Game of Thrones’ Moral Minefield
As you read this, the post-GoT-season-finale frenzy is in full force. No matter what sort of plot deviation, book spoiler, or show catastrophe has taken place – it's safe to say that something traumatising, something vile took place in the finale you watched this week. In the last two episodes, you have witnessed a psychopath rape a character who has grown up on screen, and a father burn his daughter at the stake for power. At this point you have to ask yourself, where does the line lie? Are you okay with GoT doing anything on screen with the sole excuse of being "realistic"?
Game of Thrones can be traumatising. For a lot of victims of physical or sexual violence, the show can result in psychological breakdowns. Even considering censorship and warnings, family or friends of victims of extreme abuse can all too readily recognise the pain and helplessness that they so strongly associate with their closest and loved ones. Even if you've lived your life inside a bubble, these scenes cannot be good on your nerves. It's not fun. If someone comes to tell you that they enjoyed watching Sansa getting raped or Shireen getting burned, stay away from them. Get them psychiatric help, but stay away from them. That many declared that they'd stop watching the show altogether should come as no surprise to anyone.
But wait. Does this take away any credit, any legitimacy from the show? Game of Thrones, like the series it is based upon, is a story about the greatness and the depravity of the powerful and the power-hungry, with little or no regard for the victims. Make no mistake of it – this is not about happy endings. The world of A Song of Ice and Fire is a twisted, slightly magical version of a medieval age with all the terrible things we had back then, and then some more. Many claim that this is an unfair characterisation, that entertainment need not be gruesome simply because it exists in an unfair time or place. But to ask GoT to not be gruesome is to ask GoT to not be itself. It's not nearly as much about the context of the story as it's about the story. This could be shot in 2100 A.D. Sweden and still have the inherent abysmal human rights records because the story demands for it to be that way.
Game of Thrones is about shock. In the closeted 21st century lives of WiFi and smartphones, where entertainment is streamed on the go and the news continuously bombards people with gruesome pictures of hurt children, burnt women, and dying pandas, no one really feels anything anymore. Secure lives mean that people are more alienated from real pockets of human grief than ever before, to the point where they do not register them at all. To get these very people to tune in to a channel every week to watch something that visibly moves them, shocks them, enrages them into asking questions – no, demanding answers – for the atrocities committed on screen, that's bloody brilliant.
At its best, it helps us see up close the horrors humans inflict on each other and force us to confront and fight them, in whatever way we're capable of. At its worst, it reveals the hypocrisy of our world. Not only do we not care as much when women in real life get raped, we also don't appear to care when women in our favourite shows get raped so long as we aren't familiar with them (Craster's Keep vs . Sansa's wedding night). We don't care when Theon gets dismembered or Jaime loses his hand because those characters are grey and our principles only extend to people we like or people who seem nice. Our ethics have never been more skewed and this show has people finally talking about that.
That being said, Game of Thrones isn't for everyone. As Tyrion put it, "There has always been more than enough death in the world for my taste. I can do without it in my leisure time." Our entertainment decisions, like every other lifestyle choice we make, shouldn't be a source of shame (unless you're Meryn Trant). If someone chooses to avoid GoT for the blood, gore and principles of it – then that is an excellent decision on their part for themselves. There is no shame in it. Similarly, if someone chooses to watch the show despite or even because of the brutality, the sheer power of evil portrayed on screen – then that person shouldn't be accused of supporting the violence in the story. With that note, let's all turn to cryosleep till the next season.