Months have dragged by since the "Breaking Bad" finale. We've waited for another show as heartlessly ambitious and expertly crafted to fill the cavernous hole in our Sunday nights. "Game of Thrones" is the best show this side of Albuquerque. The costumes are beautiful, the plot engulfing and the characters vivid. These things have probably always been true, yet I have only seen seven full episodes, including Sunday's season debut.
That said, I really don't like "Game of Thrones" -- because there's too much sexual violence.
I understand that part of HBO's allure is its ability to say and show things that couldn't be said or shown on cable. I get it. "The Sopranos" is the greatest show ever and it's more foul-mouthed and bare-bosomed than any of Tyrion's spritely benders. But I'm not talking about sex, I'm talking about sexual violence.
Let's look again at Sunday's season premiere. We're introduced to the domineering Prince Oberyn Martell inspecting the wares at the local brothel while his mistress looks on from the couch. The two lovers are selecting from three prostitutes, one of whom clearly wasn't into the prospective three-way. Nonetheless, Oberyn pulls off her tunic and we see her bare, terrified and trembling body.
Sensing her fear, the mistress mutters with contempt, "timid bores me." The prostitute then hurries to clutch her clothes around her.
Who was that prolonged nude moment for? Better yet, whose fantasy is this fantasy epic?
Even though Oberyn forgoes the "timid" prostitute, the scene is still fueled by sexual violence. All of the moment's drama comes from the potential for sex that she did not want.
Worse still is the concluding sequence that starts like a bad joke: So, a redhead and a dog walk into a bar... As Arya Stark and Sandor Clegane enter the tavern, we see the proprietor's daughter get passed around by the king's soldiers. She screams for help that doesn't come. It cuts to a medium shot of a groping soldier repeatedly fondling her chest for way too long. Again, who is this for?
The two newcomers take a seat at the opposite end of the room where Polliver, another of the king's soldiers, joins them. He and Sandor have a pretty engaging back-and-forth that escalates from mild banter to menacing intimidation veiled in a negotiation for chicken. These few minutes of excellent dialogue are ruined by the guards we can still see groping that poor woman over Polliver's shoulder. They add nothing to the crucial dialogue, so why are they there? Who is enjoying this detail?
Seemingly each time I've casually watched an episode, someone gets raped. These scenes often aspired to be brutal and sensual, which I found consistently repulsive. Even more exasperating to me is that the assaults seemed aimless.
When I heard George R.R. Martin was a guest on a local public radio, I dialed immediately. I asked him to explain the amount of sexual violence on the show.
"I'm writing about a world where I think that stuff took place," Martin said. After a lengthy explanation of how rape has plagued human history he added: "I think not to portray it -- to leave that out, to have fights and wars and bloodshed where that's not taking place. I don't know, that doesn't strike me as being real."
Again, Martin wrote the books that became source material for "Game of Thrones'" development. He is not directly responsible for the imagery I find repugnant, so I appreciate that he responded to the question at all. All the same, his answer is more frustrating than having an overindulged teenage nephew for a king.
He's conceived of a world where that "stuff" took place -- but it doesn't have to. Martin is trying to bear witness to a reality that never happened. Take, for example, Daenerys Targaryen's (Khaleesi's) response to the dead girls crucified along every mile of her army's march. Her lieutenant offers to shield her from the corpses by riding ahead and burying them. Our platinum blonde heroine rejects the plan immediately.
"I will see each and every one of their faces," she says. Khaleesi will not hide from the real violence in a world she hopes to rule. That's admirable, but her world is fiction. As viewers, we would gain little by seeing 160 miles of propped-up prop corpses. In the same way, we viewers get little out of witnessing the show's assaults. The "Game" universe forces us into a position which should be unthinkable in our society: Idly watching someone enjoy a sexual assault.
Perhaps the best art operates like the white walkers, climbing over our well-defended but neglected walls to rouse us from complacency. Fundamentally, threats force us to consider who we are. But my biggest problem with the show is that it doesn't care who we are. It tries to collapse the moral fourth wall separating our world and Tyrion's, as if we should enjoy the same things its stone-hearted characters do. The show's morality is about practical as a solid-gold prosthetic hand.
It's a fantasy world where Martin or the show's writers could have done something unprecedented, like institute gender equality with literally the stroke of a pen.
Even if, for some reason, sexual violence is truly central to the "Thrones" universe, it doesn't need to be shown as often or as intently as it is. At best, it obscures the plot and at worst, it makes a real evil look attractive.
When the show began its run in 2011, I waited a few weeks to see what the fuss was all about. I mean, Boromir was in it, so what could possibly go wrong? Everything went wrong. The artistic triumph of those first episodes is beyond sullied by numerous, inexplicable sexual assaults and outright rape.
My memory of these episodes (I refuse to re-watch them) is still gut-wrenching. The assaults happen on screen in scenes that stretch many seconds longer than they should and conflate images that should never have been near each other. I still remember Drogo slowly undressing Khaleesi like some tender romance while tears rolled down her bare chest as she anticipates what was about to happen. It was not consensual. It was not good TV. The scene tried to concretize the world of difference between Drogo and Khaleesi, but to me all it did was eroticize an assault.
"Game of Thrones" always seems ill-considered to me. It wants so badly to say something significant about sex and power that maybe it forgets to take a breath between the two thoughts.
The show's rape problem seems so obvious to me that I often wonder why they haven't yet solved it.
Perhaps this is answered by Jaime Lannister's poignant retort: "As long as I'm better than everyone else I suppose it doesn't matter."