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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.

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen?

It could be convincingly argued that Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen are the most important characters in both A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones, the HBO series based upon the novels.  Jon Snow is, it is widely believed by readers, the bastard son of Rhaegar (the model prince), while Daenerys is the last legal heir of the Targaryen dynasty.  Further, each represents a part of the ice/fire dyad, with Jon Snow occupying his position as Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, while Daenerys has overseen the hatching of the world’s last three dragons.

Clearly, these two characters, though they occupy the fringes of the series’ worlds, are nevertheless two poles around which the rest of the events (of the novels, at least) implicitly revolve.  Unfortunately, both of these characters, both in Martin’s novels and in the HBO series, have gotten so mired down in their respective quagmires–both of them are learning the hard rules of ruling over others–that their chapters become somewhat repetitive.  This is definitely the case with the two most recent novels, A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons, to such a point that as a reader (and as a viewer of the series, which has started to draw from those novels), I often tune out during those sequences.  This truly frustrates me, because as an avid reader and over-thinker of the series, I know that these characters are vitally important, but it becomes increasingly hard to care about them or to find their chapters compelling reading, or viewing.

Though I love much of what HBO has done with Game of Thrones, they have definitely stumbled a bit with Jon’s story this season.  Kit Harrington is only moderately charismatic at the best of times, and he has not been helped this season by a slogging series of scenes that basically features him saying, in his usual husky voice, that the Wildlings are coming.  Thus, although the battle at the Wall in the penultimate episode was visually well-done (if ultimately anticlimactic), as a viewer I was still left wanting more from this important character.  Hopefully, the series will be able to make more of his narrative than the books have so far done.

The HBO series also compounds the Daenerys ennui problem by completely flattening out the parts of Essos to which she travels.  So far, we have seen both Qarth and Meereen in a great deal of detail, and neither even comes within a hairs-breadth of the complexity and visual beauty evoked in Martin’s novels.  Lest anyone think this is purist complaining, I don’t have much of a problem with how they have changed the plots of Daenerys’ storylines.  I’m annoyed that a series that has so much money thrown at it is consistently unwilling to paint Essos with any depth.  To take just one example, in the novel the citizens of Meereen are given a great deal of complexity, with priestesses known as Graces, wild hairstyles, and complex political relationships.  All of this complexity, like that of Qarth, is completely eschewed by the series, and Dany’s already-frustratingly scattershot storyline is even more hamstrung than it is in the novels.  Surely the scion of a powerful dynasty who commands three dragons deserves some better treatment.

If both the novels and the TV series want to make these storylines more compelling than they are in their current form, they are going to have to start moving them to the center of the narrative in more meaningful ways.  Perhaps that is going to happen shortly, now that the pieces are beginning to move in some surprisingly dynamic directions.  In my view, this is the only fitting way to salvage the problematic storylines that Dany and Jon now occupy in their respective parts of the world.

What Can “Game of Thrones” Tell Us About History?

By now, it’s well-known that George R.R. Martin’s popular series A Song of Ice and Fire, as well as the HBO series Game of Thrones, draw liberally from our own world and its history.  Most obviously, Westeros resembles England, with the rival houses of Lannister and Stark paralleling the feud between Lancaster and York that tore England apart during the conflicts known as the Wars of the Roses.  Events such as the Red Wedding, likewise, have real-world analogues.  Aside from inspirations, what else does Game of Thrones have to teach us about history?  Can it tell us how history works?  The short answer is that yes, it can, in sometimes quite startling and unexpected ways.

At the level of narrative, both ASoIaF and GoT are immensely complex, with literally dozens of characters with substantial roles to play.  However, it is the relationships among these characters–often inscrutable or obfuscated by the characters themselves–that encourage a reflection on both how we think of the past as a discrete entity from the present and how we make sense of multiple series of events that may seem at first glance to be utterly unconnected.  For example, Petyr Baelish convinces Lysa Arryn to poison her husband, setting off the chain of events that ultimately leads to the events of the first novel and first episode of the series.  Can all of the deaths and destruction thus be laid at his door?  The question is a troublesome one to answer, for though one line of thought certainly leads to his door, one could also argue that the seeds for the current political crises can be traced back even further, to Robert’s Rebellion, or further still to Rhaegar’s kidnapping of Lysa.  The process could go on indefinitely; the series suggests, then, that while historical causality does exist, it is never as straightforward and uncomplicated as we might like it to be.

Furthermore, this tying together of disparate events encourages viewers to conceive of events and individuals as intrinsically connected to one another.  Even the most seemingly unimportant of events can have far-ranging consequences that often exceed the the purposes of those who perpetrate them.  What’s more, even those not directly involved in the action (or involved at all) may still feel the effects, both positive and negative, of the acts undertaken by someone hundreds and even thousands of miles away.  There is, then, a sense of historical vulnerability and of precariousness, as the characters (though not we, the readers) often perceive their circumstances as arbitrary, rather than as caused by an individual agent.

