Destroy All Monsters: Wane Of THRONES

Contributor; Toronto, Canada (@tederick)
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Destroy All Monsters: Wane Of THRONES

There have only been two extraordinary sequences on Game Of Thrones this season (with one episode remaining), and they've happened in the last two weeks: the massive and surprising battle at Hardhome in episode 8, and the smooth and unsurprising arena scene in episode 9.

These were big scenes, told visually, paying off both the series' fealty to its book sources, and its extrapolation beyond those books. The two scenes are the season in microcosm: simultaneously chained by and unbound from the writing of George R.R. Martin, and throwing into day-glo relief the degree to which the rest of Season Five of Game Of Thrones has really, really sucked.

I've gone on the (tumultuous) record previously, saying that my money was on Game Of Thrones telling Martin's A Song Of Ice And Fire story better than Martin could. Part of this was mere logistics: newsflashes whatever, but I will personally buy Martin a shiny Iron Throne toilet if he ever writes an ending to this book series of his.

The series seemed like the perfect antidote, taking the parts of Martin's storytelling that worked - the worldbuilding, the dramatic conflicts, and the penchant for slaughtering the principal cast wholesale - and dispensing with the books' enormous failings.

(Those failings, for those keeping score: an ever-burgeoning narrative that bears no supporting weight for its Catholic-rabbit-multiplying storylines; a cast of speaking parts that has, for reals, been counted in the four digit numbers; and a willingness, particularly in the latter novels, to never waste an opportunity to unfold a plot point across six chapters when any sane or rational writer might merely have used one.)

Plus, Game Of Thrones had boobs. Lotsa boobs. Like, everywhere!

The opportunity for Game Of Thrones' showrunners, Benioff and Weiss, was to take those original table stakes and then, halfway through, chuck the devotion to the source books and just play out the rest of the throne game like a throne player should: to win. Instead, they seem to have chosen the other thing.

(Plus, boobs. Lotsa boobs. Like, seriously, enough with the boobs.)

In this week's episode, "The Dance of Dragons," an adolescent princess is burned alive in front of an audience of onlookers, in what became an uncomfortably precise allegory for what's been going on with the series itself.

Within the narrative, the Princess Shireen is sacrificed to the Red God or whatever, because her royal blood can act as magic fuel to propel Stannis' military conquest of Westeros forward.

Out here in the real world, I couldn't help but feel like Kerry Ingram was screaming her ever-lovin' lungs out so that we might feel something, anything, as this moribund season dragged through yet another desperation play for our interest. As has, unfortunately, been this season's all-too-frequent calling card, the only real reaction aroused by the Shireen stunt was disgust.

The majority of the content we've seen on the series this year seems like proof that the wheels have come off the cart. On the more trivial side of things, the series has gone ahead and duplicated the books' muddy-headedness by introducing a whole country and tract of characters this season (Dorne) whose presence serves no visible purpose and whose plotting is plodding, to say the least.

And on the less trivial side, as has been widely discussed, the natural end-point to Game Of Thrones' series-long locker-room fascination with tits and ass seemed to arrive in full force this season (with a healthy setup in Season Four, to be sure) when the show ran clean out of semi-subversive sexual acts to portray on screen, and so decided to portray the rape of a teenaged principal character on her wedding night.

There's no longer much denying that Game Of Thrones, either by creative design, pathological myopia, or sheer bloody-mindedness, has become Rape Culture: The Series.

Episode 9, rather than Sansa's rape in Episode 6, was the clincher. Who are the female characters in Episode 9?

  • Melisandre, a psychopathic witch;
  • Princess Shireen, a pubescent royal who literally talks her own father into burning her alive (not realizing the outcome, mind) to further his goals;
  • Myrcella Baratheon, another princess, this one being maneuvered as a political piece by two men, via her arranged marriage to the prince of Dorne;
  • Ellaria Sand, a Dornish woman attempting (badly) to take revenge for the death of her lover;
  • The three little Sands, daughters of Ellaria, who sit in prison and play sexual taunting games with other prisoners;
  • Arya Stark, trainee assassin turned oyster saleswoman who is sexualized within twenty seconds of her first appearance onscreen by a man twice her age asking to buy her "little clam;"
  • A prostitute, clothed (this is unusual);
  • A madam, also clothed;
  • A series of twentysomething prostitutes (scantily dressed) who are individually determined to be "too old" by their client;
  • A terrified-looking teen servant girl, who is determined to be "just right" by the client, before being carted off to be raped;
  • Daenerys Targaryen, who rides a dragon.

