The penchant for “realism” in Game of Thrones has simply become an excuse to rely on shock value.
[Note: This is a reaction to Game of Thrones, Season Five. Spoilers abound]
I’m not going to say that I “quit” Game of Thrones but, for now, it has lost me as an avid fan who waits eagerly for each week’s episode. For the last two seasons, I’ve stood by and watched with varying degrees of disgust as the show has assaulted viewers with death, rape, and torture. Finally, I can stomach no more. The show that I once lauded as the “best on television,” whose DVD boxed set I bought for my mother, even, has lost the benefit of the doubt.
Thrones has been applauded by critics for years for being “gritty” and “realistic.” The author of the books upon which Thrones is based, George R. R. Martin, has outwardly preened about his own authenticity, taunting other fantasy novels as “Disneyland Middle Ages, where they had castles and princesses and all that.”
In an interview with the New York Times last year, Martin was asked about the amount of rape in the show, justifying it by saying:
“An artist has an obligation to tell the truth. My novels are epic fantasy, but they are inspired by and grounded in history… To omit [rape and sexual violence] from a narrative centered on war and power would have been fundamentally false and dishonest, and would have undermined one of the themes of the books: that the true horrors of human history derive not from orcs and Dark Lords, but from ourselves. We are the monsters. (And the heroes too).”
Like many folks, I used to think that Thrones was brilliant because the unexpected could happen at any time, and that there was a whole universe of opportunity waiting to be unlocked by a brilliant author who refused to be tethered by the limits of ordinary story telling. To a degree, this is true. But it has become apparent over the course of the last two seasons that “realism” in Thrones is just an excuse for bad behavior. It’s an excuse for an almost pornographic reliance on tragedy. Horrific realism, like graphic rape and murder, isn’t a “means to an end” to storytelling in Martin’s world, it *is* the end.
It no longer appears to be “brilliance” or “creativity” that leads Thrones, Martin, and showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss to do the unexpected – it’s the lack thereof. In an article for Grantland, Andy Greenwald found the perfect words to describe what we have seen: “the more Benioff and Weiss hammer the same chords, the less they sound like musicians[.]” And that is what is has been — the hammering of the same chords over and over again, when the reason for doing so has long since passed.
When Ned Stark died in Season 1, it was one of the greatest moments I had ever seen on television. At the time, I didn’t think it was possible that a character so central to Thrones could actually die. Not only did it serve to advance the plot — Ned’s death is the impetus for the War of the Five Kings — but it served an incredibly important purpose for the show in terms of storytelling. It instilled a gravitas and an “anything is possible” vibe that has lasted for the rest of the show.
Recently, however, the deaths have become amateurish. The gut punches have become more and more telegraphed, as with Jon Snow being deceived about his Uncle Benjen, Myrcella’s touching exchange with Jamie Lannister immediately before she was poisoned, and Shireen’s touching exchange with Ser Davos before she was burned at the stake. The death and suffering has been more forcibly rammed down the viewer’s throat, as with the extended audio of Shireen being burned alive, and the extended audio of Sansa being raped by Ramsay Bolton. Thrones has been no stranger to controversy before, such as the rape scene between Jamie and Cersei Lannister (that scene is not presented as a rape in the books).
These recent events in the show have all lacked the poignancy, purpose, or storytelling grace that accompanied other earlier difficult moments, like the deaths of Ned Stark, Catelyn Stark, Tywin Lannister, Ygritte, and many others. Even the extended, somewhat graphic, torture of Theon Greyjoy was accompanied with good writing and some narrative purpose.
But these chords have been hammered again and again, and with less and less purpose. Like Greenwald said:
“Burning girls alive, raping them, or, like Meryn Trant in the Braavosi whorehouse, buying their bodies like ground meat in a butcher shop, all to demonstrate the evil that men do, seems like a lot of repetitive effort to reinforce an obvious, ugly point. It’s been 49 hours now. I think everyone gets the picture.”
Not every movie with sex in it is pornography, but beyond a certain point, it becomes one. In the same vein, Game of Thrones veers away from being a cutting-edge, loosely realistic, work of art and veers toward being smut. In the words of the late United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, I can’t define it, but “I know it when I see it.”
The most ironic part is that, in its apparent fetish for unpredictability, Thrones has become wildly predictable. When Ned died, it was a shock. When the Red Wedding took place, it was a shock. But when Oberyn died? The only thing that was shocking was the manner in which it happened. In its sociopathic quest to be “realistic,” it has become unrealistic, because you can bet on the bad thing to happen and be right 90% of the time.
Even if Jon Snow were to be “revived” somehow next season by the Red Priestess Melisandre or some other supernatural means (and I suspect he will) the shock value has already been delivered. And, if Thrones were to bring back one of its main protagonists next season, the only way they could do so is by using magic, something which I think Martin would admit is highly unrealistic. Is this a show with a commitment to realism, which can look down it’s nose at “Disneyland Middle Ages”? Or is this a show about dragons and zombies (White Walkers) and magic? How much of this can be blamed on the TV adaptation rather than the source material? As Christopher Orr said in the Atlantic last week, “Benioff and Weiss lack the subtlety of Martin: They tend to go for bigger, rather than cleverer or more nuanced. This finale offered an awful lot of the former and not much of the latter.”
The early seasons of Thrones were blockbusters because Thrones was a smart, well-written, gritty show about people, Martin’s true “monsters and heroes”. Think back to Ned’s conversation with Varys in the dungeon, or Robb Stark’s “King in the North” moment, or Arya and Syrio Forel, or Cersei’s conversation with Sansa Stark while King’s Landing was under siege, or Arya serving as Tywin Lannister’s servant, or Tywin sparring with Oleanna Tyrell. But you’d be hard pressed to think of a single scene in Season 5 with as much poignancy as any of those.
The acting in Season 5 was the worst it has ever been. The entire plotline in Dorne, and the Sand Snakes, in particular, were so bad that I felt embarrassed just watching it. Characters invented for the show like Olly and Ramsay’s girlfriend Myranda were caricatures, and even the once-mighty Lady Oleanna failed to compel in her meeting with the High Sparrow. Worst of all, Martin, Benioff and Weiss continued to hammer those same chords of horror and shock and violence, and crossed over from avant-garde experimental television to trashy.
I’m still going to watch Game of Thrones, but Season 5 was a big step in the wrong direction.