This past Sunday night on HBO, GAME OF THRONES ended its fifth season and not only was it jam-packed with enough big events for two or three season finales, but some of them were truly shocking. That’s saying a lot, considering this year has been chock full of controversies like the rape of Sansa and the burning at the stake of the child Shireen. Yes, George R. R. Martin’s books are filled with sex and violence, as is this series, but even by the show’s standards, this was a red flag season.
Most of the intense criticism came from those crying foul at the show’s excessive abuse of its female characters. And the naked “walk of shame” by Cersei in the season finale didn’t do much to calm the anger. While the vicious character was due for some comeuppance, the full-frontal scene went on long enough for many online to protest it as exploitation. The show has always taken a lot of heat for its preponderance to show off the female form, but this indeed seemed long, even by show standards. Was it misogynistic or sexist?
Showrunners David Benioff and D.B.Weiss haven’t backed down from such excesses. In fact, they seem to be welcoming the outrage. Exploding social media is good for a show, even though many are now swearing off this Sunday night must-see television. HBO might worry but the show still is a huge ratings bonanza and a mammoth international hit, so don’t expect the protests to change much of what's put on screen. As the saying goes, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
One can argue that by now the viewer should know what they’re getting – violence, sex, and vicious treatment of women. But then, it’s a show that is pretty vicious to man and beast too. The show seems to be thumbing its nose at a lot of politically correct ideas, as well as Tinsel Town tropes on how to do a show. In fact, the show all but throws out most of the narrative conventions that we’re used to, and most screenwriting tomes will tell you about.
Some are as shocking as all that violence and nudity. And in many ways the true controversy of the show is how it all but gives the middle finger to the tenets of most Hollywood entertainments. Here are the most obvious five:
GOOD GUYS DON’T WIN
In George R. R. Martin’s world there are few heroes and even less winners. With Jon Snow’s demise in this season’s finale, the world of GAME OF THRONES has shut down another POV character and eliminated one of the more likable central figures. Many thought ‘the bastard son of Ned Stark’ would defy everyone and ultimately take the throne. Nope. Bad, bad things happen to good people on this series. True, the show does off some of its most awful, like King Joffrey, who used whores as bow and arrow targets; or Stannis, who burned his own kid to a crisp. But if anyone is convinced that Tyrion and Dany have now emerged as the bonafide heroes of the story and will survive and thrive, don’t get ahead of yourselves. There is little to laud in Westeros. Mostly, it’s mourned.
CAN’T TELL WHO'S WHO WITHOUT A SCORECARD
It’s shocking that a television series has as many characters as there are on GAME OF THRONES. The imdb.com page for the show lists dozens and dozens of key characters that have all figured into the narrative strongly over the past five years, and if anything, they keep adding more of them. (Jonathan Pryce, this year, is a prime example). In this attention deficit disordered world of ours, it’s bold and daring that a show would offer up such a cornucopia of characters, all of who are complex with complicated names. Just try telling who’s who without keeping the GAME OF THRONES Wiki page close by. Daenerys Targaryen? Barristan Selmy? Jorah Mormont? Such monikers, and that’s just in one of the seven kingdoms! Never has a show had so many rich characters, such an expansive cast, and such hard to pronounce names.
HATE TRUMPS LOVE
No one really expects a love story in a fantasy where the supreme throne is made up of vanquished enemy swords, but still, there’s room for some warmth and affection in Westeros, no? Ah, no. This is one of the coldest, meanest, and bleakest worlds ever put on screen. In this icy, cruel landscape, the longest lasting sexual relationship was one based on incest. In this kingdom, ex-lovers kill their former paramours with alarming regularity. A lot of genitalia’s lopped off, children are tossed out windows, and the most moral man is Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage), a self-loathing, whoring, alcoholic, political misanthrope. But hey, at least he loves drinking and screwing!
NO ONE SAVES THE CAT
The late, great screenwriting guru Blake Snyder famously wrote in his “Save the Cat” screenwriting book that scripters should have their hero do something noble early on in the screenplay, like save a cat, to let the audience know he’s a good guy. Well, not only do cats not get saved in GAME OF THRONES, but the show consistently flips the bird at all creatures great and small. If there’s an animal onscreen, it’s likely going to get slaughtered. Horses are lit on fire, pet wolves are shot point blank by a multitude of arrows, and even fire-breathing dragons are mercilessly pummeled by angry hostiles. Even the horror genre, which often sacrifices animals for dramatic purposes, isn’t as consistently brutal over and over again as GAME OF THRONES.
THERE MAY BE NO MORAL TO THE STORY
Series finales get all kinds of criticism, from the depressing SEINFELD foursome on trial to the uncertainty of Tony’s fate on THE SOPRANOS. Even the recent end of MAD MEN left some more than a little uncertain as to whether Don Draper returned to McCann and pens the Coke jingle or not. (He does, folks. That was the ending.) Now imagine how GAME OF THRONES will likely end when it does. If there’s already this much consternation about the sexism and violence, do you think the show will have a happy conclusion? How about a logical one or one that’s even cogent? I'm thinking probably not. I’ll tell you what is likely - no matter who ends up on the throne, it won't be much of a happy end. And I doubt the new king or queen will still be great or moral.
If the show has demonstrated anything over the past five seasons, it is that in order to win in the world of Westeros, you must be as ruthless as your enemies. Look at Dany (Emilia Clarke) who once was innocent and kind. Now, she's becoming pretty strident and cruel in vanquishing her enemies. And yet, she may be positioned more than anyone else at this point to prevail. But at what cost? Will she gain the throne but throw away her soul to do so? Will she sacrifice her dragons to win? Will she turn on Tyrion if she has to?
The moral of the tale of Westeros, if there is one at all, is likely that one either becomes the butcher or the meat, and that's the only clarity afforded in such a world. We invested five years in Jon Snow, a dreamy hunk of a good guy and now he’s dead. We’ve invested in Starks and they’ve been slaughtered at wedding ceremonies, crippled, raped and rendered blind. Oh, and beheaded, lest we forget about Ned's untimely end in season one. And the best you can say about the Lannister brood is that karma is biting them back big time. But most of them are still standing. Nice doesn't win. Morals don't mean much. Women, watch your back.
Maybe what Martin, Benioff and Weiss are really saying is that the throne isn’t really worth it. All that bloodshed, all the politics, all the compromises, all that death, and what? Perhaps you'll eventually win the throne, take the throne, or luck onto the throne, but the next day the game starts all over again. Someone else, if not throngs, will be trying to wrest it from you. Is that game worth it?
"Game of Thrones" may be defying rule after rule of Hollywood storytelling, but it's clearest idea is one that has been a staple of books, theater, films and TV shows forever -
War is hell, and there rarely are ever any real winners.