jesse was so chilling in its precision that we remained hyper-aware of what Gus could and would do. If the show took Game of Thrones’s approach, Gus would have killed people horribly every few episodes on the assumption we needed reminding of how awful he is.

By increasing the instances of brutality and showing it with far more graphic and creative detail, Game of Thrones smothers its own thematic potency and derails its narrative momentum. It’s disappointing that in rightly citing the historical veracity of the show’s horror, its creators don’t recognise that their excess sabotages their own aims. The lack of limits on what can be shown on HBO has overpowered the notion that self-imposed limits have value too.

Even if they come to realise this, it’s hard to believe they’ll dial it back next season. Brutal violence has become part of the show’s identity and may explain part of its immense popularity. This far down that road, there’s probably no relief in sight. If the prospect of watching another season still feels like an ordeal this time next year, I don’t think I’ll be watching to find out.

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