Game of Thrones aired another predictably bloody and explosive season finale on Sunday, sending the internet into a tizzy and leading readers of the books to note that finally everyone is in uncharted waters — the series has officially caught up to George R. R. Martin’s epic, which raises some interesting questions about what will happen next season (spoilers for the next book, perhaps? Finally, the tables will be turned…). This has been a rough season for Game of Thrones when it comes to internet commentary on the show, and in the dissections of the season rolling out this week, complaints about the extreme violence seem to be a bit of a theme.
It’s legitimate to ask where the complainants have been through the previous four seasons, because it’s not like Game of Thrones went from kittens and unicorns to rape and bloodshed. The show and the books have always stood out as outstandingly blood-soaked — the Red Wedding was an iconic moment for a reason, and it wasn’t the canapés. Game of Thrones is characterised, saturated, and framed by violence: It’s a cornerstone of the ethos of the series, and it’s also a reflection of the era Martin heavily cribbed from to create it.
This is not to defend Game of Thrones by any stretch of the imagination. Nor is it to dismiss television viewers startled by the violence in the series. The oft-repeated notion that the show is ‘just a reflection of the times’ doesn’t hold water when it’s not historical fiction and when the era it was based on wasn’t exactly filled with (to our knowledge) dragons and magic — Game of Thrones is not a reality show. The repeated snobbish claims that people ‘should have read the books’ are also growing tiresome, as the show is an entertainment phenomenon in its own right, and you don’t need to read the books to watch it, or to enjoy it, for those who derive pleasure from HBO’s hit series.
But after five seasons, it is legitimate to ask why people continue to be surprised by the show’s violence, and why people seem to think that the fifth season represents a bridge too far when it comes to the scope of violence depicted. The use of rape as a plot device on the series, for example, isn’t new, even if a major character happened to be involved this season (again — this isn’t the first time she’s been raped). Murdering people, including those in lower social positions and those living on the margins, also isn’t new. Treating violence as entertainment in the context of the show isn’t new either, and neither is slashing down major characters for drama.
Game of Thrones is not a contiguous narrative following the same characters across a series of meandering timelines, as is highly conventional in U.S. television. It’s an ever-evolving, ever-shifting epic with a correspondingly adjusting cast. Characters drift in and out of the story, and to keep the number of characters manageable, Martin, and HBO, had to start taking lives, including those of major characters. Moreover, the trend of mutilating characters to make dramatic statements and radically shift their role in the drama is also a hallmark of the series; when in doubt, assume that every character on the programme will eventually be graphically injured or murdered in some way or another, and the more high profile, the more likely this is.
The stunned reactions to season five were an interesting revelation of public expectations for Game of Thrones, with some viewers seeming to think that the show had a line it wouldn’t cross — and, as the finale clearly illustrated, the programme has no boundaries when it comes to death, destruction, and devastation. But that shouldn’t have been news. The refusal to acknowledge that Game of Thrones has always been horrifically violent and filled with abusive, terrible people devalues the episodes of seasons gone past: Have viewers forgotten Joffrey’s violent abuse of Sansa? Or Bran’s paralysis, sustained in the very first episode of the series?
The tight episodic storytelling of Game of Thrones, whipping through multiple narratives in single episodes and drawing readers through an ever-expanding universe, can at times be difficult to follow. One thing that isn’t difficult, though, is to grasp the show’s continuous theme, and reinforcement of same: This is a violent, cruel, awful world. It’s filled with people who do terrible things to each other in an ever-creative series of ways. Death is inevitable for everyone, but especially Game of Thrones characters, who are facing dirt naps a bit sooner than the rest of us.
To act surprised about this in light of the previous four seasons is a bit of a disappointment. To criticise the show’s intense ultraviolence, particularly violence against women, is entirely legitimate, because there’s a great deal to explore when it comes to the show’s handling of women. Such critiques and discussions have been ongoing throughout the series, in recognition of the fact that almost from the start, this is a world, and a programme, where women are not treated with very much kindness. But for those just getting on board, it’s a bit of an insult to pretend that the previous four seasons weren’t just as bad.
For those apparently just tuning in to the violence, the astonishment rings a big hollow. Game of Thrones has always been violent. This is nothing new. None of the violence in the fifth season was particularly remarkable when contrasted with other seasons, not even some of the more horrific plot developments, all of which were simply variations on a theme, and new twists of a very old narrative. We’ve seen all of these things on Game of Thrones before, and we will see them again — at least, those of us who are still watching after season five.
Media like Game of Thrones can be challenging, as it’s possible to enjoy the complex storytelling and epic narrative nature while still loathing the violence and wishing the series took a more critical look at itself and the depiction of women in fantasy. Game of Thrones could be a very different programme if it approached violence from a different perspective and treated women differently, and acknowledging these things is important — but acting like these things are new problems is a disservice to the show’s reality.