The morning after Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon) did the inevitable on “Game of Thrones” and fed his stepmother Walda (Elizabeth Webster) and her newborn son to his ravenous hounds, two readers wrote into my weekly chat with questions and comments that, taken together, pushed me to try to define a notoriously tricky subject: How much violence is too much on “Game of Thrones,” or any other story set in a violent world?
I try, in my reviews of the episodes, to be honest about my emotional reaction as I’m writing, especially since “Game of Thrones” recaps have to be written at lighting speed and posted immediately, before I’ve had a chance to really sit with an episode. And last night, that meant coming clean that every time Ramsay Bolton is on screen in “Game of Thrones,” the episode in question takes on a poisonous note for me.
But one reader wrote in Monday, using a line I’ve employed myself, though in a somewhat different context.
“I don’t understand how people are astonished at the violence of ‘Game of Thrones,'” the chatter argued. “Its origins are in the medieval age, one of the bloodiest periods of history — which people managed to accomplish without gunpowder! I applaud George R.R. Martin for not trying to prettify this gory age (although I’m disappointed that he consistently downplays the importance of religion in daily life to medieval people).”
I agree with this — to a certain extent. Part of what makes Martin’s “Song of Ice and Fire” and “Game of Thrones” such a refreshing response to established fantasy storytelling is the tropes it sets aside. Knights — as Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) learns to her regret — aren’t inherently noble. Kings can be drunks, fools, or vicious brats. Arranged marriages don’t inherently lead to passionate love matches, and in fact, women are regularly denied their autonomy and their right to consent to sex. War is filthy and violent. Regular people actually exist, and suffer for the decisions the rich and powerful make without considering them.
In some of these cases, a willingness to depict extreme violence or the after-effects of a wound or torture is of direct service in overturning our gilded dreams about golden ages past. Armor might augment the man who wears it, but it does nasty things to that same man when his chain-mail gets bashed into his skin.
And depictions of violence can also be useful in explaining the rules of the world to a viewer. The reason Ned Stark’s (Sean Bean) beheading at the end of the first season of “Game of Thrones” is so upsetting isn’t just because of the blood or violence involved. It’s because Ned’s death lets us know what characters like Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) have done and are willing to keep doing to survive. In a similar way, though I don’t particularly like watching Ramsay Bolton torture and hunt people, a few initial scenes of that nature do help establish what sort of behavior will be treated as tolerable if you’re of sufficiently noble blood and the child of a sufficiently cold fish, which Roose Bolton (Michael McElhatton) certainly is.
But what happens after the audience has gotten the point? I can’t imagine there’s a “Game of Thrones” viewer who doesn’t understand by this point that the series is set in a phenomenally violent world where the rich do hideous things to the poor, and where men claim full dominion over the bodies of women.
When some of us start bumping up against our limits, it’s not so much that we’re asking for the rules of the world to change, but that we don’t need to have the same points reiterated for us over and over again. I think it makes narrative and emotional sense that Ramsay Bolton would kill Walda and her child, and I don’t think “Game of Thrones” should have done something different with this part of the story.
But I also didn’t necessarily need to see it happen: This section of Sunday’s episode could have ended with Ramsay ordering his stepmother and stepbrother be brought to him. However much people like to speculate about whether characters are staying dead on “Game of Thrones,” I think the outcome would have been relatively clear without a soundtrack of tearing flesh and the show’s lingering shots of Walda’s growing terror. (In much the same way, it would have been obviously absurd for Sansa’s marriage to Ramsay Bolton to be anything other than a misery, though there are a lot of ways to communicate that agony, including just by letting Turner act.)
That said, as someone who has a particular weakness for a well-choreographed fight scene, another reader’s more general query got me thinking about the violence I do like in pop culture.
“I literally cannot watch it,” this chatter writes. “When they show the dead bodies, or gun battles, or blood, I cover my eyes and my husband has to tell when it’s over. I think I probably saw half of ‘Deadpool.’ What do people get out of seeing it? I just don’t get it. At all. And I would like to understand, because it worries me how easy it is for people.”
This may not be a comforting answer, but the first thing I’d note is that pop culture violence can function a lot like dance; there’s a reason it’s called fight choreography. The fight scenes in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” are fast, but the characters’ cinematography and choreography are such that you can see every discreet move the characters make and understand their respective strengths and weaknesses. They’re character pieces, too; you can see that the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) has been reduced to cold killing instinct, while Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) desperately wants to incapacitate him, rather than end his life.
And I’ll admit that when it’s done right, I appreciate the malicious creativity of a shoot-em-up sequence. There’s nothing morally redeeming about the bloody opening of “Deadpool” (and I will totally admit to closing my eyes during the impalement sequence in that movie, because that’s a particularly sensitive spot for me) or the full shootout that emerges from it. But I see something like this as a sort of kinetic sculpture, and I can’t help but be impressed by all the thought that’s gone into how people and objects move through space. It’s a cold answer, but a true one.
Something like the Red Wedding sequence in “Game of Thrones” works this way for me. The violent slaughter of Robb Stark (Richard Madden), his family, and his bannermen is an ugly thing to watch. But it’s an effective character piece, tying together many slow-brewing resentments and the dissolution of some always-shaky alliances, illustrating just how far a character like Roose Bolton will go when he sees a strategic advantage, and putting the tragic capstone on the destruction of Catelyn Stark’s (Michelle Fairley) family. And those character details work because it’s such a smart, carefully-choreographed scene that makes excellent use of the claustrophobia of Walder Frey’s (David Bradley) hall.
But just as “Game of Thrones” has long since defined the rules of its world fairly well through shocking displays of violence, it’s also defined its characters fairly well through the same techniques. There are exceptions: Watching Olly (Brenock O’Connor) plunge a dagger into Jon Snow (Kit Harrington) last season was an eloquent testament to both the trauma he suffered and the poisonous influence of Ser Alliser Thorne (Owen Teale) who organized a mutiny against Jon, then Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch.
But watching Ramsay Bolton shiv his father, and let loose his hounds yet again doesn’t show me anything I’ve not already seen, whether as art or world-building or character development (even if there’s a nice artistic parallel between the way Ramsay stabs Roose and the way Roose stabbed Robb Stark). For violence in “Game of Thrones” or anywhere else to feel creatively vital or morally shocking, it has to show us something new.