With only a couple of exceptions, to be female in Game of Thrones is to be an ambulatory fuck-puppet whose agency is either controlled or heavily influenced by the men in her immediate orbit. And with each opportunity to generate meaning and conflict around this distressingly real-world power dynamic, Thrones' only response has been to double down, double down, and double down again on the degree to which every woman's body is mere chattel to be exploited for the various motivations of the series' male characters.

I think my reliable friend Sasha said it best:

Taken in a straight run in "The Dance of Dragons," the evidence isn't just damning, it's so damning as to become pedantic. But that is what the rest of Game Of Thrones has almost uniformly become this year: pedantic, predictable, plotless and probably pointless.

It's bloody disappointing from a show that was (sorry!) game-changing in its day, a day which was only a few years ago. Season Five has tied up the novels' narrative threads in tighter and more constructive ways, but without arriving at a clear sense of storytelling movement. It's also vastly over-indexed on Westeros' ick factor, and has thereby turned an admittedly gritty fantasy construction into a space that no longer feels safe for many members of its audience.

This latter part, I think, may be the greatest shame. While I can admire the artistic project at work within Martin's de-glamourization of a whole fusillade of fantasy tropes, the tension between Game Of Thrones' deconstruction of the genre and the creative/imaginative potential of fantasy in general as a common theoretical meeting ground for people may finally have snapped.

Maybe Game Of Thrones never wanted to be a metaphor for anything, or a made-up universe for people to safely project their real-world shit into and come out the other side with some articulated meaning. Maybe it never even wanted to be an "ooh, ah!" experience of CGI battles and pissed-off dragons.

But for me, I'll stick with the Hardhome battle and Daenerys riding Drogon - the only two times this season when Game Of Thrones didn't seem like an extended exercise in frivolous hurt.

Destroy All Monsters is a weekly column on Hollywood and pop culture. Matt Brown is in Toronto and on twitter.

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Less Lee MooreJune 10, 2015 11:01 AM

Well said.

RickDVanceJune 10, 2015 11:22 AM

While I agree largely, I don't think a series becoming predictable is necessarily a bad thing as it crosses the midway point and moves towards a finale. The show has spent 4 seasons before this building characters and this season has if nothing else paid off all those characters and the decisions they have made up to this point (The Dorne stuff is the great exception to this and that is largely a blunder).

The show often is horrific, brutal, and hard to stomach but I don't think those moments ever betray the world that the show has created.

With that all said I totally understand why people would not want to wallow in the world that is created but when that world has been built to wallow in I don't see a problem with it succeeding in achieving that goal.

KurtJune 10, 2015 11:23 AM

I'm a pretty firm believer that SEASON 5 has been a very solid season of the show, as good as any of the others. I like the politicking, chess piece moving, and the royal-entitlement-yields-bad-behavior, and this season has had plenty of all of that. That the fantasy-world can settle into the rhythms of a wider network of connected countries (Meereen, Dorne, The North, Kings Landing, Braavos) while showing how far the original set of (surviving) characters has come is excellent. The muddled nature of outcomes is exactly the point, Game of Thrones is a complex Ferris-wheel of power, with many riders and many view points.

We consider Greek Mythology to be at the cultural level of high art, literature, poetry, and yet bad behavior (ok, Rape Culture) of the worst kind is throughout the Greek canon (and it bears mentioning that Agamemnon sacrificed his own daughter to get some winds for his sails on the march towards Troy, which is exactly the allegory/homage/etc that Beinioff & Weiss are likely going for with this at the behest of G.R.R Martin as he is now playing catch-up to HBO in terms of some plotting elements.)

