This article contains spoilers for Utopia series one, and Game Of Thrones season 5.
I’m turning into my father. When I was younger, my dad was wary of TV shows that would turn my clearly pure mind. His particular ire was when he caught me taping Prisoner Cell Block H of all things, arguing to teenage me that if it was meant for people my age, they’d have put it on during the day, rather than half one in the morning.
That argument did not pan out well, as you can imagine.
Game Of Thrones, though, is on throughout the day via on-demand, and is shown at 9pm in the UK. That’s not my beef, though. Instead, in season 5 in particular, I’m wondering why we’re being shown things I’m not ultimately sure we needed to see. That in the constant battle to push buttons, to get a reaction, and to shock the audience, Game Of Thrones is willing to try pretty much anything to get a Twitter reaction.
Allow me to slip my fuddy-duddy, old fart coat on and explain more.
There are two scenes in the generally muted (until recently) Game Of Thrones season 5 that have garnered the most controversy. In both cases, I find myself not on the side of the show. That is rare.
The first, which has been dissected in detail elsewhere on the internet, was the rape of Sansa Stark. I’ve never really got on with the Game Of Thrones books in truth, so didn’t realise until afterwards quite how much the show’s narrative differed from George R R Martin’s prose. But even before I had more detail, it was a chilling, nasty scene, one that didn’t feel necessary from a narrative point of view, nor on screen. I write this accepting that HBO’s take on Game Of Thrones show has rarely, if ever, pulled its punches. But I did sit there wondering what I was sitting through in the name of entertainment.
Was this really the only way, given the talent involved in the show, to make the point it was trying to make? Was this the only way to progress Sansa’s story? And to further establish just what a vile man Ramsay Bolton is?
Because, no matter how dark the storytelling is, that’s what Game Of Thrones is. Entertainment. Storytelling should explore dark places, and as books, television and film have shown time and time again, often it’s what you don’t see, rather than what you do, that hits home. But that’s only half the issue with the Sansa Stark rape. It’s not just that they chose to show it as they did, but that it was felt necessary in the first place. It’s not my story to write, but I don’t have to like and agree with what I see. And I didn’t.
Then? In this week’s episode, they burnt a child at the stake. And decided to show us. The scene in question wasn’t quite as graphically done as the demise of Ciaran Hinds’ Mance Rayder back in episode one, but still: really? That Stannis felt he had to make a blood sacrifice I could go along with, but surely this was the Bambi’s mother moment? Surely as much, if not more shock, would have been generated simply by leading Shireen away?
But that’s decreasingly a tactic in Game Of Thrones‘ armoury. Instead, be it a beheading, a violent sexual assault, or brutal sacrifice of a minor, there’s a push to show as much as possible. There are boundaries: a moment of (heavily) implied paedophilia in The Dance Of Dragons left me chilled too, but here, the show knew better where to draw the line. It made its point by giving us the information, and not a jot more.
And I do see the other side. This is a show where a young character was dropped seemingly to his death right near the start. Horrible things have happened since day one. Maybe it’s the cumulative effect that kicks in, but it seems to be in a position where it’s trying to top its last shocking moment right now, no matter what.
It’s little secret that there’s been a general air of disappointment surrounding Game Of Thrones season 5, and that to date, it’s been the least well received season of the show. Naturally views differ on this. For my part, I’m more with the naysayers at the minute. I think it’s struggled, content to move pieces around the board once again, but in nowhere near as compelling a way as the show has managed before. One of the majestic achievements of Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men was that nothing could overtly happen for several episodes, yet it felt like plenty had. With Thrones, that’s not the case. It’s telling that it’s the two shock tactic moments that are the most discussed this season. I struggle to think what makes it to third place.
The particular frustration with Game Of Thrones is that it doesn’t need to do shock tactics. Take a show like Channel 4’s sadly-cancelled Utopia. Its first series had a horrible school shooting episode, that still feels cold to this day. I warmed to Utopia, but it went for an early attention grabber presumably with an eye on tabloid headlines. It made an unknown show into a known one, and that felt, in hindsight, quite calculated. There were lots of highlights to Utopia, but that wasn’t one of them.
Game Of Thrones? Tens of millions of people, maybe hundreds of millions, are already on its side. Furthermore, there’s such skilful writing and direction that already, across four and a bit seasons, has been winning the show a generally deserved worldwide audience. Game Of Thrones is billed as the biggest TV show in the world right now, and it’s hard to begrudge it much of that success.
But the old mantra is that bigger is better. If you’re big now, you have to try and grow and grow and grow. And for Game Of Thrones, that growth is seemingly in part coming by prodding and trying to shock its audience. A sense of ‘look what we can get away with on the telly now’.
But where do you draw the line? I’ve no idea, and I don’t want to become one of those hacks who says ‘this is how it should have been done’. I do also think that context is often, but not always, everything. But is it allowed to do pretty much anything now, safe in the knowledge that it’ll be defended on the basis of the tone and extremities it’s explored to date? It feels a bit that way. It still (rightly) has reservations, but it feels it’s long past exploring where the fence is.
I’m not one of those who thinks that Game Of Thrones has completely lost its way. There’s still lots in its favour. But as Ron wrote at the end of his last review, “just because an episode was great doesn’t mean I have to be happy about its contents”. I agree with Ron.
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