The graphic arts of “Game of Thrones.”
by Emily Nussbaum
For critics, sorting through television pilots is an act of triage. Last year, when “Game of Thrones” landed on my desk, I skimmed two episodes and made a quick call: we’d have to let this one go. The HBO series, based on the best-selling fantasy books by George R. R. Martin, looked as if it were another guts-and-corsets melodrama, like “The Borgias,” or that other one. In the première, a ten-year-old boy was shoved out of a tower window. The episode climaxed with what might be described as an Orientalist gang rape / wedding dance. I figured I might catch up later, if the buzz was good.
It was the right decision, even if I made it for the wrong reason. “Game of Thrones” is an ideal show to binge-watch on DVD: with its cliffhangers and Grand Guignol dazzle, it rewards a bloody, committed immersion in its foreign world—and by this I mean not only the medieval-ish landscape of Westeros (the show’s mythical realm) but the genre from which it derives. Fantasy—like television itself, really—has long been burdened with audience condescension: the assumption that it’s trash, or juvenile, something intrinsically icky and low. Several reviews of “Game of Thrones” have taken this stance, including two notable writeups in the Times: Ginia Bellafante sniffed that the show was “boy fiction” and Neil Genzlinger called it “vileness for voyeurism’s sake,” directed at “Dungeons & Dragons types.”
It’s true that “Game of Thrones” is unusually lurid, even within the arms race of pay cable: the show is so graphic that it was parodied on “Saturday Night Live,” with a “behind-the-scenes” skit in which a horny thirteen-year-old boy acted as a consultant. To watch it, you must steel yourself for baby-stabbing, as well as rat torture and murder by molten gold. But, once I began sliding in disks in a stupor, it became clear that, despite the show’s Maltese vistas and asymmetrical midriff tops, this was not really an exotic property. To the contrary, “Game of Thrones” is the latest entry in television’s most esteemed category: the sophisticated cable drama about a patriarchal subculture. This phenomenon launched with “The Sopranos,” but it now includes shows such as “Deadwood,” “Mad Men,” “Downton Abbey,” and “Big Love.” Each of these acclaimed series is a sprawling, multi-character exploration of a closed, often violent hierarchical system. These worlds are picturesque, elegantly filmed, and ruled by rigid etiquette—lit up, for viewers, by the thrill of seeing brutality enforced (or, in the case of “Downton Abbey,” a really nice house kept in the family). And yet the undergirding strength of each series is its insight into what it means to be excluded from power: to be a woman, or a bastard, or a “half man.”
The first season of “Game of Thrones” built up skillfully, sketching in ten episodes a conflict among the kingdoms of Westeros, each its own philosophical ecosystem. There were the Northern Starks, led by the gruffly ethical Ned Stark and his dignified wife, Catelyn, and their gruffly ethical and dignified children. There were the Southern Lannisters, a crowd of high-cheekboned beauties (and one lusty dwarf, played by the lust-worthy Peter Dinklage), who form a family constellation so twisted, charismatic, and cruel that it rivals “Flowers in the Attic” for blond dysfunction. Across the sea, there were the Dothraki, a Hun-like race of horseman warriors, whose brutal ruler, Drogo, took the delicate, unspellable Daenerys as a bride. A teen girl traded like currency by her brother, Daenerys was initiated into marriage through rape; in time, she began to embrace both that marriage and her desert queenhood. (Although the cast is mostly white, the dusky-race aesthetics of the Dothraki sequences are head-clutchingly problematic.) By the finale, she was standing naked in the desert—widowed, traumatized, but triumphant, with three baby dragons crawling over her like vines. (This quick summary doesn’t capture the complexity of the series’ ensemble, which rivals a Bosch painting: there’s also the whispery eunuch Spider; a scheming brothel owner named Littlefinger; and a ketchup-haired sorceress who gives birth to shadow babies.)
In the season’s penultimate episode, the show made a radical move: it killed off the protagonist. On a public stage, Ned Stark was beheaded, on the orders of the teen-age sadist King Joffrey, a sequence edited with unusual beauty and terror—birds fluttering in the air, a hushed soundtrack, and a truly poignant shot from Ned’s point of view, as he looked out toward his two daughters. This primal act suggested the limits of ethical behavior in a brutalized universe, and also dramatized the show’s vision of what aristocracy means: a succession of domestic traumas, as each new regent dispatches threats to his bloodline. (Or, as Joffrey’s mother, Cersei, puts it, kinghood means “lying on a bed of weeds, ripping them out one by one, before they strangle you in your sleep.”) It demonstrated, too, a willingness to risk alienating its audience.
