Monday, May 18, 2015

Game of Thrones - starkly crossing the line

[Spoilers] When you watch "Game of Thrones," you know that you're in for your fair share of violence.  In the first season, there was the beheading of Eddard Stark, who at that point was as close to someone you could call a "hero" as anyone in the narrative.  In the third season, there was the infamous Red Wedding, and even though I didn't see that episode live, I can still remember the outcry on Twitter about its horror.  Also in the third season, there was the unceasing torture of Theon Greyjoy by Ramsay Bolton.  And last year, you had Oberyn Martell having  his head crushed after a moment of arrogance and hubris in a duel to the death with the Mountain.

And that's really just the tip of the iceberg.  Bottom line, this is not a story for the faint of heart.  There are times when humanity is lacking on a large scale, and it is a fair statement that the treatment of the women in the story - both those integral to that story, and at the periphery of it - have fared particularly poorly.  There are exceptions - Daenerys Targaryen may someday come to be regarded as one of the great heroines in literature - but for the most part, the women of "Game of Thrones" tend to be of the scheming type, or the type that matters only for what they can offer in terms of bodily pleasures.

One of the highlights of what to date had been an outstanding and exhilarating fifth season had been the story arcs involving two of the women who had suffered some of the greatest indignities throughout the series - Sansa and Arya Stark, parentless after the violent deaths of their parents and separated in what one hoped would become a test of their mettle that would result in the redemption and triumph of their family, and establish each of them as future leaders worthy of respect.

I have to admit that I still don't quite understand what is going on with Arya and where her story is headed, but what I saw last night was her being abused in a way that amounted to a flogging. I'm willing to suspend disbelief and accept that this is all going to result in her becoming a better and stronger person, but all that has been on display so far has been punishment and what looks a lot like debasement.

But that was nothing, compared to the fate of Sansa.  Newly wed to the execrable, detestable and quite possibly insane Ramsay, we were forced to endure a scene where Ramsay in all likelihood raped her on her wedding night (there seems to be some debate about that on social media, but it's hard to argue otherwise), and for good measure forced Theon/Reek to watch the entire episode as punishment for...well, whatever.

It's hard to describe how disturbing the scene was.  Watching it, I could feel my eyes filling with tears at the horror of it all.  For a show as violent as "Game of Thrones" has been, this was crossing a line.   This was not necessary, particularly now that I know that this is one storyline where the show has chosen to deviate from that to be found in the books.  Making it worse was the fact that, just a few minutes before, was a scene where Sansa was at her strongest - confronting a former parmour of Ramsay's as she was being bathed, demonstrating that she was a young woman without fear and prepared to take on what would no doubt amount to the challenge of her life.

And that's not even the worst of how this scene was handled.  To quote television critic Libby Hill:

"However, what really makes the wedding night rape of Sansa Stark notable is the fact that as brutal and honestly unnecessary as the moment is, the show doesn't even have the courtesy of letting Sansa's emotions about the event serve as the center of the moment.  Instead, it's Theon's face we see crumple and weep as he's forced to bear witness when Ramsay has his way with his new wife.  It's fine that Theon is upset.  I'm upset at being forced to watch that scene, too.  But I'm mostly upset because the show seems to have very little interest in how Sansa might be feeling about he nightmarish way her wedding night proceeded."

Sunday night was the final episode of "Mad Men," so understandably much of the "Twitterverse" was devoted to commenting on that.  But shortly after that episode ended, folks started to talk about...almost as if it were a rumor...something particularly horrible that had happened on "Game of Thrones."  Salon television critic Sonia Saraiya made a comment alluding to it, to which I responded "It was the single most disturbing scene of the entire series."

And I believe that today.  Because I'm not one for boycotts, I will keep watching - because I do honestly think the show is one of the greatest of our time.  But what happened last night is a serious misstep that cannot be excused.  And what makes it so sad is the fact that this really has been a wonderful season.  One that has used violence in a meaningful way to move the narrative forward, particularly in the suffering that Jon Snow and Daenerys endured when each felt the need in their positions of leadership to conduct executions.  One that also has featured wonderful visual moments, such as when Jorah and Tyrion sailed through the ruins of a lost civilization and looked upward in wonder at a dragon flying lazily through the sky.

But what happened last night was violence against women for no good reason.  It was a shame.

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