I’m not a terribly squeamish person when it comes to violence in my entertainment. I’ve seen a lot of Takashi Miike films, I’ve read American Psycho, and I enjoy some brutal violence and gushing blood when it’s presented the right way. I don’t think any behaviour or act is truly out of bounds in fiction, though its relevance or usefulness to any given story may be questionable. I’m a fan of chasing characters into trees and then throwing rocks at them – whether physical or emotional – because that’s where drama and character development happen.
That approach is on display in most of George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones books, where most of his characters are tormented in one way or another in the course of each book. But while Martin’s books are full of unpleasantness, it never overwhelms the story, often because the truly awful scenes seldom happen on-camera. In the television adaptation, though, Game of Thrones seems to be pushing much of the horrid behaviour up-front; the second episode spent nearly half its time abusing female characters in a variety of ways, and the fourth episode, The Garden of Bones, loosed a staggeringly sadistic scene upon a couple of nameless prostitutes.
Is there any question, at this point, that Joffrey Baratheon is a horrible person? He’s selfish, arrogant, and cruel, and it’s been demonstrated many times: the incident with Arya and the butcher’s boy, Ned’s fate, cutting out tongues, and having his fiancee beaten. In this very episode, we see him tormenting Sansa as punishment for her brother’s recent military victories, and we can be quite sure he would have done worse had Tyrion not arrived.
So why, then, was it necessary to follow that up with scene in which Joffrey orders two prostitutes – naked, of course – to beat and torment each other?
I enjoy Jack Gleason’s performance as Joffrey, but it’s not a subtle character: He’s a sadistic asshole. If you have been watching Game of Thrones and have not yet realized that, you either haven’t been paying attention or you are also a sadistic asshole.
For some reason the writers of the show felt we needed one more scene of Joffrey being horrible, one more example of a powerful man abusing anonymous women. When he mistreats Sansa, we can at least view the events through her eyes, understand what is happening in a different way; the scene between Joffrey and Sansa in the first season finale, where she finally realizes her fair prince is an inbred monster, is one of my favourites of the series, and the first time I really appreciated Sophie Turner’s work.
But when Joffrey has the prostitutes beat one another under threat of death, nothing new is learned, nothing is gained. There’s no insight into Joffrey’s character – he’s still a dick! – and neither woman will ever speak of the event, nor will we ever see the consequences of it for them. It’s little more than sadistic voyeurism, an attempt at shocking the audience with another act of cruelty in a series that’s already full of them. The producers of Game of Thrones have assumed Joffrey’s position in their creative capacities, committing acts of cruelty and violence simply because they can.