“I don’t watch Game of Thrones” sounds like one of those internet-y things very annoying people say when they’re trying to sound better than you. You’ll say something about Sansa or Daenarys, and they’ll say “Oh, I don’t watch Game of Thrones,” with a sort of practiced tiredness that’s dripping with hope that you’ll ask them why.
If you’re smart, you won’t ask why. If you do ask why, they’ll say something about how they don’t even own a television. Or they do own a television, but Game of Thrones‘ laudable attempts at neo-feminism are tripped up by its rush to get women out of their clothes. Or people die too often. Take your pick. None of these are bad reasons to not watch Game of Thrones, but they’re very boring. You would have been better off not asking.
And nobody asked me, I understand, so stop reading now if you like. But I don’t watch Game of Thrones. I used to, and now I don’t. I threw the towel in sometime around season four. I had a few reasons for this, and not all of them were ethical, but the main one was this: Game of Thrones cheapens its own violence.
To give context to my point, here’s a story from my childhood — one I barely remember. I was very young, and I was waiting for my parents to finish some dutiful work at a little church we attended. From where I was sitting, I could just make out the words of an unfamiliar man who was meeting with my pastor behind closed doors. The man was telling my pastor that a young girl he knew had accused a friend of his of molesting her.
I missed the details, but I caught one part clearly: my pastor telling the man “be careful who you tell about this. A lot of guys have had their lives ruined by accusations like this.”
I learned a lesson that day, though it took me a long time to fully understand it. There is a cost to violence, and that debt is rarely extracted from the violent. It is almost always extracted from the victim. It has always been like this in our world.
But by the old gods and the new, it is not like that in the world of Game of Thrones. The show is adrift in nihilism, in which good people live at the mercy of assholes. Upon Jon Snow’s return from the dead, he reports that he saw “nothing at all” on the other side. (How do I know this, if I don’t watch Game of Thrones? You would be really and truly shocked with how much of the plot you can pick up on without watching it, given how much you guys tweet about it). People are killed without repercussion. People are raped without consequence. There is no emotional toll, no grieving process, no PTSD. There is no cost at all.
Violence is cheap in Game of Thrones, because you only see the act itself. The murders, tortures and rapes may move the plot along, but there are no character ripples, no sense of emotional upheaval. The violence just happens.
Detractors will tell you that this is the point. The people of Game of Thrones live in a cruel universe, as the deaths of Ned Stark, Catelyn Stark, Rob Stark …well, most of the Starks …Oberyn, Ygritte, Ros, Shae, and so on, ad infinitum, go to show. And death is a mercy compared to the horrors endured by the living. There’s Theon Greyjoy, of course. And Daenarys sold into marriage and raped by her new husband (the fact that she fell in love with him — before he was killed, naturally — was one of this show’s first and most ludicrous cheapenings of violence). Think of Sansa, likewise raped by her new husband. And of course there’s Cersei, and she’s the one I’ve been building towards.
Cersei was raped in season four by, of course, her brother — under the shadow of her son’s fresh corpse. This drew a lot of angry responses, which only grew angrier as it became clear the show was never really going to address it. Jamie would remain a deliciously conflicted rogue who is more or less bad but has a thin strain of nobility in his veins. And Cersei — well, Cersei would deal with it because that’s what women are supposed to do with sexual assault. It did not have a dramatic affect on her characterization. It did not even seem to have any affect at all on her avant-garde relationship with her brother. It was just another bad thing that happened to a woman on Game of Thrones. As I pointed out at the time.
This is what I mean by “cheapening the violence” in Game of Thrones. The creators and fans of the show can argue that their depictions of violence are merely a way of showing how cold and brutal their world can be, but until they show that those acts of violence have real consequences, those explanations ring false, because this is not how violence and brutality actually work. Violence in our world may be just as common as it is in Game of Thrones, but in our world, people are forced to deal with the trauma. It has a high cost.
This cost has been reflected well and often in the real world’s history of storytelling. In Genesis, a young woman named Dinah is raped by a king, and her brothers retaliate by tricking all the king’s subjects into circumcising themselves; they then kill the lot of them while they’re in recovery. In Greek mythology, winter’s famine was attributed to the rape of Persephone by Hades. And Shakespeare’s dramas — from Macbeth to King Lear — are haunted by the specter of violence and the terrible toll it takes.
None of this means that violence has to mean anything. Objectively, violence rarely has meaning: that’s why we often call it “senseless”. But violence almost always means something to its victims, who have had their lives irrevocably altered. There is no compartmentalization with violence. There is no isolation of violence from the rest of your life. There is just the trauma, and the lifelong struggle to overcome it and seek healing. There are no shortcuts.
Is it asking too much of Game of Thrones to depict that trauma? On a show that’s been as lauded as this one for nuanced character development and deeply interwoven plotlines, not at all. Particularly when other shows on television are doing this so well. One could easily argue that the whole of The Leftovers‘ (decent) first and (superb) second season are really about the ways we deal with losing the ones we love. And there’s The People VS. OJ Simpson, which showed how just two murders sent an entire nation into upheaval for months.
As for sexual violence, Netflix’s Jessica Jones handled the subject with great care, and Sundance TV’s Top of the Lake masterfully and thoughtfully addressed the ways its star (Elisabeth Moss) wrestles with the lingering psychological damage of rape.
Representation is important, and honest representations of those who have survived violence are deeply important. For centuries, people have looked to art for lessons on how to cope with the world around them, and the things it does to them. The lesson that Game of Thrones imparts is a simple one: it doesn’t matter. Your pain, your healing, your survival — there is no value in any of it. The only thing any of it is good for, perhaps, is shock.
So, that’s why I stopped watching Game of Thrones. I have a propensity for letting stories affect my life, and frankly, I’ve got too many television shows speaking into my worldview as it is. There is a cost to our pain, and part of my being mindful of that cost is staying away from narratives that diminish it. I don’t expect it to be the same for everyone. I don’t think think this gives me any moral high ground.
So I’m not arguing for less violence on Game of Thrones. On the contrary, I’m arguing for more—more emotional violence, more fallout, more something to communicate that violence has weight to it, and it leaves something terrible in its wake. Until then, since I only have so many hours to give to TV every week, I’m going to hold off from Game of Thrones.
Not that anyone asked.