Bystanders and Westeros

This is a good way for me to rationalize my loyalty to Game of Thrones. I had endured its ruthlessly diverse violence well into its 5th season before I almost gave up on it. “The Red Wedding” in Season 3 should have been the kicker, but I experienced profound awe more than debilitating devastation; I had never been so physically shaken by entertainment before. When I was younger, it was because I was a mindless consumer, numb to everything and content to experience simple chemical releases in my brain; as I became more conscious, it was because I intellectualized everything away. Game of Thrones wasn’t immune from my analysis and reason; in fact, it was fertile ground for it. Here was a show that was unrepentant in its representation of power’s darkest manifestations. I cited the show frequently in my class when we discussed power dynamics. Viewers who prefer some shroud of comfort or delusion could easily criticize the show as gratuitous, and to be certain, it is guilty of excess. At the end of the day, it only exists if it has viewers, and we all know (or rather, we’ve all accepted) what sells. The show delivers on that front. But as it feeds us exactly what we think we want, it pushes us toward the abyss of our own deeply disturbed social realities, and this is where the show becomes subversive, dangerous, and truly powerful.

A few episodes ago, with “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken,” I was bowed and bent before the show as usual, reverential in my consumption of it, and it broke me. Sansa Stark, who we’ve seen grow up prey to increasingly torturous circumstances and sociopathic suitors, was violently deflowered by Ramsay (Snow) Bolton. Or to speak honestly, she was brutally raped by this worst of the madmen in Westeros. To make the scene more appalling, we were forced to watch from the perspective of her family’s betrayer, Theon, who has been psychologically and physically owned by Ramsay as well (he lost everything that made him who he was, which in this world, means your manhood). In other words, we had no choice but to be bystanders. Hope of a knight in shining armor? Ha! The only chance we had was for Brienne of Tarth to save the day, but she’s as paralyzed a pawn as we are.

And that may have been what struck me so hard. It wasn’t Sansa’s victimization exactly that prompted my (what proved to be momentary) decision to stop watching the show. It was my inability to confront my own complicity in a culture where such violence happens all the time. It’s easy to blame the show-runners for their insensitivity or exploitation; in fact, they’re opening a door that most of us don’t want to walk through, lest we see the bystander role we play in the very real world we call home. Better to blame Westeros and its moral failings than accept its conception as a possible mirror into our own unforgiving reality. Regardless of intentional parallels or social commentary, we should question the source of our powerful emotional responses to such a tragic scene. The episode exposed our terribly late reaction to such horrors; our world needs action to prevent them.

Instead of looking at the show and its creators and accusing them of some moral vacancy, we might want to examine ourselves a bit more closely. We may not be like Ramsay, but we are like everyone else in that world who assumes they are too powerless to stop his tyranny.

1 Comment

  1. dasfuller

    Two things here:

    1. Watching Game of Thrones is like reading The Walking Dead comic book. Both inspire a very real fear that anything can happen, anyone can die. I’d say that these are our culture’s most purely humanist forms of entertainment right now.

    2. Something needs to be said about the immense anger on the internet right now about how much the show is deviating from the books. I’ve never read any of the books, and I find all the agonizing over how much each is diverging from the other incredibly distracting. The people who watch the show expecting a complete retelling of the books are completely missing the point. And it’s made me aware of my previously unknown/subconscious opinions about book-inspired movies in general–opinions that I’m now rethinking.


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