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Ramsay Bolton/Snow and the Complicity of Violence in “Game of Thrones”

Warning:  Full spoilers for the show follow.

Like millions of other TV viewers, I have long since grown tired of Ramsay Snow (lately Bolton), one of the few unambiguously evil characters in HBO’s Game of Thrones. While I think that Iwan Rheon deserves a lot of credit for bringing this character to chilling life, I think the writers have made a bit of a misstep by having Ramsay be so straightforwardly bad (and I blame Martin for this as well). Frankly, I’ve been hoping for his death since at least last season, and even somewhat before that. One can only tolerate pure evil for so long.

Fortunately, the most recent episode of Game of Thrones gave us what we have been asking for:  Ramsay Snow, defeated by his fellow bastard Jon and ultimately fed to the dogs that have been his preferred weapon for far too long. In a wonderful bit of poetic justice, it was our own beloved Sansa that was the instrument of his death and who delivered a chilling curse upon him in his final moments. While this was preceded by a wonderful scene in which Jon pummels his enemy into near-oblivion, it was really the (mostly unseen) mauling that packed the greatest punch and that proved the most satisfying.

There was something intensely, viscerally satisfying about seeing Ramsay receive the punishment that he so richly deserves. It was hard not to feel one’s heart pounding with exhilaration as Jon Snow pummeled the man responsible for the gradual descent of the North back into chaos and barbarity, and  I literally felt my body responding with a queer sort of thrill when that dog began licking his face and finally made the lunge, my skin crawling with a mingling of visual (and sensual) pleasure and revulsion. There is something particularly heinous and terrifying about the thought of being eaten alive by dogs, one’s body and being rendered into nothing more than a body.

Of course, part of the reason for this affect has to do with the many, many, many things that Ramsay has done to the characters that we love. His callous murder of Rickon in this episode alone would have been enough to enrage those who remain loyal to the Starks, but let’s not forget the fact that he gelded Theon (after months of torture), killed the wilding Osha, and fed his own stepmother and half-brother to his dogs. If anyone in this series deserved this horrible way of death, it was Theon.

And yet…and yet. Despite my cheers and thrills at seeing this bit of justice, a little voice in the back of my mind kept reminding me of my own complicity in the vision of violence and torture that Thrones continues to feed us. How was it possible, I ask myself, that I, a relatively enlightened and reasonable person, could find myself so thrilled at the sight of horrific dismemberment? Was the fact that Sansa was finally able to reclaim a bit of her agency really enough to justify this mental behaviour on my part?

It’s hard not to read Game of Thrones in light of the fraught political climate in which we currently live, in which emotion and passion has come to dominate rational discourse and enlightenment. Given that, I find my responses to this scene in Thrones even more disturbing, and this realization has reaffirmed my fervent belief that now, more than ever, we must indulge the better angels of our natures. Otherwise, we all risk becoming no better than the monsters, like Ramsay, that we have struggled so mightily to overcome.

“Game of Thrones” Season 5 Postmortem

Having now had a good few weeks to think about the most recent season of Game of Thrones, I thought I would set down a few of those reflections on what worked and what didn’t in this most recent season of HBO’s most popular series.  Overall, this season delivered on some promises and left enough open so that our desires remain at least partially unfulfilled.

To begin with, this season marked some significant developments in terms of the violence against women problem (which has long remained one of my most consistent critiques of the series).  Ramsay’s terrifying rape of Sansa, while filtered through Theon’s perspective (we never actually see it take place on screen), stands out to me as one of the more nuanced and heartrending scenes of such violence.  Further, the juxtaposition of that horror with Stannis’s sacrifice of his daughter Shireen in order to gain the favour of the god R’hollor, makes it clear just how little this world values its women.  However, this season does seem to be a bit more critical of that cultural phenomenon than in seasons past, rather than using such violence as a flimsy excuse to show off the naked bodies of its female characters.

Similarly, I felt that Cersei’s storyline this season was also on-point.  The High Sparrow manages to be both paternal and patriarchal, charismatic and charmingly ruthless as he lays deep plans to topple the leaders of the Great Houses (the confrontation between him and the Queen of Thrones out as one of the best the series has yet produced).  Cersei’s penitent march through King’s Landing, similarly, highlights this season’s investment in pointing out the patriarchal hypocrisy of Westeros.  And her final scene, in which she is carried offscreen by her giant protector (a presumably zombie-fied Gregor Clegane), is one of the most chilling I have yet seen in Game of Thrones, with its sinister suggestion that her desire for revenge may not only spell her own doom, but also that of everyone around her.

However, this season stumbled with a few of its other key female characters.  While I have always found Maisie Williams’s Arya to be one of the series’ finest creations (in both book and television form), this season feels like a bit of a misstep.  For much of the time, it has felt like Arya is merely spinning her wheels in Braavos, with the series desperately trying to maintain our collective interest in her rather staid storylines.  The same is true of Brienne; due to the fact that the series has eschewed the Lady Stoneheart plot (much to my dismay and anger), she is left with very little to do except chase Sansa around the North.  Even her last-minute (presumed) slaying of Stannis does only a little to mitigate the way in which the series wasted her character this season.

