You could call Game of Thrones a lot of things, but escapist was never really one of them, and after season five, maybe the most sustained endurance test of the show’s run, we can safely put that adjective aside. It was as if showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss (and George R.R. Martin before them) had taken the blinding scene from King Lear and expanded it to ten episodes. The most effective (and affecting) moments were about coming to terms with disappointment and failure, and the intertwined inevitability of misery, torture, and death. Characters you cared about — and a good many that you loved to hate — endured prolonged emotional or physical suffering, of an intensity rarely seen in mainstream storytelling.
The season finale was one gut-twister after another: the death of Jaime Lannister’s daughter Myrcella by Ellaria’s poisoned kiss, mere moments after Jaime revealed her true parentage; the agonized moans of Daenerys’s wounded Drogon, speared in the slave arena at the end of episode eight; Stannis’s wife’s body swinging from a tree, a casualty of her grief over their daughter’s sacrifice by fire; Brienne of Tarth getting revenge against Stannis — who was already dead inside after the loss of his wife, his daughter, and his dreams of conquest — and unknowingly failing Sansa in the process; Cersei Lannister’s naked “walk of shame” through a crowd of subjects cursing and flashing her, which ended with her being swept up in the arms of a gold armored knight, presumably the man-mountain rapist-killer Gregor Clegane; and finally, Jon Snow, one of the only unambiguously noble characters on the series, getting Julius Caesared for allegedly selling them out to the Wildlings, with the coup de grâce administered by Olly, the sweetest member of the Night’s Watch.
True, death might be reversible on this show. We’ve heard Stannis’s priestess Melisandre talk about it. But if, like me, you haven’t read the novels — and if you have, no spoilers in the comments, please, I’m serious — it seems unlikely that all or even most of the dead characters could be brought back, except perhaps as rotting blue-eyed zombies like the ones that overran Jon Snow’s mortals at the Battle of Hardhome. For the most part, Game of Thrones characters who die stay dead. The permanence (and often, the seeming randomness) of loss has always been part of the show’s awful Hobbesean allure. Whether characters do the smart thing or the dumb thing, the wrong thing or the right thing, there’s still a chance they’ll be butchered. There are usually reasons why they die, but no matter how carefully Benioff and Weiss have prepared us, it still comes as a shock, and it almost never seems fair.
Did Game of Thrones go too far this year? Your mileage may vary. I don’t think anything in season five is quantifiably nastier or more excessive than anything that happened in seasons one through four. It probably feels that way because there was so much suffering, much of it prolonged and sadistic and presented with nearly-operatic intensity while series composer Ramin Djawadi settled into “epic lament” mode, the better to twist a knife that was already lodged deep in the viewer’s heart. (Djawadi’s score might be the only thing keeping the show from definitely tipping over into unbearable; it often provokes an “oh, the humanity!” reaction even when we’re observing the suffering of characters, such as Cersei or Stannis, who’ve been cold and cruel for the most part.)
I’d say there’s a valid discussion to be had over whether the show is leaning too hard on rape and torture to produce these feelings, except that we've been having that discussion for five straight years already. The show is what it is, and it’s adapted from a source that is (I’m told) equally vicious and melodramatically manipulative, though not always in exactly the same way as the series. And even though the makers of Game of Thrones have heard complaints about the violence (specifically the sexual violence and torture), and have given us their rationale for it, I haven’t seen much evidence that they’ve responded to viewer concerns by deciding to temper it, or present in such a way as to take the edge off.
In fact, a good number of this season’s big setpieces felt as though the series was doubling down. Cersei’s walk of shame is the most vivid example because it’s fresh in our minds, but there were other comparably ugly-intense moments, such as Sansa’s rape by her husband, where it felt as though the series was trying to put a less problematic frame around the viciousness only to end up being problematic in a different way. Cutting to a close-up of Theon Greyjoy probably seemed on paper like a dramatically sound compromise between staying on Sansa’s pain the whole time and cutting away, which would’ve made it seem like just another plot point. Theon was, after all, the victim of the show’s most prolonged and hideous acts of torture. The paralyzed horror on the character’s face was hard to watch in its own way, and it set up that heroic turnabout in the finale, capped by Theon tossing Myranda off a balcony like a sack of potatoes. But the staging still had the effect of making the moment more about Theon (and perhaps the viewer’s own complicity in Games of Thrones’ weekly feast of suffering) than Sansa.
I don’t doubt that Weiss and Benioff put a lot of thought into what they show us and why they show it in that way; this is an intelligent series that’s quite sophisticated about power and the protocol of power, a fact that all the escapist fantasy signifiers (dragons, zombies, black magic) tend to obscure. But I don’t think they’re as in control of the material as they probably think they are. They play with emotional fire (no pun intended, I swear) every week. Sometimes the viewer gets burned for what seems like justifiable reasons, and other times it feels like collateral damage. The question Did we really need to see that? doesn’t really get us anywhere, unfortunately, because different stories “need” different images and sensations, otherwise they can’t be whatever they’re trying to be. You could make a case that we didn’t “need” to see the close-up of Luca Brasi's hand being pinned to the bar with the knife in the first Godfather, just as we probably didn’t “need” to see Gloucester’s blinding onstage in Lear. I’d say we don’t “need” the tight close-ups of Tyene Sand’s breasts in the jail-cell scene where she reveals the secrets of the poison and its antidote, but the nudity in the walk of shame is more difficult to argue against, given that it’s about abject humiliation. But in the end, these seem like rather marginal things to debate compared with the totality of Game of Thrones’ despairing vision, which is so very dark that even if you mostly admire it, as I do, you still sometimes find yourself thinking, Is this really how I want to spend ten hours each year?
There must be hope ahead on the horizon, somewhere. Otherwise, what would be the point of all this hellishness? I’m still inspired by Daenerys’s pledge to break the wheel, but I’ll believe that it can happen when it actually happens. At this point in the story, the spirit of the show can be summed up by that electrifying shot near the end of episode eight* that showed the blue-eyed walker general raising his arms up like a conductor and making the dead rise. In the end, he’ll get everyone.
* The white walker shot referenced above happened in episode eight. This article originally stated it was in episode nine.