When Game of Thrones Stopped Being Necessary

An audio version of this essay is available to subscribers, provided by curio.io.

(believe it or not, no spoilers for yesterday's finale, which I haven't seen)

I’ve been fascinated by the notion that a rape scene should be (or could be) necessary. “Episode six ending was brutal - but was it necessary?” is a common way of framing it; Vanity Fair declared that “Game of Thrones Absolutely Did Not Need to Go There with Sansa Stark,” while over at Slate, the argument is made that “this particular scene was necessary,” given the grim bargain Sansa Stark had struck. Most striking, to me, was Jill Pantozzi (the editor-in-chief of the The Mary Sue) explaining why The Mary Sue would no longer actively promote the show:

“In this particular instance, rape is not necessary to Sansa’s character development (she’s already overcome abusive violence at the hands of men); it is not necessary to establish Ramsay as a bad guy (we already know he is); it is not necessary to prove “how bad things were for women” (Game of Thrones exists in a fictional universe, and we already know it’s exceptionally patriarchal). Rape here, like in all instances, is not a necessary story-driving device.”

The question (and what it presumes) is a lot more revealing than any possible answers. After all, the assertion that a violation should be necessary—that it should be useful or do some kind of narrative work—brings us uncomfortably close to the idea that rape, itself, might sometimes be a “necessary evil.” Representing a violent rape on television and the actual violent act, itself, are distinct, of course; no one would argue the parallel explicitly. Yet both sides of the argument seem to accept, implicitly, that there is a line to be drawn between when a rape scene is acceptable and when it is not. If they disagree about where to draw the line, and where this particular scene falls, there still seems to be general agreement about a general principle: rape is, all things being equal, not a good thing to show on television, but it is sometimes necessary. Sometimes it does work; sometimes the plot calls for it; sometimes, it is a good thing.

There is a larger question being subsumed here. Is violence “necessary”? Was it necessary to kill Ned Stark, Catelyn Stark, Rob Stark, and Talisa Stark and her plus one? Was Joffrey’s killing of Ros necessary? Did they have to kill off Lady, the wolf? The list goes on and on. At a certain point, we are really asking whether Game of Thrones is necessary. And the answer, quite obviously, is that it is not. It is a television show. It is many things, both good, bad, and in-between. But it is not “necessary.”

That we would ask a question like this, putting a television show on (metaphorical) trial for its life, reflects the way pop culture has become a battle-ground on which a variety of other fights are waged. Culture wars are real and consequential: we are talking about whether this show is a good show, yes, but we are also talking and arguing about some of the burning issues of our time, starting with sexual violence. And representations of violence are not, fundamentally, different and distinct from “actual” violence anyway. There is complicity, feedback, and acculturation; how we understand the world through our cultural representations of it helps create the world we live in.

Here is what I think is the real question: what kind of world does Game of Thrones imagine? What does it take to be natural and normal? In its claims to be “realistic,” what sort of reality does it urge us to accept?

First and foremost, Game of Thrones is an essentially sadistic show, and there’s a direct relationship between violence and sympathy. The sympathetic characters are the characters who suffer while the characters who suffer become, as a consequence, sympathetic. We hated Sansa until she began to suffer, for example; now she’s become sympathetic. Characters that we like, who we start to follow and sympathize with and root for, tend, eventually, to suffer and die.

For the first three books of George R. R. Martin’s trilogy, I think, you could argue that this narrative sadism accomplished something. As an entry into the genre, Game of Thrones deflated the mythologies of J.R.R. Tolkien and his many, many imitators, by establishing, over and over again, that “good” characters tend to get killed by the evil and the unscrupulous, because honor and love are, essentially, political liabilities. Nice guys finish last. When the time came to adapt it as an HBO series, it was a brilliant idea to case Sean Bean as Ned Stark, the actor who played Boromir in the Lord of the Rings movies. As a good guy who was corrupted by lust for power—as well as being a usurper who found himself seeking to displace the real king—Boromir’s complexity exposes some of the fairy-tale for what it was, and for the Return of the King to happen, he had to die semi-heroically. Boromir is an important secondary character in the Lord of the Rings, therefore, because his death enables Aragorn to return as King.