Most of the men behave badly, you could likely draw up a laundry list of men characters in this season who are atrocious. There are few objectively 'good' characters in the show. Brienne of Tarth is one of them, so is Missendi, the working translator and advisor down south. In a round about way, so is Lady Oleanna. Tyrion offers the audience to empathize with picked-on 'other' for the show, as does Gilly the Wildling, and her White Walker pal Sam. For every empowered white-guy such as John Snow, and Davos the Onion Knight there are characters like Brienne and Theon's Sister, Yara, who is definitely empowered, respected and comfortably commands her people and a long-ship (I wish the story would get back to her and the Grey Joys mind-you).

And then there is of course, Danerys, who arguably, the show allows the most screen time as she learns the difficulty of leadership and decision making. Framing much of the show from her point of view is an antidote to the 'women are just there to be raped.' If the show were going for calculated misogyny, why bother with Dragon-Lady and her agency at all?

Ibraheem HusseinyJune 10, 2015 11:29 AM

I agree with many of what you said, and feel hurt by the rest.
last night's episode was possibly the worst, not even the arena scene would make up for that to be honest. the show's soap opera-like emotionalization of the story that's been happening since Season 4 does not prepare you for something so devastatingly cruel and seemingly unnecessary like the Shireen Sacrifice. but betting your money on the show and declaring it a better telling of the story is what bugs me. the many failings of the books are surpassed by the those of the show. especially now. but adding Dorne is not one of them, it is not as pointless as you pointed out, Dorne is an essential part of the story. it was disappointing enough of the showrunners' to exclude the Iron Islands and that brilliant story arc from the show's happenings, being rid of Dorne would have meant losing a larger audience. but did they use that well? no.. every bit about Dorne is boring and cliched.
and the Rape Culture cyber-rage is becoming increasingly boring, this isn't a show concerned with feminism, the show depicts a time and a place (albeit fictional, or fictionalized) where such acts were possible and not seen as unnatural. whether to view that with disgust or disgustiness is totally the viewer's choice. as is with any show. but did they overdo it? yes.. totally! they took the concept from the books as if it's a permission to go extreme, same thing they did with Renly's and Loras's homosexuality that felt, in the show's depiction, like an excuse to have a "diverse nudity" in the show.
If you ask me, the biggest victim of rape here is George R.R. Martin's ASOIAF, but he's not complaining.

Willem GroblerJune 10, 2015 11:29 AM

Nailed it.

Corey PierceJune 10, 2015 11:49 AM

To your point, Columbia university wants trigger warnings for teaching Greek mythology.

Game of Thrones is about, and always has been about, how the world enables and even rewards terrible people. The outrage within season 5 is in my view, selective, and treats this show as if it is supposed to be something that it clearly has no interest in being.

I think season 5 has been a bit of a mess, but content-wise has remained completely consistent. But it just so happens for example, that we have watched Arya and Sansa grow up on screen, so for a lot of people I think it hurts a lot more to see them face these horrors than it did when we were not familiar with them or hadn't yet had to watch them endure so much. If the show had begun 30 years earlier, based on all we knew from the backstory for some time, we would have had to have seen most of the other women that we know within this show endure pretty similar monstrosity.

RickDVanceJune 10, 2015 11:53 AM

Stannis is the best example who can not only be pulled from the Greek stuff but a number of Tragic Shakespearean Kings, who are aware of some of the details but not all of them so they drive drive drive to their ruin.

KurtJune 10, 2015 12:55 PM

I would argue that Game of Thrones issues a Trigger Warning in SEASON 1, EPISODE 1. When a Man pushes a Young Boy out of a 3rd story Tower Window because said Boy witnessed incestuous sex between said man and his sister.

It was certainly the point when my wife exited any further watching of the show, with a 'Not For Me.'

Equally so, in the same episode, the wise and benevolent 'hero' of the show explains the virtue of hacking someones head off in the name of justice. (Of course, this man has his head later hacked off (with his daughters as witness at the end of the season in an ironic swing of events.))

The show has always been thus.

