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Game of Thrones has nothing to say about rape, continues to say it very badly & loudly

There are many choices that need to be made when adapting a book into a TV show or movie. Some things work on the page but not on the screen, and some things simply need to be cut for time. This goes quadruple for a series of books as massive as Game of Thrones – the sheer volume of characters and subplots would render any adaptation a confusing mess. For the most part, HBO’s Game of Thrones has made a lot of smart choices, paring down the cast of characters and streamlining some of the stories. We can quibble about what has or hasn’t worked – someone like Shae gets more character development, while poor Melisandre is stripped of her complexity – but we can agree that some changes are necessary.

Having said all that, it’s hard to imagine that someone would read George R.R. Martins’ books and come to the conclusion that the audience needs to see even more rape and cruelty.

(I’m not even going to talk about the Jaimie/Cersei scene from the previous episode; I’m going to give director Alex Graves the benefit of the doubt when he said it wasn’t a new and unnecessary rape scene, but merely one of the most poorly executed consensual sex scenes in broadcast history. That said, what made it onto the screen was clearly a rape scene, so you can read it either way.)

In one of the bigger deviations from the books, the TV series has returned to Craster’s Keep, the home of the incestuous monster who was killed in the Night’s Watch mutiny last season. The series appears to be tying together two storylines from the book: Jon Snow argues that the Night’s Watch needs to deal with the mutineers before they give up any information to the wildling army, while Bran and his gang inadvertently stumble upon the mutineers.

You’ve been watching Game of Thrones for a while now, right? A show like this is surely written on the presumption that the audience has at least some ability to remember what happened in past episodes. So let’s recap:

  • Many members of the Night’s Watch are criminals who choose life on the Wall instead of an execution. Many of them are rapists; we know this because rarely an episode of Night’s Watch stories goes by without someone repeating “thieves & rapists!”
  • For added benefit, Sam took Gilly away from Castle Black in the last episode because he was afraid one of the many rapists in the Night’s Watch might rape her.
  • Having established that there are many awful people in the Night’s Watch, it would be reasonable to conclude that those who would mutiny and murder their own commander might be, say, 15% more awful than the average member of the Night’s Watch.
  • Post-mutiny, those worst-of-the-worst are left in control of an outpost of abused, defenceless, and largely submissive women.
  • The very first shot upon returning to Craster’s Keep is of the leader of the mutineers drinking out of a human skull.

If you really must return to Craster’s Keep, everyone in the audience can safely assume that bad things have been happening there. There’s nothing shocking or suspenseful about a bunch of murderous rapists raping women. There’s nothing interesting about how the sequence is filmed, and no new information is gleaned. This is rape as background: Several women are being graphically abused on camera, and it has nothing to do with what is happening in the scene.

The series’ previous low point came in season two’s The Garden of Bones, where Joffrey pointlessly tortured two prostitutes. At the time, it was nearly enough to put me off the show entirely; in comparison to the events at Craster’s Keep, it’s a refined and sensitive portrayal of sexual violence. While it remains pointlessly and gratuitously cruel, at least Joffrey’s victims were afforded a tiny sliver of sympathy; they were rough, approximate sketches of human beings, and there was a sense that Joffrey’s cruelty was being inflicted on someone, not merely by someone.

The women of Craster’s Keep are afforded no such pretense: They are nameless, nearly faceless, props that exist solely to be raped and demonstrate the depravity the Night’s Watch mutineers. This would be disappointing in any context, but it’s even lazier in Game of Thrones, which champions point of view as one of its greatest features.

There’s no one who can’t be redeemed in Game of Thrones, or who can’t at least show a different side of their actions. Cersei is vindictive and treacherous, but she loves her children. Jaimie pushed a child out a window to cover up the fact he was fucking his sister, but shows his more honourable side to Brienne. The Hound is a brutal murderer who enjoys killing, but he isn’t without a conscience. Even Viserys got to show a bit of humanity before being killed for being a miserable asshole. You may never like these characters, but Martin and the TV writers at least tried to get you to consider their perspective.

But Game of Thrones has marched off far too many women to torture and death without ever considering their point of view. I had short-lived hopes that the prostitute/spy Ros might be an attempt to address this issue, but she was unceremoniously killed off-camera in another Ode to Joffrey Being a Dick.

If you really needed to go back to Craster’s Keep, why not break from tradition and depict it from the point of view of the victims? Why not say something new, instead of offering up more empty sacrifices in the name of showing off how mean and vicious your characters can be? This is even one of the themes of the books: The whole point of the Brotherhood Without Banners is that common people suffer during times of war.

I’m not squeamish when it comes to violence and depravity in entertainment, but I do ask that you put a little thought into it. The more extreme the behaviour, the more it demands justification from the story, and the more care is needed when writing and filming it. (Guest director pitch: Takashi Miike films an entire episode devoted to Ramsay Bolton.)

But Game of Thrones seems increasingly addicted to showing off how horrible its characters can be, and sees cruelty, torture, and rape as its own justification. It’s always been lazy when it came to sexual violence, but now it’s just wallowing, and has nothing to say beyond “people are mean.”

Published in A Few of my Favourite Things Books TV