In Game of Thrones, on the other hand, there is no real King, and so the Boromir character is forced into the role. But it is clear from the beginning that kingship is just usurpation and violence. Robert Baratheon was a usurper, and so were the people he displaced, in the grand scheme of things; every king was a violent usurper of the person before them. It’s usurpers all the way down, George R. R. Martin declares, and history is written by the winners. Thus, while Ned Stark and his family are obviously the good guys, and the Lannisters are obviously the bad guys, the distinction turns out to mean nothing, or less than nothing. Indeed, good guys finish last because goodness is a liability. When you play the game of thrones, honor is a luxury that you cannot afford.

High fantasy is usually structured around the romance of nobility, of good patriarchs that win in the end, and of princesses that get rescued. King Arthur is the root fantasy of what the “middle ages” were like that organizes this entire set of daydreams: Uther Pendragon’s son will pull the sword from the stone (because he’s the once and future king) and even after King Arthur gets deposed, the myth declares that King Arthur will return to save Britain. Tolkien copied a lot of that, at least for the parts of Middle Earth that don’t center on hobbits, and Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire turns that fantasy on its head: Westeros is structured by dominance, violence, by nice guys getting their heads cut off and women getting raped. It’s incredibly derivative, but A Song of Ice and Fire’s insistence that aristocrats are evil people (and that aristocrats who are not evil people tend not to stay aristocrats for very long) is at least interesting, because it stands Tolkien on his head.

The downfall of House Stark is a pretty good tragedy, then, taking up the three books Martin wrote and published in the 1990’s: A Game of Thrones, 1996; A Clash of Kings, 1998; A Storm of Swords, 2000. The first book is built around the lead-up to Ned Stark’s death; the next two books lead up to the Red Wedding, which kills or scatters all the good guys. It’s tragedy because the end is predetermined: as long as the Starks are who they are—honorable, noble, and just—they are doomed to lose at the game of thrones.

After the first three books, however, something fundamental changed. Classical tragedy is defined by its cathartic end-point, the explosion of violence which reveals the null state of existence to be the nullification of all our devices: watching a great man return to the dust from which he came is to inspire pity and fear, Aristotle wrote, because it is terrible to see it happen to the best of us and also to know that we are next. But tragedy ends—and this is the point—so that we can all go home and go about our lives as normal, as if all of existence isn’t a meaningless horrible blip until we die. Tragedy purges the emotions by confirming the worst, and after we weep, life goes on, because what else can it do?

The Red Wedding should have been the end of the show, I think; it’s the cathartic end-point, and the culmination of the Stark tragedy. We watch, we pity, and we feel fear: we have seen that being good, struggling for justice, for family, and for love, are not compatible with playing the game of thrones. To play the game of thrones, you have to play to win; you have to kill your darlings. If you don’t, you’ll die. The Starks don’t; they die.

But what happens to this story once the Starks are all dead or scattered? Why does the story go on? Tragedies don’t usually continue after the tragic hero is dead, because they cannot, by definition, be tragedies any more. At a certain point, there’s no one left to kill. And Game of Thrones is, after the third book stopped providing source material, no longer a tragedy. The bad guys won, and if life goes on, the good guys don’t come back to life (or, if they do, it’s pretty awful). Ideed, so many of the good guys are dead that the show has no choice but to make bad guys into protagonists (how have Jaime and Cercei Lanister become protagonists, again?)

In the context of romantic high fantasy, the show’s sado-masochistic narrative engine had a moderately subversive purpose. The Starks were nobility who were actually noble, and they embodied the daydream that powers High Fantasy: the romantic belief that Kings and Queens and Princes and Princesses are Good People, that being good and being high not only go together, but do so naturally. By lulling the viewer into a sense of complacent interest in the characters, engaging our sympathetic identification with their struggles, and then killing our darlings, the show plants the seeds of sympathy, allows us to watch them grow, then harvests them. Ned Stark’s death is the point; the Red Wedding is the point; horror and suspense are the point. Who will die next? No one is safe.

