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How Much Rape Is Too Much Rape on My Favorite Shows? Your Pressing TV Questions, Answered

Photo: HBO

Welcome back to Stay Tuned, Vulture’s TV advice column. Each Wednesday, Margaret Lyons answers your questions about your various TV triumphs and woes. Need help? Have a theory? Want a recommendation? Submit a question! You can email, leave a comment, or tweet @margeincharge with the hashtag #staytuned.

From where you sit, how [do you] gauge if rape on TV is gratuitous or an effective plot point/device? —elisew88

I was really not into the Sansa rape story line on Game of Thrones, but I figured I’d give it another week and see how it actually played out. But then this week, more attempted rape! How much rape is too much rape? —JC

In society, I would argue that any rape is too much rape. On television, you’re going to have a tough time finding “serious” dramas that include zero rape or things in the vile rape penumbra such as attempted rape, persistent threats of rape, other kinds of sexual assault, generally coercive sexual behavior that could theoretically fall outside a legal definition of rape but one might still categorize as “unwanted sexual contact,” and so on. If you are bothered by sexual and sexualized violence on television to the point where you would like never to encounter it or mentions of it, your drama options are going to be sadly limited.

So somehow we’re at a point where just by being a TV fan, we’ve agreed to encounter at least some rape-oriented stories. And this is in addition to actual, real life, where many of us, women in particular, are encountering at least some rape-oriented stories, anyway. That’s already so much goddamn rape! This has a cumulative effect, and any moment at which you think, You know what, this is just too much rape for me, I gotta go watch 19 episodes of Bob’s Burgers and several episodes of Adventure Time and a bunch of High Maintenance, do so. And if someone in your life suggests to you that they have maxed out on the rape stories on any given show, you don’t get to interrogate that beyond asking if they would prefer to switch to Chef’s Table or The Profit. (Both excellent, rape-free choices.)

How do I decide if a rape story line is “gratuitous”? There’s no one single measuring stick. I definitely take into account a show’s attitude towards women and marginalized people in general — not the characters’ attitudes, but the show’s. For example, Joan’s rape on Mad Men, which is a show that depicts sexism but is not itself sexist. The scene was not at all titillating; it’s part of Joan’s story, but not her whole story by any measure; it illuminated aspects of the characters’ society that were otherwise unexplored; it was not primarily a way to manipulate or provoke other male characters into some kind of action; and the show neither forgot nor dwelled on the idea that Joan is a rape survivor. I found the story arc on Scandal in which we learned that Mellie is a rape survivor to be interesting and well executed, though eventually the show started really piling the abuse and tragedies on its characters, and I kinda ran out of care-vibes for everyone.

Which brings us to Game of Thrones. The show has a long history of rape story lines, of sexual torture against men and women, and of depicting torture in general. It is absolutely possible to just max the hell out on GOT and its rape stuff. This doesn’t make any one of the show’s many instances of sexual violence “worse” than any other — a weird yet persistent argument that seems to follow this show. If you’re so bothered by Sansa’s rape, why weren’t you more bothered by Theon’s castration? It is possible to be bothered tremendously by both. I am living proof. I was also bothered tremendously by the Gilly/Sam stuff on the most recent episode: To show my gratitude for fending off my would-be gang-rapists, I’m gonna get on your dick, even though you’ve been very severely beaten! I suppose it’s possible that this is how humans behave, but it did not ring at all true for me. Gilly’s assault wasn’t there to tell us anything about Gilly, it was there to tell us about Sam; Sansa’s rapes aren’t teaching us about Sansa, they’re teaching us about Ramsay, even though we already knew he was a terrifying monster person from a whole family of terrifying monster people. (In a world of mostly terrifying monster people.)

It’s possible to still enjoy and love Game of Thrones. Some of my favorite people do, and this does not erode my esteem for them. It’s also possible to ride the nopetopus right on outta there even if you previously enjoyed the show. Finally, it is possible never to have liked Game of Thrones in the first place.

I tend to watch shows that are more character-driven, shying away from the “been there, done that” genres of crime, law, or medical procedurals — with a few notable exceptions. But all the buzz around slow-crime procedurals recently makes me feel like I’m missing out. With so many options (The Killing, Broadchurch, The Fall, The Missing, The Bridge, The Red Road, Top of the Lake, American Crime), which of these are actually worth the investment and won’t feel redundant? I’m already a resident of Twin Peaks (and Fortitude is on my list, too). —Ryan

I have good news for you, Ryan: Almost all of those shows are totally skippable, especially if it’s not a genre you’re otherwise taken with. Some of The Bridge, particularly season two, is pretty good; the Scandinavian original Broen/Braun is even better, but if you’re not into serial-killer shows, it is not going to do it for you. But there are two standouts in the genre, possibly because they don’t really feel of that genre to me: Top of the Lake and The Jinx. Lake (warning: lots of rape) is both hauntingly written and visually magnificent. Jane Campion (and cinematographer Adam Arkapaw) knows what’s up! The show’s style and scope make it feel really different from, say, The Killing, The Missing, and Broadchurch.

If you’re willing to branch into true-crime, go for The Jinx. It’s the very creepy true story of Robert Durst, a superrich oddball who is pretty evidently a murderer. I have some beef with the way the series came together — I hate when documentaries fudge details, argh — but that show gripped me like little else has.

I am studying for the bar this summer and will need an outlet for my stress, but also will be extremely pressed for time. I need to combine my two stress-relief activities: going to the gym and TV (really, it’s only TV, but oh well). I want to start a new prestige TV show (Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad, etc.) and I plan on only allowing myself to watch TV at the gym while on the elliptical. However, since I only have a bulky laptop and don’t own a iPad, I’m stuck with my phone. What shows can I watch on that without seriously compromising the watching experience? The Wire on an iPhone may not even be worth it. Any suggestions? —Shira

Shira, I don’t think this is a good time for you to start a prestige show. “I’m gonna start watching The Sopranos on my phone at the gym” is not a good way to live, but throw in “while I’m studying for the bar exam” and it’s a real matroyshka doll of rough decisions. The Wire is not going to relieve your stress, and while I’m usually platform-agnostic, Breaking Bad deserves to be watched on at least a tablet-size screen. The visuals matter a lot on that show.

We’ve talked here before about how Friday Night Lights is a good gym show, and you might find it therapeutic and joyous in your time of need. But I think you should be going for breezier fare right now, shows that repeat their premise a lot and don’t require full concentration. How about Alias or Chuck? You won’t get the full effect of seeing the fight sequences, but you’ll survive. Season one of Dexter sort of feels like a prestige show, and however bad the show got at the end, I will stand by its earliest incarnation; that might scratch your watch-a-good-show itch without pressuring you to care more. After watching an episode of The Sopranos, I want to go back and find recaps of it and really examine it from every angle. That is not conducive to your cramming! That also doesn’t really happen with Dexter. You might need to stock up on Popsicles, though — the show is set in Miami and everyone looks pretty shvitzy most of the time, and it just makes frozen treats seem like a really good idea.

How Much TV Rape Is Too Much TV Rape?