Tuesday, 9 June 2015

A Farewell to 'Game of Thrones': When Sensationalism Destroys Humanity

This is going to be quite a passionate and personal post, and one which will contain major spoilers for Game of Thrones, not only the current season but also the previous ones. Although this post will focus on the TV shows, rather than the books since I haven't read them, I still feel it is relevant to this blog since I will be writing about the importance of story lines, of character development and of sacrificing emotional depth for sensationalism.

I started watching Game of Thrones shortly before the third season came out and watched the first two seasons within two weeks. Being a major fantasy fan, I initially loved seeing the world that George R.R. Martin had created. His aspiration to create a grittier, more "realistic" version of J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-Earth seemed very successful although I already had my doubts about the interpretation of "realistic" and "true" that were being used by the show-runners. Since I haven't read the Game of Thrones books it is close to impossible for me to judge them and yet it feels as if the author and scriptwriters of the TV show don't have enough faith in the story of their characters to allow those to speak for themselves. In The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion, Tolkien's fantasy world does not lack death, blood or tragedy. Parents lose their children, wives lose their husbands and people die horribly. Peter Jackson didn't shy away from this aspect of the books in his films either and yet it never felt as if he, Phillipa Boyens and Fran Walsh were trying to coerce their audience into understanding that this was a harsh world. When we see Theoden lose his son in The Two Towers the emotion and impact of this moment is portrayed through the acting, music and filming. It is framed by a mother sending her two children away from their village just before it is attacked by Wildlings. As the two children look back, crying, the village goes up in flames. These two events, intertwined, show very clearly that Rohan is a kingdom struck by tragedy in which people die horribly and get separated from those they love. It doesn't have to be explicitly shown to be made clear. Another example is the death of Boromir. In the books he is pierced by many arrows, too many. In the film it is "only" three but it is filmed in a way that clearly shows what the story is trying to say. This moment isn't about how many arrows you can fit into one body. It is about showing a man redeem himself by fighting until his last breath to safe his friends, by fighting on despite knowing it will be the end of him. Had Boromir been slowly ripped apart by one arrow at a time, the scene would have lost this depth and would have become exploitative.

Now, I don't think that everything that isn't PG should be kept off our TV screens. It is important that our media represents what happens in everyday life, whether that is murder, rape or abuse. However, there has to be a purpose to this representation which is not sensationalism because otherwise it is exploitation, not representation. I am not scared of gore. What I have no patience for is gore for the sake of shocking your audience into being emotionally involved. Who can't help but feel for characters who lose everything? When I was young I saw the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan which showed the landing on Omaha Beach by the Allied Forces. For 27 long minutes Spielberg showed the intensity and brutality of war, yet it never feels as if Spielberg is taking advantage of this tragic moment of history because his characters remain human. Spielberg wants to show his audience the tragedy of war because it informs his characters and their desperation to find the last surviving Ryan. The rest of the film is relatively battle-free since Spielberg has made his point about war and what it does to humans. No one comes out of these battles successfully because that kind of violence damages a person. This is where Game of Thrones has missed the moment to stop.

Game of Thrones has been violent from the very beginning yet I never understood until now how unrealistic this violence is. The show has frequently been described as being 'brutally realistic' in its representations of war, revenge and the consequences those two have. Yet the brutality which David Benioff, D.B. Weiss and George R.R. Martin throw at their characters is in no way matched by emotional development. Let's look at the character which triggered my slow departure from the Game of Thrones-fandom: Sansa Stark. She started off as a precocious young girl whose head was full of dreams about princes and princesses. This was quickly followed by her disillusionment in her fiancée, the beheading of her father, the disappearance of the rest of her family from her life followed by the respective death of most of them. Emotionally and physically abused by her then fiancée and his mother, she was married off and then made complicit in a murder. This all happened within a few years. These events don't replace the need for character development because these kinds of experiences don't build character. A person doesn't automatically grow from being abused. Years and years of work go into being able to come with being abused. Throughout the last four seasons I had been hoping for Sansa to be able to get away, yet she was barely fifteen by the time most of this had happened.

The fact that the actress playing her now is now nineteen shouldn't make a difference although it does since it makes it easier for the audience to accept what is happening to the character. In her current environment there is no chance for Sansa to work on her experiences and to try and overcome them. Instead, more abuse will be heaped on her and at this point I have started to want her to lash out, to take revenge, showing exactly how this show has become unrealistic. As an audience, we don't want these characters to be whole and sane anymore. We want them to take their part in this inhuman violence and a consequence of this will be that either the characters become utterly unrealistic in how they cope with their own backstory or become utterly depraved and disgusting. Already there are too many characters which I can't root for or even look at because they have done disgusting things.

