Is Game of Thrones Too Brutal?

[This article contains extensive and detailed discussions of key events from the fifth season of Game of Thrones and therefore contains spoilers]

The fifth season of Game of Thrones, one of my favourite shows on TV right now and also one of the most violent, has just come to an end and I’m not really sure what to make of it. Although this season contained all of the incredible character moments, the compelling political intrigue and the epic battles that the show has become known and loved for (and then some!), the recent batch of episodes did leave me with a bit of a bad taste in my mouth. The show is produced by HBO and therefore has the freedom to throw in as much violence, nudity and profanity as it pleases, a freedom it has never shied away from using. This season the show really outdid itself in this department, resulting in both positive and negative feedback from critics and fans. I don’t consider myself particularly sensitive or squeamish when it comes to violence on film and TV, but I have to admit that I found myself quite unsettled by some of the dark turn of events that took place this season.

HBO has a history of making brutal and violent shows and in turn has received much critical acclaim (Deadwood, The Wire), widespread popularity (True Blood, True Detective) and many prestigious accolades (The Sopranos, Band of Brothers). However the creative freedom that HBO allows can be something of a double-edged sword. On one hand it is this freedom that allows these shows to explore mature and complex themes in ways that are too dark and explicit for network television. On the other hand the showrunners are liable to get carried away with the sex, violence and language in their shows to the extent that they become gratuitous. Game of Thrones embraces all three aspects of this censorship trinity and has proven to be one of HBO’s most popular and successful shows. However many viewers, including myself, are starting to wonder whether Game of Thrones has gone too far this time. The absence of censorship is all well and good but starts to become a concern when it hinders the audience’s ability to actually enjoy the show. Thus the question I find myself asking is this: where does one draw the line between entertainment and brutality?

It is quite a tough question and I’m not sure there is a clear answer. Everyone is different and therefore the extent to which someone can cope with the brutality of a show such as this one without losing their capacity for enjoyment will differ from person to person. There does appear to be a sort of consensus amongst people which holds that a film as brutal as A Clockwork Orange is acceptable whereas a film as brutal as The Human Centipede is not. However any attempt to draw out a spectrum between these two films would likely prove fruitless, given that films are variable and complex in their own ways and cannot be broken down into a graph of ones and zeroes. It is instead a matter of tackling each individual film by its own unique merits and weaknesses and attempting to form a reasoned and informed judgement based on what one considers to be too violent. Everyone will likely have their own opinions on this matter but I personally think that this question comes down to whether the violence is actually called for in terms of serving the narrative or if it is simply thrown in there as a form of gratuity, exploitation or glamorisation. I will attempt to apply this approach to Game of Thrones.

One thing that has always been clear about Game of Thrones from day one is that this is a hard, dangerous world where cruel and brutal things happen every day and where sick and depraved people do twisted and terrible things. The first episode alone contains blood and gore, decapitation, incest, disembowelment, rape and attempted infanticide. Therefore a certain degree of violence and brutality is required in order to maintain that same tone throughout the series. However there is definitely such a thing as taking it too far, something that Game of Thrones can at least be accused of doing in the past. Were all of the torture scenes with Theon Greyjoy really necessary? Was the scene in which Jaime raped Cersei too exploitative? Was Oberryn Martell’s gory death a bit much? I want to be clear that I’m not objecting to the inclusion of violence and brutality since a certain level is indeed required to serve the show’s purposes. What I object to is the exploitation of violence and brutality, the idea of including excessive violence for its own sake in order to capitalise on it. That, I think, is the point when a film or a TV series ceases to be compelling or entertaining and instead becomes uncomfortable and even horrifying. Whether or not Game of Thrones has actually done that is the point I wish to discuss.

During the fifth season there were two particular scenes that I had an uneasy time watching. The first was when Ramsay Bolton raped Sansa Stark on their wedding night while Reek watched in horror. The second was when Shireen was burnt on the stake by Melisandre while her father Stannis Baratheon watched coldly and mercilessly. Both scenes depict cruel and destructive acts being committed upon two of the most innocent and virtuous characters on the show. As opposed to the other acts of brutality that took place this season such as the burning of Mance Rayder, Arya’s revenge on Meryn Trant and Cersei’s walk of atonement, those were the two scenes that really unsettled me. Perhaps it is because all of those other scenes had a certain amount of justice in them that balanced out the brutality whereas these two depicted pure, absolute acts of brutality. Maybe the reason I found those two particular scenes so unsettling is because of how disturbing they were as opposed to how violent they were.