There is something about this experience that we enjoy, for the same reason we like watching horror movies (if we do). There is a certain pleasure in being shocked and hurt. Maybe there’s a purging of the emotions, so we can continue: we watch our greatest fears played out on television, so that we can go on ignoring them in our everyday life. People who are afraid of sexual violence are often drawn to procedural cop shows about sexual violence, for example; if we watch it happen on-screen, we can experience our worst fears in safety. And so forth.

Since this is what people like about the show, why are people suddenly, now, declaring that the show’s violence has gone over the line?

What has changed, I think, is that tragedy has become pornography. Not literal pornography, of course, because very specific forms of gratuitous sexual titillation have been consistent throughout. Put some boobs on screen is one of the boxes each episode needs to check off, and consistently does. But what is the point of evoking terror and pity by hurting characters like Sansa or Cercei? Watching Ned, Catelyn, and Rob die was horrible not only because they were good people, but because we were watching the patriarchal fantasies of Good Kings dying with them. They represented something, the possibility of a return to the way things should be: the tragedy was coming to realize its impossibility. The Starks were the tragic heroes, because, from Ned on down, their heroic qualities were what doomed them, made their deaths inevitable. George R. R. Martin’s innovation was to suggest that “Goodness” is a tragic flaw.

After writing three books in four years, Martin lost the plot; since the Red Wedding, basically, he’s written two books in fifteen years, and they’re a hot mess. He’d written himself into a corner, and it will be interesting to see if HBO can write him out of it. I suspect he’s totally stuck, and here’s why: one way to end the thing would be with the Return of the King (google “R+L=J” if you want to know how it could happen), which would make A Song of Ice and Fire into a tragedy with a happy ending. But a tragedy with a happy ending is not a tragedy, and this is Martin’s dilemma: if the King returns, and all is well that ends well, then we have returned to the narrative that he so devilishly skewered in the first three books. If we watched a nightmarish horror, in which good guys finish last, we’ll wake up to discover that it was all a dream: actually, good guys finish first!

This might be how it ends; tragedy might become fantasy again. I hope not. I hope the White Walkers destroy the Seven Kingdoms and also that the peasants string up all the aristocrats and collectivize agriculture and establish a socialist utopia. That’s my fantasy, different than the one the crypto-royalists seem to cherish. But in the meantime, it’s spectacle without a purpose other than the pleasure of watching it. The show must go on because that’s what television does.

In other words, it is melodramatic pornography. It will have a happy ending, whatever happy means in that context. We will see some kind of visually satisfying spectacle of (dragon) riding and (sword) thrusting and a lot of sound and fury will go into making going-through-the-motions look like it signifies something. We will agonize at the violence and we will thrill to ecstatic thrusts and entanglements and betrayals, but because it happens to characters we barely care about, it will be cheap, easy, and forgettable. We’ll consume it, clean up, and move on. But it will not be necessary, because there will be no purpose to it. And that’s why we’re suddenly knowing it when we see it, as Supreme Court Justice Potter once famously described pornography; nothing is at stake anymore, and nothing can be at stake. The only suspense to be found is an artificially deferred gratification, since we all know where this is going, and it’s fun, but, you know, that’s it.

Pornography is titillation without a purpose, defined by the fact that it isn’t necessary. Whether he admitted it or not, Justice Potter in Jacobellis v. Ohio determined that The Lovers was not pornography, because there was artistic intent (it was a French film in 1958, after all). Game of Thrones was, when it was Tragedy, doing something Artistic-ish. Now it’s just True Detective, a veneer of Artisticish-ness that uses a fairly ludicrous storyline to cover up the fact that it’s not really going anywhere or doing anything. Art gives you permission to watch what would otherwise just be pornography, and we could be titillated by Game of Thrones when we could see that it wasn’t just television, but High Drama on HBO. We could enjoy the trappings of High Fantasy when we could tell ourselves that we were watching it be critiqued and subverted. Now that it isn’t, we’re suddenly feeling a bit icky about watching snuff porn.