VyceVictusJune 10, 2015 1:21 PM

I think the point of the term Rape Culture is that it isnt "calculated" at all, but rather behavior ingrained from traditions long held where the bad parts are ignored or brushed off because "that's just how things are". Yes, life for women woulkd have been incredibly brutal in ages of old because "that's just how things were". However, being the master of ones own witten universe means one doesnt have to be beholden to history anymore than one has to be beolden to the physics of giant fire breathing lizards.

I dont actally have anything invested in this show, emotionally or otherwise. I dont watch it anymore, but not because of some inflated sense of offense, im jut not interested. I just wanted to chime in beause I feel like in these discussions when the narrative quallites of the work are being criticized and the sexual elements are brought up, I feel like there are fair assessments to be made but peope dismiss them outright as "tumblr outrage" or whatever.

For my part, I found the fan reaction to the Hardhome episode strange; everyone was lauding it as the one of the heights of the series for its cinematic quality and because it dove into the fantasy/sword and sorcerry pool pretty deep with its giant battling an undead army. But none of that geatness had anyting to do with savage cruelty towards women.Its almost as if the show would be perfectly fine without any of that stuff at all...

omnisemantic1June 10, 2015 2:26 PM

I generally tend to agree with everything that Matt writes, but here I just don't see it. The show is just as engaging for me as it has always been...

Corey PierceJune 10, 2015 5:02 PM

"Being the master of ones own witten universe means one doesnt have to be
beholden to history anymore than one has to be beolden to the physics
of giant fire breahng lizards."

How does one stop rape culture by shutting off its depiction in media exactly? How does one have a conversation about rape culture and fix these problems when some of those same people want us to stop discussing it or showing it (so we can have those discussions) because it is considered triggering?

I can understand how that idea is like graffiti on a wall saying "no graffiti", but for all the problems of Rape Culture, some of the responses to it sound like Ostrich Culture, which is probably worse, and is basically preserving the status quo.

VyceVictusJune 10, 2015 6:30 PM

I don't think it needs to be eradicated from media completely, just as you can't eradicate it in reality. I just think in media in general and this show in particular, there might be more interesting ways of using sexual violence than the typical use of it as shortcut to character development i.e. Woman gets raped and earns audience sympathy then becomes strong by overcoming it.

KurtJune 10, 2015 8:25 PM

There was nothing simple in the burning of the Princess of Baratheon.

VyceVictusJune 10, 2015 8:27 PM

I was referring specifically to rape and sexual violence.

KurtJune 10, 2015 9:07 PM

My argument is that one, rape, is trotted out when the show murders children with alarming regularity. It's a cruel world in this show, and it's vaguely equal in its cruelty, to men, women, children, etc. And yet everyone on the internet seems to want to single out sexuality? My argument has always been that the show was BRUTAL from the outset, and that Season 1 Episode one has set the stage for the kind of crazy stuff HBO is going to throw at its audience.

My point is that if one is going to complain about what is allowed on TV these days, isn't decapitation or being burned to a crisp is as bad as rape?

But everyone wants to talk about rape.

VyceVictusJune 10, 2015 9:08 PM

I dont know, ask a rape victim.

In all seriousness, Im not advocating for rape to be abolished from tv. I'm saying that people being tired of the lazy overuse of a trope is a valid narrative criticism. They are just as tired of rape as you are hearing people complain about it.

My personal suggestion?
More rape.
Specifically, male on male rape. If we go off the understanding that sexual violence against women was common in those older times, there is also empirical evidence in warlike societies and institutions of all male warriors that sexual violence, coercion, and dominance either through hazing or outright assault was a factor in those cultures as well. An example of this in another story full of savage brutality in a medieval fantasy setting is the manga/anime series Berserk. For those unfamiliar, one of the main female characters, a formidable warrior, gets raped. However, it was also shown that the main protagonist, a hulking supermacho killing machine archetype, was raped in his youth, and the event informed part of his character.

KurtJune 10, 2015 9:11 PM

I do not think that that is a necessary step to watching a weekly television show or reading a book on greek mythology, or all the other forms of art out there. Nobody was ever arguing that this kind of TV was for everyone, nor should it be (and the show has been pretty clear on what it was going to be from the outset.)

But that should not preclude that it is for nobody.

