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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