The obvious counter argument to this is that these scenes are supposed to be brutal and disturbing and that I am therefore not supposed to enjoy them. It is a fair argument but I’m not sure it is a substantial one. When the Red Wedding took place in season 3, I certainly cannot say that I enjoyed it but I did think it was a compelling twist to the story. Nobody saw it coming and yet there was a clear course of cause and effect from as early as the first season building up to it. As brutal as it was, it made perfect sense within the context of the show’s narrative and so I found myself more willing to accept it. It also did a great job of serving the show’s narrative by bringing Robb’s and Catelyn’s stories to a fitting (if brutal) end, by establishing just how far the Lannisters’ influence really reached, and by reinforcing once and for all the notion that none of the characters on this show are safe. It was harrowing to watch but it nevertheless worked. I am now going to look at those other two scenes from season 5 in context and in greater depth and shall attempt to assess how well they fit within the show’s narrative.

The rape of Sansa Stark was met with a lot of backlash and it isn’t difficult to see why. It was an incredibly dark turn of events, even by the show’s standards, and many felt it to be an exploitative scene, much like in season 4 when Jaime raped Cersei. One of the show’s producers explained the reason for its inclusion, saying that Sansa was making a choice in that scene to endure this brutality at the hands of Ramsay Bolton because that was the price of returning to her home in Winterfell. That certainly doesn’t make it ok or justified; it is simply the reality of her situation. Therefore, as difficult as I found it to watch that scene, I must admit that I do think it fits within the show’s narrative. I also think that the show took adequate measures to portray the scene with as much sensitivity and tact as it could. The scene itself is not particularly graphic nor do we actually see the deed being committed. As brutal and as disturbing as that scene was, I do not think it was exploitative.

Perhaps a question worth considering is this: what would be the implications of not including that scene in the show? It is undoubtedly clear to anyone who watches the show that the union between Sansa and Ramsay is not going to be a happy one. It therefore would not have been a stretch for the audience to fill in the blanks themselves had the show decided to spare the details of their wedding night. However would such an approach have been sufficient for serving the show’s purposes or would it be a case of ignoring the elephant in the room? Would such an approach have been interpreted by the audience as holding back on unnecessary, exploitative brutality, or would it have instead been viewed as diminishing or even ignoring a character’s profound suffering? Such questions can only ever be speculative but I do think they are worth considering.

The second scene that really unsettled me was the burning of Shireen Baratheon. Her screams of terror still give me chills, a testament to Kerry Ingram’s superb performance in that scene. As I watched it however, I got the feeling that the scene was more about Stannis than anyone else. Throughout the show Stannis has been portrayed as a model of honour and integrity. He was the first to enter and the last to leave during the assault of King’s Landing, he prudently exercises justice with the faithful Davos serving as both an example to others and as his fiercest supporter, and he even shows himself to be a loving father with a profound level of affection for his daughter. However coupled with his dignified persona is the corrosive influence of Melisandre that has slowly but surely corrupted the man that he used to be. It is by her counsel that he resorted to baser tactics to secure the Iron Throne, that he used dark magic to murder his brother, and that he was ready to offer Gendry as a sacrifice to the Lord of Light. His decision to sacrifice his own daughter in order to secure a victory in the upcoming battle marks his breaking point and ultimate fall from grace. The Stannis Baratheon who held Storm’s End during Robert’s Rebellion is dead.

Although there is a case of cause and effect building up to this event, I actually found it to be pretty rushed. In the fourth episode we were treated to a touching scene in which Stannis proves his love and devotion to his daughter. Five episodes later we see Stannis recant on the promises he made to Shireen and betray her. I don’t think the show really made ample use of the time between those two episodes to really substantiate Stannis’ decision. It almost felt like he changed his mind overnight, which is perhaps why I found the cruelty and the brutality of that scene to be so shocking. I similarly found Selyse’s sudden repentance to be somewhat abrupt and didn’t really feel like it was earned. Overall it made me feel like the inclusion of Shireen’s death was almost thrown in at the last minute, even though I’ve come to understand that it will in fact be featured in Martin’s upcoming Winds of Winter. What seems odd and even paradoxical to me is that this scene somehow felt even more brutal because of how rushed it was than it might have been if there had been a more substantial build-up and a more even execution.