Just as importantly, however, both series feature seasons that can last decades. Now, this might seem like nothing more than a fantasy conceit, but it actually influences how characters within the series conceive of themselves and of the world around them.  When such a fundamental aspect of the measurement of time as a season exceeds the bounds of the usual means of measuring time (in this case, the year), one is forced to think of time itself, and one’s experience of its unfolding, quite differently.  Again, this is not something that the characters themselves might be acutely aware of, but we in the audience are encouraged to think about the ways in which we make sense of our daily experience through the unfolding of both natural and constructed time.  Game of Thrones potently reminds us that not only do we owe something to those who have come before, but they also owe something to us, for we are, for better and worse, the inheritors of the wrongs of the past.  These series reminds us that the question of what to do about that debt is one that is not easily answered, though in the end we have no other choice but to find some kind of solution.

All of this brings an awareness to readers–and perhaps, though this is less certain, to some of the characters themselves–that they are immersed in a world that is on the brink of great change.  Seldom do those who live in such times recognize it, but Martin’s opus, much like Tolkien’s before it, self-consciously provides readers with an opportunity to see how history is made, both in action and in remembrance.   Although we often do not realize it, we are all of us in the midst of history being made; we only come to realize it is history after the fact (and often when it has been enshrined by trained historians).  History in A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones works in a multitude of complex and often contradictory ways, and this is one of the greatest sources of pleasure to be derived from these sources.  However, we should also be aware of the potential political ramifications from such an understanding of the unfolding of history, as well as the relationship between

Clearly, there is a great deal about this particular fantasy series that can have significant consequences for how we conceive of history in our own world.  Though the world that we constantly see is full of the most unimaginably heinous acts of violence and destruction, there is a moral lesson here nevertheless, and it is that each individual must constantly be aware of the law of unintended consequences.  When the laws and foundations that undergird the orderly working of society–which, in essence, are based upon an idea of history as progress, that the world is getting better–are discounted in favor the needs of the individual, then society itself begins to unravel.  It remains to be seen how both Martin and the showrunners will ultimately bring everything to a conclusion.  However, even if all of the plot lines are eventually neatly tied up (which is itself open to a great deal of doubt), the fact that there will be any measure of conclusion is itself a claim upon history.  In the end, the people of Westeros and Essos may finally learn the truth of the old adage that those who do not learn from history (and, it might be added, the heinous acts committed in the past) are doomed to repeat it.

“Game of Thrones” and Contemporary American Culture

In a recent Slate article, Jack Hamilton claims that HBO’s Game of Thrones largely eschews (and is often downright hostile) to any claims that it has relevance to contemporary society or serves as an allegory for today’s political and social concerns.  While I agree with Hamilton’s larger claim that the series makes for great television and indeed pushes the medium in new and exciting directions in terms of narrative and character complexity, I think it underestimates the series to argue that it doesn’t attempt to reflect or resonate with contemporary American culture.  From the role that women play in violently patriarchal societies to the status of history for the acts and behaviors of the present day, Game of Thrones has a great deal to say about the ways in which our world works.

Although ostensibly a piece of high fantasy (once, it should be noted, one of the most denigrated and critically shunned of all genres, whether cinematic or textual), Game of Thrones, as well as the series of books upon which it is based, draws heavily upon our own history for both its narrative and its dense mythology.  Most notably, the conflict between the Starks and the Lannisters is a highly fictionalized version of England’s Wars of the Roses between the rival royal houses of York and Lancaster.  However, history works in Game of Thrones in a number of other ways as well, many of which are quite relevant to our own allegedly postmodern moment in which History (not the upper case “H”) as a discipline and a way of conceiving the past is dying.  In the world of GoT, the actions of prior generations continue to exert a terrible pull on the present and, it is suggested, the actions of any given character in the diegetic present can and indeed probably will have dire consequences in the future.  This, combined with the series’ obvious debt to medieval European culture for its worldview and its production design, says a great deal about how we in contemporary American culture conceive of the Middle Ages.  In other words, as a place where life was nasty, brutish, and short.  Oh, and sexually violent.

It is precisely this sexual violence, particularly against women, that is the series’ greatest strength and its greatest weakness.  From the horrific death of the prostitute Ros at Joffrey’s demented hands to Jaime’s recent rape of Cersei, the world of Game of Thrones is incredibly dangerous for women (even more than it is for people of both genders).  While GoT’s use of violence can be used to critique the ways in which even modern America’s social fabric harbors extraordinary dangers for women and those who do not perform “appropriate” masculinity, there are times when it drops the ball, participating in the very culture that it serves to critique.  As I have argued before on this blog, Jaime’s raping of Cersei in particular serves as a potent reminder of what can happen when the avowed purposes of a scene (in this case, highlighting the sexual pathology of the siblings, as well as the true darkness at the heart of Jaime’s character) goes horribly wrong.  As such, GoT is a commentary on not only the highly precarious position women–especially those in power–occupy in American society, but also the contradictions and complexities inherent in the representation of sexual and gender violence.

