On the Game in a Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones was this spring’s flag drama on HBO, and the best drama on television. Tis dark fantasy based on George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, which currently encompasses five books, with two more to follow. Fans such as myself can hardly wait. The TV adaptation, having just ended its second season, follows the books closely, with each season being based on each book. The series is visually beautiful, and features complex storylines told through the experiences of multi-dimensional, well-portrayed characters. Although George Martin pays homage to J.R.R. Tolkien in his books, Martin’s work is contemporary adult fantasy: dark, violent, and sexy.

A great dramatic series should invoke controversy and Game of Thrones has met this criteria. It is violent. In the first episode of the first series for instance, Lord Eddard Stark insisted his seven-year-old son Bran watch him behead a man who deserted from the Night’s Watch. Lord Stark wanted Bran to understand that “the man who passes the sentence should swing the sword”. At the close of the season Lord Stark’s eleven-year-old daughter Sansa is forced to watch her father’s beheading, a punishment inflicted upon Ned, and her, by King Joffrey who, by arrangement, is Sansa’s betrothed. The violence is not implied or clinical; blood flows, often freely. No recent complaints.

By today’s (and Westerosian) standards children are often abused in the Seven Kingdoms. When Bran Stark got caught watching Cersei and her brother Jaime Lannister having sex in a tower in Winterfell Jaime dealt with the situation by shoving Bran from a window, expecting him to fall to his death. “The things I do for love,” Jaime says to Cersei, as he shrugs off his deed.

When young King Joffery learned he may have been a product of incest (read was), he ordered the Gold Cloaks (city guard) to find and kill all of former king Robert Baratheon’s illegitimate offspring, in case any of them came to realize that they have rightful claims to the Iron Throne. In one of the series’ most horrific scenes the Cloaks drowned and stabbed babies to teens.

Viserys Targaryen arranged the marriage of his thirteen-year-old sister Daenerys to the Dothraki warlord Khal Drogo, hoping to buy Drogo’s army with her, and use them to reclaim the Iron Throne (thus winning the game of thrones). Initially Dany is frightened and horrified by the arrangement but she is powerless to do anything about it; opposing her brother’s will awakens the Dragon (Viserys’s violent temper) and he “would let the whole tribe fuck you (Dany), all forty thousand men, and their horses too, if that’s what it took” to buy the Dothraki army.

When it comes to child abuse we can’t ignore mad Lysa Arryn’s bizarre relationship with her son Robin, who she continues to breastfeed even though he’s at least six years old when the story begins.

LA Times television critic Mary McNamara wrote, Game of Thrones has “a wise and ruthless heart, beating out the eternal cadence of human survival. Life against death, love against hate, integrity against corruption, loyalty against dishonour. Here there be monsters and murders and schemes against the crown, but also little girls who long for freedom and crippled boys who dream of flight.” GoT also has lots of sex  and tis the sex that has raised the most eyebrows and caused the greatest amount of finger wagging.

For instance, Emily Anderson, writing for the website Jezebel, said, “Every Sunday night I’m given an occasion to purse my lips, total prude-style, and ponder the strange Game Of Thrones Mature Content cocktail: Begin with 2-3 shots of jiggling boobs, add a healthy dose of girl-on-girl dry humping, and be liberal with the good old doggie-style fornication.”

The critics of the sex in GoT usually describe said activities as gratuitous, which tells me they do not understand a basic theme in the storyline. Power lies at the core of the story, be that the maintenance of power by some characters, to the acquisition of it by others, or the avoidance of misused power by even more. The Seven Kingdoms is a patriarchy and powerful men acquire and maintain their power by force of arms, albeit there are two notable exceptions. Powerful women, on the other hand, acquire or maintain their power by allying with and/or manipulating powerful men, and they do so through sex. Tears may be a woman’s shield in Westeros but sexuality is her sword.

By the end of Season Two, the most powerful women in the GoT world are Cersei Lannister and Daenerys Targaryen, the Mother of Dragons. Cersei’s power has its roots in her family, and the fact that she’s mother to King Joffery. She maintains it by manipulating the men around her, particularly her brother Jamie, through sex. As Cersei told Sansa Stark, “Tears aren’t a woman’s only weapon. The best one’s between your legs.” The virtuous Sansa did not heed Cersei’s advice; she forged no alliances, and her time in King’s Landing was very difficult.

No one understands Cersei’s view better than Daenerys. Drogo married Dany but, like most marriages between the powerful of the Seven Kingdoms (and most marriages throughout our own history), love had nothing to do with it. Dany learned to please Drogo, thanks to her handmaiden Doreah who instructed her in the art of love, and their relationship flourished; she became Khaleesi (queen) of Drogo’s clan in every sense of the word and evolved into a confident young woman who learns to wield her own power.

For the prostitutes of Westeros, and there are many, sex is work and success means more than a pinch of personal power, it can mean survival in a culture where prostitutes literally are disposable people. Tyrion’s lover Shae is a fine example of a whore who sleeps her way to the top and she fairs better in King’s Landing than Lady Sansa. In another form of survival sex the wildling woman Osha seduced the traitorous Theon Greyjoy (who had captured Winterfell), claiming that she wanted her freedom. While he slept the sleep of the satiated she freed Bran and Rickon and escaped with them and the Stark’s servant Hordor.

There are exceptions to Cersei’s rule, women who do well or at least survive in Westeros without exploiting their sexuality. Catelyn Stark is as honourable as her husband and she never flinches. Her focus is not power but the maintenance of her family and she does whatever she deems necessary to further her cause, except sleep around. Neither do Arya Stark or Brienne of Tarth, two of the most interesting women in the Game of Thrones world (so interesting that they will be discussed in a separate, forthcoming article).

While most of the men who play the game base their strength on their fighting skills Petyr Baelish and Varys do not, their strength stems from their access to information. Varys is King’s Landing’s spymaster while Baelish is a master of court intrigue, who also dabbles in the information market. Varys relies on his network of spies, his “little birds”, to collect useful intelligence; Baelish is a brothel keeper and pimp who mines the prostitutes in his employ for information that could prove useful. Again, sex as a means to acquire power raises its salacious head.

On the eve of the Battle of Blackwater Cersei says to Sansa, “If it were anyone else outside those gates I might’ve hoped for a private audience, but this is Stannis Baratheon. I’d have a better chance of seducing his horse. Have I shocked you, little dove?” With so many different characters in the game using sex as a means to deal with power tis no surprise that there is plenty of sex depicted in the series. Like the violence, sex is used to advance the storyline and to reveal more about the characters involved. Whether said sex is gratuitous is a decision made by individual viewers. I await Season Three with bated breath and a fluttering heart; there will be no pearl clutching in House Highcrest.

Sources: the Atlantic, HBO, Jezebel, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, TV.com, Vanity Fair; all photos courtesy HBO

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