Spoiler warning: this article discusses events of Game of Thrones up to and including the episode aired Sunday, 4/13/14.
Sunday night’s episode of Game of Thrones closed with a shocking death: while toasting his recent nuptials, King Joffrey Baratheon choked to death. It was a great way to kickstart the season: after the slaughter of the Starks at the Red Wedding, it was a confirmation that the good guys can (sometimes, and indirectly) win.
Joff’s death was incredibly gruesome – his eyes bulged, his face turned purple, and blood burst from his nose. The episode devoted much of its time to reminding us just how awful Joffrey was (as if we could forget). He chopped apart a priceless history book, staged a pantomime mocking murdered family members of several of his guests, and was cruel to Tyrion without provocation. But in his final moments, desperately gasping for air as his mother tried to help, he also looked like a fourteen year old kid.
Joffrey’s death, like Robb Stark’s before him, was well-staged and will have repercussions that reach far beyond this wedding. His death will be remembered, discussed, and avenged many times over. It will change the course of Cersei, Jaime, Tywin, Tommen, Tyrion, and Sansa’s arc.
This isn’t the case for the other death of the episode. In the scene that opened the show, a nameless young woman was running through the woods, chased by Ramsay Snow and his companion, Miranda. It was a scene immediately recognizable to book-readers: Ramsay loved to set captive women loose in the woods, promising them they would be free if they could outrun him. He would then hunt them down with dogs.
Ramsay’s actions are some of the most vile in the entirety of A Song of Ice and Fire. He is abusive, sadistic, and unrelentingly cruel. But most of his abuse happens off-stage. Readers hear about it obliquely, either through the narration of his victims or through references made by other characters. This choice serves to reinforce the violence of Ramsay’s actions: Reek, the main storyteller, is too traumatized to fully communicate what has been done to him. We are aware of how monstrous the man is, but we never witness the acts themselves. Frankly, hearing is enough.
Game of Thrones has developed a nasty habit of adding on-screen violence against women to a text that already featured plenty. There was the attempted rape of Sansa Stark during a riot in season two. In this season’s premiere, comments made about Arya Stark, an 11 year old girl, violently sexualized her while a woman was assaulted less than ten feet away. None of these moments expanded character development or advanced the plot.
Even those situations paled in comparison to what happened to Ramsay’s victim on Sunday night. The camera followed Ramsay’s victim through the woods as she ran barefoot and weeping. We saw Ramsay’s companion shoot the woman through the calf, crippling her. We saw Ramsay give the order to his dogs to rip her apart. Then we heard her die.
This scene brought to mind the death of Talisa Stark last season. Talisa was a character developed for the show, an expanded version of the essentially unseen Jeyne Westerling. Jeyne was little more than a side player in the novels, so I was fine with seeing a more fully-fleshed out woman on screen (however outlandish and out of place Talisa became). Unlike Jeyne, who survived the Red Wedding, Talisa was brought along and perished with Robb. She was not brought down by arrows or a knife to the throat, though. A Frey stabbed her belly, eviscerating her unborn child and letting her bleed out.
Talisa was not the first new female character who was created only to meet a violent end. Ros, a prostitute from Winterfell who rose in status at King’s Landing, was shot with a crossbow by King Joffrey in season three. When Ros’s fate was revealed, the camera slowly panned down her body, revealing the bolts that pierced her breasts, lower stomach, and thighs. Nude and posed for display, Ros’s death was just as sexualized as her scenes in the brothel.
Game of Thrones is an enjoyable show that is not afraid to use violence and sex to get its point across. Many of these scenes are well done – Daenerys’s seduction of Khal Drogo, Ned Stark’s death, and Theon’s botched execution of Rodrik Cassel – but the deaths of Ros, Talisa, and the unnamed woman in the woods undermine that work. The explanation that the violence is used to reinforce that no one is safe in Westeros is starting to get tired. The danger of this world has been established over and over again during the past three seasons, and I doubt the audience needs a reminder.
Game of Thrones has been praised for reinventing the kinds of stories that can be told on TV. It’s a high concept fantasy that killed off its protagonist before the end of the first season. It has juggled countless plotlines at once, challenging audiences to keep up. But the way that the writers have engaged with sexual violence and women is anything but inventive. They have featured rapes and murders only obliquely referenced in the source material, sexualized characters without reason, and invented female characters only to kill them off in increasingly repulsive ways. It’s tired, it’s lazy, and it’s antithetical to the subversive nature of Martin’s novels.
A Song of Ice and Fire tears down the tropes of fantasy stories: no kings are granted point-of-view chapters, beauty and strength is not necessarily a sign of virtue, and women are the drivers of complex political narratives. Games of Thrones, on the other hand, glorifies its kings and tears down its women.