Let's Discuss: 'Game of Thrones' And Courting Controversy

The cultural zeitgeist that surrounds HBO’s premier series is unlike most of the water cooler shows currently airing. What revs people up over one storyline’s direction, can be equally bold in another capacity and go completely ignored. In the midst of its fifth season, “Game of Thrones” found itself facing the brunt of major controversy when in the wake of its sixth episode, titled “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken” an online frenzy broke out, sending the series into controversial overdrive.

The aftermath continues to linger, serving as a major talking point at the recent San Diego Comic-Con panel for the series. The fury stems from an off-book change that saw Sansa Stark, beleaguered heroine, orphan and pawn to the powerful; endure a rape at the hands of her sadistic new husband. The outrage is understandable. “How much more must this poor girl suffer?” and “are there no limits the series’ brutality?” were among some of the battle cries, heard echoing across the web-isphere.

By the same token it is a plot, vigilant fans should have seen coming from a mile away, which should have cushioned some of the initial shock. Sansa’s predicament was a tragic and inevitable reality the moment she acquiesced to Littlefinger’s proposition of an arranged marriage between herself and Ramsay Bolton, the son of the man who’d murdered her brother, mother and sister-in-law; in cold blood. House Bolton is a notoriously vile clan. Tyrion had shown her chastity a respect that most in their world, would not have and she had acknowledged that fact, throughout their short-lived marriage. Why fans were expecting the same nobility from Ramsay is strange to say the least.

What befell Sansa was horrific, sad and tragic. It was also true to the era “Game of Thrones” is portraying; the historical period known as The War of the Roses. Nothing about the storyline came across as if it were jockeying for shock value or acting for the point of sensationalism. It was in keeping with the brutality of the times and the behavior of a character as despicable as Ramsay Bolton, who rivals the departed King Joffrey for the title of most evil character. It would’ve been disingenuous for the storyline to have played out any other way.

A similar debate enveloped the latest season of The CW series “Reign”, when Mary was violated during a siege. Like “Game of Thrones”, the storyline on “Reign” was in keeping with the time period the series takes place in. It would be revisionist to ignore this dark aspect of the historical period. It was incredibly violent. Sanitizing the past in dramatic productions just avoids reality.

Seeing a character suffer is never a pleasant task and it never should be. Of the commentators concerned Sansa’s rape was merely a plot device to bring about the redemption of Greyjoy; subsequent episodes proved that fear, false. If one believes that scene was meant to redeem him, then what exactly was his castration at the hands of Ramsay meant to do? Where, by the way, was the outcry over that grotesque torture sequence being utilized to have a character atone in that storyline?

There was none and that was far more overt in redemptive nature than the role Greyjoy played in Sansa’s assault. A scene where it seemed obvious he was simply a tool to transmit the audience’s horror and to have something to pan away to, rather than depict the act in its totality; sparing viewers. Both sad and interesting is there was no chorus of disapproval over the aforementioned storylines or the graphic torture that was heaped upon Theon Greyjoy. Although he had behaved atrociously beforehand; the mainstream audience not expressing a tad of revulsion over it is telling.

If one thought “Thrones” had reached its limits for chasing the disturbing, all fans had to do was fast forward through to the next few episodes to learn that would not be the case. Stannis Baratheon (Ned Stark’s pick for king of the realm) committed an egregious act straight out of “The Iliad”. Ruthless in his bid for power, he sacrificed the life of his own daughter, the most innocent character on the entire show.

Where was the online outrage though? Where was the concern? If it existed, it was hard to hear over the indignant outrage that was still consuming the Sansa melee. Glancing over some online commenters, it was hard to miss a few souls out there who were still sticking behind Stannis and later expressed sadness when the lout was swiftly killed in the season finale.

There seems to be a limit on what viewers are willing to take though. After five years of envelope pushing that has seen some of the most disturbingly violent scenes committed on television, “Thrones” ruffled more feathers than ever before. It would not be accurate to say that it is in the throes of a full blown backlash, although it certainly appears to be careening towards one. All of this in the world of “Game of Thrones” fandom and the media has yet to report on any major backlash over the graphic rape of a major male character on Starz’s “Outlander”.

According to coverage of the scenes (which earned rave reviews by TV critics) that series' scenes were extensively more graphic than anything “Thrones” presented. It was also a prolonged ordeal that spanned an entire episode. It was not a single cutaway scene. So why did “Outlander” get a free pass? While it’s true that series was portraying an event that occurred in the books it’s based on, so was “Thrones”. The latter simply changed who the violence was suffered by. So what is the difference? Why was one series vilified and the other venerated? On the surface the only difference seems to be that one victim was male and the other female.

If the issue was cable going too far altogether, the outrage would be equivalent. Perhaps the argument is after five seasons "Thrones" has procured a reputation as a repeat offender. If the issue from fans and critics is that "Thrones" just picks on women to exert its violence that would be a miscalculation. It should be stated that it is an equal opportunity gender offender that does not solely victimize female characters. You have to look no further than its three castrated male characters for proof of that. Female characters have not sat idly by without acting viciously either and that is not just a reference to Cersei.

This past season, Daenerys had one of her dragons light a man on fire and most egregiously, Lady Melisandre concocted and carried out the murder of Shireen. Case and point, both genders have acted violently and suffered violent fates. If the issue is violence in general, which people should be outraged by no matter which gender endures it, everyone has their own breaking point. Whether “Game of Thrones” has reached theirs, only time will tell.

Photo Credit: "Game of Thrones"/HBO

1 comment

  1. Great write about GoT :) #Congrats! An so true about the historical era and Sansa Stark.