When does something become gratuitous? Done merely for shock or some sort of appeasement for the perceived audience, or worse a gimmick to bring in new viewers or readers? And when does something cross over from gratuitous to exploitive, moving beyond any significance or need in the story and merely there for its own sake? I was pondering these questions as I reflected on the second episode of this season of Game of Thrones. I’m not sure, but I think this episode was the first time when I really felt the producers of the show went pretty far out of bounds in their interpretation of the story. I also felt that they relied on sex scenes far too much in this episode more or less saying, “look! We still have naked women! Don’t change that channel!” If they feel that this is needed, in short making it the medieval tinged version of True Blood, then I’m afraid Game of Thrones the television show will become a tawdry shadow of the books and not a bold re-envisioning that was the hallmark of the first season. As the episode unfolded, it became worse and worse more gratuitous and further from the book with each step.
We start out by seeing Theon Greyjoy arrive at his family seat. He had been a ward of the Starks since his father attempted a rebellion against King Robert that was crushed by Robert with the aid of Ned Stark. As penalty, Balon Greyjoy was forced to give up his only living son as a hostage/ward to Robert’s dear ally and friend, Ned. While at sea, Theon takes a “salt wife” basically a comfort woman serving the sexual needs of the island men. We see Theon basically getting a quickie before he has to leave the ship and claim his inheritance. Ok, it establishes that Theon is womanizing, immature bastard, which is important later on to his character. I don’t think we needed to see him bang away, then flip her over and go at it from behind. It is almost becoming a joke that all sex in this imagined universe occurs in this sexual position. Annoyance level, low but rising.
Next up we get yet another visit to the brothel. Hmmm, is this really necessary? As an added “bonus” we get two for the price of one as far as sex scenes go. For some reason the powers that be felt that we needed another scene establishing Petyr Baelish as an opportunistic bastard. After a prostitute breaks down and doesn’t satisfy a customer, Petyr gives her a sympathetic ear and a thinly veiled threat that he would kill her if she didn’t shape up. Ok, I suppose, but after Petyr put a knife to Ned Stark’s throat in season one, do we need to see him playing the part of ruthless pimp? Why not just have him say, “Is Lord Baelish gonna have to choke a bitch?” Because that’s pretty much what the scene does. Even worse and what raised my ire was the purely gratuitous moment where Petyr wipes the semen from a prostitute’s mouth and shuffles her off quickly to the aforementioned upset customer. The annoyance factor got quite a push from this for a couple of reasons. First, I get that we’re in a brothel but somehow the immediate push of the prostitute to another customer just pushed the whole commodification of women aspect of the scene to an unneeded extreme. Second, (academic writing alert!) the fact that the “busy” prostitute was a woman of color may not have been intentional but still reinforced stereotypes of the insatiable sexual appetite of woman of color.
The final scene that helped make this episode perhaps the poorest of the entire series thus far was the sex scene between Stanis and Melisandre. I’m not usually one to complain that a TV show or movie doesn’t match with its literary inspiration but this break with the book was just galling. Not because of the sex but with how it changed the characters. Stanis is an honorable, stern, unlikable man according to the book. The Stanis in the book never would have had sex with a woman who wasn’t his wife, just not in his character. He may be the least loved of the kings waging war, but he seemed to have a pretty strong code that he lived by. Even if the decision that Stanis did have sex with Melisandre was deemed appropriate, the manner in which it happened, like some fanboy fantasy taking place on the war map that looked remarkably like a very elaborate D&D set up. The final cheesy touch was the “game pieces” falling to the floor in rhythmic fashion.
Sadly, that isn’t even the worst part of this unnecessary scene. The worst part is that Melisandre is weakened by it. In the book she is mysterious, cunning, zealous and sensual. There is, however, no reason to believe that she needed to use sex as a method of manipulation to get what she wanted. It gets to a larger issue that I don’t know if I’m ready to completely get on board with, but hear me out. This episode went beyond portraying in a less that flattering light, but it came too close to misogyny. The change of Melisandre is the most egregious representation, take a strong female character and pretty much make her a sex object. The other women in the episode share much of the same fate. The other examples listed above pretty much relegate women in Westeros to sexual things with no depth, no character. What’s worse is Cersei being shown as incompetent leader. She is easily the great villain in the show and pretty much in the books, but her poor decisions took more time to develop. She wasn’t an idiot straight away. Anyway, like I said, I’m not quite ready to say the show is anti-woman because I know there is some things coming up that can definitely bring more balance to the show. Also we got a glimpse of Theon’s sister, Yara, who is an interesting, if little used character.
So far we seem to be experiencing a sophomore slump in Game of Thrones, but like the baseball season, it’s early, even if winter is coming.
(Update: I just saw a SNL sketch pretty much ripping Game of Thrones for all of the sex as well. Basically making the argument that this feels like a fanboy’s deep, unrealistic sex fantasy.)