VyceVictusJune 10, 2015 9:22 PM

I know where you are coming from; people gleefully cheered Colin Firth murdering a church full of Patrons in Kingsman but got all butthurt about a silly anal sex joke.

I was never in my comments saying to get rid of rape/sexual violence in tv/media. Just use the damn device better.

KurtJune 10, 2015 9:28 PM

Well we can agree that. I want all my movies, books, media to always be smarter, better, and full of new surprises.

stuwillisJune 10, 2015 9:51 PM

Shireen's sacrifice may be perceived by the audience as unnecessary but it is entirely consistent with Stannis' arc. This is a man who murdered his own brother and nephew. His trajectory is, at least for now, classic tragedy. His pursuit of power is corrupting him and we are seeing that through. Perhaps before his final hours he will have a moment of "insightful recognition" as Aristotle would call it.

Batty MysticJune 11, 2015 1:49 AM

The worst season so far. Sad.

Corey PierceJune 11, 2015 7:50 AM

"My personal suggestion? More rape.
Specifically, male on male rape."

Watch Oz.

"I'm saying that people being tired of the lazy overuse of a trope is a valid narrative criticism."

Not to be that "look over there" guy, but if we're going to talk about rape on TV being overused as a storytelling device that might water down it's effectiveness, why isn't the discussion about crime shows like SVU? Is it because it's right in the title/concept, and shows the various angles that it can go? If so, then Game of Thrones, which is supposedly about horrible people, has as much right to disgust, doesn't it?

If you order a Shitty Person Sandwich, you're gonna get some rapist stuck in your teeth. And maybe it doesn't taste very good, but it says as much right there on the menu.

Corey PierceJune 11, 2015 8:07 AM

"And yet everyone on the internet seems to want to single out sexuality?"

Well, rape isn't sexuality. It's sexual violence.

If our society was littered with families of decapitation victims and children who have been pushed out windows, we'd be having a different conversation.

My speculation: I think because GoT is a fantasy-based world of dragons and magic, but also grounded in historical human cruelty - it ain't Stardust - people shut their minds off to the violence as escapism, even if it's making a point about human cruelty as well. And I think if you're watching the show in that escapist mindset that stuff like rape is all the more disturbing.

But I mean, my fiancee is next to me as I type. We watched the Sansa scene, and I knew it was coming, and expecting her to be really upset. But she shrugged at it. and apparently its because she watches it in the human-cruelty way of things. I thought given her Potter fandom she was watching it for the escapism. This led to a long convo about her own experiences, and about how important marriages had to have their consummation witnessed in Medieval times (bringing another layer to the Theon watching).

And she even argued that certain concepts like consent are relative to their own eras. That in that scene at least, Sansa being raped is to her more like a prostitute with a john. She may not know the extent of the horribleness of the person she is getting into bed with, but by her eras value system she knew that if she got married she would have to have sex with someone she did not want to. That getting married was the consent itself. I'm not so sure I agree that consent is relative, but considering how so many other values and concepts have evolved (or devolved) over time, I get the point. I think for me it's clouded by not being sure how much she is consenting to be married to Ramsay. Whether she was at that moment still a captive, or actively trying to play the game for Winterfell.

Or maybe she shrugged at it because she watches SVU all the time. Or maybe because her own experiences as a woman have built up a different response than others have. At any rate it was just another example to me that when it comes to most of these social issues, there's a danger in trying to speak for everyone the way we see in a lot of clickbait articles out there.

Corey PierceJune 11, 2015 8:22 AM

Hopefuly not a derail but a random thought. Can anyone remember their first exposure to rape within cinema or TV?
I think for me it was Clockwork Orange.

Which after seeing I watched a Simpsons episode where for Halloween Bart was dressed as Alex. That seemed pretty fucked up then.

But then two years later at Halloween in Toronto there were around a dozen women who came as droogs (i think it was 3 sets of group costume). And was just thinking that if someone went to Halloween dressed as Huxtable sweater Bill Cosby, it would be in extremely poor taste, even if almost all of his characters in media were overwhelmingly positive.