Overall, I felt that the the season did a great job streamlining portions of the last two of Martin’s published volumes in “A Song of Ice and Fire.”  Many readers, myself included, felt that both A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons became too sprawling, falling victim to the long-standing curse of epic fantasy, in which the author becomes too enamoured of ancillary story-lines that ultimately encumber and distract from the core characters.  Thus, while some may be upset that the adaptation has done away with such side characters as the Martell siblings Arianne and Quentyn, I felt from the beginning that it was a brilliant and necessary move (considering the fact that the former continues to flounder and the latter is dead by the end of Dance, I can’t help but think the novels would have been better without them).

I know that I, for one, am both excited and a little nervous that the HBO series has now moved beyond the pale of Martin’s published work.  Of course, some of this is allayed by the fact that Martin has given the producers an indication of the final trajectory of his series.  Details about how next season will shape up have been rather sparse so far, but I am curious how they are going to deal with the fact that so many of the series’ characters are so far scattered.  Perhaps, as the rumor mill has suggested, the series will institute a time jump so that the various characters can finally break out of their narrative prisons (this would certainly help the books along).  Or perhaps this will happen in the series’ (presumed) seventh season, or maybe even later (if/when it makes its leap from the small to the big screen).

Whatever happens, the series seems to have really found its stride, showcasing what can be achieved when the medium of television is allowed the budget and the freedom to invest in serious and complex storytelling.

“Game of Thrones” and the Essos Problem

Let me begin by saying that I’m a huge fan of HBO’s Game of Thrones.  I’ve been a devoted viewer of the show, and I’ve read all of the books in George R.R. Martin’s series several times.  Indeed, it is precisely because I have read the books and loved them so much that I find Game of Thrones unsatisfying in one particularly vexing respect:  its portrayal of the continent of Essos.

Beginning from the first season, the HBO series has brought an immense amount of complexity to the various corners of the Seven Kingdoms (including, most recently, Dorne).  Yet when it comes to Essos, the vast continent that stretches over huge swathes of the eastern part of this world, the series has struggled to portray it as anything other than vaguely exotic; indeed, the most compelling part of the portrayal of Essos remains the small images of the various cities that emerge during the opening credits.

The unfortunate tendency to generalize Essos emerged in some form as early as the first season.  For example, the Magister Illyrio is, in the novel, an enormously corpulent man who indulges in all the numerous pleasures the city of Pentos has to offer; in the series, he is a seemingly normally proportioned man.  This flattening tendency was made even more obvious in the second season, when Dany finally arrives at the exotic city of Qarth.  In the novel, the city has a rich and vibrant culture, with various forces–such as the warlocks, the Pureborn, and the Tourmaline Brotherhood–all vying for control.  In the series, however, this is reduced to something at once more banal and more ridiculous, as the wealthy Xaro conspires with the warlock Pyat Pree to have himself declared King of Qarth.  This storyline, to me at least, felt so incredibly forced and trite that it made the cheapening of the Qarth storyline in general that much more disappointing (and I, for one, was happy when it was finally over).

For a more recent example, take Meereen, the vast city that Daenerys Targaryen successfully conquered, setting free its vast population of slaves.  In the novels, the city, like others along Slaver’s Bay (such as Yunkai and Astapor), is ruled by vicious nobles who often attempt to outdo one another with the outlandishness of their elaborately coiffed hair, while religious figures known as the Graces provide the spiritual element of the city. In the HBO series, gone are the hairstyles and the Graces, replaced with hopelessly banal, vaguely ethnic nobles who have little to no characterization.  A similar problem haunts the portrayal of Volantis (visited by Tyrion and Varys in Season 5), which gets just a passing glimpse before the characters move on (though, to be fair, the show does at least allow the viewer to see the ways in which the slaves of the city are branded according to their occupation).

One must wonder why, with an enormous budget and a great deal of creative control over the material, the writers and producers would so consistently homogenize the people and civilizations of Essos, when bringing them to the screen would add yet another layer of complexity and visual delectation.  Part of it, I suspect, has to do with the simmering orientalism that underpins so much of the series (including the portrayal of the Dothraki).  Why spend time painting the people of the east with anything remotely resembling complexity when you can just tar them all with the same generic exoticism (since that seems to be what the audience expects?)  After all, isn’t it really the men and women of Westeros that really matter to the story (note my heavy doses of sarcasm).

I also suspect that part of it is the central problem posed by Dany’s storyline.  The series and the novel have both struggled with how to make her more relevant to the Westeros-centric stories that form the heart of the narrative drama, with middling success.  While her recent escape from the fighting pits atop the formidable dragon Drogon seems to suggest that we might at least be seeing her story move in some interesting directions.  Hopefully, the show will take this opportunity to portray Essos with a little more complexity and depth.

But, to be honest, I’m not holding my breath.