So, with all of that said, the question still remains. Has Game of Thrones gone too far with its brutality? When all is said and done, the only conclusion I can really reach is the underwhelming declaration ‘it depends’. There is no doubt that the show has taken its brutality to a new level this season by allowing two of its most vulnerable and fragile characters to fall victim to the wrath and depravity of those who are stronger and more powerful than they are. The show has victimised innocents before, but never to this extent. Whether or not this level of brutality is too much though really depends on the viewer. It could be argued that the show is actively trying to make itself more violent and more brutal in order to keep its audience on edge. However my earlier discussion of those two scenes has hopefully shown that even they have their places within the story and do serve the narrative in their own ways. Even if the show has opted to be more gratuitous with its violence, the writers are at least smart and skilful enough not to throw them in without giving due process to the story and the characters involved, even if the execution is not always done particularly well.

Often when the show is accused of taking the violence too far, defenders of the show will contend that the books are even more brutal. There is definitely a lot of truth to this. What follows is a passage from A Storm of Swords: Blood and Gold that takes place during the Red Wedding.

“The tears burned like vinegar as they ran down her cheeks. Ten fierce ravens were raking her face with sharp talons and tearing off strips of flesh, leaving deep furrows that ran red with blood. She could taste it on her lips.

(…)

The white tears and the red ones ran together until her face was torn and tattered, the face that Ned had loved. Catelyn Stark raised her hands and watched the blood run down her long fingers, over her wrists, beneath the sleeves of her gown. Slow red worms crawled along her arms and under her clothes. It tickles. That made her laugh until she screamed”.

I for one think that the imagery provided by Martin is much more brutal than what the show did. While the show depicts Catelyn Stark as being overwhelmed by despair upon witnessing the death of her son, the book shows her becoming manic and ripping her own face to shreds. The same is true in many other instances including the above-mentioned scene involving Ramsay Bolton. Even though his brutal act is not inflicted upon Sansa in the books, it still happens to another character in an even more brutal fashion along with some incredibly disturbing implications. It must however be acknowledged that TV and literature are two different mediums entirely. In the absence of any visual devices, Martin is required to be as elaborate as possible with his imagery in order to provide as clear and coherent a picture as possible. It also means that he can more easily get away with ideas that would otherwise be unacceptable on film and TV since his words are only as powerful as the reader’s imagination. Game of Thrones has to be more careful in this regard since what they show is exactly what the viewer will see. Neither way is necessarily better, it’s just how they work.

Beyond that I don’t feel I can really give a more definitive answer to the question. I think there is a real case to be made that perhaps the violence and brutality of Game of Thrones has grown more gratuitous over the course of its five seasons, but I don’t think they’ve gone much beyond the level they require to serve their narrative purposes. Having thought a great deal about what they have elected to include, I don’t really feel the brutality of this show has ever gone to the lengths of becoming exploitative or glamorous, both of which I think would be much more worrisome than gratuity. Game of Thrones is nevertheless one of the most brutal shows on TV right now and is not for the faint-hearted. Whether or not the show is too brutal is up to the individual viewer to decide. I for one am eagerly anticipating the next season and look forward to seeing where the show goes next. In the meantime I will continue to hope that things do eventually get better for the people of Westeros.