But if someone comes to Halloween dressed as Alex, who lives for rape and murder, it's for most people there, just another costume. And is that because dressing as Alex is seen as depicting as that story itself and all the other merits of it... but if you dress as Cosby you are doing it to dress as rape?

J'accuseteauJune 11, 2015 8:38 AM

I don't know why so many watching this show forget that portrayal does not equal endorsement. You seriously think this show is on the side of the guy who demands a younger prostitute, or rapes his wife on her wedding night? You list these things like the mere fact of them is condemnation enough, without paying a single brain cell to what they mean (other than "the writers hate women!"). In the end, it's not only anti-intellectual, but anti-drama, asserting that a character's tribulations can only reflect a writer's hatred for what that character represents in the real world. Such an assumption poisons all serious efforts to examine art.

VyceVictusJune 11, 2015 8:59 AM

You blurt out "watch Oz", which I have seen, as if this is an either or/all or nothing argument. Im not saying dont show rape or that this show is bad and should be banned because of it, Im just saying there's most certainly room to use the device better.

It would seem that the main frustration about the depictions of sexual violence between SVU and GoT is the "various angles" you mentioned. In SVU they cover the various legal/law enforcement aspects along with how the victims (and perpetrators) might deal with the trauma, as well as using the "ripped from the headlines" formula for dramatic/attention grabbing value. In GoT it seems to happen merely to prove the "shitty person" formula, as if you didnt already know.

This goes back to the point about narrative concern rather than the "social justice" implications or whatever. So far the best episode in this season had nothing whatsoever to do with sexual violence. People persist that the cruelty/brutality is such a major part of the experience (like the arc of Ned or the Hound), and while I agree, I think its importance is also overemphasized.

Corey PierceJune 11, 2015 10:02 AM

I was just being flippant about Oz. Don't worry about it. :P

"In GoT it seems to happen merely to prove the "shitty person" formula, as if you didnt already know."
I think the number of angles one can run with in the GoT universe are a bit more limited. I don't know if I agree that it's a lazy way to show power or make you want a character to be killed so much as I feel that in some of the less complained about instances of its occurance, the showrunners might actually may not think enough of the power it has on the audience, it may carry about as much weight to them as say, the woman being stabbed repeatedly by one of the Sons of the Harpy in the last episode. Which for me personally, was more upsetting than some of the other things that have happened in the show. Sometimes you just don't know what will hit you viscerally, and it's all in presentation rather than the content itself.

"This goes back to the point about narrative concern rather than the "social justice" implications or whatever. "
Some of the bigger names in social justice, IMO, do better when they speak of these things in terms of narrative use than by pure content. And I think with GoT, some people go right to the content instead and makes them look like all cases of its appearance are equally problematic. As if an explicit lyrics sticker tells you the same about 2 Live Crew as it does about Public Enemy.

ie. I am not an Anita Sarkeesian fan. She makes a lot of very good points when it comes to feminism in the way stories are told, but other times she is so very sex-negative in the Dworkin sense, and she and her partner/producer insist that feminism must include pacifism (thus writing off Fury Road, and shitting on Star Wars and Avengers as well). Using terms like "filmic dissonance". Saying that if you ever are meant to enjoy or be entertained by the violence, or that if the violence if filmed beautifully, that it's an endorsement of the violence itself.

Todd HarringtonJune 11, 2015 12:50 PM

The problem is that in my experience in Hollywood development -- and confirmed by conversations over the years with many (especially female) colleagues -- the quick-grab for "elevating the dramatic tension" for a female character is almost always to place them in a position of sexual jeopardy. This happens time and again regardless of genre, and because the writers and the executives-in-charge are very frequently men, it is never examined with an eye to gender political subtext.

The question can certainly be asked: need it be examined in that manner?

My answer is: maybe, it depends.

While I agree with you that portrayal is not always endorsement and the GOT team certainly have the creative right to do what they want to do, they are not entitled to be "shocked - shocked!!" (said in my best Claude Rains) when the aggregate effect of their portrayals begin to turn off viewers and create the kind of backlash we have seen growing over the last couple of seasons.

At the end of the day, GOT is not merely art but commerce (witness all the toys, tees, etc) and commerce must always keep attuned to the winds of public opinion.