An added frustration is that this incredible violence is largely directed towards women. It is women who suffer most at the hands of men and other women, whether it's Cersei putting Sansa down or Viserys using Danaerys as nothing more than a bargaining chip. Last week's episode, Dance of Dragons, was a painful example of the skewed gender representation that this show is currently playing with. On the one hand we were shown the burning at the stake of a young innocent girl and a pedophile getting away with raping a little girl. On the other hand Danaerys was shown to take a major step towards accepting her destiny and becoming a major player in the Game. Each week Benioff and Weiss take advantage of the female body, either as a visual distraction or as a torture device. Female characters are made to suffer "in order to grow" whereas male characters get to have moral victories and redemption stories. Just look at the character of Jon Snow. How can he live in the same world as Sansa Stark, his half-sister? How can he still have the moral willpower to forgive Wildlings and save their lives when his sisters have surely lost any idea of what is wrong and what is right due to their experiences? Just because you give us a female character triumphing over her surroundings, despite making her suffer through rape and emotional abuse as well, doesn't mean that you can pretend the surroundings are fine and can even be considered good. I have heard that many things have been changed from Martin's books and that many female characters have had their wings clipped or have been erased completely. All I can say is that it has come to the point where I feel offended by the way women are dealt with on Game of Thrones.

Watching the last three Game of Thrones episodes I have come to realize that I have been deluding myself. The thin layer of female empowerment doesn't make up for the consistent abuse of women in the show. The veneer of humanity and honour which the characters wear doesn't make up for the fact that the character's actions present Westeros as an evil world in which humanity cannot survive. I am not willing to watch a TV show in which humanity is left behind for the sake of drawing in ratings. I don't want to watch a TV show in which a father burns his daughter and successfully moves closer towards his goal of becoming king without breaking down. I can't support a TV show in which women have to suffer horrific abuse to find their place among the "heroes" who committed this abuse. It is morally corrupt and I want no part in it. It will be hard not to watch the show because I have seen these characters go through too much suffering to not hope for a good resolution. But in a world where these things happen, I don't believe there can be a good ending, let alone a happy one.


  1. I haven't watched ths season and don't think I will. I watched season one before I read the book. One scene that really bothered me was the consummation of the marriage of Kal Drogo and Danaerys. On the show it is a rape of a young girl and it really bothered me. I didn't understand how she grew to love him. In the book it is described as a loving scene and not a rape at all. I haven't read the rest of the books but I've heard that this happens often.
    I also don't like the show throwing in naked women as set dressing all the time.
    I want to know what happens at the end of the story but I don't want to watch.

    1. Yes, for instance:
      - Jamie raping Cersei - did not happen in the books (the director actually said it wasn't supposed to be rape in the show though... so, they accidentally shot a rape scene?! How does that even happen?)
      - Sansa being raped by Ramsay - doesn't happen, the entire illogical storyline of Sansa marrying Ramsay does not happen. Sansa's storyline has been butchered on the show, in the books she is in a very different place (both literally and figuratively) and has been developing as a character in an interesting way. Yes, there is a minor character who marries Ramsay and gets raped and abused, but that storyline makes a lot more sense, and it is not the only thing that happens in Winterfell in the books. They cut everything else from that story from the book (political tension, murder mystery, Theon's psychological journey of self-discovery), and the only plot point they left is that Ramsay rapes his wife (only they made it Sansa, because female characters are apparently interchangeable). And they made Ramsay the protagonist of the Winterfell storyline, practically. It's all about him now and other characters are servicing him.
      - Stannis burning Shireen - does not happen in any of the books so far. It's unclear if something like this will or won't happen in future books.

  2. I read the books once upon a time, but found I couldn't stand to watch the show (I have only seen the very first episode) because I hated almost every character so much that I couldn't stand to look at them on screen. I suppose that in reading them I was able to keep a certain mental distance. But on screen? And with all the stuff that sounds like it has been happening in the last season, *shudder* I am very glad I have kept away.

    1. The characters on the show really aren't the characters from the books. They have almost all been changed beyond recognition (and many of them have been turned into cliches). The only major character the show didn't screw up was... Ned Stark. That's the good thing about dying early in the series, when the show was still faithful to the books.

  3. I couldn't agree with you more! I felt the same way about Reign's last season. I'm not sure if you watch it, but there was a rape and, at first, audiences applauded the writers for being real about how the victim might handle it. Eventually it just became a plot device and an excuse for bad behavior and now everyone is pretty pissed about it.

    Game of Thrones caught my attention right from the beginning. I loved every single episode and, yes, the violence really did have a wow factor that kept me interested. But after awhile it started getting ridiculous. At this point I've basically stopped watching because it's soooooo dragged out. It's like nothing happens for an entire episode, people are tortured/killed/raped/etc, and then it's over. It's not exciting anymore. Like you said, it's exploitative.

    Tracy @ Cornerfolds