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Jurassic World

Cast: Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Vincent D’Onofrio, Ty Simpkins, Nick Robinson, Omar Sy, BD Wong, Irrfan Khan

Director: Colin Trevorrow

Writers: Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Derek Connolly, Colin Trevorrow


Jurassic World is a film that has a lot to live up to. Its predecessor Jurassic Park is a universally beloved and acclaimed film that pretty much sets the standard for what a perfect summer blockbuster should be. It was fun, it was exciting and it gave the audience something that they had never seen before. This film is so affectionately regarded by most who have seen it that the audience expectation for this follow-up was a complex mixture of hopeful anticipation and callous scepticism. I think that just about everyone waiting to see this film wants to like it, but we have been burnt twice before. Therefore it’s easy to have our reactions clouded by our desires to both love and hate this film. I personally expected this film to fall somewhere in the middle, not amazing but not terrible either. In the end what I expected was mostly what I got but the film also did something that I wasn’t expecting at all, something I’ll get back to later. I don’t think this film lived up to the original (and perhaps it never could) but I still had fun watching it and think it is a worthy sequel.

Many years after the incident in the original film, the park is now open, is fully functional, and is a huge success. However the park’s popularity is waning as people are starting to get bored of dinosaurs, a temperament that I felt was very true to the spirit of this age. Therefore the park’s manager Clare Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) and the owner Simon Masrani (Irrfan Khan) hope to invigorate public interest by using gene-splicing to create new breeds of dinosaurs. Meanwhile Vic Hoskins (Vincent D’Onofrio), the head of InGen security, comes to the park and proposes that the dinosaurs be trained as military weapons. He is rebuked by Owen (Chris Pratt), a raptor trainer who maintains that dinosaurs cannot be tamed or controlled but are instead fierce and intelligent creatures that can only be approached through a relationship of mutual respect. Shortly after Clare’s nephews Zach (Nick Robinson) and Gray (Ty Simpkins) arrive at the park, chaos ensues when the new genetically engineered Indominus rex escapes from captivity and wreaks havoc across the entire island.

This is a flawed film, there’s no getting around that. The characters for the most part are pretty basic and underdeveloped. Clare in particular is very uninspired as an uptight, frigid woman who gets a lot of flack from the film despite being smart, independent and successful. Owen is essentially the only character to even be given a story-arc as he seeks to understand the nature of the dinosaurs and what sort of relationships human beings can share with them. The story is a bit sketchy but I do think it works considering the type of film Jurassic World is trying to be. There are plenty of holes and flaws to criticise but there are also some clever ideas that I felt redeemed many of the film’s misgivings. The best parts of the film are the action scenes involving the dinosaurs. These scenes are fun to watch, they’re ripe with tension and they’re even executed in new and creative ways as opposed to recycling the sequences from the original film. It could be argued that the film goes overboard sometimes (one character death springs to mind that felt to me like overkill) but I was still very much entertained by what I saw.

However what really astounded me was that this film did something I did not expect at all. It actually felt like a Jurassic Park film. It actually captured the same sense of awe and wonder, the same balance of violence and playfulness and the same epic scale as the original classic, albeit to a much lesser extent. The characters are not as memorable, the tension is not as palpable and the sense of wonder is not as astonishing, but the feeling is still there. There is a lot in this film that contributes towards capturing this effect such as the inclusion of the John Williams theme and the allusions towards the events of the original film. More than anything though it is the visual spectacle that was able to convey the sense of grandeur and wonderment that the first film had originally created. It may not have been as strong or as potent as what Jurassic Park created but it nevertheless gave this film a certain dimension that made it feel like part of a bigger whole. It was this dimension that inspired my inner child’s nostalgia and whimsicality and that gradually drew me into this film.

I get the feeling that the audience’s reaction to this film is going to be very much split. Those who have seen Jurassic Park are inevitably going to hold it as the definitive standard, a standard to which this film does not ultimately measure up. Whether or not they feel Jurassic World holds up as a worthy sequel depends on what they expect from it. Those who expect this film to measure up to the quality of the first film (or, dare I say, surpass it) will be disappointed. Those who are looking for a fun and entertaining film that captures the same tone as the original, even if it is to a lesser extent, will I think be satisfied. I’d like to think that younger children who perhaps have not seen the original film might be able to experience that same sensation of awe and wonder that the first film inspired. However the film does make a point of how dinosaurs have ceased to be a sensation and that children are no longer awe-struck by them. I suspect that this comment is an allusion to the state of films in general where CGI blockbusters have become such a norm that the visual spectacles they create hardly even register with viewers anymore. Gone are the days when Jurassic Park was the biggest and most breathtaking film of its kind and where CGI dinosaurs were the most incredible visual simulations imaginable. Even though films with new and innovative ideas are still being offered, Hollywood has reached a stage where it has all (to a certain extent) been done before. It is small wonder then that Jurassic World has found it so difficult to distinguish itself this summer.

