Game of Thrones has always cared about bodies. It’s one of the most infamous things about the series — its propensity to inflict violence on its characters, its sexposition, its use of gross-out, over-the-top images of bodies in peril for shock value. The show’s fondness for bodies is one of its most distinguishing features, and you can read both ranked lists of its nudity and endless discussions of whether the violence has finally gone too far.
In season seven, though, something else suddenly became clear about the way Game of Thrones depicts its many fleshy figures as they move around the map. The show loves to use bodies in moments of extremity — when they are about to orgasm or about to die, ideally — and has increasingly little use for them outside of those two poles. In the service of spectacle and in the pursuit of a story about fantasy dragons and armies of monsters, Game of Thrones has very little time to spend on any of these characters as actual human people, with daily human needs.
In practice, this carelessness leads to only very small, very silly complaints about a show that’s often invested in bigness. Why won’t Cersei’s hair grow? How does she get it cut? If it took Jon and company a long, long time to march up to the Wall to get a wight, why is Cersei still barely pregnant enough to notice? If it’s so cold, why do none of them wear hats? What would it actually be like for Arya to carry around a bag of faces while marching around the continent? Surely at some point you’d set it down and accidentally kick it with your feet, and then Ed Sheeran would say, “Hey, what’s with all the faces?”
Some of the best parts of the show are the moments when we’re struck with the resilient, specific, often frustrating humanity of these people. Daenerys arriving at the meeting on a dragon is delightful because we can imagine the person inside her head who made that decision. Cersei’s hair is noticeable precisely because she’s otherwise one of the most knowable, complicated, detailed, finely drawn characters on the show. Many of the best scenes are when people talk together in rooms. And it is for exactly this reason that it becomes oddly noticeable when these complex, interesting people suddenly fail to dress appropriately for the weather as soon as they exit their giant map rooms.
I am not requesting that a fantasy show about monsters suddenly become a show about the mundane realities of living in a medieval-esque world where there’s no running water, and yet everyone except Euron looks pretty clean most of the time. But it does become frustrating when bodies are so present on the show, as long as they’re limited to sex scenes, pain, and dick jokes. (Or absence-of-a-dick jokes, as in the case of poor Theon, whose extensive physical mutilation was reduced to becoming the source of a brief chuckle.) It’s easy to dismiss this problem as one of genre, and say that Game of Thrones is depicting a fictional world where the whole thing is made up, so it doesn’t actually matter how these people live. Except the stance of the series seems to be that bodies do matter, but only when they’re in the midst of penetrating or being penetrated.
The result is that Game of Thrones has hollowed out its depiction of who its characters actually are. They are minds, seeking power and survival. They are bodies in extremis, whenever the plot suits. But there’s no middle ground; there’s nothing between ecstasy and agony. You can lop an arm off, but no one’s going to get a paper cut.
There are a few notable, important exceptions to this empty vision of fantastical bodies. For as impractical and weather-inappropriate as they occasionally are, the costumes of the show often reflect a deep consideration of who these people are and their place in the world. Tom and Lorenzo have a stellar analysis of the way costumes can translate human experience into tangible bodily reality on the show, including observations that tie Cersei’s high-necked, body-covering gowns to her past experiences: “Cersei is a survivor of sexual assault… she has responded to this by covering herself up completely.” But it’s often as if the costumes exist on an entirely different plane than the show’s writing. Daenerys’s amazing hairstyles may be trying to communicate that she can dedicate hours to astounding, regal, crown-like braids of hair, but that element of her life doesn’t appear anywhere else in the world of the show.
The costumes are one place where Game of Thrones seems invested in bodily realities, however unmoored they may otherwise feel in the writing of the show. There’s also one character who feels set apart from everyone else’s physical indistinctness: Sam Tarly. It’s always been this way. He, and he alone, seems to be a real person with a real body that has real, consistent, often annoying needs. Game of Thrones has used his fatness as a joke, and his physical ineptness has made him pitiable. But at least his body is there. All the other characters are gazing at huge armies and coming up with dumb plans for how to kidnap a wight, and meanwhile, Sam’s out there ladling soup and cleaning bedpans.
And the example of Sam is a perfect illustration of how useful it can be when a body helps a person feel real. He’s been a punch line for a long time, but compared with everyone else’s archetypal emptiness, Sam’s body suddenly feels like a boon. At one point in the series, Sam’s physicality was frequently used as a foil for Jon Snow’s more capable, more heroic physical facility. But while Jon is now right at the center of the show’s most suspenseful stories, his bodily reality is a void. He can survive anything, including frozen lakes, stabbings, and death itself. Between Sam and Jon, which character do we feel more connected to? Whose physical safety feels more urgent? Who are we most fond of as a person, not just as a figure on a map?
Nitpicking about dumb, bodily details is supposedly not the point for a show like Game of Thrones. Who, after all, really wants to know where exactly Cersei gets her hair done? (I do. I want to know this.) But this inattention to the mundane bodily realities of these characters has begun to leech out of the subtext of the show and show up in the text itself as a niggling collection of weird inconsistencies. On their own, they’re ridiculous, unimpressive questions. (What happened when Arya got her first period?) They’re not plot holes; they’re barely even pinholes. But taken altogether as a constellation of tiny punctures, they make the fabric of the show look a little less sturdy.
Even worse, they’re missed opportunities. The finale spent more time trying to communicate the specific physicality of an undead monster inside a box than it did the long-awaited sexual consummation of an incestuous and politically fraught relationship. Tender though it was, we leapt straight from suggestive side-eye to bare-butt boning. Which one of those scenes felt most physically grounded? Which one would pay out longer dividends in emotional investment, in the long run?
If the first grand flight of the ice dragon is any indication, the show’s final run of episodes many months from now will be a glorious spectacle. It’s hard not to wonder how much more impressive that spectacle could be if we also had any reason to believe in these characters as people with real, functional, human bodies.