Finally, as Todd VanDerWerff argues in his review of the episode “The Mountain and the Viper,” Game of Thrones has repeatedly shown us a world in which literally no one is safe.  From Ned’s beheading that ended the first season to the trauma of the Red Wedding to the brutal killing of Oberyn Martell, the series has eschewed any reliance upon the survival of its main characters.  Much as American Naturalism argued that the universe does not care about the fate of humans, so the tides of fate seem to sweep these characters along, with even seemingly inconsequential actions having far ranging consequences that can change the fate of a world.  In addition to resonating with our postmodern society in which horrible events seem to have no precise cause, Game of Thrones also resonates with our terrorism culture, wherein all of life is unstable because one (allegedly) never knows when the next attack will come nor whom it will strike down.  Far from making such randomness understandable or assuaging those anxieties, the series instead seems to amplify them, so that, as viewers, we feel constantly on edge, waiting for the axe to fall.

Much as Westeros during Robert’s reign appeared stable while truly rotting from within, so GoT disguises its political commentary beneath the veneer of high fantasy.  There is a reason, I would argue, that both the novels and the HBO series have gained such cultural cache.  Like all good fantasy (including the venerable works of J.R.R. Tolkien), Game of Thrones holds a mirror up to our society and reflects our own ugliness, misogyny, and violence back at us.  While we may go to the series seeking an escape from the harsh world that we live in, we will find instead that the world of Game of Thrones is uncomfortably close to our own.

Quality Television and the Violence Against Women Problem

If the recent murder spree of Elliot Rodger has taught us anything, it is that there is a massive vein of murderous, violent misogyny simmering beneath the surface of American culture.  Although many men have come forward to disavow the sentiments expressed by Rodger and those like him, just as many have also, somewhat shamefacedly, admitted that they have sometimes harbored similar feelings of resentment at their lack of ability to gain a sexual partner.  Although Ann Hornaday rightly drew attention to the seemingly endless run of comedies that encourage men to relentless pursue and objectify women, I think it is also important to take note of the ways in which quality television not only unreflexively includes violence against women, but positively relies upon it as a means of establishing its “quality” designation.  For my purposes, I will focus on Game of Thrones and FX’s new series Fargo, though the problem of violence against women within quality TV is as far-ranging as the genre itself.

Two disturbing trends emerge from the violence against women perpetrated within these series.  On the one hand, as the Game of Thrones example reminds us, people are willing to go to practically any length to disavow or attempt to water down the importance of the representations they produce, but only after public outcry has practically forced their hand.  As if the infamous scene wherein Jaime rapes Cersei were not bad enough, many of those responsible for the scene, including the director, brushed aside criticisms of the rape scene by arguing that, with these two characters in particular, almost anything that occurs carries with it a sexual charge.  Of course, the brutal rape of a woman who attempts to assert agency is par for the course with HBO and other creators of quality TV drama, but that is precisely what makes this such a profoundly troubling moment in an even more troubling trend in the televisual landscape.  Perhaps things might have been somewhat better if the series had attempted to explicate the consequences of Jaime’s rape of his sister but, alas, it moved on to bigger and better things (which, of course, continued to contribute to its quality designation).*

FX’s Fargo also features the brutalizing of a woman in its first episode, as Lester Nygaard (played with supreme skill by Martin Freeman) strikes his nagging, shrewish wife with a hammer and then proceeds to bludgeon her to death.  Most troubling of all for me as a viewer was the fact that the episode went out of its way to make me loathe practically everyone on screen, including and especially Nygaard’s wife, whose incessant comparisons of Lester to his wife serves to thoroughly emasculate him.  Just as viewers are encouraged to hate (and then, perversely, encouraged to be titillated by the rape of) Cersei Lannister, so are they urged to see Kitty Nygaard’s death as deserved and Lester as the man driven to the edge by a culture that views him as a failure as a man.  Once again, we are supposed to feel sorry for a man who lashes out in violence and murders his wife, all because society’s unreasonable expectations have left him no other way to express himself other than through outbursts of deadly violence.  Sorry, but I’m not buying it.

Just so we’re clear, I actually enjoy watching these shows and that’s part of what makes them so troubling to me as a feminist film critic.  How can I still enjoy a work of fiction when it seems to go out of its way to brutalize and perpetrate violence against women?  Part of the reason, I suppose, is that the “quality” of these TV series often translates into narrative complexity, which in turn enables viewers to provide their own explanations for why this type of violence occurs, reasons that may not be spelled out in the series but are nevertheless made available.  However, such a negotiation requires a certain kind of viewer trained in reading in certain ways, and many viewers would no doubt prefer to take their entertainment at its (problematic) face value.

If we want to seriously address the horrible position that women occupy in our culture–both in representation and in reality–then we need to start thinking about and requiring our representations and our realities to seriously, thoughtfully, and reflexively engage with the status of women in our society.  While TV and film may not necessarily teach young people in a straightforward way, they do gain their intelligibility by both relying upon and emphasizing those most problematic and destructive tendencies in our culture.  It’s high time that we realized that and started to do something about it.

*Note:  It is worth pointing out that Cersei is as unlikable in the original novels as she is in its television adaptation.  The problematic status that she occupies as one of the few women in the series to actually hold a position of political power is a subject for another blog post.