★★★

San Andreas

Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Carla Gugino, Alexandra Daddario, Hugo Johnstone-Burt, Art Parkinson, Ioan Gruffudd, Archie Panjabi, Paul Giamatti, Will Yun Lee, Kylie Minogue

Director: Brad Peyton

Writer: Carlton Cuse


This is the kind of film I usually find difficult to review because I’m never sure what to say about them. I walked into San Andreas expecting to see a mildly entertaining blockbuster with decent visuals but very little in the way of characters and story and that is exactly what I got. I have little more to say about it beyond that because this film did very little for me. In all honesty I’ve barely even thought about it since watching it. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I disliked it. I think that San Andreas is fine for what it is and will please any viewer looking for a simple summer blockbuster to entertain them for a couple of hours. I did watch the film in IMAX (the first such occasion for me) and certainly found the visuals to be impressive. However I didn’t really feel that the film was any sort of an experience for me in the way that a more dynamic and technically realised film such as Gravity might have been. All the same I have a review to write and a word count to meet so I’ll attempt to discuss this film in greater depth and provide more of an idea of what one can expect from it.

The film follows Ray (Dwayne Johnson), a helicopter-rescue pilot for the Los Angeles Fire Department whose personal life is falling apart. His wife Emma (Carla Gugino) is leaving him, his daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario) is about to head off for college, and he is haunted by his own guilt for a traumatising event in his past. Meanwhile the seismologist Lawrence Hayes (Paul Giamatti) makes a groundbreaking discovery in earthquake prediction only to discover that the San Andreas Fault is about to experience an earthquake of catastrophic proportions. When the earthquake hits Ray sets out to save his wife and daughter from the destruction while they attempt to stay alive long enough for him to reach them.

This film hits all of the usual notes commonly associated with disaster films. It contains so many of the tropes and clichés we’ve all come to expect from them that within 15 minutes I was completely convinced that I was watching a Roland Emmerich film (seriously, I was frantically scanning the credits trying to find his name). Like many of its predecessors San Andreas is rife with massive feats of earthly destruction while one-note main characters are able to survive by the virtue of being main characters. The film contains many examples of characters running for their lives while the ground literally crumbles right behind them, convenient coincidences and instances of pure luck that allow the main characters to survive and nameless, faceless people indiscriminately falling victim to the devastation of the earthquake in order to provide the film with a body count. Thus what this film provides should be thrilling and entertaining enough to satisfy its audience. The real problem is that of engagement and investment. The characters simply aren’t very interesting or relatable and rooting for them seems redundant since we already know that they’re going to survive.

The visuals in this film are stunning and anyone who enjoys mass destruction in their films will not be disappointed. It is over the top, like so many other films in this genre are, but is not excessively so nor does it strain the audience’s suspension of disbelief beyond reason in the way that I felt 2012 did. San Andreas knows what kind of film it wants to be and, for the most part, fulfils its purpose. Every now and then it attempts (and fails) to throw in some character development but is otherwise a safe, generic action film. The one aspect that I felt really stood out was Paul Giamatti who gave a very decent performance and was really able to sell the film’s Hollywood ‘science’. Of all the characters in the film his is the only one that I actually remember displaying a personality. Dwayne Johnson also does a good job of doing what he does best, being Dwayne Johnson.

There really isn’t much else to say about San Andreas. Anyone who walks into this film expecting to see anything more than a standard action film will be disappointed. This film aspires only to entertain and thrill its audience for a couple of hours, nothing more and nothing less. In that department it does well enough. Anyone willing to suspend their disbelief and not think too much while watching this film should find it sufficient. Applying logic or rational thought to this film could lead one to ask how many innocent people died as a result of Dwayne Johnson’s character abandoning his duties to save his family, a question that has no place in this film. This film is thrilling, mindless and safe and that’s just the way it likes it. I’ve given the film quite a low rating because it didn’t do very much for me, but this film will definitely have an audience and they should like it just fine.

★★