Like many pop culture writers these days, I’ve spent an unhealthy amount of time considering the Internet’s complicated, rapidly evolving relationship with Game of Thrones. Many reviewers and commenters appear to have soured on HBO’s landmark fantasy drama lately, frustrated with its unceasing — and arguably senseless — violence, the treatment of female characters, needless or botched divergences from the source material,
and a lack of Bran.
Sunday’s episode, which included an agonizing scene where Stannis Baratheon burns his adorable young daughter alive in order to further his chances of capturing the Iron Throne, rekindled the angry criticisms temporarily quelled by the uniformly praised “Hardhome.” Variations on the following cropped up across the blogosphere and in many mainstream publications:
“This violence is too much. I’ve stomached it for years but I’m done with this show now.”
“There’s no narrative reason they needed to kill her, especially in such a heartless manner. It’s a pointless change from the book that did nothing to advance the plot.”
“Game of Thrones is just shocks for the sake of being shocking. Happens every ninth episode. I’m done.”
Similar sentiments have hounded Game of Thrones all season. How does the television’s most popular property find itself in the Internet’s version of a Meereenese fighting pit, surrounded on all sides by outraged viewers armed with boycott threats and demands for showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss to justify their decision making? And why now, when these same abhorrent acts have been ingrained in the show’s DNA since its inception and around in book form for almost a quarter century? Hard to pinpoint. This is one of the stranger pop-culture trends to diagnose largely because the critiques feel simultaneously hypocritical and valid.
Rape is terrible. Slavery is terrible. Violence against other human beings is terrible. Casually objectifying women is terrible. Endless depictions of these horrific events during a Sunday evening television show can unsettle even the most desensitized viewers. Pretending otherwise is disingenuous.
Yet these same condemnations aren’t often leveled against other intense popular “prestige” dramas like Justified (“I disarmed him”), Breaking Bad (Meth Damon: kid killer), Fargo (hammerhead) or The Americans (entire family executed on vacation). The Walking Dead — which had its central character shoot a young zombie girl in the forehead before the opening credits rolled on the pilot episode — might be even bleaker and bloodier than the HBO series without generating a fraction of the firestorm. Their revolving door of showrunners aren’t asked to defend why a walker dined on a redshirt’s face or this scene NEEDED to be included for narrative purposes.
(trigger warning for violence and fans of baseball teams mired in hitting slumps)
The Walking Dead is held to a different standard than Game of Thrones, certainly. But we shouldn’t grade objectionable content on a curve. Senseless brutality is senseless brutality. Game of Thrones is far from the only culprit, but you’d never know based the on the disproportionate amount of disparagement it receives online.
Since we’re making lists, there’s another Sunday night show that didn’t face Game of Thrones season five-level scorn: Game of Thrones, circa 2011-2014. Back then we couldn’t get enough beheadings, savage battles, sexposition or agonizing unforeseen plot points. The pilot episode began with two beheadings and concluded with a man pushing a child out of a tower window because the child accidentally caught the man trying to fuck his sister. Between then and now we’ve seen children systematically exterminated because they shared blood with a dead king, prostitutes choked, beaten and riddled with arrows, innocent kids burned alive so a weak leader could appear strong, that same weak leader later getting castrated at the hands of a renowned sadist, and beloved and loathed characters alike meet horrible, skull-shattering ends — including a pregnant woman being STABBED TO DEATH IN THE STOMACH at a wedding — all of which resulted in high ratings and unprecedented mainstream popularity.
Imagine if Stannis burned Shireen in season three and last Sunday’s episode ended with a popular, good-hearted character and his beautiful pregnant bride being slaughtered at a wedding. Sadly, you wouldn’t be able to share your reactions across interconnected online networks for long, because the heat from the reactionary rage-fueled think pieces would be enough to reduce the Internet’s very core to molten goo. Every one of the paraphrased denunciations above could just as easily be attributed to “Rains of Castamere:” the sequence unfolded differently from page to screen, the showrunners viciously killed a female character without a great “reason,” it was the third consecutive penultimate episode to conclude with a startling, game-changing event.
Most of us were too busy enjoying the ever-living shit out of the scene — and non-book-readers’ reactions — to bother. Certainly, some viewers revolted after the Red Wedding, but their objections failed to penetrate the pop culture bubble. United States senators weren’t announcing boycotts. Websites weren’t suspending — then quickly reinstating — Game of Thrones coverage. A think-piece avalanche didn’t sweep down the mountainside to bury Benioff and Weiss for their irresponsible viciousness. Today, angry viewers don’t even seem willing to entertain the possibility that this season’s questionable scene are justified, let alone believe Shireen’s death or Sansa’s rape serve any purpose.
Game of Thrones is getting crushed for embracing the same themes, tones and plots that attracted a gargantuan, passionate audience in the first place. The series hasn’t become more grotesque in the last year. We’ve changed. Maybe five years of accumulated cruelty takes a toll. Maybe isolated high-profile criticisms created the opening apprehensive fans needed to feel comfortable voicing their simmering concerns. Or maybe controversial Game of Thrones scenes are the perpetual outrage society’s latest target. Probably all of the above.
There’s another explanation, though, one I haven’t seen mentioned: the uptick in criticism is directly related to problematic source material. Books four and five just aren’t very good compared to what’s come before, and George R.R. Martin’s flaws become the series’. Fewer captivating plotlines accentuate the show’s deficiencies. We’re less willing to look past rape or violence or pointless nudity when they act as substitutes for compelling drama rather than stepping stones to rewarding dramatic payoffs. Or to put in more callously: this stuff is the cost of doing business provided we’re entertained.
At the risk of incurring A.O. Scott’s wrath, Game of Thrones is what it is five seasons in. It’s not going to shy away from provocative moments, for better or worse. Demanding that Benioff and Weiss justify every contentious scene to the Internet’s satisfaction is a dangerous precedent with little payoff. Not every show is for everybody. We vote with eyeballs and remote controls. If some viewers don’t enjoy spending an hour a week in this world, walking away is a simple and arguably admirable option. Otherwise, it’s time to accept Game of Thrones is a frequently unpleasant, morally challenging series, and will almost assuredly remain so through its final scene.