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'Game of Thrones,' Sex and HBO: Where Did It Go Wrong For TV's Sexual Pioneers?

By Bethany Jones | /Bent June 2, 2014 at 6:51PM

HBO has always been confronting and sexually explicit, but that used to be in the service of an unflinching look at the world and at adult complexity. Now it’s little more than an extension of an immature, crude desire to shock. When it comes to sex, has HBO jumped the shark?
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Jamie Cersei

Oh, Game of Thrones. Could it be we've gone a few weeks without a rape? Or should I say, rapes. How innocent it looks now, the controversial Jaime-Cersei scene, with its single demure assault of a grieving woman by her brother beside the poisoned corpse of their incestuously-begotten son. The next episode gifted us with a whole flotilla of angry cocks as - in another departure from George R.R. Martin's source books - the Night Watch assaulted en masse the already serially abused daughter-wives of Craster. It made for grim viewing. Watch the scene for long enough and the Cersei-Jaime-corpse caper takes on the fond, sepia edges of an Edwardian picnic. Ah, for the rapes of yesteryear.

If you're one of the large and increasingly vocal number of people who are disturbed by the treatment of sex and violence on "Game of Thrones", then this scene probably provoked a familiar feeling of angry exhaustion. This reaction can be difficult to manage, because the sadness and weariness means you don't have much energy left for the anger. And – especially as a person who doesn't generally have a problem with sex and violence – you don't know where to direct the anger. Is it at George R.R. Martin, the author of the novels on which the show is based? Or should it be at the show's co-creators, David Benioff and D. B. Weiss? Maybe the problem lies with the directors of offending episodes, such as Alex Graves, who gave us the Jaime-Cersei rape scene? Or does the buck stop ultimately with HBO, who commissions this series, and puts it out into the world?

On this last point, here we have Michael Lombardo, president for programming at HBO, responding to the recent controversy in an email to The New York Times, and defending the show, arguing "the choices our creative teams make are based on the motivations and sensibilities that they believe define their characters. We fully support the vision and artistry of Dan and David's exceptional work and we feel this work speaks for itself."

To which we might reply: yes, the work speaks for itself, but it also speaks for you, HBO. You're a network, a conduit. You are what you choose to present. And this statement offers a blanket endorsement while also spectacularly passing the buck.

Then there's this from Neil Marshall, who directed the second season episode "Blackwater" of "Game of Thrones", and has described the 'surreal' experience of being urged by an unnamed executive producer to add more full-frontal nude shots to scenes during filming. The producer's reasoning? He's not on the 'drama side' of things; he represents the 'perv side of the audience'.

And this got me thinking about HBO's role in all of this. A lot of the anger so far has understandably been directed at the show's writers and directors. And it's true that they're the ones on the ground, making the creative choices. But HBO influences these choices. Drastic departures from agreed-upon limits must be theirs to check, if they want to. But not only does the ickiness of "Game of Thrones" only increase over time, but in the wake of the recent controversy – about something as serious as rape, no less – they've come out with their explicit support.


Et tu, HBO?

So why does this matter, HBO?  It matters, at least to me, because of what you've done for TV, how you helped messianically to transform the medium from Kraft cheese slices to Roquefort.

There was so much to be proud of. It's not the thing to say it now, but "Sex and the City" was a benchmark. It set so many new rules for television and changed the scene so completely that it's hard to see now, looking back at it, what was so revolutionary. Before the last few seasons (and then the egregious movies) tipped it over into sentimentality, product placement, and the sexual status quo, "Sex and the City" put a lot of good stuff in place for television in terms of whip-smart satire, comedy, cine-worthy production values, and depictions of sex (especially women having sex) that brimmed with wit and realism and a refreshing lack of prudery. The tits had a purpose.

And if Sex and the City was your mask of comedy, then The Sopranos was your Mask of Tragedy. And boy, did you give it to us. Everything that tragedy was, everything that film and literature was, you showed us that TV could deliver too. Tony Soprano: the flawed, neurotic, basic, brilliant, ruthless, sentimental bully-boy, the exemplar and antithesis of the American Dream. Sure, there were plenty of boobs in "The Sopranos", genuine and otherwise. There was plenty of sexposition. You could rarely get through an episode without the rote titillations of Bada Bing. But that seemed to be the point of the tits: they were meant to be rote, they were part of a wider exploration of a culture built around power and coercion, especially coercion through gender. The arses were a panorama. They revealed something.

Ditto 'The Wire', a show that made a Seurat of the join-the-dots police procedural. A show that could have gone crazy with the titties, but was sparing with the titties. The titties came out when there were Ukrainians being trafficked for sex, or when a police informant (and bona fide Interesting Character) who happened to be a bar dancer, or when characters were in a brothel for a narratively compelling reason. In 'The Wire', the characters had sex because grownups have sex. Occasional nakedness was a meaningful detail.

Other shows followed. "Deadwood" and "Carnivale". "Six Feet Under". A mixed bag, but all of them shows where explicitness and violence were for the most part approached in grownup ways, for grownup reasons. (Though honestly, looking back on it, "Deadwood" was sometimes pushing it.)

The Muses, somewhere up there, sipping their stiff drinks, shifting on their chaises longues, passing the remote, were pleased with TV. They were blessing the medium.

And that's why, with "Game of Thrones", there was a lot that your faithful audience was willing to overlook at the start. They took it on trust. The endless sexposition. The tittering frathouse atmosphere of so many bared boobies. The casual misogyny. In a world of casual misogyny it seemed, initially, like a knowing nod. Even the most infamous case of sexposition – the girl-on-girl sex scene in that constant brothel as Littlefinger narrates his history, pausing now and then to give the prostitutes instruction on what to do next, and how to do it – could be explained in sympathetic terms. Littlefinger, and by extension "Game of Thrones", was using the cliché of the girl-on-girl voyeuristic fantasy, bugbear of queer women everywhere, as an illustration of political manipulation. It was about connivance through performance, see? It was metaphor, not tits!

But we're in the fourth season now, and it's getting tiring.  As this season has progressed, it has gotten darker and rapier, and there's no sign that the darkness and rapiness has any point other than as splaff-bait and as a sort of spurious 'edge'-credential.  It's become impossible not to ask: what's with all the sadistic machismo, HBO? Has "Game of Thrones" jumped the shark? Or has it jumped so high into its own frathouse flatulent ether that even that famous shark is lost from view, a sort of distant pin-glint in the water?

The logical answer is of course, no. The things that were always good about "Game of Thrones" are still good – and in fact the show has recently upped its game in terms of tighter episode focus on compelling storylines. And certain central performances, like Peter Dinklage’s, continue to deepen and delight. But what was rank in the show has only grown ranker. And you can only take in the whiff for so long before you start to wonder: is this an isolated problem with "Game of Thrones", or does it signal something about HBO's approach more generally?

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This article is related to: Game of Thrones, HBO