This season, early episodes have suggested the outlines of a developing war, hopping among a confusing selection of Starks, semi-Starks, and members of the Baratheon clan. (There are so many musky twenty-something men with messy hair that a friend joked they should start an artisanal pickle factory in Red Hook.) Greater than the threat of war is the danger that, in time, the television adaptation may come to feel not so much epic as simply elephantine. Still, the most compelling plots remain those of the subalterns, who are forced to wield power from below. These characters range from heroic figures like the tomboy Arya Stark to villains like Littlefinger, but even the worst turn out to have psychic wounds that complicate their actions. If the show has a hero, it’s Tyrion (Dinklage), who is capable of cruelty but also possesses insight and empathy, concealed beneath a carapace of Wildean wit. So far, his strategic gifts have proved more effective than the torture-with-rats approach. Power is “a trick, a shadow on the wall,” the eunuch tells Tyrion. “And a very small man can cast a very large shadow.”
Then, of course, there are the whores. From the start, the show has featured copious helpings of pay-cable nudity, much of it in scenes that don’t strictly require a woman to display her impressive butt dimples as the backdrop for a monologue about kings. (The most common fan idiom for these sequences is “sexposition,” but I’ve also seen them referred to as “data humps.”) These scenes are at once a turn-on and a turn-off. At times, I found myself marvelling at the way that HBO has solved the riddle of its own economic existence, merging “Hookers at the Point” with quasi-Shakespearean narrative. In the most egregious instance so far, Littlefinger tutored two prostitutes in how to moan in fake lesbianism for their customers, even as they moaned in fake lesbianism for us—a real Uroboros of titillation.
Viewed in another light, however, these sex scenes aren’t always so gratuitous. Like “Mad Men,” “Game of Thrones” is elementally concerned with the way that meaningful consent dissolves when female bodies are treated as currency. War means raping the enemy’s women; princesses go for a higher price, because their wombs are the coin of the realm, cementing strategic alliances. It helps that the narrative is equally fascinated by the ways in which women secure authority, and even pleasure, within these strictures, and that in the second season its bench of female characters has got even deeper—among them, a seafaring warrior princess, a butch knight, and Tyrion’s prostitute girlfriend.
“Game of Thrones” is not coy about the way the engine of misogyny can grind the fingers of those who try to work it in their favor. An episode two weeks ago featured a sickening sequence in which King Joffrey ordered one prostitute—a character the audience had grown to care about—to rape another. The scenario might have been scripted by Andrea Dworkin; it seemed designed not to turn viewers on but to confront them with the logical endgame of this pornographic system. It echoed a very similar line-crossing moment in “The Sopranos,” when Ralphie beat a pregnant Bada Bing girl to death. But while the scene may have been righteous in theory, in practice it was jarring, and slightly incoherent, particularly since it included the creamy nudity we’ve come to expect as visual dessert.
As with “True Blood,” the show’s most graphic elements—the cruel ones, the fantasy ones, and the cruel-fantasy ones—speak to female as well as male viewers. (One of the nuttiest quotes I’ve ever read came from Alan Ball, “True Blood” ’s showrunner, who said that a focus group had revealed that men watched his series for the sex and women for the romance. Please.) But there is something troubling about this sea of C.G.I.-perfect flesh, shaved and scentless and not especially medieval. It’s unsettling to recall that these are not merely pretty women; they are unknown actresses who must strip, front and back, then mimic graphic sex and sexual torture, a skill increasingly key to attaining employment on cable dramas. During the filming of the second season, an Irish actress walked off the set when her scene shifted to what she termed “soft porn.” Of course, not everyone strips: there are no truly explicit scenes of gay male sex, fewer lingering shots of male bodies, and the leading actresses stay mostly buttoned up. Artistically, “Game of Thrones” is in a different class from “House of Lies,” “Californication,” and “Entourage.” But it’s still part of another colorful patriarchal subculture, the one called Los Angeles.